Wife-beating and the misuse of democracy in demanding change

I wish to make two important observations on the issue of an exam question on the topic of wife beating in an SPM Islamic Studies Paper. The first will be made in explaining the social and historical context of the question. The second concerns the dangers of dismissing the “adab” or manners of bringing an issue to the elected leadership.

But before elaborating on what I believe to be the context of the exam question, the context in which it should be seen, and the spirit of the entire topic, I wish to categorically state that throughout 34 years of marriage to my one and only wife, I have never raised a finger to “discipline” her in any disagreement. Neither did I ever see my late father raising a finger against my mother. In my reading of over 20,000 hadiths, I never read that the Prophet raised a finger in disciplining his many wives.

With respect to the issue raised by Siti Kasim on the relevance of the question in today’s day and age, my sentiments are exactly the same. However, I would have understood the issue in a different manner, and I would have shown adab and professionalism in raising the matter to the respective authorities.

Let me provide a simple explanation of the social and historical context of wife-beating. In the time of Prophet Muhammad, some 1,500 years ago, women were considered almost as property in Arab tribes. Ibnu Hisham recorded the tradition of burying female infants and toddlers; even the great Khalifa Umar Ibn al-Khatab buried his own daughter.

Women had virtually no rights to property, and a husband could do as he pleased with his wives unless he feared the family of the wife a bit more. Property through inheritance was mostly denied to women, and the social status of free women was just slightly above that of slaves.

In this context, the Prophet came to the Arab world and instituted reform of the status of women regarding family and property. Obviously, he could not make complete changes in society, so he proposed gradual changes. Instead of wives being beaten in any manner that pleased their husbands, the Prophet forbade Muslims from harming their bodies, saying the act of “beating” should approach the concept of a “tap on the wrist”.

I agree with Siti Kasim that many of our ustaz lack social science knowledge as they have been educated in the narrow confines of chauvinistic Islamic teachings. We have many good ustaz who want nothing more than the best education for all Muslim children. I think the majority of them have no wish to degrade Muslim women. They understand that taking care of women, whether mothers, daughters or wives, is a sacred “amanah” or trust from Allah.

I also agree with Siti Kasim that such a question, although meaning no disrespect to women, could be construed as religious permission to “beat” one’s wife. As I said, the Prophet never beat any of his wives. Once, when he was angry or disappointed with them for asking for many material things of the world, he silently left them to stay at a companion’s loft and kept away from them for almost a month. During that time, many Muslims panicked, thinking that he had divorced all of his wives.

My wife knows that if I am angry with her, I will stay completely silent for three days, not even acknowledging her presence. I have even contemplated leaving the house and staying at a hotel for a week if she does not approach the subject after three days. But my silence, after 34 years of marriage, usually never lasts more than 24 hours before reconciliation takes place. I know my Islamic rights as a husband, but I would never think of exercising those rights as long as our issues are between us and do not involve a third party.

Thus, I do not think the issue of the question is a big one. The ustaz, I think, had good intentions of reminding future husbands who might be wrongfully taught by society on hurting their wives. Perhaps in the future, the question could be phrased in a more modern and contextual manner, once the ustaz has completed his masters in a social sciences subject instead of just the narrow scope of certain Islamic studies.

My second observation is a bit more serious. It concerns the way in which Siti Kasim seems to blame Maszlee Malik for every flaw in the education system. I think it is not too much to ask Malaysians to be patient about seeing the changes that we want. Maszlee inherited a humungous load of problems from the previous government. I am still waiting for him to set up a special committee to vet applications for professorships as well as future deputy vice-chancellors and vice-chancellors. But I choose to give him the leeway not to renew the contracts of present vice-chancellors and trust him to put some vice-chancellors in place by political appointment – for now.

I would like to ask my fellow Malaysians to have some consideration of adab or respectful manners in asking and raising observations to our elected leaders. We found a new power during the last election, and it would not be good for us to seem to abuse that power by being unnecessarily overbearing.

We should make our observations in a professional manner, using the media or going through the appropriate channels. We shouldn’t act like the students who blocked public access to certain areas and demanded the resignation of an elected leader.

We should state our observations or concerns and make recommendations without shouting at the top of our lungs. If, in a marriage, we behave the way some of us do in “demanding” change, the relationship would end there and then. If, in a father-daughter relationship, such harsh words are used, both father and daughter would go their separate ways and suffer until the day they die.

I prayed for a change in government every night for the last 20 years, and I am extremely thankful that I have lived to see the day. I thought I would have died before change came, as the previous government was not only strong but supported by both the lay Malays and intellectual Malays who are racists, bigoted and plain gullible. But now that we have tasted the sweetness of victory, we are acting like spoilt brats fighting over the loot of war.

I am most disappointed and disheartened not by the elected leadership, but by my own fellow citizens who fail to understand the simple idea of adab in making known concerns about the nation.

Before we ask for change in the way this country is governed, perhaps we should consider a change in our perspective of things, in our attitude towards contexts, and most of all, in our professional conduct towards those whom we have put in place as temporary leaders in charge of our children’s fate.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.