On Beating One’s Wife
By Sr. Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
Surah 4.34 is probably the most controversial verse in the Qur’an, because it appears at first sight to give Muslim men permission to beat their wives. It has not only been seized on by non-Muslims to ‘prove’ that Islam is a cruel and abusive faith, but also taken by abusive ‘Muslim’ husbands as an excuse to vent their spleen on their unfortunate wives. This is not a fair criticism at all, as will be explained.
The following is a typical translation of the verse:
4:34. ‘Men are in charge of (or overseers of - qawwamuna) women, as Allah has given them more (strength) than the other (sometimes translated as made them superior to the other), and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). Therefore women who are virtuous are obedient to God, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As for those women on whose part you fear rebellion (nushuz), admonish them and banish them to beds apart, (and last) beat (adribu) them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. For God is Most High, Great (above you all).
According to one tradition, (I apologise that I have not got the reference) when this verse was revealed the Prophet (pbuh) understood it as giving permission for men to beat their wives, and was actually sad. He was reported to have said: ‘I wanted one thing, but Allah willed another, and what Allah wills must be best.’ (Reported in Muhammad Abduh’s paper al-Manar 5.74).
In view of the fact that most Muslims would find it incredible that the Prophet (pbuh) would have wanted anything that Allah had not wanted for him and for others, it is vital to examine closely the meanings of three key words – qawwamuna, nushuz and adribu.
Although qawwamuna has been interpreted by some people to imply that women should occupy an inferior position in Islam, this is not the intention at all. Some translators of the Qur’an have used the word ‘guardian’, as if suggesting women were indeed inferior, but this is not the chief implication of the word qawwam. Rather than a domineering boss or master, it implies ‘one who stands firm in the business of others, protects their interests, and looks after their affairs’. The same word is used elsewhere in the Qur’an, as later in the same Surah, 4.135: ‘O you who believe, stand out firmly (qawwamina) for justice as witnesses to Allah…..’
Qawwamuna comes from the root qawwam, the intensive form of qa’im – ‘one who is responsible for’ or ‘one who takes care of’ a thing or a person. Qawwam can be used to mean keeper, custodian, guardian, to be in charge of, manage, run, tend, guard, keep up, preserve, take care of, attend to, watch over, look after, direct, superintend, but it also means maintainer, caretaker, provider, and supporter. It carries the sense of stewardship over an environment as opposed to exploitation. Muhammad Asad’s commentary on the verse points out that the phrase qama’ala ’l-ma’rah signifies ‘he undertook the maintenance of the woman’ or ‘he maintained her’. He also pointed out that the word qawwam combines the concepts of moral responsibility as well as physical maintenance and protection, and that was why he chose the words ‘full responsibility’ in his translation. It is the husband’s responsibility to treat his wife well, to be kind, caring and just – not as a domineering dictator, but in a marital partnership.
So the true Islamic sense of the word is to protect and support - Muslim men are not expected to dominate, abuse or exploit, but to take care of their women, and this duty and responsibility of a husband is something that Muslim women are urged to accept.
Muhammad Asad’s far better translation of this verse reads: ‘Men shall take full care of women, with the bounties which God has bestowed on them more abundantly than upon the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. The righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has ordained to be guarded. As for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear (on whose part you fear nushuz – disloyalty, rebellion, ill-conduct), talk to them persuasively, then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) then (adribu) them (ie. either separate from them, or resume sleeping with them when they are willing and seek peace); and if they return to obedience, do not seek an excuse for blaming them: For God is Most High, Great (above you all).
Why should men protect and support women? If all things were equal, I suppose there would be no particular reason why they should. However, the reason for the ruling at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) was basically because men had the greater ability to earn income, and women without providers and supporters could expect a very tough time indeed. Things may be changing now in some societies, but situations that favour male income and employment are still the norm in most regions of the world. At the time the Qur’an was revealed, that was most certainly the case for the vast majority.
However, the Qur’an was not intended just for those times, but for all people, in all times. This is why scholars who believe in a modernistic approach to the teachings of Allah always look to the spirit and principles taught; it could easily be argued that in this day and age the women are often the breadwinners while many men are unemployed. As situations change, so one has to look into the spirit and meaning of the Qur’anic text to see Allah’s intention. The intention (niyyah) of a ruling should always take precedence over the letter of the law.
Most surely, in this case, it was not that women were inferior and had to be guarded or dominated, but that women should be given full support and assistance, and should be able to rely on a man to look after them. The women had virtually no access to birth control, and so were unable to do much more than child-rearing for a large part of their married lives. Men do not suffer the physical problems involved with menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, with all the hormonal upheavals that go along with these things.
It does not mean that a woman should not go out to work, or earn her own money, or help to support her family - but that in a Muslim marriage, she should not be obliged to do so. It is the husband’s duty to provide, and the wife’s to provide the comfort and safe haven of a loving home. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah had already produced at least four children before she married him, and ran a successful trading business. She was the Prophet’s employer before she became his wife. She then went on to have six children by him, when she was over forty. Of the Prophet’s later wives, it is known that Zaynab bint Jahsh earned her own income in the leather trade, and Umm Salamah and Safiyyah also earned their own incomes).
In Islam, however, the man is supposed to be the head of the household, and the wife is supposed to be his partner and helper, and best friend. She is there to be consulted and confided in, but at the end of the day, the husband is supposed to be the one who makes the final decisions and expects to have his will respected.
It is therefore vitally important that a woman should always take care to marry a man that she does respect, and whose wishes she can carry out with easy conscience. If her husband is unreasonable, or selfish, or abusive, she will never be content. This is a good reason why marriages should be arranged with care, and perhaps without the seducing atmosphere of emotional love. It is important in the marriage not to just love, but to like the chosen partner. If a woman does not respect her husband, perhaps because he is inferior mentally or morally, how can she obey him?
Her husband is not her master; a Muslim woman has only one Master, and that is Allah. If a man expects his wife to do anything contrary to the will of her true Master, that is Allah - in other words, any nasty, selfish, dishonest or cruel action, etc - she has the right to refuse him. So long as her husband represents Allah’s will in the home, well and good. If he does not, how can she obey?
A good wife can always be trusted. While her husband is there with her, she should strive to be cheerful and encouraging towards him; when he is absent, she should take care of his household, his property and his reputation - by guarding her own virtue. If she has accepted a position sheltered by him, she should for her part justify that position by the way she lives and loves.
Some translations use the word ‘rebellion’ in order to translate nushuz. This implies the power and authority of the husband, and suggests that when a wife rebels against her ‘lord and master’ it is sinful action on her part.
It is important to realize that the very same word, nushuz, is used later in the very same surah in regard to the behaviour of the husband, and here we may observe that the word is usually translated as ill-treatment rather than rebellion. Very interesting…..
‘If a wife fears ill-treatment (nushuz) or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves, and such settlement is best…..’ (Surah 4.128).
In fact, ‘ill-treatment’ is a far better translation; the word nushuz has a large number of possible meanings, including animosity, hostility, ill-will, ill-treatment, discord, every kind of deliberate bad behaviour of a wife towards a husband (or vice versa) including what is today called ‘mental cruelty’, and also the deliberate, persistent breach of marital duties (ie. refusing physical intimacy) on the part of either husband or wife.
In the context of Surah 4.34 the most appropriate meaning would seem to be that of marital discord, in this case a wife’s ill-will which implies a deliberate and persistent breach of her marital obligations. If a husband finds that his wife has become disloyal to him, and is conducting herself to his shame, then it is not right for him to just ignore this, but it is his duty to do something about it.
With luck, it may be enough to communicate. Communication is everything in a relationship, especially in a marriage. However, the text implies that things have gone far beyond this point.
If the wife takes no notice of discussion and counselling, then the relationship is really starting to break down. A husband might then begin the process of separation by no longer sleeping with her. Shifting to separate beds is usually such a serious step in a marriage that it clarifies the mind, and the couple are brought to the stage of talking things through seriously in order to reach some agreement.
In Islam, if there have been no sexual relations between a couple for a period of four months, without agreed abstinence on both sides, then this would be considered grounds for divorce.
Adribu (Arabic root – daraba)
The word translated as slap/hit/beat derives from the Arabic root daraba. In fact, daraba can be translated in over a hundred different ways, including to separate, to part, to set out (on the road), to shroud (in darkness), to mint (a coin), to publish (a book), to cover (as in ladies’ dress), to dispatch, to throw, to raise, and many more - and translators of the Qur’an and commentators on it have always had trouble with this word.
The notion that daraba means ‘to strike’ in 4.34 is really founded upon two debatable grounds – that the hadiths Abu Dawud 2141 and Mishkat al-Masabih 0276 used it in this way, and that it was the prejudice and environment of the early commentators on the Qur’an that led them to assume that the meaning ‘to strike’ was the most likely of all the possible interpretations.
As it happens, words derived from this same root occur no less than 58 times in the Qur’an, and are used in different contexts in ways that can be ambiguous and open to widely different translations into English. In none of these other places is it used or translated in the sense of to hit, strike or beat.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the use of the word to mean ‘to have sexual intercourse’. The Lisan al-Arab quotes the phrase ‘darab al-fahl an-naqah’ – ‘the stud camel covered the she-camel’.
In the context of Surah 4.34, I feel we are faced with a choice of three main possibilities; the first is that it did give the husband the right to hit his wife; secondly, the most appropriate meaning of the word would surely be ‘to separate’ or ‘to part’ – in which case the entire notion of a man having rights to beat his wife becomes irrelevant. The third most appropriate meaning would be ‘to return to normal life’ which in this context would certainly imply the meaning of ‘to return to having normal sexual relations’.
If a husband had descended to the level of beating his wife, the divorce proceeding would most probably become inevitable, and any possibility of a process of reconciliation (as outlined in Surah 4.35, the next verse) wiped out.
Allah commanded Muslims to refrain from aggression, except in self-defence.
Those things which are either obligatory or forbidden (haram) for all Muslims are stated clearly in the Qur’an. Obviously, if there had been a text directly forbidding a husband from beating his wife, then there would be no further problem – but sadly, there is no verse stating that. Therefore we must look for the true spirit of Islam in the general texts concerning the relationships between man and wife, and also angry males and other people.
Husbands and wives who are believers are not expected to try to hurt each other, or abuse each other.
Surah 9.71: ‘As for believers, both men and women, they are (to be) friends and protectors of one another, encouraging the doing of what is right and preventing the doing of what is wrong; they are constant in prayer, and pay the zakah on their wealth, and pay heed to Allah and His Messenger.’
Surah 30.21: ‘Among His wonders is this – that He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might be attracted towards them, and then He instills love and tenderness between you; in this there are messages indeed for those capable of thought.’
It is not just the husband who has rights, but both husband and wife.
Surah 4.1: ‘O humanity! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you from one single living entity (nafs – soul), and out of it created its mate, and from the two shall spread a multitude of males and females. Remain conscious of God, in whose name you expect your rights from one another, and the ties of kindship.’
All Muslims are expected to keep their tempers in check and control themselves, although self-defence was allowed.
Surah 4.77: ‘Are you not aware of those who have been told, ‘Curb your hands’…..’
Surah 3.134: ‘Hold in check your anger……….’
Surah 42.41-42: ‘If any help or defend themselves (ie act in self-defence) after some wrong done to them, they are not held to blame for that. The blame lies only with those who oppress in wrongdoing, and insolently transgress beyond bounds, defying right and justice; there will be a serious penalty for them.’ This verse seems perfectly applicable to the case of a wife trying to defend herself from an abusive spouse; if the abuser ‘got away with it’ in this lifetime, he would most certainly face the judgement of Allah in the next.
Surah 4.128 we have already seen: ‘If a woman has reason to fear ill-treatment from her husband, or that he might turn away from her, it shall not be wrong for the two of them to set things peacefully to rights between themselves (ie. by agreeing to divorce), for peace is best, and selfishness is ever-present in human souls……’
Here it may surely be seen clearly that if a husband behaves in such a way as his wife fears he might hurt or abandon her, she has the right to seek divorce from him. Spouses need to live in peace, whether by reconciliation with each other, or by separating and divorcing.
The Prophet’s (pbuh) sunnah and teaching
The question of wife-beating is one topic in which the sunnah of the Prophet is absolutely vital in making meanings clear - the Prophet insisted that a man should never beat a woman, and most certainly never hit her about the face or head.
Abu Dawud 877 gives a clear command. Mu'awiyah asked: ‘Apostle of Allah, what is the right of the wife of one of us over him?’ He replied: ‘That you should give her food when you eat, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not strike her on the face, do not revile her or separate yourself from her except in the house.’ (See also Abu Dawud 878,879).
One of the Prophet’s (pbuh) clearest statements, widely recorded, was that: ‘No Muslim man should ever hit one of Allah’s handmaidens’ (Abu Dawud 880, An-Nisai, Ibn Majah, Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hibban, Hakim, - on the authority of Iyas b. Abdullah; Ibn Hibban on the authority of Ibn Abbas; and Bayhaqi on the authority of Umm Kulthum).
Aishah recorded how one woman had really been beaten savagely. ‘How can you beat your wife as if she was a slave, and then embrace her without feeling shame at your action?’ the Prophet (pbuh) cried. ‘Those men who behave like this are hardly the best among you.’
A man could hardly expect to hit his wife and then expect her to calmly share his bed later that night (recorded in Bukhari and Muslim).
Umar knew the Prophet’s (pbuh) statement that men should never strike the ‘handmaidens of Allah’, and asked directly if they were really forbidden from doing so, for he felt that their womenfolk were becoming spoiled to the extent of arguing and becoming ‘insolent’. The Prophet (pbuh) apparently commented that he had not been given the command that would have prevented them from hitting their wives. Surely, if he had understood that Allah had granted Muslim men encouragement to beat wives who were rebellious, then he would have said so clearly and given the quotation. Nevertheless, Umar apparently went off satisfied that he did have the right to do so. He recorded that the Prophet (pbuh) had told him that a husband would not face questions at Allah’s Judgement as to why he beat his wife (Abu Dawud 881).
However, this was not the end of the episode. The upshot was that the following morning the Prophet (pbuh) was confronted by no less than 70 female Companions who had organized themselves into a deputation and turned up outside his house, all of whom had been ill-treated by their supposedly pious husbands. (Abu Dawud 880. See also ‘Women of Madina’, Aisha Bewley’s translation of Ibn Sa’d vol 8, p.144, recorded by Abu Bakr’s daughter Umm Kulthum). The Prophet (pbuh) was so outraged on the women’s behalf that he came out and summoned the Companions to hear a public sermon telling of the many women who had informed his family of the behaviour of their husbands, berating the men who had behaved thus, shaming them. ‘They are hardly the best of you!’ he cried. (Abu Dawud 880). ‘I cannot bear the thought of a man with the veins of his neck swelling with anger against his wife, fighting her!’ he said.
Aishah recorded his statement to encourage the men to be gentler: ‘Among the believers who show most perfect faith are those who have the best disposition, and are kindest to their families.’ (Tirmidhi 961, Abu Dawud 880).
Devout Muslim men took the Prophet’s (pbuh) words and orders very seriously. They felt the urge to be ‘the best of men’, in that they followed his teachings as closely as they possibly could.
Many a Companion then did feel ashamed and took his words to heart, and learned to behave with more gentleness.
Aishah was crystal clear: ‘The Prophet (pbuh) never abused or spoke ill of anybody,’ she said. ‘He forgave faults and refrained from retaliation. He never thought of taking personal revenge, forgave non-believers promptly on their conversion to Islam, never fought on personal grounds, took an interest in his household affairs, condemned vendettas and blood-feuds, and never beat anyone – not even a slave.’ (Ibn Sa’d 1.430, 502).
Aishah also recorded a conversation concerning a man who had beaten his slaves. ‘Messenger of Allah,’ the man told him. ‘I have slaves who lie to me, deceive me and disobey me, so I shout abuse at them and beat them. How do I stand with respect to them?’ ‘On the Day of Resurrection,’ the Prophet replied, ‘account will be taken of the extent of their deceit, disobedience and lying towards you, and of the punishment you administered to them. If your punishment was in accordance with their offences, its being exactly right will count neither for you nor against you. If your punishment was less than their offence deserved, it will be something extra to your credit. However, if your punishment was greater than their offences deserved, then requital will be taken from you on their behalf for the excess.’ Then the man began to weep, so the Prophet asked him if he did not know the words of Allah Most High: ‘We shall place the just scales for the Day of Resurrection and no soul shall be wronged in any least respect; and even if there is only the weight of a grain of mustard-seed We shall bring it, and We are fully able to take account.’ (Surah 21.47). The result of this was that the man freed his slaves. (Tirmidhi 1464).
If such was the requirement of a man towards his slaves, and the justice of Allah towards ill-treated slaves, then we can be sure that the same standards most certainly applied regarding a man’s treatment of his wife, and Allah’s justice for a wronged wife!
The Prophet (pbuh) expected spouses to cherish each other while they had the chance, during their relationship upon this earth. They needed to remember that they would not have each other forever. Our earthly or physical marriages are only part of the experience of this physical world. People are souls, and have come from the realm of the Unknown (al-Ghayb), and will return to the realm of the Unknown. Their eternal relationships may bear no resemblance at all to their earthly ones. Allah knows best. (The Qur’an speaks of huris (beautiful and pure companions of either sex – not to be debased by the ignorant thought that they will be sexual concubines or playthings offered as rewards for the amusement of Muslim men!)
‘No woman annoys her husband (or vice versa) in this world without his Paradise-companions (the huris) saying: ‘You should not annoy him, Allah curse you! He is only a temporary guest with you, and is soon to leave you to come back to us!’ (Tirmidhi 960).
There is no suggestion in Qur’an or hadiths that a man should ever hit his wife out of anger, frustration, irritation, annoyance or disappointment, or just as the result of losing his temper. All those things are totally unIslamic, and the man would be ultimately held to account for them if he did them, at the Day of Judgement. If a Muslim man foolishly uses the text of Surah 4.34 to grant himself the right to beat his wife, he has completely misunderstood the principles of Islam, in which one Muslim should never seek to hurt another, especially not his closest neighbour and friend, his wife.
In his famous Farewell Sermon, the Prophet referred to this issue again. Amr b. al-Ahwas recorded the relevant phrases, which seem to refer back to Surah 4.34: 'Listen! Treat women kindly; they are like prisoners in your hands. Beyond this you do not owe anything from them. Should they be guilty of flagrant misbehaviour, you may remove them from your beds, and beat them but do not inflict upon them any severe punishment. (As for the use of the word ‘beat’ in this hadith, the same commentary that has already been suggested for Surah 4.34 similarly applies). Then if they obey you, do not have recourse to anything else against them. Listen! You have your rights upon your wives and they have their rights upon you. Your right is that they shall not allow anyone you dislike, to trample your bed and do not permit those whom you dislike to enter your home. Their right is that you should treat them well in the matter of food and clothing.’ (Tirmidhi 104). The hadith is recorded in Abu Dawud, Muslim, Tirmidhi, an-Nasai and Ibn Majah. All authorities are unanimous that if anh husband meted out any physical punishment to his wife, it should only be considered if the wife was guilty of obvious and blatant immoral conduct, and that if any such action took place, it should not involve any violence or hurt but just be symbolic, such as striking with a handkerchief or toothstick.
Once the man and wife are in harmony again, no more continued ill-feeling should continue. No nagging, or continually bringing matters up again and again.
The Process of Support
Returning to Surah 4.34, the next verse gives the excellent advice that if the relationship really looks like breaking up, then both spouses should call in the help of two supporters, one for each side in the dispute, and listen to everything that needs saying with witnesses who can help calm things down.
4:35. If ye fear a breach between them (ie. the man and his wife), appoint (two) arbiters, one from his family, and the other from hers; If they wish for peace (desire reconciliation), then God will cause their reconciliation (make them of one mind): for God has full knowledge, and is acquainted With all things.’
So therefore I conclude that the verses of Surah 4.34-35 suggest that when a wife has seriously jeopardised her marriage by her ill-will, the husband should reason with her, then abstain from sexual intimacy with her, and if that fails, separate from her. Two arbiters should then be called in to present the case of both sides, and do their best to reconcile them. If the marriage is not ‘dead in the water’, Allah will help to bring about their reconciliation.
This is the normal procedure expected in Islamic divorce law; although practice varies around the Islamic world, basically after the first notice of divorce has been given, the spouses should live under the same roof without sexual intimacy for their first month of iddah (waiting period). If they reconcile and resume their marriage, well and good. No new legal ceremony or document is necessary.
It is hardly the case that a man on the verge of final separation from his wife is suddenly granted the right to beat her, as if this would somehow heal the breach!! A few verses earlier, the Qur’an states:
Surah 4.19: ‘It is not lawful for you to try to hold your wives against their will, and neither shall you keep them under constraint with a view to taking away anything of what you may have given them (ie. their marital mahr payment) unless it be that they have become guilty of immoral conduct in an obvious manner. Consort with your wives in a goodly manner; for if you dislike them, it may well be that you dislike something which Allah might yet make a source of abundant good.’
If they do not reconcile, the second notice of divorce is given, and another month must pass by under the same conditions. Again, if they reconcile and resume their marriage, well and good. If the third month passes and there is still no reconciliation, then the divorce can go to the judge and become final, and they may not then resume sexual intimacy without renewed contracts.
Mat Allah bless us all, and grant us to work hard to make ours the happiest of marriages.
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