Honour Killing (from Inside Muslim Minds)

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by Neil Godfrey

I was recently challenged over what some see as my defence of Islam and failure to condemn the many evils is apparently spawns — terrorism, honour killing, sexism, Sharia law, persecution of apostates, denial of free speech — and told I could easily do so without any fear of over-generalizing. I was surprised to find my recent posts being portrayed as a “defence of Islam”, as an apparent attempt to whitewash the religion and to overlook its monstrosities.

What I have been seeking to do in most posts is to provide factual information from reliable sources in order to do my little bit to try to correct what I see as general public misconceptions about Muslims. Of course there is much that is reprehensible in the Muslim religion (as I have said) but my intent is to try to point out that the present wave of Islamophobia (see The Word’s Origin and Meaning) is grounded in misinformed views about Islam, Muslims and Sharia law, as well as about terrorism and cultural heritage.

As an atheist I have no time, personally for any religious belief. Yet not too many years ago I found myself with the State leader of an Australian Muslim community inviting him to participate in a public information session so that anyone willing could hear and question first hand what Muslims believe about themselves and the world. My interest was then, as it is now, in public education and community harmony. (Around the same time I also found myself planning civil rights activism with leaders of the local Roman Catholic Church.)

The reference to honour killings in the challenge pulled me up with a start. I have always understood honour killings to be a horrific practice found among certain cultures (not religions) around the world: northern India (Hindu and Sikh), southern Europe and Latin America (Christian), Australian aboriginal desert tribes and probably a few other similar tribes around the world, and a cluster of Islamic countries (Pakistan in particular). So when I have from time to time heard of critics of Islam citing honour killings as one of the many sins of that religion per se I dismissed the criticism as ignorant or at best only partially informed. No-one that I know criticizes Christianity or Hinduism as being religions that inculcate the practice of honour killings because of the crimes found among their cultural subsets.

The following is based on what Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor Riaz Hassan has to say about honour killings and Muslims in his book Inside Muslim Minds (pp. 200-208).

Honour killing is another ugly label that has come to be associated with Muslim countries. In Pakistan and other Muslim countries, prominent feminist organizations have taken up the cause to stop its occurrence.

Here Hassan singles out Shirkat Gah and Women Living Under Muslim Laws as the most vocal campaigners against the practice and responsible for well researched publications.

Shirkat Gah (SG) (“place of participation”) has a strong web presence:

Women Living Under Muslim Laws similarly:

Hassan refers to UNICEF statements and the following are from my own search across UN publications:

‘Honour killing’ is an ancient practice in which men kill female relatives in the name of family ‘honour’ for forced or suspected sexual activity outside marriage, even when they have been victims of rape. UNICEF Executive Director targets violence against women

‘Honour’ killings cut across ethnic, class and religious lines. Amid the meagre academic literature on ‘honour’ killings in the Punjab, Kurdistan, Turkey, and Pakistan, a number of studies have made the assumption that these practices are fundamentally Islamic (Ginat, 1979; Kresse l, 1981.) In fact, ‘honour’ killings are perpetrated not only by Muslims, but also by Druze, Christians, and occasionally Jews (of Sephardic backgrounds, primarily in Greek and Latin American societies); ‘honour’ killing, as an extreme example of HBV (‘honour’-based violence), transcends cultural boundaries, though laws governing specific cultures ar e often invoked to support the practice. (From a 2009 UN paper)

Hassan writes that honour killings pre-date Islam and have historically been found in patriarchal agrarian and tribal societies that treated control of land, livestock and women as the key to community survival. He also cites a 2003 article by Pakistani psychiatrist, Unaizi Niaz, Violence against women in South Asian countries. (The link is to an html online version of the article that also includes a link to the pdf version.) There is an interview with Unaizi Niaz in newslinemagazine.com.

Unaizi Niaz

From Niaz’s article (with my own highlighting):

Some of the historical features which are common to Asian countries include:

  1. Agriculture-based economies. The tribal feudal system and patriarchal structures accord a secondary role to women.
  2. Polygamy. Hinduism and Buddhism are two old religions allowing polygamy, thus lowering the status even further. Historical customs of binding the feet of Chinese women and burning alive of the wife along with the body of the dead husband in Hindu cultures (SATTI) are some of the well known evidence of expected violence against women in South Asia. Although Islam also allows polygamy, it theoretically grants equal status to women in many areas. However, in actual practice, it has absorbed many of the cultural norms of Hinduism and Buddhism e.g. men are allowed four wives but the society disapproves of women’s right to remarry, which is clearly allowed in Islam. . . . .

Niaz has a disturbing view of how HBV entered Islamic culture in South Asia:

The status of women in Islam was much higher than the one granted by Hinduism and Buddhism. Islam gave women the legal right to own property, to marry and divorce. Her status in the community was very much like a man and determined by her deeds. In early Islam, women excelled in scholarship, medicine and warfare. However, with the passage of time and due to its basic teachings of tolerance, and respect for other religions, Islam absorbed much from the local cultures in India, and changed its view of women’s status according to the culture of the host country. Thus one finds blends of Muslim and Hindu culture during the Mughal Era, which lasted for more than 600 years in the Indian Subcontinent. During this time there were many women rulers, eminent scholars, poets, philosophers and writers. Education was widespread (Hasan, 1982).

During British rule, women’s education, especially within the poor classes suffered a great setback due to the closure of Maktabs (elementary schools) on mass scale. Skill-training was also discontinued. Women continued to keep the crafts alive whereas most men switched to more profitable jobs. Industries such as hand-woven cotton cloth of India, and those connected with silks and spices from China, and rubber were destroyed due to the flooding in of cheap manmade materials. The result was local unemployment and women were pushed to the confines of their homes or to work as unpaid farm labourers. According to some historians, there was 90% literacy among women in 1847, which was reduced to 12% in 1947.

Islam absorbed the Hindu culture patriarchal values which support female inferiority and these values were transmitted to the younger generations, resulting in family violence tolerated as a male right to control those who are dependent. Hence Islam in most countries of the world today is the male interpretation of uneducated or semi-educated Maulanas, (Ulema/priests). This interpretation came to include all the negative implications of other religions such as the inequality and subjugation of women, denying women’s rights of inheritance, divorce and marriage etc. Today the culture prevalent in the South Asian Muslim countries is completely contrary to Islamic religious teachings. In Afghanistan, for example, under Taliban rule, women were totally deprived of the right to education, work, health care, legal recourse and recreation. . . .

In Pakistan and other South Asian countries, the situation of women varies considerably depending upon the geographical location and class. . . .

By now it is superfluous to quote Hassan citing more scholarly publications showing that violence against women is a matter of social structures, male power, privilege and dominance in family and society, and that it crosses religions, ethnic groups and cultures. Certain Arab cultures have inherited the practice from pre-Islamic days. So we’ll skip to the Islamic context.

Enter the Qur’an and scholarly debates

The sociocultural context of Arab society is patriarchal and advocates male dominance and the subordination of women in pubic, in accordance with religious strictures According to Islamic law, a refractory or disobedient wife has no legal right to object to her husband’s right to exercise his disciplinary authority. This is based on the Qur’anic injunction that permits a husband to beat a wife under some circumstances. (The verse referred to is ‘you may bean them as a last resort’: see Qur’an 4:34.)

Hassan then notes that scholars such as the Tunisian psychiatrist Saida Douki have pointed out that “violence and abuse of women cannot be traced to any revelatory text.” The Pakistani laws are defined as “operative Islamic law” as opposed to a law derived from the sacred texts.

Professeur Saïda Douki Dedieu

Regular readers by now know I don’t like to skip over citation endnotes, so here are extracts from the article, Violence against women in Arab and Islamic countries, by S. Douki and colleagues (again with my highlighting):

The religious “alibi”

Let’s now address this religious prescription by examining the historical context. Indeed, if we want to provide a fair evaluation of what Islam contributed (or failed to contribute) toward the restoration of a woman’s dignity and rights, it is necessary to review how women were treated for the past twelve centuries after the introduction of Islam up to as late as the nineteenth century.

1. Historical perspectives

Many civilizations and religions have negative or demeaning attitudes towards women. In Hindu scriptures, a good wife is as follows: “a woman whose mind, speech and body are kept in subjection, acquires high renown in this world, and, in the next, the same abode with her husband.” Athenian women were always minors, subject to some male: their father, their brother, or some other of their male kin. A Roman wife was described by an historian as: “a babe, a minor, a ward, a person incapable of doing or performing anything according to her own individual taste, a person continually under the tutelage and guardianship of her husband”. As late as the nineteenth century, in his essay “The Subjection of Women”, John Stuart Mill wrote: “We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called”.

In the Islamic religion, the divine allowance to beat one’s wife is real progress compared to the status of women before Islam when girls were buried alive and husbands had the right of life and death. Islam prohibited female infanticide and also mocked the fathers who viewed the birth of girls with contempt: “when news is brought to one of them, of the birth of a female, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil choice they decide on” (Koran, 16:58–59). And the Prophet added: “Whosoever has a daughter and does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favour his son over her, God will enter him into Paradise”.

a) In the Koran

It is important to remember that the Holy Book severely condemned the old customs of ill-treating women (XVI, 58/59, and LXXXI 8/9), and protected their rights in one of its longest chapters, IV, which is given the title “Women”. Among the most impressive verses in the Koran about spouses are the following:

“. . . He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect.” (Koran 30:21).

The Koran clearly indicates that marriage is sharing between the two halves of the society, and that its objectives, besides perpetuating human life, are emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Its bases are love and mercy. “. . . But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good.” (Koran 4:19).

When the continuation of the marriage relation-ship is impossible for any reason, men are still taught o seek a gracious end for it. “When you divorce women, and they reach their prescribed term, then retain them in kindness and retain them not for injury so that you transgress (the limits)”. (Koran 2:231).

b) The “Hadith” (sayings of the Prophet)

In several sayings, Prophet Muhammad discouraged wife-abuse: “The most perfect believers are the best in conduct. And the best of you are those who are best to their wives”. “It is the generous (in character) who is good to women, and it is the wicked who insults them”.

c) The “Sunna” (tradition according to The Prophet’s conduct)

True followers of the sunna follow the Prophet’s example. Prophet Muhammad never resorted to wife-beating, regardless of the circumstances.

d) The “charia” (Islamic Law)

As defined by the hadith it is not permissible to strike anybody’s face, cause any bodily harm or even be harsh. What the hadith qualified as “dharban ghayra mubarrih” or as “light striking” was interpreted by early jurists as a use of a “miswak” (a small natural toothbrush). They further qualified permissible “striking” as that which leaves no mark on the body. This makes it clear that this law does not permit anything we would label “physical abuse”, “family violence” or “wife-battering” in the 21 st century.

All of these sources illustrate that any excess, cruelty, family violence or abuse committed by any Muslim cannot honestly be traced to any revelatory text (Koran or hadith). Rather, such excesses and violations are the responsibility of the individual offender.

3. The “non-Islamic” violence

Wife-beating was only intended to discipline the rebellious and potentially unfaithful spouse as physical sanctions were, until recently, largely accepted as a way of educating children. But currently this idea that it is a husband’s obligation to beat his wife has transcended these old limits such that beating her can be considered as a transgression of the religious commandments. In this respect, of particular concern are the so-called honour killings, which in too many Islamic countries are increasing and benefit from great impunity. They are rarely prosecuted on the grounds that these are a form of private violence that has strictly to do with personal family and honour matters. Similarly, contrary to common and false beliefs, female genital mutilation, still performed in many Arab and Islamic countries, is not a religious requirement. It largely preceded the advent of Islam and has never been practiced in the North African societies or in Iran. .

Now I would never take the trouble to share quotations propagating the religious enlightenment of the Koran any more than I would do so for the Bible to defend that book’s contribution to civilization. That’s not my point. What I am trying to demonstrate is that Muslims themselves find in their religion rationales for treating women well. We don’t do anyone favours by denouncing an millions of adherents of a religion by defending the interpretations of the barbaric mind-sets of its less educated members. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to support Muslims who are fighting ignorance and bigotry within their own ranks.

Psychiatrists wrote the above article because they are encouraging their professional peers to address the cultural roots of a serious problem.

Domestic violence and its acceptance cannot be attributed solely to religion but also to patriarchal ideologies. Often religion is used to rationalize and give authority to more human motives. “It is also true, however, that in many so-called “Islamic” countries, women are not treated according to their God-given rights. But this is not the fault of Islamic ideology but rather the misapplication or sometimes the outright denial of the ideology in these societies. Much of the practices and laws in “Islamic” countries have deviated from or are totally unrelated to the origins of Islam. Instead, many of these practices are based on cultural or traditional customs which have been injected into these societies” wrote a famous Islamic scholar, Badawi (1971). . . . .

Pakistan’s hudood laws

General Zia

Riaz Hassan points the finger at General Zia (who seized power in a military coup in 1977) for the introduction of populist laws — the hudood ordinances — that denigrated the status of women in Pakistani society despite the claim that they were intended to “protect honour, life and the fundamental rights of a citizen . . . and provide speedy justice through an independent non-discriminatory Islamic system of justice”.

In fact the opposite of the stated intention has been the result. The crime of zina (adultery and fornication) has been made an offence against the State. Police are therefore obliged to investigate every complaint, and such cases have mushroomed since the laws were introduced so that in some regions they make up the majority of cases police are investigating. A woman who is raped is likely to be accused of inciting the crime and therefore guilty of adultery. Many court hearings have, fortunately, eventually acquitted the woman, but not before being dragged through years of punishment and humiliation until the verdict was eventually reached.

Campaigns condemning the practice

National and international organizations have been fighting to rid the world of honour killings: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Shirkat Gah, the Aurat Foundation, UNICEF and the UN.

A UN draft resolution condemning such killing was discussed in 2002 and passed with 92 votes in favour and 34 against and 28 abstentions. To their shame Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Malaysia, Iran, Libya and Lebanon spoke and voted against the resolution. I somehow doubt the West’s “liberation” of Libya since then would change that country’s vote a second time around. There is still a long way to go. Those fighting the practice, especially Muslims, deserve our support.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Honour Killing (from Inside Muslim Minds)”

  1. It’s puzzling to me to hear about ‘honour’ killings as being something Islam is supposed to be especially responsible for since I first heard of the practice from news accounts of incidents in Catholic South America.

  2. “in order to do my little bit to try to correct what I see as general public misconceptions about Muslims”, no doubt there are many of these, however I suspect the misunderstandings arise because the readership of this blog could hardly be considered the general public. You thought you were talking to the general public, we thought you were talking to the readers of your blog.

    1. The blog is a small one, but it still attracts between 500 and 800 unique visitors a day and most come through Search Engine queries on specific topics. Fewer than half of those are regular readers if the “blog follower” number is any guide.

      I’m not quite sure how to understand your comment, though. Are you saying that I came across as somehow condemning regular readers over Islam? To be honest, when I first started posting on this I never expected the strong reaction against what I have been writing. I really was taken aback at the numbers and the intensity of comments disapproving of what I am saying.

  3. As I commented in the other thread about this, I’ll just sort of reiterate here. The claim is not, and has never been, that Islam created the concept of honor killing. Islam has only existed for 1400 years, and certainly many primitive/backward concepts of honor have been around much longer. This is irrelevant. It’s like arguing that because the practice of slavery predates the books of the Torah, we can therefore absolve the Torah for its repeated condoning of slavery. That’s absurd.

    So it matters not where the concept of honor killing originated. It matters whether a text/tradition has the potential to lend support to the concept, or whether it outright condemns it. Any faith holy book that does not do the latter is, to varying degrees, culpable for that fact. I want be sure to equally condemn the teachings of Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, TO THE EXTENT that they can be used to support a view of honor that leads to killings. I’m prepared to accept that the vast majority of the world’s religions can be legitimate culprits in this regard….but the reason you hear most often about Islam in association with honor killings is that there’s proportionally more “potential” (as used above) within the Qur’an than there is in the other holy book traditions. It’s not rocket science, but it is empirically demonstrable. Just compare proportions of content, and the Qur’an easily emerges as the most violent, on the whole. I personally am equally appalled by the New Testament, the Upanishads, and the Vedas, but for different reasons than the ease with which they can be interpreted to justify violence.

    I wouldn’t think that we’d need to pretend that all Scriptures are guilty of the exact same moral failings, and to the exact same degree.

    1. So you dismiss as irrelevant or wrong the arguments of Niaz and Douki, and the works of the women’s activist movements that are condemning violence against women while remaining true to, even defending, their Muslim religion, and the fact that most Moslems do not have any time for honour killings?

      These Muslim women are arguing that certain societies are using religion to rationalize their base behaviour contrary to the true way to interpret the Koran. So they are trying to get to what they see as the root of the problem. That includes showing them, in their view, the wrongness of their interpretation. (Compare people today who now use the Bible to condemn slavery where once it was used to support slavery, or those who today use it to liberate women and no longer to keep them in subjection. That’s the nature of holy texts, as we saw in the post Fantasy and Religion.) I don’t think I am in a position to disagree with them. You do?

      1. It’s not that I disagree with them in terms of their motivation or purpose. If it’s the case that we HAVE to live with the religions of the world and the texts they’ve produced, then of course it’s better to promote peaceful interpretations of Scripture over against violent ones. But I don’t accept that religion qua religion can’t be combatted. It’s a long battle, but a worthwhile one, since there’s nothing “wrong” with a militant interoperation of a text, if the text was meant to be interpreted militantly. These admirable women that you’re introducing to us – they’re doing great activist work to be sure, but their power is in their values, not necessarily their exegetical prowess. The Qur’an doesn’t have a “right” interpretation, so one can’t say (on theological grounds) that moderate Muslims are doing a better job interpreting the Qur’an than their radical counterparts. This is the issue that I think you’re overlooking in general. If a law code doesn’t specifically condemn killing civilians (for example), then that law code is culpable for that omission when (inevitably) some people interpret terrorism to be justifiable, especially in some extreme circumstances.

        So you’ve correctly identified the nature of holy texts…and that nature is problematic for the very reasons you cite (Bible justifying slavery, Qur’an calling for jihad, etc.). That’s why I’m appalled by all of them, just to varying degrees, depending on their emphases.

        1. We remain with the fact that the problems we are facing today associated with Islam were not with us several decades ago. We have to explain why it has happened now and was not a problem before. We also have the fact that only a relatively miniscule number of Muslims overall commit terrorist acts and that the overwhelming majority reject and publicly condemn them and are working to address the problem of those few. We also have the fact that terrorism is related to specific geographic and political situations. That needs to be explained. It is not a universal applicable to Islam wherever it is found. And we have the fact that Islam itself varies widely — American Muslims have by and large “bought into the American dream” while European Muslims remain socially isolated, and there are major debates among even terrorists about the rightness of bombing civilians.

          All of those facts need to be explained. It is facile to blame all the current problems on the Koran. It is just as logical to hold the Koran responsible for the overwhelming good responses of the overwhelming numbers of Muslims — more logical, in fact.

          You can’t say the Koran is more to blame because it has more emphasis on violence. Whether or not that is the case, the only thing that matters is how it is interpreted by its believers, and it is clearly interpreted in a way that is non-violent by the overwhelming majority.

          Polls show that Christian Americans are more prone to justify the killing of civilians than are Muslims. Such facts do not deserve to be rationalized away.

          It is just as silly to blame the Bible for the American attitudes — unless we also argue that the facts demonstrate that the Koran is a greater force for encouraging believers to condemn the killing of civilians.

  4. It gets worse. In my post above I referenced Professor Riaz Hassan’s remarks about General Zia of Pakistan. I am also in the process of reading Scott Atran’s “Talking To The Enemy” and have just come across this:

    Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy said, “I am more worried about extremists having access to nuclear materials, particularly highly enriched uranium-235 (HEU), rather than a completed weapon. Because of secrecy requirements, it is very difficult for outsiders to monitor the output of uranium enrichment or plutonium processing plants.” Hoodbhoy . . . blames the rise of jihadi activity in Pakistan in part on the Reagan administration’s support for Pakistan’s militant Muslim dictator Zia ul-Haq . . . . “

  5. wife beating verse—has been controversial from early on—(some scholars who have commented on it are—Dr A Wadud, (Quran) Dr. L Bahktiar, (Quran) Dr.A Al-Hibri (Sharia))

    It is said that the Prophet (pbuh) did not understand the verse the way it is interpreted as he did not beat his wives.

    The Surah in which this verse is, begins with the declaration that all human souls (nafs) began from a singularity—Surah 4 verse 1….”O Humanity! fear your Guardian Lord who created you out of a single soul (nafs), Created out of it her mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women……” Thus, declaring the inherent equality of men and women….(and all humanity).

    Early Jurists also had a problem with it and women could divorce their husbands if they were beaten. Most Early Jurists considered any cruelty physical and verbal as abuse. (Tafsir Yusuf Ali)

    Scholars such as Wadud have called into question the interpretation of “beating” for the Arabic word (root word—daraba) in the verse because it can also have the meaning of “separate” (to get out) and in context of subsequent verses—the meaning of “separate” makes more sense because the Quran is talking about steps to take in a reconciliation process…….and beating someone is not conducive to reconciliation……

    verse 34 (partial) “….As to those women on whose part you fear marital discord, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last), ***”beat” or “separate”. But if they return to accord, seek not against them means of annoyance for God is most high, Great.

    verse 35 “If you fear a breach between them both, appoint (two) arbiters, one from his family and the other from hers; If they seek to set things right, God will cause their reconciliation for God has full knowledge and is acquainted with all things.”

    Different meanings of the (root) word daraba (and the places in the Quran it is used)

    To travel, to get out: 3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:20; 2:273

    To strike: 2:60,73; 7:160; 8:12; 20:77; 24:31; 26:63; 37:93; 47:4

    To beat: 8:50; 47:27

    To set up: 43:58; 57:13

    To give (examples): 14:24,45; 16:75,76,112; 18:32,45; 24:35; 30:28,58; 36:78; 39:27,29; 43:17; 59:21; 66:10,11

    To take away, to ignore: 43:5

    To condemn: 2:61

    To seal, to draw over: 18:11

    To cover: 24:31

    To explain: 13:17

    The English word “strike” also has varied meanings for ex—-(from Merriam-Webster)

    a tool for smoothing a surface (as of a mold)

    an act or instance of striking

    a work stoppage by a body of workers to enforce compliance with demands made on an employer

    a temporary stoppage of activities in protest against an act or condition

    the direction of the line of intersection of a horizontal plane with an uptilted geological stratum

    a pull on a fishing rod to strike a fish

    a pull on a line by a fish in striking

    a stroke of good luck; especially : a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit


    Gender inequality/injustice does not mean that one gender must fight the other in order to make things right—-Because men and women are created inherently equal, both together must work towards justice. Men and women are partners in creating a better society.

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