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Domestic Violence: Critique of some modern opinions on Quran 4:34

Gabriel Al Romaani

Abstract

Muslim communities face increasing pressure to integrate with the prevailing secular culture by reinterpreting their values that clash with the existing cultural hegemony. Many are swayed by such pressure to reexamine Qur’anic verses or existing Islamic legal rules to bring forth interpretations that will conform to contemporary secular values. Modern attempts to reinterpret the Qur’anic verse 4:34, the so-called ‘chastisement verse’, is due to succumbing to such pressure. This essay will examine the reasons for such a reinterpretation, the integral arguments provided by the reformers, and their validity. The traditional interpretations given by the earliest Muslim generations and the logical and linguistic arguments provided by them will be delineated. The essay will demonstrate that to mildly physically reprimand a persistently disobedient (nushuz) wife is permissible provided certain preconditions are met and the requisite procedures are followed. It will also show that any attempt at a reinterpretation of the verse in order to explain away the permissibility for mild physical reprimand is unviable as it is not in accordance with the sciences of Islamic jurisprudence and goes against established scholarly opinions from the earliest of Muslim generations.

1. Introduction          

A critical thinker, one who possesses insight, one who reasons and understands the limits of their capabilities, will never see a contradiction between revelation and rationality, between the Shari’ah of Allah and the reality of our social affairs – past, present or future. The faulty logic that runs on the lips of people today might seem to impress the masses; however, in reality, it insults them by imposing on them a defective frame of reference that restricts their God-given intellect.  No one can deny the fact that Muslim communities are facing huge challenges this century; they are slowly being alienated from one another based on the pretexts of culture, social issues, geographic location, and varying formulations of jurisprudence and its applications. The Muslim community in Asia is increasingly diverging with respect to the community in America, claiming that neither understands the problems the other is facing, and that the religious scholars from either lands are disconnected from the reality and issues the people face.  Hence, in an attempt to integrate with and to impress the non-Muslims, some have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret certain verses of the Qur’an whose interpretations have been fixed for centuries.  The reason for doing so, as they claim, is that such interpretations are against the higher objectives (maqasid) of the Shari’ah.  However, when one analyzes the socio-political situation and context of such attempts, one realizes that this is nothing more than a fear of criticism and a lack of courage to promulgate the revelation of Allah.

The following paper is not a direct attack on any one person. Rather, it is a researched response to some arguments that have risen amongst certain intellectuals and community leaders in the West, and it is only an attempt to give the masses who have been exposed to such material[1] a look at the integral arguments presented and their validity.  In this paper, we will look at the bases for the objections to the traditional interpretation of the so-called ‘chastisement verse’ (Quran 4:34).  Do we need to reinterpret this verse? Are the maqasid al-shari’ah[2] (higher objectives of the law) properly invoked and used in this re-interpretaion?  We will take a look at the interpretations and meanings attributed to this verse by the companions of Prophet Muhammad[3] and the early generations of Muslims, who were described by the Prophet as the best people of all succeeding generations. We will also consider the logical and linguistic arguments presented, as well as the red herrings and fallacies related to these.  Last but not least, we will attempt to give the readers an understanding of the issue at hand based on Prophetic examples and traditions, which have been distorted, as we will show, by those who seek to reinterpret the verse in question.

2. Objections to the Traditional Interpretation and their Reasons

One of the main objections to early interpretations of Islamic texts held by some Muslims and non-Muslims alike is that things just need to change.  Muslims have to get in line with the rest of the world and stop this so-called patriarchic approach to religion.  They need to follow the rest of the world in coming up with new interpretations to problematic texts that go against so-called human rights and freedoms.  Gokhan Bacik, a Turkish columnist, says: ”It is up to Muslim scholars to carry out a reformist agenda within the rules of Islam.”[4]  Muslims are powerless in the face of criticism, and even those who stand their ground are hit so hard by Muslims and non-Muslims alike that with time their positions become influenced by the constant denunciation.  The arguments put forth are without a doubt a product of weakness in protecting the Shari’ah of Allah and a desire for acceptance.  Such is the psychology of human beings; living in a majority non-Muslim society, we are influenced by what is around us whether we like it or not.  A behavioral psychologist says: “we are in and of the world, and that our well-being, self-concept, and state of mind integrate with, and are influenced by, where we are at any given moment. In the same way that mind and body are no longer viewed as separate entities from each other, but rather, interconnected pieces that work together to influence our state of overall well-being, “self” and “surroundings” may in fact be a similarly false dichotomy.”[5]

In short, Muslims tend to reinterpret texts due to the constant need to fit into the societies they live in.  To some, such an approach is an intellectual one, a sign of understanding of the context and the surroundings.  It is true that Islam allows certain changes and certain adaptations depending on place and time. However, not every new circumstance requires an adaptation in law.  Allah does not praise such an approach, rather He praises those who are not influenced by critics of the divine laws.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَنْ يَرْتَدَّ مِنْكُمْ عَنْ دِينِهِ فَسَوْفَ يَأْتِي اللَّهُ بِقَوْمٍ يُحِبُّهُمْ وَيُحِبُّونَهُ أَذِلَّةٍ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَعِزَّةٍ عَلَى الْكَافِرِينَ يُجَاهِدُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَلَا يَخَافُونَ لَوْمَةَ لَائِمٍ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ فَضْلُ اللَّهِ يُؤْتِيهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ ۚ وَاللَّهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

O believers! Whoever among you renounce Islam let him do so; soon Allah will replace them with others whom He will love and they will love Him, who will be humble towards the believers, mighty against the unbelievers, striving hard in the way of Allah, and will have no fear of reproach from any critic. Now this is the grace of Allah which He bestows on whom He pleases. Allah has boundless knowledge.[6]

Another reason, as one writer puts it, “Moreover, several verses specifically enjoin kindness to women in contexts of marriage and inheritance where they may have the upper hand (2:229-237, 4:19, 4:25), or in the context of the marital home where there ought to be a spirit of love and kindness (30:21; 9:71).  In other verses, God calls men and women “protecting friends of one another”. Still other verses express God’s disapproval of the oppression or ill-treatment of women.”[7]

So, in his understanding, traditional interpretations are not valid as they go against other verses that enjoin kindness to women.  Before we go further, we need to assure the reader that neither we nor Islam support violence against women.[8]  However, Islam allows a righteous husband who fears Allah to take corrective physical measures towards a wife who commits actions that fall under a certain category of disobedience or misconduct.

The reasons and objections can go on and on. However, all of them have the same basis:  reinterpretation is appealed to due to the criticism of surrounding population and political pressure.  In the name of higher objectives, intents and wisdom, Muslims are changing the traditional understanding of the speech of Allah.

3. The Appeal to Maqasid Al-Shari’ah

Citing Ibn Al-Qayyim[9]; “Sharī’ah is based on wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife. Sharī’ah is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good. Thus, any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Sharī’ah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation,” one writer says that the correction referred to in verse 4:34 is a previous misinterpretation, and that based on Ibn Al-Qayyim’s statement, one can say that pretty much (and we’re trying to restrict our conclusion as much as a we can) most or the majority of previous scholars got it wrong.  Somehow today in the 21st century, Muslims living amongst non-Muslims, adopting their cultural practices, their speech, fighting over whether it’s acceptable to congratulate them on their holidays or not, got it right.  The fallacy of such a statement is obvious for many reasons to any person who can look beyond someone’s qualifications to what they are actually saying.  I am not criticizing Ibn Al-Qayyim, as we will look at his opinions in a bit; rather I am criticizing how his statement was used.  If something sounds good and seems to be fitting that does not mean that it is actually so. One has to look at whether such a statement is taken out of context or not.  Addressing the issue of the objectives of Sharī’ah, Mufti Taqi Usmani says:

A number of scholars have written books to describe the benefits (masālih) and objectives (maqasid) of the Shari‘ah rulings. Their aim was not to suggest that rulings are exclusively dependent on these objectives and beneficial purposes to the obliviousness of the Shari‘ah pronouncements (nusoos) rather their intention was to mention the beneficial purposes which are found within the pronounced rulings so that it becomes known that the Shari‘ah enjoins no rulings except for some benefit of the people in this world or the hereafter and that these objectives be considered in deciding about the lawful and in the issues for which we find no Shari‘ah injunction (nass ash-shari’i).[10]

The texts and their interpretations, therefore, do not depend on these objectives.  The objectives are derived from the texts and do not contradict the texts.  Maqasid is a science derived from nusus (texts) and it aims at highlighting the benefits and the universal applications of these texts.  Usmani continues:

However, the authority in determining the benefits is Shari‘ah and its injunctions and not mere reason or whims of the people. This is because these objectives, like the protection of life, property and honor, are desirable neither in absolute terms nor in every situation. The truth, rather, is as stated by Al-Shatibi, may Allah have mercy on him, “The benefits and the harms are normally relative and not absolute. The meaning of relative is that the benefits and the harms are different for different situations, persons and times.” Therefore, what defines the benefit or harm is the Shari‘ah (law) given by Allah, hence an apparent benefit that contradicts the injunctions of Shari‘ah is not a benefit in reality. It is rather the product of whimsical desires which the Shari‘ah has come to nullify.[11]

Thus, the invalidation and reinterpretation of a certain text is not valid when forced by the context that one community finds themselves in.  If a community finds itself suffering from an issue, they cannot call for the meaning of a verse to be reformed in order to put a stop to the issue.  They have to deal with the issue at hand – rather than the textual meaning needing reform, it is the minds of Muslims and their approach and usage of the text that needs reform.  Muslims need to be educated on the meaning of responsibility, accountability, piety, fear of Allah, adherence to the Sharī’ah, and the way of Prophet Muhammad.  How can one think that reinterpreting a verse will stop husbands from abusing their wives?  How can one think that changing the meaning of what Allah is saying will stop a drunk, drug-addicted, not-praying, arrogant husband from beating his wife?  It seems that we are blaming this social ill on the Scriptures.  It is like saying that the Quranic verses of war are responsible for suicide bombing.  Suicide bombers are responsible for suicide bombing.  Abusive husbands are responsible for abuse, be they Muslims or not.  Is it the educated, clean, working, praying, masjid-going, Muslims who are perpetrating these abuses?  One needs to look at numbers and identify the segment of society where the problem lies.  It is without a doubt that we have our priorities all mixed up and if the numbers do not prove the case this is a clear indication that Muslims are trying to please someone.

4. Fourteen Centuries of Misinterpretation? 

Another interesting point that really needs attention is that in the attempt to convince the audience, many of the western preachers will try to appeal to scholarly works in order to give their arguments academic credibility.  The author of the addressed article[12] appeals to an opinion held by the student of Ibn Abbas, Ata’ Ibn Abi Rabah saying:

In this study, however, I will show that the real meaning of waḍribūhunna is not literal, but that the imperative is a stand-in for a metonymic expression of anger and display of displeasure. This interpretation, I argue, has basis in the works of the Mufti (judge) of Makkah and the student of Ibn Abbas (interpreter of the Qur’an), Ata’ Ibn Abi Rabah (d. 114 AH), and is, in fact, suggested by the writings of a large number of scholars.

We hope that this was another innocent mistake, however, we have to tackle it to know the truth.

The earliest source for the narration he uses is Qadi Ibn al-Arabi’s Ahkam al-Qur’an:

قال عطاء: لا يضربها وإن أمرها ونهاها فلم تطعه، ولكن يغضب عليها. قال القاضي: هذا من فقه عطاء، فإنه من فهمه بالشريعة ووقوفه على مظان الاجتهاد علم أن الأمر بالضرب هاهنا أمر إباحة، ووقف على الكراهية من طريق أخرى في قول النبي – صلى الله عليه وسلم – في حديث عبد الله بن زمعة: «إني لأكره للرجل يضرب أمته عند غضبه، ولعله أن يضاجعها من يومه

‘Ata said: A man must not hit his wife – if he instructs her and she does not comply; he ought instead [of hitting her] to show her his anger (yaghḍab ‘alayhā). This is from the juristic insight of ‘Aṭā’, his understanding of the Sharī’ah, and his ability of deduction and inference that the instruction regarding beating here merely denotes permissibility. And it has been disliked as reported in another saying of the Prophet (saaw) as in the narration of Abdullah bin Zam’ah: “I dislike for a man to hit his woman in anger for he may sleep with her in the later part of the day.[13]

The following points need to be considered here:

1- There is no chain of narrators back to ‘Ata. This is important, especially if someone wants to use it to change the meanings of all other evidence on the issue.

2- It is only a statement of ‘Ata and cannot stand against hadith. The author’s idea cannot explain the ‘chastise them in a way that leaves no mark’ (dharb ghayr mubarrih) phrase in the hadith of the Farewell Pilgrimage when the Messenger of Allah 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 concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have rights over them, that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like. But if they do that, (in that case) chastise them in a way that leaves no mark (i.e. not severe). Their rights upon you are that you should provide them with food and clothing in a befitting manner.[14]

It is important here to make the point that this statement is reported by Muslim and it refers to the last pilgrimage of Prophet Muhammad, just three months before his death, which refutes the idea that there was a transition in culture from Mecca to Madinah, the former purported to be where the issue of physical reprimands was dealt with.

3- ‘Ata himself reports that his teacher Ibn ‘Abbas told him exactly what the modernists have tried to question;

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.”[15]

4- We have seen from above that many of the greatest scholars held the traditional opinion including Ibn Abbas the famous companion and exegete for whom the Prophet himself prayed.  The author of the article in question mentions that he has other scholars agreeing with him, but he does not mention the names of that “large” number anywhere in the article.

On the other hand, we can go on and mention the opinions of the giants of the past, people whose credibility and qualifications are known to the entire Muslim community. Without a doubt such arguments do not stand against the opinions agreed upon by true scholarship over the centuries.

5. Refuting Presented Arguments

5.1 The Prophet did not Hit His Wives

The first thing that Muslims rush to when trying to address the meaning of 4:34 is the fact that Prophet Muhamad himself never hit a woman in his life.  This is based on the saying of Aisha narrated in an authentic hadith:

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.[16]

We have already stated that Islam does not support abuse and  the beating of women, words whose meanings are reflected from experiences of violence against women in the west. People have to be careful with their words.  The fact that Prophet Muhammad never hit one of his wives does not mean it is not allowed for a husband to do so when the Qur’an has permitted it.  This is a logical fallacy and it does not take someone a great distance to discover that there are many narrations where Prophet Muhammad upheld the permission of correcting one’s wife using a physical reprimand as we will see.  So in plain terms – because he did not do it, it does not mean that it is not allowed.

5.2 Did Prophet Muhammad Allow Husbands to Physically Reprimand Their Wives?

One of the most prominent articles[17] that received endorsement from many preachers in the west claims that Prophet Muhammad never hit his wives and that he chastised the ones who did that.  The author of the article seems to want to say that it is forbidden for a husband to hit his wife in case of disobedience[18] – this is the overall understanding of the article that one gets from reading it. However, the author plays it safe by not saying it explicitly.  One must wonder why!  Without a doubt the author and his qualifications can only lead us to believe that he has extensive knowledge of the narrations of the Prophet as well as his biography which are available for all to read in many different languages.  

The author does not seem to take a clear stance.  He invokes maqasid yet again trying to spin a cobweb of different arguments in order to somehow make the reader reach a specific conclusion which the author is silent about.   He writes:

Ibn ‘Ashur (d. 1392 AH) argues that this verse was “revealed at a time when hitting one’s wife was acceptable in society—particularly amongst the Bedouin.” “Using hitting as a corrective measure”, he claims, “was not viewed as transgressive even by the women of that society.” The placing of stringent conditions on actions which were already common place in a place like early Mecca, and the fact that the verse made it a last resort in fact seems to imply that the Qur’ān’s revelation of this verse was to marginalise dharb as a corrective measure in a marital relationship. Furthermore, he argues, in the event of anger and severe marital discord, remaining within the stringent conditions the scholars have provided would be virtually impossible. And since going beyond such conditions is forbidden, he concludes, this verse was actually revealed to eventually do away with domestic violence. Ibn ‘Āshūr adds: “we [also] say that it is permissible for the authorities, if they know that a husband is  not fit to apply the legislated reprimands properly, that they have the license to punish men who transgress such bounds.[19]

Keeping this section in mind against the other sections of the article leaves one in doubt as to what the author really wants to say – it is clear from the above that Ibn ‘Āshūr held the opinion that the verse in question states exactly what the author is trying to avoid by invoking maqasid.  It is very important to note that Ibn ‘Āshūr upholds the apparent and traditional understanding of the word darb. However he believed the verse was revealed to deal away with domestic violence.  We agree with this. We have already said that Islam does not condone domestic violence. However, we emphasize this point again: it allows a husband to physically reprimand his wife, albeit under strict conditions and with warnings against misuse of the permission.  Let us analyze this vis-a-vis the Prophetic statements and circumstantial evidences as well as against the domestic violence definitions the author of the article uses.

The author writes:

“The UK Government defines domestic violence as:

Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.”

It is no surprise that the author seems to be confused in this article as he uses the wrong measuring stick – the UK Government. Abuse and domestic violence in Islam has a different definition.  It is a much more specific and clear definition, which takes in consideration responsibility, righteousness, situations, accountability in front of  God, chastity, obedience and gender roles (responsibilities of wives and husbands as defined by Allah and His Messenger).

Prophet Muhammad did not do away with the literal injunction of this verse.  There was no shift from Meccan to Madinan understanding.  He upheld this injunction throughout his life.

We will take a look at a few narrations that show that Prophet Muhammad did not allow abuse of women but he allowed husbands to physically reprimand their wives.

عَنْ إِيَاسِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ أَبِي ذُبَابٍ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ” لاَ تَضْرِبُوا إِمَاءَ اللَّهِ ” . فَجَاءَ عُمَرُ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَقَالَ ذَئِرْنَ النِّسَاءُ عَلَى أَزْوَاجِهِنَّ . فَرَخَّصَ فِي ضَرْبِهِنَّ فَأَطَافَ بِآلِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم نِسَاءٌ كَثِيرٌ يَشْكُونَ أَزْوَاجَهُنَّ فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ” لَقَدْ طَافَ بِآلِ مُحَمَّدٍ نِسَاءٌ كَثِيرٌ يَشْكُونَ أَزْوَاجَهُنَّ لَيْسَ أُولَئِكَ بِخِيَارِكُمْ “

 Iyas ibn Abdullah ibn Abu Dhubab reported the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) as saying: Do not beat Allah’s handmaidens, but when Umar came to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and said: Women have become emboldened towards their husbands, he (the Prophet) gave permission to beat them. Then many women came round the family of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) complaining against their husbands. So the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Many women have gone round Muhammad’s family complaining against their husbands. They (the husbands) are not the best among you.[20]

It is clear without a doubt that the Prophet did not allow abuse and he was harsh against people who were beating their wives:

عَنْ مُعَاوِيَةَ الْقُشَيْرِيِّ قَالَ أَتَيْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ فَقُلْتُ مَا تَقُولُ فِي نِسَائِنَا قَالَ  ” أَطْعِمُوهُنَّ مِمَّا تَأْكُلُونَ وَاكْسُوهُنَّ مِمَّا تَكْتَسُونَ وَلاَ تَضْرِبُوهُنَّ وَلاَ تُقَبِّحُوهُنَّ ” .

Narrated Mu’awiyah al-Qushayri: I went to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and asked him: What do you say (command) about our wives? He replied: Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them.[21]

People of the past, or of the present, think that they can just hit a woman due to their fake superiority over them.  Such an arrogant ideology was not allowed back then by Islam and is not allowed today.  The two hadiths do not contradict each other as the latter is general while the former is specific to when a wife is reprimanded for a mistake.  The latter talks about responsibilities and how a man should behave towards his wife, while the former talks about a specific marital issue.  It is important to highlight the last statement in the first hadith: “They are not the best among you.”  The Prophet did not say they are wrong; he did not say they should not do it; he said the words that come from another hadith that enjoins kindness towards women: “The best of you is the one who is best to his wife, and I am the best of you to my wives.”[22]

The Prophet was educating his companions to be the best to their wives even if they were sometimes disobedient.  However, he did not forbid them to reprimand them physically.  As he was the best amongst them and the best to his wives, he did not hit them when they complained and were out of line and he separated from them – almost divorced them all.  He was the best, and if someone follows the same approach they would reach a very high status of being called amongst the best.  At the same time if someone cannot reach that level and they take recourse to the allowance given in verse 4:34 he is not forbidden from it nor is he labeled in a negative way as long as he stays within the allowed limits and has fear of God, sincerity, righteousness and does not do it to abuse and out of evil.

6. Islam Does Not Condone Violence and Abuse Towards Women

21st century societies have to recognize that they have no standard to live by except their own desires.  If they find something to be right they legalize it, while if the majority changes opinion they can ban it.  Such is the reality of democracy.  Something can be good and culturally accepted one day and abolished the next.  Such a civilization can never thrive and can never have a moralistic identity.  So why is it that Muslims fall in the same plate when they have the unchanging, everlasting speech of Allah to guide them?  This is a question that needs a whole different platform to be resolved.

We have seen based on the evidences presented that in reality Islam does allow husbands to correct their wives with a physical reprimand.  This correction is allowed yet not encouraged as per the narrations of Prophet Muhammad.  The wisdom behind this is that some cases of discord and disobedience from the wife require this approach while others require patience and the highest Prophetic standards.  Not everyone can reach those standards and those who cannot are not blamed.  The general rules of kindness, mercy, love, and compassion between spouses are without a doubt absolute and eternal.  However, Islam does not deal only with the generality of things, rather it addresses the specifics and gives solutions.  The specifics as in this case have clear boundaries and crossing them can qualify one for nothing less than hellfire.  Having said that, the husband who is faced with a disobedient wife and applies that injunction, should be a person who himself is obedient to God, fearful of God, loving of God, understanding the Shari’ah and his responsibilities.  He must be a person who provides and fulfils his rights.  We find that most people who abuse their spouses or anyone else are people who do not fall in any of these categories.  The husband is a judge in his home and a judge is responsible for those under him.  We are all shepherds and we are all responsible as the well-known narrations of our beloved Prophet.  No one can take it upon themselves or has the legal right to abuse anyone.  Abuse and oppression are forbidden in Islam and count amongst the greatest of sins:

عن عبد الله بن عمر رضي الله عنهما، عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «الظلم ظلمات يوم القيامة»

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Oppression will be a darkness on the Day of Resurrection.”[23]

The original and continuing meaning of the word darb is to hit.  The verse in question outlines a procedure which involves two previous steps before the actual act.  These steps are not time-bound and they are left at the discretion of the righteous husband.

Surah An-Nisaa Ayah 34

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ 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 overseers over women because Allah has given the one more strength than other, and because men are required to spend their wealth for the maintenance of women. Honorable women are, therefore, devoutly obedient and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah requires them to guard (their husband’s property and their own honor). As to those women from whom you fear disobedience, first admonish them, then refuse to share your bed with them, and then, if necessary, beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further actions against them and do not make excuses to punish them. Allah is Supremely Great and is aware of your actions.

We find that anyone who has an ounce of fairness and intellect would conclude that it is an injustice to blame this verse for the social ills that surround our communities today.  Rather than putting the blame on the effects of pop culture, violent media, sexual misconduct and other issues that we are facing today as Muslims due to our mixing with those who do not consider these things as forbidden or immoral, we put the blame on scholars who lived and died for Islam.  Instead of tackling the issue sincerely so that we can actually resolve it, we try to say that for 14 centuries those who carried the torch of Islam did not understand it properly?  And here we are today finding an interpretation that aims to satisfy those same people who caused this issue in the first place.

The above verses are not a license to abuse women.  The first step outlined is admonishment.  This can take a long time and it requires patience and virtue on behalf of the couple.  Violence is something that takes place out of anger and on the spot.  If a husband were to skip this first step he would be transgressing and disobeying God.  The wife would be able to complain to the judge or the police and he would be reprimanded and dealt with.  The skipping of the first step and the use of violence would constitute abuse.  To add to that, in order to protect the woman and to clarify the issue another step is in place.  This step is more severe.  The husband has to abandon the bed and not have sexual intercourse with his wife.  This is not an easy step on the husband.  It takes self-control, patience and abstinence.  It shows strength, determination and clarity of action on behalf of the husband.  There is an issue and the wife is insisting on disobedience.  This is how the word nushuz is understood.  The stubborn insistence of a wife on disobedience to her husband or rebellion or other things that have been outlined anywhere from refusing to sleep with him to the conduct unbecoming of a truly chaste woman. The parting of the bed does not last for merely an hour or a day but should be for a time period that is a clear indication to the wife that the husband is not pleased with her behavior.  That close bond between a husband and a wife is broken.  Skipping this step and applying the physical reprimand would qualify the case as abuse and a sin and would be dealt with by the court as well as the court of God on the Day of Judgment.  In case that the two steps did not work, the husband is allowed to correct his wife (with fear of God and sincerity, and not for his own arrogance and ego) in a way that does not leave a mark and in a way that is not severe, as we have shown from the Prophetic traditions and scholarly commentaries.

6.1 The Story of Prophet Job (Peace Be Upon Him) And His Wife

The Quran gives us an inspirational story of mercy and clemency in Job and his wife.  Prophet Job was afflicted by a great test and became very sick.  He lost his wealth and family and everyone shunned him except his wife who was a great servant of Allah.  She patiently stood by his side day and night serving him and helping him.  One day Prophet Job got angry at her and took an oath that he will hit her one hundred times.  This was an oath he took in anger and something that Allah did not allow as his wife did not do anything wrong to deserve such a harsh treatment.  Rather she was a perfect example of a wife that any man would want to have.  However, Job took an oath and an oath is binding. Allah gave him the solution by telling him to take one hundred stems of grass and hit her once which is equal to a tickle.

وَخُذْ بِيَدِكَ ضِغْثًا فَاضْرِبْ بِهِ وَلَا تَحْنَثْ إِنَّا وَجَدْنَاهُ صَابِرًا نِعْمَ الْعَبْدُ إِنَّهُ أَوَّابٌ

[We said], “And take in your hand a bunch [of grass] and strike (fadhrib) with it and do not break your oath.” Indeed, We found him patient, an excellent servant. Indeed, he was one repeatedly turning back [to Allah ].[24]

Ibn Kathir and other commentators give the story: Ayyub, peace be upon him, got angry with his wife and was upset about something she had done, so he swore an oath that if Allah healed him, he would strike her with one hundred blows. When Allah healed him, how could her service, mercy, compassion and kindness be requited with a beating So Allah showed him a way out, which was to take a bundle of thin grass, with one hundred stems, and hit her with it once. Thus he fulfilled his oath and avoided breaking his vow. This was the solution and a way out for one who had taqwa of Allah and turned to Him in repentance.[25]

What is important to take from this story is the fact that Allah did not chastise Job for taking the oath. Rather He did not allow him to hit his wife as this was not justified since she had done nothing wrong.  A few points to bear in mind:

  • Job is a Prophet and he is of the opinion that his wife did something wrong and he takes an oath to hit her.
  • The word “fadhrib” means to hit, and Allah is telling him to fulfill the oath by taking the 100 blades of grass and strike her once which is like being tickled
  • Allah did not condemn Job saying that hitting is not allowed, rather He stopped him from carrying a punishment that was not justified as she did nothing wrong and only served him.  She was an exemplary woman and Allah will never allow someone like that to be hit or punished.
  • Allah stopped Job due to the fact that Job’s oath was in anger and frustration, kind of like what happens when ABUSE (what we are all against) is committed. This is what Islam does not allow and that is why the respective steps are taken in 4:34 to ensure that the correction is not a haphazard irrational action which leads to hurting someone.

7. Conclusion

The Muslim community is at a juncture.  Our identity, our future, the future of our children are all in question.  Will we succumb to pressure or will we triumph and rise above the blame of the blamers?  Will we change the meanings of the Quran like the Jews and the Christians did to their books (even though unlike previous scriptures the Qur’anic text will never be changed as it is protected by Allah Himself)?  I am optimistic that there will always be those who do not care about the blame of the blamers.  They will continue to uphold the Prophetic way and will defend the words of God and their meanings.  I am optimistic that Muslims are ready to accept the words of Allah and His messenger over the words and opinions of human beings.  I am optimistic that Muslims have opened their eyes enough to realize that no matter how much they compromise they will never be able to please those who criticise them.

وَلَنْ تَرْضَىٰ عَنْكَ الْيَهُودُ وَلَا النَّصَارَىٰ حَتَّىٰ تَتَّبِعَ مِلَّتَهُمْ ۗ قُلْ إِنَّ هُدَى اللَّهِ هُوَ الْهُدَىٰ ۗ وَلَئِنِ اتَّبَعْتَ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ بَعْدَ الَّذِي جَاءَكَ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ ۙ مَا لَكَ مِنَ اللَّهِ مِنْ وَلِيٍّ وَلَا نَصِيرٍ

The Jews and the Christians will never be pleased with you, until you follow their faith. O Muhammad, tell them: “Allah’s guidance is the only guidance;” and if after all the knowledge you have received, you yield to their desires, there shall be none to protect you or help you from the wrath of Allah.[26]

.

References and Notes:


[1] No one should bring up the argument of advising in private due to the fact that the ones who have penned these materials and supported them have done so publicly and have confused the masses.  At the same time, we are not naming anyone and we are not directly attacking anyone. We mean to follow the highest standards of academic respect.

[2] Higher intents and objectives of the Shari’ah.

[3] May The Peace And Blessings of Allah be Upon Him – we will not type the benediction every time his name occurs but we encourage everyone to say it when reading his name.

[4] Bacik, Gokhan. “Islam and the Muslim World: The Need for Reform.” Today’s Zaman. N.p. 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

[5] Hale, Amy. “Can We Change Ourselves Simply by Changing Location?Psychology Today. N.p. 8 Feb. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

[6] Quran 5:54

[7] Hasan, Abdullah, “The End to Hitting Women: Islamic Perspective on Domestic ViolenceMuslimMatters.org. N.p. 21 Dec. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

[8] For a detailed treatment of the verse as traditionally understood see, Cheema, Waqar Akbar, “Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating? Traditional Understanding of Qur’an 4:34

[9] Ibid.

[10] Usmani, Muhammad Taqi. “Maqasid Ash-Shari’ah Theory: Between Use & Misuse

.” A translation of the arabic original found in Usmani, Muhammad Taqi, Usool al-Ifta wa Adabuhu, (Karachi: Quranic Studies Publishers, 2011) 245-248

[11] Ibid.

[13] Al-Ashbili, Ibn al-‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003) Vol.1, 536

[14] Muslim bin Hajjaj, as-Sahih, (Trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab. Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 2950 (147-1218)

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

[16] Muslim bin Hajjaj, as-Sahih, Hadith 6050 (79-2328)

[18] We will discuss this term later.

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

[21] ibid., Hadith 2144; classified as sahih by al-Albani

[22] Al-Qazwini, Ibn Majah, as-Sunan, Trans. Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 1977; classified as sahih by al-Albani

[23] Al-Bukhari, Muhammad bin Isma’il, as-Sahih, Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 1997) Hadith 2447

[24] Qur’an 38:44

[25] Ibn Kathir, Abu al-Fida, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim,  (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 1998) Vol.7, 66

[26] Qur’an 2:120

Published : March 22, 2015

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