Authors: Mariam Rasheed, LMSW, Issra Killawi, B.A.
Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Maryum Khwaja, LCSW, and Madiha Tahseen, Ph.D. for their review of this article.
This article contains content that may be triggering for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Ayesha has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband, Aman, for the majority of their marriage. It started in more subtle ways with Aman making negative and hurtful comments towards Ayesha, and constantly calling her when she is out of the house. He quotes ayahs (verses) from the Qur’an to justify his behavior and how “Allah (swt) is not happy with her ” or “He will punish her for her behavior”. It escalated to him doing these behaviors in front of her kids, taking the keys away from her, and ultimately, physically abusing her (shoving, pushing). Aman would apologize for his behavior and promise to be a better husband, but then something else happens and he’s back to his abusive behavior. Lately, Ayesha finds herself constantly anxious, avoiding social gatherings, and unable to sleep or eat properly. The children are also impacted, feeling scared constantly, and not doing well in school.

This story may sound extreme, but it is more common in the Muslim community than many of us want to accept. Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is a pattern of abusive behavior used by someone to establish control and power over their partner. Within the Muslim community specifically, 31% of American Muslims reported experiencing abuse within an intimate relationship (Peaceful Families and Project Sakinah 2011 Domestic Violence Survey of 801 couples), compared to 25% of all American women and 11% of male victims (Plumptre, 2021). In this article, we discuss what abuse looks like especially in the Muslim community and how to find a way out of the abuse. 
Without exception, Islam forbids domestic violence of any kind and towards either spouse. These behaviors are oppressive and unjust, and they contradict the teaching of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). For more information on misconceptions about abuse in Islam, please refer to these resources by the Peaceful Families Project (PFP).

“And among His signs is this: that He created for you mates from among yourselves so that you may dwell in tranquility with them. He has put love and mercy between your hearts; in that are signs for those who reflect”. (Quran, 30:21)

What Does Abuse Look Like?

Abuse can take many forms described below. But, abusers can also just engage in just one form of abuse as well–just because someone doesn’t do all kinds of abuse, it doesn’t mean it’s not abuse. Also, recognize that abusers can cycle between being abusive to a honeymoon phase (abuser is apologetic and tries to reconcile). Finally, all relationships have some form of conflict. Hurtful behavior becomes abuse when it becomes about control, and is very deliberate and intentional.
Some common types of abusive behavior include:

  • • Emotional Abuse (82%*) is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize, and refers to words and actions used to tear down the self-esteem of another person. Its effects can be as psychologically destructive as physical abuse. Examples: gaslighting, manipulation, withholding, isolation, racism, silent treatment, shaming, insulting, and so on. 
  • • Physical Abuse (74%) is the most observable kind of abuse and used to further assert control and invoke fear. Examples: slapping, throwing down, twisting arms, beating, etc. 
  • • Financial Abuse (65%), where the abuser has power over the economic resources and limits the victim’s access to it. Examples: embarrassing the victim when they ask for money, preventing them from having a job, etc.
  • • Spiritual Abuse (49%) is when the abuser uses spiritual and religious belief to control the victim. Examples: Misusing religous texts to gain dominance or shame and humilate victim: “Your being a bad Muslim and wife/husband” “Remember the hadith, Angels will curse you all night…” 
  • •  Sexual Abuse (30%) includes any sexual behavior performed without the partner’s consent–even in a marital relationship! Examples: demanding sex at any time, engaging in sexual activity when the victim is not fully conscious or is afraid to say no, etc
* The percentages reflect how much abuse was experienced by nearly 2000 Muslim women survivors of domestic violence (in a survey of 9 DV organizations aorund the U.S; Alkhateeb, 2010).
For more examples of what abuse looks like, especially in the Muslim community,  please refer to PFP’s Power and Control Wheel.

Why don’t they leave?

People who do not experience domestic violence often wonder why victims do not “just leave the relationship”. What they may not understand is that leaving an abusive relationship is a process that can be complicated and dangerous for victims. There are many reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships: 

  • → Fear: The victim may be afraid of the consequences of leaving. The dangers of leaving may pose a greater danger than remaining with the abuser.  

  • → Love and Hope: The victim still feels love for the abusive partner. When the abuser apologizes and asserts their love for the victim, he/she becomes hopeful that the abuser will change one day. 

  • → Survival: The victim may not be financially independent and may rely on the abuser for money and resources. 

  • → Lack of support system: The victim may not have close family, relatives, or friends that they can reach out to for help. Especially in Muslim circles, many communities will shun the victim once they leave their abuser. 

  • → Low self-esteem: Domestic violence impacts the victim’s self esteem, leaving them feeling helpless and even blaming themselves for the abuse.

  • → For children: Many victims think keeping the family together is better than leaving and do not always have the emotional resources to see the impact of staying on their children.

  • → Thinking that abuse is normal: Many victims may have come to learn that verbal and physical abuse is normal in a relationship, especially if they witnessed it in other relationships. Sometimes, they may internalize the misconception that abuse is accepted in Islam, so they don’t leave out of fear of displeasing God or wanting to “be patient”.

Finding a Way Out of the Cycle of Abuse

Everyone deserves a healthy, safe relationship. If you recognize these signs of abuse in your own relationship, know that you are not to blame for the abusive behavior that you are experiencing. Focus on what you can do to protect yourself and to find a way out of the relationship. 

  • • Tell someone you trust about the abuse. Choose someone who you know will listen and will be there if the situation escalates.

  • • Document the abuse. This will help them understand the severity of the situation and help them decide to leave later. 

  • • Prepare your path to safety. Create a safety plan about when and how to leave, and practice escaping quickly and safely. 

  • • Get help! If you fear for your safety or are in immediate danger, call 911 or National Domestic Violence Hotline at  800-799-7233; for Deaf & Hard of Hearing: 800-787-3224. You can also chat or text with them for quick and safe support

  • • Recognize the healing you will need to do. Healing from an abusive relationship is a journey, and it will take time. 
    • Heal from gaslighting and learn how to trust yourself again
    • Try these 5 self-care tips such as positive affirmations and channeling the pain into creativity 
    • Find your community. When you leave, unfortunately, so may your people. Find even just 2-3 people to support you.
    • Speak to a professional counselor: check out PFP’s directory of Muslim providers who specialize in domestic violence.
Check out PFP’s Domestic Violence Toolkit for much more guidance and resources, including more information about what you are experiencing and hotlines/organizations you can reach out to for help. 

Our communities are not immune to domestic violence, even though our faith has strong prohibitions towards abuse of any kind. Domestic violence can have a traumatic impact on the physical and psychological well being of the victim, children and even extended family. However, getting out and getting support are the first steps towards healing and growing through the abuse. If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, know that what’s happening to you is not your fault. You are not alone, and support is available. May Allah (swt) grant you the courage and support you need to be in a healthy situation for yourself and your family. 
“You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do”. (Quran, 4:135)
“Not in our community”: What Domestic Violence Looks Like and How to Get Help
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