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Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating? The Traditional Understanding of Qur’an 4:34

Waqar Akbar Cheema

Abstract

 Incidents of domestic violence in Muslim families are attributed by many to the verse 4:34 from the Holy Qur’an, which is misconstrued as condoning domestic violence. This paper will demonstrate that such an interpretation is a result of a desultory reading of the meanings of the verse. The paper will investigate the traditional interpretations of the verse and explore the details of corrective measures articulated therein. It will show that the traditional interpretations of the verse neither condone domestic violence nor were characterized by the interests of patriarchy. Rather, the traditional Muslim approach has been one of restricting almost completely the apparent meanings of the verse by reducing it to a symbolic chastisement during the course of seeking a resolution to gross marital misconduct.

1. Introduction

One of the major misconceptions about Islam is that it tolerates and even condones domestic violence. Many of the incidents of domestic violence in Muslim societies or in Muslim families living in the West are attributed to Islamic teachings. The most common textual reference made in this context is to the verse 4:34 of the Holy Qur’an, the so-called “wife-beating verse”. The verse reads:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

Men are caretakers of women, since Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because of the wealth they have spent. So, the righteous women are obedient, (and) guard (the property and honor of their husbands) in (their) absence with the protection given by Allah. As for women of whom you fear rebellion, convince them, and leave them apart in beds, and beat them. Then, if they obey you, do not seek a way against them. Surely, Allah is the Highest, the Greatest.[1]

However, this attribution is based on a weak premise and springs from a desultory study of the quoted text. To arrive at the true meaning of the verse, it is important to first understand the legal nature of the instructions in the verse and their related rules along with general Islamic teachings.

2. The Nature of Marital Relations in Islam

The Holy Qur’an defines the nature of marital relations in the following words:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ أَنْ خَلَقَ لَكُمْ مِنْ أَنْفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَاجًا لِتَسْكُنُوا إِلَيْهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَكُمْ مَوَدَّةً وَرَحْمَةً إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.[2]

In essence, the nature of marital relations is one of affection and mercy. And there are a number of Qur’anic verses and Prophetic narrations that supplement and support this. Regardless of other verses, such references by themselves establish that the Holy Qur’an cannot warrant or condone domestic violence or wife-beating because the Qur’an is internally coherent.

3. The Context of the Verse 4:34

Coming to the immediate context of the verse 4:34, it must be noted that the Holy Qur’an defines a relationship between spouses whereby men are given a higher degree due to their social role as protectors and guardians of women.

The Holy Qur’an calls men qawwam over women. The term denotes a person who has been assigned the duty of managing or taking care of what has to be done. Every social organization needs a hierarchical structure for managing the collective affairs of its constituents and the same applies to the institution of family – the fundamental unit of society.

The Holy Quran states that men and women both have rights and obligations towards each other in front of Allah.[3] However men are given a higher degree of responsibility as stated in the verse 4:34. This preference cannot be interpreted as favoritism, rather it is a position of accountability in front of society and in front of God. It is in accordance with the need of a hierarchical social structure already mentioned and it is attached with the social responsibilities men have towards women. However, in this backdrop other Qur’anic principles remain equally relevant. These include the instructions of living with women kindly[4] and taking decisions with their consent and mutual consultation.[5]

It is important to note here that the Holy Qur’an does not say, ‘Allah made men excel over women’ rather it says, ‘Allah has made some of them excel the others.’ The difference is evident. The expression used indicates that men and women are from each other and if one of them is given a degree over the other it is not to discredit the other’s role.[6]  In doing so, the Holy Qur’an has changed the entire outlook to the issue of gender roles and rights. Men and women  are no more seen as pitched against each other in a tug of war as in the popular feminist narrative. Rather they are viewed as complementary characters constituting a single holistic family.

Therefore, when the Qur’an mentions “nushuz” (rebellion) it means a serious neglect of the marital rights and a disregard for the balance that Allah has set. If a wife transgresses these boundaries, her husband has the right to take recourse of the corrective measures mentioned in verse 4:34.

4. The Nature and Details of the Instructions

4.1. The Other Measures Must be Expended First

When a husband is justifiably upset with the behavior of his wife, he must first expend the other measures of resolution before resorting to physical chastisement. These measures are to initially talk to her and advise her, and if that fails then to stop sharing the marital bed with her. And it is only after these two initial measures are expended that the third and extreme option be resorted to. The latter is only considered extreme due to the inherent intimacy between husband and wife and in comparison to the other options; otherwise it is in effect symbolic in nature.

The classical Muslim exegete Ibn al-Attiyah (d. 542 AH) states:

وهذه العظة والهجر والضرب مراتب، إن وقعت الطاعة عند إحداها لم يتعد إلى سائرها

These things – exhortation, turning away and beating – are in sequence. If she becomes obedient with one, the other options are not to be resorted to.[7]

‘Ali bin Abi Talib is reported to have said:

يعظها بلسانه، فإن انتهت فلا سبيل له عليها، فإن أبت هجر مضجعها، فإن أبت ضربها، فإن لم تتعظ بالضرب بعث الحكمين.

(The) Husband should (first) admonish her with words; if she stops (with her transgressive attitude) he would have no more recourse (to be harsh with her). But if she remains rebellious then he may stop sharing her bed, and if she still remains like that then he may beat her. And if she does not take admonishment even with beating then call for arbitrators from both sides.[8]

That physical chastisement comes only after the other corrective measures is obvious because exhortation and the leaving of the marital bed would be meaningless after having resorted to the former.

4.2 Permissibility, Not Recommendation

Nonetheless, the legal status of physical chastisement after the other measures are taken is mere permissibility. It is neither a recommendation nor a license to hit women. The well-known commentator Abdul Majid Daryabadi (d. 1397 AH) states:

The fact must not be lost sight of that the Holy Word is addressed to people of all ages and of all grades and stages of social evolution; and it may well be that a remedy that is unthinkable in a particular grade of society is the only feasible and effective corrective in another.[9]

It might be that amongst the myriad nations, cultures, and individuals over centuries, for some people this manner of mild physical reproach is the only way to highlight their transgression, correct their behavior, and save their marriages. However, it would be a mistake to generalize this and assume that physical chastisement is the method that Islam recommends to resolve marital discord.

4.3 Physical Chastisement is not Commendable

Even in situations where mild physical chastisement is permitted, Islam does not commend this. The Prophet’s perfect life-example plainly advises against this. Since all believers are required to imitate the Prophet, the significance of the following testimony of the Prophet’s wife is evident:

 ما ضرب رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم شيئا قط بيده، ولا امرأة، ولا خادما، إلا أن يجاهد في سبيل الله

The Messenger of Allah never hit anyone with his hand, not any woman or servant, except when fighting in jihâd in the cause of Allah.[10]

In another report it is stated:

عن عائشة، قالت: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: «خيركم خيركم لأهله وأنا خيركم لأهلي»

‘Aishah narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: “The best of you is the best to his wives, and I am the best of you to my wives.”[11]

In one narration, the Messenger of Allah categorically showed his dislike for husbands who beat their wives:

قال النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم: «لقد طاف بآل محمد نساء كثير يشكون أزواجهن ليس أولئك بخياركم»

The Prophet said: “Many women have come to the wives of Muhammad complaining against their husbands; these men are not the best of you.”[12]

4.4 Rules on the Nature and Extent of ‘Beating’

While we have known that ‘beating’ is not the first option and it is merely permitted and not recommended let us now dwell on the nature and extent of ‘beating’ mentioned in the verse.

In the well-known sermon during the Farewell Pilgrimage, the Messenger of Allah explaining the ruling in its rightful context said:

فاتقوا الله في النساء، فإنكم أخذتموهن بأمان الله، واستحللتم فروجهن بكلمة الله ، ولكم عليهن أن لا يوطئن فرشكم أحدا تكرهونه، فإن فعلن ذلك فاضربوهن ضربا غير مبرح، ولهن عليكم رزقهن وكسوتهن بالمعروف

Fear Allah with regard to women, for you have taken them as a trust from Allah, and intimacy with them has become permissible to you by the Word of Allah. Your rights over them are that they should not allow anyone whom you dislike to tread on your bedding. If they do that, then hit them, but in a manner that does not cause injury or leave  a mark. Their rights over you are that you should provide for them and clothe them in a reasonable manner.[13]

Also, in expounding upon the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic instructions, the following is reported from Ibn Abbas (r), the prime commentator of the Qur’an from amongst the companions of the Prophet:

عن عطاء قال، قلت لابن عباس: ما الضرب غير المبرح؟ قال: بالسواك ونحوه.

‘Ata narrated, I asked Ibn ‘Abbas: What is the beating that leaves no marks? He said, ‘With a tooth stick and the like.”[14]

These narrations demonstrate that the beating in question is not beating proper, but a symbolic reproach to highlight the significance of the transgression to the wife.

4.5 A Warning for Men

After the measures discussed above, the Holy Qur’an says in the same verse:

فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا

But if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance)

Explaining the verse segment, Ibn Kathir (d. 774 AH) writes:

أي: فإذا أطاعت المرأة زوجها في جميع ما يريد منها، مما أباحه الله له منها، فلا سبيل له عليها بعد ذلك، وليس له ضربها ولا هجرانها.

Meaning, when the wife obeys her husband in all that Allah has allowed, then no means of annoyance from the husband are allowed against his wife. Therefore, in this case, the husband does not have the right to beat her or shun her bed.[15]

Towards the end of the verse, it is said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).

Ibn Kathir expounds on the significance of these words:

تهديد للرجال إذا بغوا على النساء من غير سبب، فإن الله العلي الكبير وليهن، وهو ينتقم ممن ظلمهن وبغى عليهن

[It] reminds men that if they transgress against their wives without justification, then Allah, the Ever Most High, Most Great, is their Protector, and He will exert revenge on those who transgress against their wives and deal with them unjustly.[16]

This is to establish that men are not given a free hand to deal with their wives as they wish. Rather, besides the numerous checks, the verse warns men that they are answerable to their Lord who will hold to question anyone who transgresses against His servants.

4.6 A Weak Hadith on Wife-‘beating’

With that final warning in the verse, we now turn to a much misused narration on this issue:

عن عمر بن الخطاب، عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «لا يسأل الرجل فيما ضرب امرأته»

Umar bin al-Khattab narrated that the Prophet said: “No man should be asked regarding why he hit his wife.”[17]

This narration has been shown as weak by a number of scholars including ‘Ali bin al-Madini as quoted by Ibn Kathir,[18] Ahmad Shakir,[19] Nasir al-Din al-Albani,[20] Shu’ayb al-Arna’ut,[21] Dr. Al-Turki,[22] and Al-‘Adwi.[23] It is already clear from the warning given in the verse 4:34 that men are prohibited from causing any annoyance or distress to their wives without just cause. Therefore, the command from the verse will override any such weak narrations.

5. The Meanings of the Verse and the Muslim Scholarly Tradition

Dr. Jonathan A. C. Brown in his work ‘Misquoting Muhammad’ dedicates a whole chapter to various approaches to this verse which he says epitomizes the ‘ultimate crisis of scripture in the modern world.’ He describes the attitude of the Muslim scholarly tradition:

Ironically, the unstated assumptions that many readers today would generally see as encasing the ‘literal meaning’ of 4:34 were shared by none of the pre-modern ‘ulama. They are, in fact, totally foreign to the Islamic tradition. Reading the verse as an unambiguous legitimization of spousal abuse assumes that the Qur’an should be read in isolation and that duties should be derived from it unmediated. Yet, no pre-modern Muslim school of thought ever advocated that (except perhaps the early Kharijite extremists), and Islamic modernists who claim they do this today cannot manage to do so consistently. . . . The ‘ulama who articulated the Islamic tradition were men. Taken as a whole, however, their reading of Qur’an 4:34 was characterized by neither the interests of patriarchy nor what is sometimes imagined to be an untempered indifference to violence. Rather, the most salient theme in the ‘ulama’s writings across the centuries has been one of restricting almost completely the apparent meanings of the verse. This seems to have appeared with the first, infallible interpreter of God’s revelation, the Messenger of God himself.[24]

6. Causes of Domestic Violence Against Women

Shari’ah laws or Qur’anic verses, including the verse under consideration, are not the causes of domestic violence against women. In fact, statistics from secular, liberal countries paint a different but gruesome picture. A recent survey report on domestic violence against women in EU States concludes:

The survey results show the impact of various forms of violence on women across the EU. Violence against women undermines women’s core fundamental rights such as dignity, access to justice and gender equality. For example, one in three women (33 %) has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. One in five women (18 %) has experienced stalking; every second woman (55 %) has been confronted with one or more forms of sexual harassment. Given this, violence against women cannot be seen as a marginal issue that touches only on some women’s lives.[25]

The point is that the causes for domestic violence against women are not religious. Rather, they are cultural and related to lifestyle and other social aspects. The same report says:

The survey did find heavy alcohol use by perpetrators of domestic violence, but further analysis is needed to understand the relationship between alcohol and other factors that contribute to violence.[26]

It is actually such social evils that lead to domestic violence. Islamic rulings, especially the verse under consideration, actually provide an elaborate anger management system which if implemented can lead to reduction in violence against women.

6. Summary and Conclusions

1. Islam envisions a cordial and compassionate living between husband and wife and it commands both of them to behave in a manner that transforms this ideal into a reality.

2. Though Islam views men and women as essentially equal, within the institution of the family, man is made chargé d’affaires of the household and is required to fulfill his financial and social responsibilities towards  his wife and other family members.

3. Within the said capacity, if at a certain point the husband finds the integrity of the family threatened by gross misconduct from his wife, he has been instructed to follow a series of steps if he wishes to put things in order; first to advise his wife, if it fails then to give up intimacy with her, and if even that fails then symbolic physical chastisement.

4. The legal ruling of the physical chastisement is only a permission and not a recommendation. The Prophet himself never hit any of his wives and showed displeasure towards those who resort to it indicating that even though permissible it is disliked and unbecoming of a true follower of the Prophet.

5. Different cultures and segments of society might have different characteristic temperaments, and since the law has provisions for different people from different stages of social evolution and different eras, the permission should be considered with this backdrop.

6. That the permission for physical chastisement is very much qualified and restricted is proven from the fact that the Prophet categorically said it must not leave a mark on her body and a prominent exegete from among the companions of the Prophet said it should be with something like a tooth stick.

7. The permission is followed by a dire warning from Allah that the husband must not seek a way to trouble his wife when there are no signs of the kind of conduct that allows the chastisement.

8. The verse 4:34 actually provides an elaborate system of anger management which if duly followed can lead to a drastic reduction in domestic violence. On the contrary we see gruesome statistics from secular, liberal societies. This tells us that the reasons for domestic violence are not religious; rather, they are socially driven by vices like debauchery, unchecked notions like individual liberties, breaking up of the family system, drinking, etc.
.

References:


[1] Qur’an 4:34

[2] Qur’an 30:21

[3] Qur’an 2:228

[4] Qur’an 4:19

[5] Qur’an 2:233

[6] Shafi’, Muhammad, Ma’arif al-Qur’an. (Karachi: Maktaba-e-Darul Uloom, n.d.) Vol.2, 419-420

[7] Al-Andalusi, Ibn Atiyya, al-Muharrar al-Wajiz fi Tafsir, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 2001) Vol.2, 48

[8] Al-Razi, Fakhr ad-Din, Mafatih al-Ghayb, (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1420 AH) Vol.10, 72

[9] Daryabadi, Abdul Majid, Tafsir al-Qur’an – English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, (Lucknow: Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, 2007) Vol.1, 327

[10] Muslim bin Hajjaj, as-Sahih, (Trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab. Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 6050 (79-2328)

[11] Al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Eisa, al-Jami‘, (Trans. Abu Khaliyl. Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 3895; classified as sahih by Al-Albani

[12] Al-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, (Trans. Yasir Qadhi. Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2008) Hadith 2146; classified as sahih by Al-Albani

[13] Muslim bin Hajjaj, as-Sahih, Hadith 2950 (147-1218)

[14] Al-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Ar-Risalah Publication, 2000) Vol.8, 315 Narration 9387

[15] Ibn Kathir, Abu al-Fida, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim,  (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 1998) Vol.2, 258-259 (emphasis added)

[16] ibid.

[17] Al-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Hadith 2147

[18] Ibn Kathir, Abu al-Fida, Musnad al-Faruq, (Al-Mansurah: Dar al-Wafa, 1991) Vol.1, 182

[19] Shakir, Ahmad (ed.), al-Musnad li Imam Ahmad, (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1995) Hadith 122

[20] Al-Albani, Nasir al-Din, Da’if Sunan Abu Dawud, (Riyadh: Maktaba al-Ma’ārif, 1998) Hadith 2147

[21] Al-Arna’ut, Shu’ayb (ed.), al-Musnad li Imam Ahmad, (Beirut: Ar-Risalah Publications, 2001) Hadith 122

[22] Al-Turki, Muhammad bin Abdul Muhsin (ed.), Musnad Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi, (Giza: Hijr Publications, 1999) Hadith 47

[23] Al-‘Adwi, Abu ‘Abdullah Mustafa, al-Muntakhab min Musnad ‘Abd bin Humayd, (Riyadh: Dar al-Balinsiyah, 2002) Hadith 37

[24] Brown, Jonathan, Misquoting Muhammad, (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014) 274

[25] FRA- European Union Agency for Fundamental Right, Violence against women: an EU-wide survey- Main Results, (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2014) 167

[26] ibid., 26

Published : March 11, 2015                 Last modified : May 10th, 2016

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