It happened today - March 9, 2016

On this date in 632, March 9, Muhammad ended the first Islamic pilgrimage or hajj with his famous Farewell Sermon. Including instructions on how to beat your wives, apparently. It is of course possible that he didn’t. It’s not in the Koran. Unlike Sura 4, which also says to beat them if they are disobedient.

So maybe the witnesses or chroniclers got it wrong. But one of the “hadiths” or authoritative traditions given great weight in Islam says in this Farewell Sermon, just months before his death, he told his followers “I enjoin good treatment of women, for they are prisoners with you, and you have no right to treat them otherwise, unless they commit clear indecency. If they do that, then forsake them in their beds and hit them, but without causing injury or leaving a mark if they obey you, then do not seek means of annoyance against them.”

Alternatively, according to a respected 8th century historian, “Now then, O people, you have a right over your wives and they have a right over you. You have [the right] that they should not cause anyone of whom you dislike to tread on your beds; and that they should not commit any open indecency (fāḥishah). If they do, then God permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain from [evil], they have the right to their food and clothing in accordance with custom (bi’l-ma‘rūf). Treat women well, for they are [like] domestic animals (‘awānin) with you and do not possess anything for themselves.”

Another writer, in the ninth century gives “O people: verily you owe your women their rights, and they owe you yours. They may not lay with another men in your beds, let anyone into your houses you do not want without your permission, or commit indecency. If they do, Allah has given you leave to debar them, send them from your beds, or [finally] strike them in a way that does no harm. But if they desist, and obey you, then you must provide for them and clothe them fittingly. The women who live with you are like captives, unable to manage for themselves…”

All these quotations can be found on Wikipedia. And however you translate them, the message is sufficiently clear that it’s going to take some very creative feminism to reform Islam from within in this area or, disingenuously, to say from without that oppression of women is uniquely Western or singularly virulent in the West and ignore this stuff.

Now to be fair the “Farewell Sermon” also insisted on racial and ethnic equality. And if Muslims have sometimes failed in this respect, Christians have certainly done very badly, possibly worse, on race. While many advocated the abolition of racial slavery as an affront to God and man, many others vigorously defended it as God’s will. If there is a Day of Judgement the latter will have much to answer for. And Christianity has been interpreted, in theory and practice, to justify blatantly unfair treatment of women, though also to insist on respecting them without denying their differences from men.

The fact remains that, on matters of gender, Islam contains many authoritative statements that just won’t wash out no matter how many times you try to launder these texts. Jesus never said to hit women. Unless those reporting the sermon got it badly wrong, and these accounts have been respected and revered in error, Muhammad did. And it sure doesn’t sound as though he was drawing attention to the legal status of women as “prisoners” or “domestic animals” in order to press for reforms and just forgot to say that part.

If these accounts are wrong, somebody needs to stand up and say it clearly, boldly and repeatedly. If not, his words seem to me to speak for themselves as loudly today as they did nearly 1400 years ago.