Muslim Activist Abbas Jaffer: Rethinking Gender, Islam and the Quran
by Kristen Minogue
Abbas Jaffer isn’t a single-issue activist. Since he entered college, the
23-year-old University of Denver graduate has delved into gang violence and international
relations, and even worked for a brief stint in India with Tibetan refugees. But
the problem of domestic violence disturbed him early on.
In his sophomore year of college he started Men as Allies, an organization of men
dedicated to preventing gender violence. Now he works as an associate editor for
Altmuslimah.com, an online publication launched in March that explores gender in
Islam. His involvement gave him the chance to write about domestic violence in the
Muslim community. In this edited Q&A, Jaffer talks about Islam, the Quran, and
what sets domestic abuse among Muslims apart from abuse everywhere else in the U.S
– and what aspects are disturbingly constant throughout.
Has your Muslim faith impacted your commitment to activism?
Absolutely. I think activism, more broadly, men can take the prophetic example in
terms of protecting people who are being abused in general by society, whether that’s
a spouse, whether that’s an orphan, whether that’s the hungry.
In the Quran itself, it says that someone who is known as a believer is someone
who feeds the orphan, takes in the widow. Activism doesn’t need to be read
into the Quranic tradition. It’s part of it.
Is domestic violence more prevalent in the Muslim community than the general
I would say it really is the same everywhere. It is a pattern and it exhibits a
couple of things period whether the perpetrator is a Muslim man or a Christian man
or a Jewish man or a man of little faith. In every community, its central issues
are the lack of power or control that men feel and thinking of really reprehensible
ways to try to assert or reassert that control.
Is there anything that makes abuse in the Muslim community different from abuse
In the Muslim community, we have a religious tradition that is again used either
wrongly to condone the actions, so certain verses of the Quran are misinterpreted,
or it’s used to talk about the integrity and the interest and rights that
women have. So that’s a unique cultural almost heritage of the Muslim community.
That’s what makes it unique.
Could you give an example of a verse in the Quran that’s misinterpreted?
There’s a particular verse which is from Chapter 4, verse 34. It’s a
chapter in the Quran about women. Certain interpretations talk about this being
a command, beating of the wife as acceptable. But those are not universal, nor is
their universal consensus that that is what the meaning of the verse is when translated
It is interpreted by some hard-line interpreters as beating, by others as lightly
beating, by others as tapping, by others as using something as light as a reed or
something like that. Because of the way the Quranic Arabic works, it’s not
a one-to-one thing when coming into English, and that’s the issue. So another
classical interpretation is “to go away from.” So certainly it’s
been problematic for the Muslim community to grapple with this.
Do you think more Muslim men are getting involved in the movement against domestic
Young men have been involved in anti-violence work for some time, but they just,
like I said, maybe until recently haven’t worn their Muslim hat in public
when they advocate. But they’re continuing to now in increasing numbers.
Why haven’t they been as vocal about their Muslim identities?
There’s obviously an “Oh no” moment every time that an act of
violence occurs in general and it comes out that the perpetrator is a Muslim, because
it’s automatically associated with their religious worldview again or the
way of life, that this must be something Islamic or related to the path of Islam.
I think that unfortunately may hold some men back, that sort of understanding of
the social and historical complex they’re living under and confine them in
terms of maybe wanting to be more vocal in their communities but understanding the
kind of scapegoating that happens. But I’m one of many Muslim men who are
trying to deal with that and understanding that that’s an issue. By pointing
these things in our community, it could be used by people who are antagonistic of
the religious community in general, but to me that’s a risk worth taking.
Anything else you wish people understood more about Islam?
One thing I wish that the public knew more about the Muslim faith in terms of gender
is that there are prophetic traditions and there are prophetic thinkers that talked
about the rights of women and the importance of respectful and non-antagonistic
gender interactions every since the advent of Islam.
Some Muslim men, like some men in the community, can be allies. They can be allies
in terms of working on issues of domestic violence and gender violence more broadly,
and that this can come from us, an Islamically rooted worldview. That it’s
not just because we are American, and that there are men working on this issue and
Muslim majorities as well.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in