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Debating Islam ( 21 Aug 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Qur’anic Wisdom: Marriage and Treatment of Women


By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

21 Aug 2012

In this article, we will examine Qur’anic wisdom with reference to its legal prescriptions that have become the subject of controversy among some Muslims. The issues discussed relate to marriage and treatment of women.

1.   Marriage with first cousins

2.   Permission for taking upto four wives

3.   Would gender justice demand that polyandry be permitted?

4.   The argument for polygyny

5.   Does Quran sanction wife beating?

Let us begin with the first issue:


Marriage with first cousins

Some interest facts about marriage with cousins:

1.    Marriage with first cousins is legal in Europe, Canada Mexico and 26 states of the US.

2.    Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin married their first cousins.

3.    Leviticus 18 and Surah 4:23 of the Quran lists all forbidden sexual relationships. Cousin relationships are not included in either book.

First let us understand very clearly that marriage to first cousins is not included in the prohibitions.  It is neither recommended nor favoured.

In the light of modern medicine and genetics, what is the downside against non-prohibition of such marriages?

Children of “mated at random” couples have a 2-3% risk of birth defects, as opposed to non random mating or mating of first cousins which have a 4-6% risk. In plain terms first cousins have a 94 to 96% percent chance of having healthy children vis-à-vis much less closely related couples who have a 97% to 98% chance. The National Society of Genetic Counsellors estimated the increased risk for first cousins is between 1.7 to 2.8 percent. Source:

Speaking to a doctor friend married to his first cousin, I understand from him that he carried out blood tests of his prospective bride and himself to rule out genetic causes that may result in birth defects of their children. According to him doing so, places him above ordinary people who marry non related partners without carrying out the tests. In his opinion, his chances of having children with birth defects were even lower than 2-3% for unrelated couples. They have very healthy Children.

Although it looks safe enough, we can interpret statistics differently and say that even though the chances of birth defects remain low, they go up by 100% when compared with non-related couples. That is a valid argument against marrying first cousins and I strongly recommend Muslims against marrying their first cousins.

Having said that, if Quran is the word of God, then why didn’t God include first cousins in the list of incestuous or forbidden marriages?

The purpose of any moral code is to promote the maximum good of the society. The maximum good of the society is not necessarily promoted by legislating a code that promotes the best choice or the highest virtue, but a code that promotes what is good as well as what is practical. Code that allows only excellence and disallows anything below excellence will remain a beautiful concept and will be breached. A person who breaks the code for the first time goes through some pain and regrets. Repeated breaking of the code leads to a disrespect for the code itself and ultimately its rejection. A very strict code striving for excellence, without considering the limitations of man to observe it, does not produce any good since the people will eventually reject the entire code. A morally depraved person will even deny the existence of God since believing that God exists is painful, as he then stands a sinner in the eyes of God.

So what could be God’s wisdom in not forbidding first cousin marriages?

There are not many studies on the incidence of incest, primarily because incest goes largely unreported. There are indications however, that it could be very high indeed in certain societies.

The following statistics is from a research paper based on a study carried out on the sexual behaviour of patients having sexually transmitted diseases who took treatment in a hospital in Pondicherry. The paper can be accessed using the link below:

Briefly the findings are that 48% of the patients had extra marital sex with a relative and the rest with commercial sex workers, friends, or others such as a neighbour or a one night stand.

Among the relatives, the incidence of sex with first cousins was 28%, niece 16%, sister-in-law 40%, and Aunt 16%.

The study does not cover people who did not attend the hospital or those who had extra marital sex but did not acquire STD. If we use the same numbers excluding the numbers for sex with commercial sex workers, the numbers would be: 69% of those who have extra marital sex have it with a relative, 24% with friends and 7% with others.

The incidence of extra marital sex with a cousin would therefore be around 20% (28% of 69%) of all extra marital sex. It is not difficult to see why this is so. Kids have access to cousins in the privacy of a home, staying overnight with them while visiting a relative etc. Games quickly turn to `accidental’ touching and brushing and one thing leads to another.  In Islam, such mixing of grown up cousins is not encouraged but cannot be entirely prevented and even games played with others around can turn sexual while the players pretend innocence. Since Islam allows marriage with cousins, these experiences are not accompanied by feelings of guilt which would occur if the relationship with a cousin is considered incestuous. If it is considered incestuous, then having breached the barrier of incest with a cousin, there is no safety in further incestuous experiences with someone closer home. By permitting marriage with cousin, Islam better protects the first degree relatives (parent - child) and the second degree relatives (brother - sister) from incestuous `experiences’. The downside as we have seen is small and can be made smaller if the Girl and the Boy carry out a blood test to rule out a genetic mismatch.

The Quran further speaks about the earlier people who forbid to themselves what was allowed by God. This is repeated for the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself. The clear message of the Quran is that man should not prohibit for himself what is made permissible by God. Doing so does not promote piety or good.  We have also seen the wisdom in not prohibiting marriages with first cousins. Let us therefore not talk about prohibiting what is permitted but reduce the incidence of what carries a relatively higher risk through education.

6.    Permission for taking upto four wives

This is an emotionally charged issue and therefore we will examine it not from the perspective of gender equality or gender justice, but from the perspective of what is best for the woman. Let us follow a simply stated principle that “what is best for the woman is also best for the society”.

First of all, let us be clear that the Quran permits up to four wives but prefers monogamous marriages since man has been asked to do justice by all his wives and the Quran warns that this is not easy.

Would gender justice demand that polyandry be permitted?

On account of the widespread practice of female foeticide, we are   facing the problem of an extremely adverse Female to Male ratio and finding brides is becoming increasingly difficult in certain communities forcing them to go outside their community. These brides are then shared between brothers. Polyandry is becoming a social necessity. Do women welcome this development?

My impression is that they dread it and look upon it as nothing short of sex slavery. Many ladies also look upon their marriage as sex slavery although they are in a monogamous relationship. I am sure there are women who may welcome a polyandrous relationship but such women will be in very small numbers.

From a male point of view what does polyandry mean? It means that he can go for a married woman if he likes her and hope to become a second, third or fourth concurrent husband. If this was socially acceptable, I am sure that many men would welcome it. It would mean that he need not settle for a plain looking woman in a monogamous relationship but look for something more exciting even though he may have to share the woman with others! There would then be many plain looking women left without husbands. So, if polyandry is unacceptable from a religious or social point of view, I think that this is a boon for the majority of women.

The argument for polygyny

The same argument holds good for polygyny. A lady has a choice of not choosing to become the second, third or fourth wife of a man. If she prefers becoming one of the wives of a rich/strong/handsome man to becoming the only wife of someone less attractive, then polygyny is to her advantage. Polygyny ensures that women can get husbands who can support them under all kinds of situations.

In Islam, marriage is a social contract and any clause or condition can be introduced in the contract such as,  `the man may not marry another woman without divorcing the first wife'. This provides a guarantee to the woman that she will  not be forced to share her husband with another woman.

In the past, women were in a weak position and unable to stipulate such conditions in their contracts. With women achieving economic independence, they should be able to insist on having their conditions incorporated into the contract. There is nothing unlislamic about incorporating such a condition. When Hazrat Ali (RA) expressed the intention to take a second wife, the Prophet (PBUH) asked him to first divorce his daughter Fatima (RA). Ali neither divorced Fatima nor took a second wife.

Argument against polygyny

When the male and female populations are evenly balanced, allowing polygyny is disadvantageous to the men since it implies that there will be many men who will be unable to find wives. It then makes sense to ban or discourage polygyny to enable all men to find wives irrespective of whether they are able to support a family or not. The question then is whether they will be able to keep their wives since they are unattractive as husbands? Also, the question is do men have a problem finding wives because the better men are taking multiple wives? If the answer is no, then it is because the incidence of polygyny is low. Also, let us recognize that the argument against polygyny is only from the male perspective and not from the perspective of the female.

Allowing the practice of polygyny may have had its misuses,  but by and large, it has worked in favour of the women and helped them find husbands who could support them. It may also have helped in preventing adulterous relationships which have become common in societies that do not permit polygyny.

7.   Does Quran sanction wife beating?

4:34. Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).

4:35. If ye fear a breach between them twain, appoint (two) arbiters, one from his family, and the other from hers; if they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation: For Allah hath full knowledge, and is acquainted with all things.

The intention of the verses above is clearly to save the marriage, where the man supports his wife from his means and the wife is dependent on him. When the marriage is going wrong, the alternative to a process of correction and reconciliation is divorce. The next verse further deals with the process of arbitration and reconciliation and these verses clearly have the interest of the woman in mind and are not meant to favour the man.

Having understood the above, let us understand why Quran permits light chastisement.

Michael P Johnson makes distinctions among the types of violence, motives of perpetrators, and the social and cultural context based upon patterns across numerous incidents and motives of the perpetrator. Types of violence identified by Johnson:

1.    Common couple violence (CCV) is not connected to general control behaviour, but arises in a single argument where one or both partners physically lash out at the other.

2.    Intimate terrorism (IT) may also involve emotional and psychological abuse. Intimate terrorism is one element in a general pattern of control by one partner over the other. Intimate terrorism is less common than common couple violence, more likely to escalate over time, not as likely to be mutual, and more likely to involve serious injury. IT batterers include two types: "Generally-violent-antisocial" and "dysphoric-borderline". The first type includes people with general psychopathic and violent tendencies. The second type are people who are emotionally dependent on the relationship. Support for this typology has been found in subsequent evaluations.

Very clearly, the Quran does not permit the type 2 violence and any evidence of type 2 violence should be made a criminal offence.

As far as CCV is concerned, these could be compared with fights between siblings. It is to show that they are "very angry” and rarely result in leaving a mark since the intention is not to cause physical harm but to express extreme anger and signal that patience has run out and the threshold crossed.  When a wife beats up her husband when she is wild, she often hits him repeatedly because the man puts up with it without wailing. The husband does not complain either nor holds it against his wife. When a husband strikes out, it is usually only once since the wife sets up a loud wail. These incidents do not count as domestic violence unless either party finds the behaviour of the other unacceptable. Conflict is a process of gaining better understanding of the other person and defining the limits of what one is willing to put up with beyond which control breaks down. Among mature couples, who are able to act on verbal and non-verbal clues, the conflicts are resolved without getting physical. When verbal discussions do not help, the issue gets escalated with repeated transgressions and results in minor violence preceded by several warnings which are ignored. Once the threshold is understood and respected, couples live amicably. Skilful negotiators also negotiate to the point where the other party is pushed to the wall and can be pushed no further. They strike a deal at this point.

A woman can put her foot down and say no to any kind of violence, but then if the problem remains unresolved, there is a high probability that the marriage will end up in divorce. A woman who can put her foot down is usually wise enough to adapt without allowing matters to reach boiling point or independent enough to take the consequences which could be divorce.

CCV is common in every culture and society.

Having understood the above, it should be clear that the Qur’anic verses are not a license for CCV, but they define the limit on how far a husband can go with his wife, who has no choice but to put up with him. If the lady is not prepared to put up with it, the most he can do is divorce her.

If the woman finds that she is being treated unfairly, she can seek divorce. It is this right of a woman to seek divorce unilaterally that needs to be established and protected which is granted by the Quran but denied by the interpreters of the Shariah.

Speaking in practical terms, a woman who is economically dependent on her husband, and finds that her own family is unsupportive, finds herself at the mercy of a relationship where the husband uses provisions that are meant to set the limit on what he can do, as enabling provisions to practice internal terrorism. An economically independent woman or a woman who enjoys her family’s support walks out of any abusive relationship.

Legal support that is required to the woman is to grant her divorce if she seeks it or to bring charges and try the husband for ill treatment if the woman brings charges of ill treatment against him and the violence is of type 2.

The intention of the Quran is to protect the woman’s interest and not to favour the man. This should always be remembered as the guiding principle while interpreting any verse.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to