The debate on violence against women in Egypt returned after a female parliamentarian proposed a law to criminalize spousal violence, a phenomenon which – staggeringly – affects 86 percent of Egyptian women. In the midst of the debate, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar caused another whirlwind, as usual, by stating that the Qur’ān allows men to beat women in case of fear of nushūz (‘marital disobedience’) provided that the beating is light and does not ‘break a bone’ and recourse to which, of course, takes place after first ‘sermonising them’ and ‘banning them from the marital bed’.


YET THOSE WHO CRITICISED the Shaykh of Al-Azhar all know that all he did was interpret a clear verse that actually permits beating and in the form of a command. The Shaykh of Al-Azhar merely clarified what is ‘a necessarily familiar fact of the religion’, a favourite phrase in the camp of stagnation and backwardness.

It is in fact a dilemma that we have long been aware of: the dilemma of the religious texts that no longer correspond to any contemporary human reality, if no jurisprudential authorities pluck up the courage to rethink ancient interpretations or confine these texts to their specific sociocultural and political contexts and offer alternative ways of understanding it and interpreting it within the religious framework itself, in order for it to remain in step with the needs of contemporary Muslim societies.

Such a step is not possible without first changing the mindset that has remained static for 1,200 years

But such a step is not possible without first changing the mindset that has remained static for 1,200 years, a mindset that includes the jurisprudential rule that ‘precepts are to be derived from the universality of the expression, not the specificity of the context’, or that the Text is to take precedence over reason, or that ‘there is to be no ijtihād if there is a scriptural Text available’.

The mistake the Shaykh Al-Azhar made is much like the mistakes made by ISIS which relied on inambiguous legal texts for atrocities. The mistake is not in the interpretation of the Text or in extrapolating its content ‘which the scholars of the nation have all agreed on for centuries’, but in the way the reading relies on the very same ancient fiqh rules that have remained unchanged despite the entire upending of the situation of Muslims. In interpreting the ruling on the beating of women the Shaykh of Al-Azhar paid no heed to the reality about him and his environment, or the obligations of the state in which he was living, or even the era in which he was alive. 

Ancient scholars interpreted the verse according to their own reality, one where the woman was considered a mere accessory to the man she was  to serve and obey, since he was the one to bear the sword and fights and spend from his own pocket. When referring to the verse of beating the Shaykh of Al-Azhar should have evoked the tragic situation of Egyptian women as well as the efforts in this respect of the Egyptian state, which spends a lot of money combating marital violence.

The mistake the Shaykh Al-Azhar made is much like the mistakes made by ISIS which relied on inambiguous legal texts for atrocities

Today’s jurists have no excuse for not exercising their minds in rereading and interpreting according to the necessities of the present age. The most important of these necessities are human rights as well as the reality of women working and their profitability and efficiency, all of which completely changes the meaning of the word nushūz contained in the Qur’ān.[i] This word was understood by ancient jurists to mean any woman who raises holds her head up to her husband and talks back to him. This is why the jurists recall the hadith attributed to the Prophet who said: 

Hang the whip where the member of the household can see it, for this will keep them in good manners.

The Companions also provide examples of how they beat and abused women.

What do these interpretations have to do with the age in which we live? Does a woman who works within the home or outside it, who is active and influential, and who supports her family along with her husband, and who takes on more than he does, have to listen to him dishing out orders without expressing her own opinion that may be contrary to his, or without correcting his mistakes if he exceeds himself? Isn’t the Shaykh of Al-Azhar here pandering to a society that is floundering in the mire of backwardness where violence and contempt for women are prevalent, instead of demonstrating a sense of responsibility and calling for an end to violence and the breaking with medieval jurisprudence?

After presenting the customary interpretation of the verse, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar should have said: 

Now this is what the jurists said in ancient times, but today the social reality and the current status of women do not allow for such an interpretation because violence is something to be condemned and rejected in all its forms.

But in order for the Shaykh to say this, he must scrape the dust off his brain and use it, even if only for a moment. But this is something he cannot do because imprinted on his mind is the idea that that ‘knowledge’ means parroting what the ancients said, mistakes included.

[i] The operative verse is Qur’ān IV (al-Nisā’), 34: As for those from whom ye fear rebellion (nushūz), admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. (Ed).