Muslim Activist Abbas Jaffer: Rethinking Gender, Islam and the Quran

by Kristen Minogue

Abbas JafferAbbas 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 public?

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 anywhere else?

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 into English….

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 violence?

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 News 21

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