On Hitting Wives

Love and Mercy in Arabic

Among the many stereotypes about Islam is that it is oppressive towards women and that it is a rigid and unchanging faith. Often the hijab and covering in general are mentioned  as examples of this oppressiveness. Another example that is used to demonstrate the faith’s attitude towards women is verse 34 in chapter 4 of the Qur’an:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all). (34)

For many, this verse permits men to hit their wives. While it is true one cannot dismiss this verse and must address the issues that it raises, it is equally important to recognize that throughout the history of Islam, discussion, dialogue, and diversity of opinion and interpretation have all be been prominent features of the worldwide Muslim community. This verse, specifically, has sparked and continues to generate discussions in regards to how men should treat women.

While scholars do do not differ in their consideration that the Qur’an is the word of God, thus they will not say the verse is wrong, they do differ quite a bit on when and how this verse should be employed. Many scholars will argue that while it is permissible, the practice is abhorred and should only be used when all other means of recourse have been exhausted. Often when this verse is discussed, the scholar will mention various traditions of the Prophet Muhammad that indicate that he never engaged in this practice and that he considered someone  to be of a higher moral standing if they refrain from resorting to it. Some examples from the traditions:

“Do not beat the female servants of Allah”

“Some (women) visited my family complaining about their husbands (beating them). These (husbands) are not the best of you.”

In another hadith, the Prophet is reported to have said: “How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then he may embrace (sleep with) her?”

It is clear from these sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that hitting, while permitted in limited circumstances, is strongly discouraged.

Moreover, scholars will underscore the “rules” for hitting that it cannot cause injury, leave any scar, be accompanied with cursing, and should only be used in a very serious breach. Also, it is forbidden to hit the face. They will usually say if a man resorts to hitting it should be done with a siwak, the equivalent of a toothbrush, being more symbolic. 

The disagreements occur over what kind of behavior warrants this punishment. Some translate the Arabic term nushuz to simply mean ill-conduct, which leaves the door open to many interpretations. One religious figure, who appears in a video on YouTube, argues that the only time this can be employed is when a wife consistently refuses her husband. While he limits it to only one situation, on one level a relief, he frames the whole discussion by saying hitting honors women, which is extremely problematic and contributes to some of the negative sentiments around the faith towards women. The Prophet’s sayings about the practice and his example clearly counter this argument.

Others, like Khaled Abou El Fadl in his book Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam, maintain that the term means sexual lewdness and that the indiscretion must be proved in court before any action can be taken. 

If one looks at the overall message in the Qur’an about the relationship between men and women, specifically husband and wife, it is clear that it is supposed to be built on respect, kindness, understanding, and love:

And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts); verily in that are Signs for those who reflect. (Qur’an 30:21)

 This is the norm and the morally superior position. Moreover, most scholars agree that abuse where there is clear physical harm is a transgression and violates the laws of God, and thus is punishable as cruelty towards women is unacceptable.

What the disagreements about this verse demonstrate is that Islam is far from static; rather, discussion and diversity of interpretation have been and continue to be a part of the faith. 

Do similar discussions happen in other faith communities? Do you think this verse sanctions abuse?  Do you think this verse explains domestic violence in Muslim communities? Do other scriptures have similar verses? Please share your comments below.

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