Wife Beating in Islamic Law
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Wife-beating is instructed by the Qur'an and the Hadiths, and has been an accepted part of Islam law since its inception. Quran 4:34 states that men are maintainers of women and tells husbands that in certain circumstances they should, among other things, "beat them". Although hadiths narrate that Muhammad did not himself beat women and told men not to beat their wives too harshly, at the same time he provided tacit approval of wife beating, mildly referring to husbands who beat their wives as "not the best among you", reportedly forbade Muslims from questioning men who beat their wives, allowed his closest companions to slap his wives (known as "the Mothers of believers"), reaffirmed the command of wife-beating in his farewell sermon, and himself struck one of his wives in the chest. In addition to Muhammad's actions, three of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs are also reported to have beaten women (a recurring pattern especially in the case of 'Umar). Because of its many endorsements within Islamic scripture, wife-beating was permitted by Islamic jurisprudence and understood as a means of enforcing obedience to husbands, albeit with limitations which are unlikely to be adhered to in a domestic setting. This has led to domestic violence being permitted under law in a number of Muslim majority countries or being largely ignored by the authorities, while reformist scholars reduce the Quranic command to a symbolic gesture (a tap with a small stick) or attempt other interpretations.
Islamic scriptures and wife-beating
Wife-beating in the Qur'an
(4:34) 'Beat them'
Quran 4:34 Instructs men to beat their wives if they fear nushūzahunna, a word commonly understood to mean "their disobedience" or "their rebellion", though the exact meaning of the word is unclear (see Quran 4:128, which gives instructions to women who fear nushūzan from their husbands). The word 'beat' in the Arabic is daraba. Although a small number of modern Islamic scholars, apologists, and activists have argued that the word daraba in the verse does not mean 'beat', the overwhelming majority stand with the Islamic tradition and the unimpeachable linguistic case that is made in agreeing that 'beating' is what the verse instructs. No Arabic dictionary or serious scholar has dissented from this consensus.
Relied-upon Islamic translations of the verse present the word as having this meaning.
Yusuf Ali translation: 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).
Pickthall translation: Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.
Shakir translation: Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. )
Quran 4:34 commands wife-beating for misconduct as well as the husband's 'fear' of such behavior. The verse provides two other disciplinary methods and implies (but does not state explicitly) that if these do not work then the husband ought to beat his wife. The verse also states that men have authority over women, and that women are to be obedient for this reason, thus establishing an authoritarian structure with the husband as head of the wife. The reason given for this is that Allah created men superior to women in some respects and because men are maintainers of women.
Transliteration: Alrrijalu qawwamoona AAala alnnisai bima faddala Allahu baAAdahum AAala baAAdin wabima anfaqoo min amwalihim faalssalihatu qanitatun hafithatun lilghaybi bima hafitha Allahu waallatee takhafoona nushoozahunna faAAithoohunna waohjuroohunna fee almadajiAAi waidriboohunna fain ataAAnakum fala tabghoo AAalayhinna sabeelan inna Allaha kana AAaliyyan kabeeranWord-by-word: ٱلرِّجَالُ (ar-rijaalu, 'men') قَوَّٰمُونَ (qawwaamoona, 'maintainers') عَلَى (ala, 'over') ٱلنِّسَآءِ (al-nisaa, 'women') [...] فَعِظُوهُنَّ (fa, 'then'; ithoo, 'admonish'; hunna, 'them') وَٱهْجُرُوهُنَّ (wa, 'and'; hjuroo, 'forsake'; hunna, 'them') فِى (fi, 'in') ٱلْمَضَاجِعِ (al-madaji'i, 'beds') وَٱضْرِبُوهُنَّ (wa, 'and'; driboo, 'beat'; hunna, 'them') فَإِنْ (fa, 'then'; in, 'if') أَطَعْنَكُمْ (ata'na, 'they obey'; kum, 'you') [...]
The root of the word وَٱضْرِبُوهُنَّ (wa-driboo-hunna) is ضرب (d-r-b). The letter ٱ (alif waslah) is not pronounced here, but if the word lacked the و (-wa, meaning 'and') prefix and was at the beginning of a passage, it would be read as i, making the word idriboohunna (ٱضْرِبُوهُنَّ). Many other verses in the Quran employ verbiage derived from the same root, such as Quran 2:60, which reads '...strike (ٱضْرِب, drib) the rock with your staff...', Quran 2:73, which reads '"...strike it (ٱضْرِبُوهُ, driboo-hu) with a part of the cow...", and Quran 8:12, which reads '...so strike (فَٱضْرِبُوا۟, fa-driboo) on their necks...'. Other examples are also present. See The Meaning of Daraba.
The word "lightly" does not appear in the original Arabic version, but is added in some translations.
Professor Jonathan Brown says that Quran commentaries from the 9th century include a narration about the occasion of revelation of Q 4:34, with a chain considered too weak for the canonical hadith collections. In the various versions of this story, a man complains to Muhammad about his son-in-law beating his wife, the man's daughter. Muhammad grants him permission for reprisal, whereupon the verse is immediately sent down. It ends with Muhammad saying, "I wanted one thing and God wanted another. And God wants what is best." See the section on Azbab an-Nazuul in the article Wife Beating in the Qur'an for quotes from the sira literature of this narration. A hadith collected by Abu Dawud (see below) in which 'Umar influenced Muhammad to permit wife beating, may suggest an alternative background to the verse.
(38:44) Job beats his wife
Classical tafsirs such as Ibn Kathir's give the story behind the verse. The lesson to be learned is that it is better to beat your wife in a relatively unpainful, albeit humiliating way than for a man to break an earlier oath to beat his wife (as had the prophet Job in this story).
Tafsir Ibn Kathir
Wife-beating in the hadiths
Muhammad struck Aisha and the tampering of English hadith translations
While some modern voices have denied that the Qur'an instructs wife-beating, alleging that Quran 4:34 has been misinterpreted, those who admit the Islamic tradition have noted that there exist in the hadiths numerous examples, from a variety of hadith narrators and collectors, of Muhammad ordaining wife-beating and confirming the original meaning of the verse found in the Quran, though with limitations added. There are, for instance, multiple hadiths in which Muhammad's companions beat or strike women (sometimes in his presence), as well as some, albeit conflicting evidence narrated from his wife, Aisha, regarding whether Muhammad himself used physical force against the women in his life. The best examples, perhaps, of hadiths permitting wife-beating are those in which Muhammad explicitly attempts to moderate wife-beating while nonetheless permitting it, as these have frequently been cited by dissenting modern voices and apologists themselves.
In one account found in the hadith collections, including the authoritative Sahih Muslim, Muhammad causes his wife Aisha physical pain by striking her in the chest. The Arabic word translated "He struck me" (فَلَهَدَنِي) is lahada , which means 'he pushed violently' or 'he struck her chest', and the word translated caused me pain (أَوْجَعَتْنِي) is awja'a meaning 'He, or it, pained him; or caused him pain, or aching'. It is important to note that the popular hadith website Sunnah.com, drastically altered this phrase from the original translations they used for the Sahih Muslim and Sunan al-Nasa'i collections, presumably to present Muhammad and Islam in a more positive light, changing it in both cases to "He gave me a nudge on the chest which I felt" - for this reason, the words provided here have been restored to the original translation of Siddique. These are what the translations say:
Sahih Muslim Book 4, 2127 (Abdul Hamid Siddiqui; Sunnah.com's source translation): He said, Was it the darkness (of your shadow) that I saw in front of me? I said, Yes. He struck me in the chest which caused me pain, and then said, Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?
Sahih Muslim 974b (Dar-us-Salam edition translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab, Vol. 2 p.506): He said: "so you were the person that I saw in front of me?" I said: "Yes." He gave me a painful shove on the chest, then he said: "Did you think that Allah and His Messenger would be unjust to you?"
Sunan al-Nasa'i 2039 (Dar-us-Salam edition, Vol. 3, p.127, translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab; Sunnah.com's source translation which they altered in the same way as they did for Sahih Muslim): He said: 'So you were the black shape that I saw in front of me?' I said, 'Yes.' He struck me on the chest, which caused we pain, then he said: 'Did you think Allah and His Messenger would deal unjustly with you?'
By contrast, there exists a hadith in Sunan Abu Dawud graded sahih by al-Albani which reports Aisha saying that Muhammad never hit (daraba) a woman. While it is not at all uncommon to find contradictions in the hadith literature, Aisha here may have either generously or inadvertently disregarded the time when Muhammad pushed / struck her painfully in the chest, as reported in the Sahih Muslim hadith above, assuming both are authentic (as Islamic scholars hold them to be).
Muhammad's companions striking women
Unlike the traditional occasion of revelation for Q. 4:34 which appeared in commentaries from the 9th century CE (discussed above), there is some hadith evidence that the wife beating verse may have been a result of pressure from 'Umar, as Muhammad is portrayed as reluctantly agreeing to permit wife beating. 'Umar, who would became the second rightly guided Caliph, is also recorded slapping Muhammad's wife Hafsa and striking his own wife, and on yet another occasion telling a man to beat his wife after she tried to stop him having intercourse with (raping) a slave girl. Hadiths suggest a general pattern of 'Umar's violence towards and interest in controlling women. The revelation of the Verse of Hijab (Quran 33:53 is even more explicitly linked to pressure from 'Umar (see the article Hijab).
Multiple hadiths in the authoritative Sahih Bukhari report that Abu Bakr (the first Rightly-Guided Caliph of Islam and Muhammad's best friend) also struck (his daughter) Aisha violently with his fist.
In another hadith found in Sahih Muslim, Abu Bakr informs Muhammad that he slapped Khadijah’s daughter, and Muhammad responds by laughing and tells Abu Bakr his wives are asking him for more money. Abu Bakr and Umar (the second Rightly-Guided Caliph of Islam and Muhammad's other best friend) respond by slapping Muhammad's wives, Hafsa and (for the third time) Aisha.
In yet another hadith, Ali (the fourth Rightly-Guided Caliph of Islam as well as Muhammad's cousin, foster-son, and son-in-law) gives a slave-girl a violent beating in front of Muhammad.
One account found in the hadiths reports Muhammad giving a decree instructing men to not beat their wives, but the hadiths reporting this also record Muhammad immediately changing his mind once 'Umar (the 2nd rightly guided Caliph) informs him that some of the women have become emboldened towards their husbands. Then, when some women complain about getting beaten, he makes only a mild remark about their husbands instead of moving to protect the women. This pressure from 'Umar may have been the background for the creation of Q. 4:34.
In another hadith, Umar instructs a man to beat his wife after she tries to prevent him from having intercourse with his slave girl.
A hadith graded hasan (the 2nd highest level of authenticity according to traditional scholars of hadith, below sahih) has 'Umar hitting his wife and then excusing himself by quoting Muhammad saying that a man should not be asked why he beats his wife. See the section below on Islamic law for how this hadith was used by Islamic jurists.
In yet another hadith, a woman complains to Muhammad about her husband and shows him where he has beaten and bruised her. Muhammad listens to the husband’s side of the story and concludes the reason why his wife is complaining is because he cannot sexually satisfy her and that she wants to go back to her ex-husband, although the report only indicates that the woman was complaining of physical abuse (also evidenced by the 'green' color of her skin). Rather than scolding her husband for beating her, Muhammad says she cannot re-marry her ex-husband unless she has sexual intercourse with her present husband first.
In the same hadith, Aisha also states that she has not seen any woman suffering as much as 'the believing women'. This apparent meaning of this is that according to Aisha, Muhammad's wife, Muslim women were suffering more than their pagan and Abrahamic counterparts.
In his Farewell Sermon, Muhammad compares women to domestic animals (or according to other translations of the same word and in traditional exegesis, prisoners) and once more tells men to beat their wives, but unlike the Quran, adds the caveat 'but not severely'.
In other versions of the farewell sermon the same comments about beating are reported, such as in the following version from a hadith in Sunan Abu Dawud (graded Sahih by the famous modern scholar of hadith, al-Albani). Here, as in the Qur'an, Muslim men are instructed to beat their wives, although all hadiths of the farewell sermon nuance this by adding 'not severely':
The caveat, "but not severely", appears also in the other narrations of the farewell sermon in other hadith collections, although English translations in some cases have mistranslated the same Arabic phrase as discussed in the next section below.
Altogether, the hadith report that (1) 'A'isha did not consider Muhammad himself to have ever hit a woman, although on one occasion he painfully pushed / struck her in the chest, (2) Muhammad at first forbade the beating of Muslim women, but was persuaded to allow it when Umar warned that the men were losing control of their wives, (3) Muhammad allowed some of his prominent companions to hit women and slap his own wives (the very women whom all Muslims adore and refer to as "the Mother of believers", (4) Muhammad merely makes a mild remark about other men when their wives complain about beatings (describing those that do so to the point of complaint as 'not the best among you'), (5) Muhammad forbade Muslims from questioning men who beat their wives, (6) three of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs beat women, and (7) Muhammad reaffirms the Qur'anic command of wife-beating in his parting sermon, albeit "without severity". It is clear that wife-beating has been an accepted part of Islam since its inception. While Muhammad had some reservations about the beating of women, he repeatedly indulged men who physically disciplined women, including in his presence, and was ultimately persuaded to prescribe it as a divinely-instructed punishment for certain types of misconduct on the part of women.
Additional attempts at moderating severe beatings
According to a number of reports found in the hadiths, Muhammad was concerned that his companions were beating their wives too severely. These hadiths record his efforts to control the severity of the beatings being conducted.
In one hadith, Muhammad advises a recently divorced woman against marrying a companion of his who he knows to be 'very harsh with women'.
In another hadith, Muhammad instructs that a husband should not strike his wife on her face.
Another version of the same hadith is worded more generally, saying, "do not beat them". If this version is a more accurate reflection of what Muhammad said, it is likely that it occurred in the earlier period in which Muhammad forbade beating (see Sunan Abu Dawud 11:2141, quoted above), as later sources concur on Muhammad's instruction and the Quran in their permission of wife-beating.
A lengthy hadith containing an account of Muhammad's farewell sermon in Sunan Abu Dawud includes an instruction to beat one's wives, but not severely, if they allow anyone whom the husband dislikes to lie on their beds (these being were usually rolled out on the floor in Bedouin tents). In Arabic, 'beat them, but not severely' is fa-idribuhunna darban ghayra mubarrihin, which literally translates to mean 'beat them, a beating without violence/severity/sharpness/vehemence'. The instruction here is nearly akin to that found in Muhammad's farewell sermon (quoted above) and includes the following:
The version of the farewell sermon in Sunan Abu Dawud was collected also in Sahih Muslim and uses the same Arabic phrase.
A shorter version of the Farewell Sermon can also be found in Sunan Ibn Majah. The Arabic words rendered by the English translator as 'and hit them, but without causing injury or leaving a mark' are the same as those found in the Sunan Abu Dawud and Sahih Muslim hadith as well as al-Tabari's version of the farewell sermon (quoted in the previous section above), with the literal translation being, again, 'beat them, a beating without severity'.
Similarly, the versions of the farewell sermon found in Jami` at-Tirmidhi 5:44:3087, translated as 'and beat them with a beating that is not painful', and Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2:10:1163, translated as 'and beat them with a beating that is not harmful, consist of the same Arabic words as quoted above and found in other versions of the sermon.
The tafsir, or exegesis, of al-Tabari (d. 923, roughly 200 years after Muhammad's death) for verse Quran 4:34 appears to be the earliest record of the idea that wife beating should be done with a miswak/siwaak (a small stick-like item used as a toothbrush). These do not appear in the main sahih hadith collections, but have been of abiding interest nonetheless.
In Arabic, the phrase 'non-severe beating' is darban ghayra mubarrihin. This is the same phrasing and set of words found in the Abu Dawud hadith and in the various versions of Muhammad's farewell sermon. In his tafsir, al-Tabari also quotes Qatada clarifying that the phrase means ghayr sha'in (that is, 'without being disgraceful/outrageous/obscene/indecent'). This is in sharp contrast with the translation/interpretation employed in Islamic evangelical discourse, which construes darban ghayra mubarrihin as a more absolute prohibition, in some instances translating it as 'a light tap that leaves no mark' - a translation that, as a heavily metaphorical interpretation, has no linguistic merit.
Putting together, the hadiths suggest that Muhammad condemned those who beat their wives as severely as they beat their slaves. It is also evident that, at least for some time, Muhammad forbade wife-beating altogether. It is also evident that Muhammad then reverted from this position to permitting wife-beating, albeit this time around while encouraging his male companions not to beat their wives as severely as they beat their slaves. This final position is also found reiterated in the various versions of his final sermon reported found in the hadith literature.
Tabari, a source Islamic scholars view as being considerably less reliable than the sahih hadiths, also reports that Ibn Abbas was asked what is meant by the phrase "beat them without severity" and replied that "It is with a toothstick (siwak) or something similar. A siwak or miswak was a small stick used for cleaning one's teeth. Many doubt the reliability of this report, which appears to contradict the overall message of the hadith literature, though it is a popular explanation today.
Critics have also noted what they describe as the sheer absurdity of the qualification found in the report and suggest that it could hardly be that God would leave out such an important qualification from the verse which, read in isolation, simply instructs men to beat their wives. To do so, critics suggest, would be a serious lack of judgement on God's part. Critics have also ridiculed the absurdity of the practice itself - what is the purpose, they ask, of tapping one's wife with a twig? And why would this prove effective if admonition of one's wife and abandoning her in bed had proven ineffective - surely tapping someone with a twig cannot be more compelling than either of these measures? Such a practice, critics conclude, is, at worst, a humiliating and patronizing symbolic gesture (having no place in polite society), or, at best, a fiction generated in the minds of later Muslims (that is, 7th, 8th, or 9th century Muslims attributing this idea, retroactively, back to Ibn Abbas) who were having a hard time reconciling the conflicting imperatives of an early Islamic tradition which at once taught Muslims to be kind to one another - and to beat their wives.
Islamic law and Quranic exegesis on wife beating
Classical Muslim scholars have written abundant commentary and jurisprudential material regarding Quran 4:34 and instruction to beat wives. A few of these classical sources are quoted below, alongside some modern authorities. It is important to note that a number of Islamic modernists (a small sub-group of modern Islamic scholars in general) have advocated an interpretation of Quran 4:34 that militates against traditional understanding and takes the beating instructed to be purely 'symbolic' in nature. The influence of these few, albeit vocal, modernists has resulted in some recent English translations of the Quran opting to replace the word daraba, which is found in the Arabic text and which means 'beat', with alternative words that more readily evoke the modernist interpretation.
A couple of important tafsirs are available in English. See also the discussion on al-Tabari's tafsir above.
Professor Jonathan Brown writes that jurists interpreted nushuz in Q. 4:34 in terms of disobedience: "If a wife exhibited egregious disobedience (nushūz) such as uncharacteristically insulting behaviour, leaving the house against the husband's will and without valid excuse or denying her husband sex (without medical grounds), the husband should first admonish her to be conscious of God and proper etiquette. If she did not desists from her behaviour, he should cease sleeping with her in their bed. If she still continued with her nushūz, he should then strike her to teach her the error of her ways." He further says that jurists generally attempted to mitigate the "beat them" command of Q. 4:34: "It became received opinion among Sunni ulama from Iberia to Iran that, though striking one's wife was permitted, other means of discipline and dispute were greatly preferred, more effective and better for the piety of both spouses." The hadith scholar Ibn Hajar (d. 1449 CE) went so far as to place beating wives in the sharia category of "strongly disliked" or "verging on prohibited".
Some others were not uncomfortable and found it natural that God would grant such a right to husbands. For Ibn al-Faras (d. 1201 CE) it was "recommended" and saved the wife from her own irrational impulses. The Hanbali jurist Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1116 CE) allowed a husband to give his wife up to three lashes with a whip. Ayesha Chaudary writes that the Hanafi jurist Ibn al Numan (d. 1457 CE) set a limit of ten lashes. Brown says that the Shafi'i school allowed a husband only to strike his wife with his hand or wound up hankerchief, though not a whip or stick, and for the late Shafi'i school wife beating was not recommended. All schools agreed that striking the face or sensitive areas was prohibited.
In her book, Domestic violence and the Islamic tradition, Ayesha Chaudhry explains that unlike Hanafi scholars, who simply adopted the farewell sermon terminology discussed above that men should beat their wives, but without severity (ghayra mubarrihin), Maliki jurists attempted to define more precisely the kind of hitting that was permitted. For them, it should not include punching, nor leave an impression or be fearsome, should not cause fractures nor break bones, nor cause disfiguring wounds.
Chaudhry also writes that "Hanafi scholars discouraged public inquiries into men's domestic affairs. Ibn Nujaym cited two prophetic reports to this end. The first states, 'Do not ask a man why he hit his wife'; the second reports that 'Muhammad forbade a woman from complaining against her husband.' Both of these prophetic reports limited a wife's ability to seek legal redress if she was beaten by her husband, adding a level of moral and social taboo against speaking about domestic matters in public." Professor Jonathan Brown explains that medieval ulama (scholars) more generally understood the first hadith (Sunan Ibn Majah 3:9:1986) primarily as part of the etiquette of privacy between men, though this did not outweigh public duties and legal protections.
Except for some Malikis, there was agreement that a wife could claim compensation in court for injury. Eventually, all schools except the Hanafi school allowed a judge to disolve the marriage if any physical harm was done to the wife and without forfeiting her dower payment.
Brown details the practical implementation of Islamic jurisprudence in courts from Ottoman times to the present day. If a wife or husband came before a sharia court to complain about each other's behaviour, it was assumed that the process in Q. 4:34-35 had reached the stage in verse 35 when an arbiter and the family are required. In practice, courts followed particular law books of their preferred legal school, though the dominant book varied over time. He finds no evidence that the more permissive stances towards wife beating of Ibn Faras and Ibn Jawzi were manifested in documented court rulings.
The following is a quote from an important Shafi'i legal text:
If the wife does not fulfill one of the above-mentioned obligations, she is termed "rebellious" (nashiz), and the husband takes the following steps to correct matters:
(a) admonition and advice, by explaining the unlawfulness of rebellion, its harmful effect on married life, and by listening to her viewpoint on the matter;
(b) if admonition is ineffectual, he keeps from her by not sleeping in bed with her, by which both learn the degree to which they need each other;
(c) if keeping from her is ineffectual, it is permissible for him to hit her if he believes that hitting her will bring her back to the right path, though if he does not think so, it is not permissible. His hitting her may not be in a way that injures her, and is his last recourse to save the family.(d) if the disagreement does not end after all this, each partner chooses an arbitrator to solve the dispute by settlement, or divorce.
Reliance of the Traveller
Examples of views that have been expressed in the 21st century are quoted below:
Then he attempts a new direction, appealing to her femininity and emotions, by making her feel that he doesn't want her or love her. When this doesn't work, he says to her: With you, I have reached a stage which is only appropriate for inhumane people - the stage of beating.
MEMRI: Special Dispatch, No. 2229, February 5, 2009
MEMRI: Special Dispatch No.2868, March 19, 2010
Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid, Islam Q&A, Fatwa No. 10680
The Egyptian-American reformist jurist Abou El Fadl argues using Quran 4:128 and the farewell sermon that nushūz refers to sexual betrayal and that striking a wife is limited to that scenario, while the Saudi scholar Abd al-Hamid Abu Sulayman (d. 2021) claimed daraba in Q. 4:34 means to leave, withdraw, abandon her. He acknowledged that this was a break with 1400 years of Islamic tradition. While El Fadl's interpretation of nushūz may be credible, Abu Sulayman's untenable interpretation of the Arabic word daraba (beat) as it is used in Q. 4:34 is discussed in the article The Meaning of Daraba.
In mid 20th century Tunisia at a time of secularization, Ibn Ashur (d. 1975) claimed that Q. 4:34-35 was entirely addressed as an instruction to the court authorities. His view was based on sharia procedural analogy that only rarely can a party in a case act as judge and mete out punishment, as well as general experience that a man could not be trusted to restrain himself in private and will likely transgress limits. Critics would note this as an obviously implausible interpretation of verse 34 since husbands are directly instructed in that verse, most obviously when it tells them to forsake their wives in bed and given that the remedy in the verse is merely for when there is a "fear" of nushūz.
A common modernist or apologetic perspective today is to make use of the narration discussed in the section above on attempts to moderate the severity of beatings, in which Ibn 'Abbas clarifies the farewell sermon phrase "a beating without severity" to mean with a toothbrush stick or similar object. In this interpretation, husbands may lightly tap their wives with a small stick or twig.
Domestic violence in the Islamic World
Professor Jonathan Brown writes "In some Muslim societies, there is evidence that some men justify violence against their wives by citing Qur'an 4:34", although alongside cultural factors such as these, domestic violence is a worldwide phenomenon, with social science explanations converging on socio-economic factors.
While it is not necessarily the case that the Quran's instruction for men to beat their wives is responsible for the endemic occurrence of domestic violence in Muslim-majority countries (given that such practices are also endorsed in the scriptures revered by the religious populations of societies where domestic violence is not nearly as widespread), a degree of causal connection between the relevant scriptural commandments and the rates of domestic violence observed is strongly suggested by the virtually universal adoption of traditional literalism among Islamic clerics as well as the usually higher-than-average overall religiosity of Muslim societies.
83% of Jordanian women approve of wife beating if the woman cheats on her husband
60% approve of wife beating in cases where the wife burns a meal she's cooking
52% approve of wife beating in case where she's refused to follow the husband’s orders
- Palestinian Authority area
. . .
Altogether, 33.7 percent of women said they considered suicide as a solution to their problems.
- South Mediterranean Region
Responses from Muslim women
Some Muslim women have spoken out against domestic violence. Below, some prominent instances of this are quoted. In spite of such protestations, many Islamic authorities and western commentators refuse the idea that Islamic scriptures could, even in part, be responsible.
I kept silent until now because I didn't want to see my family being torn apart. I thought that maybe if I was patient enough I could make him change. Now that I've made my story public, I'm scared. I've almost been through death, so I guess it's pretty normal that I now fear for my life and for my children's lives. I decided to have my picture published so that it would be a lesson for others, for every man and every woman. I'm just hoping that the judge will be fair to me and that my husband receives a punishment equal to what he did to me.
No more, no lessEvery violent man will be able to see the suffering that he causes and every woman who is afraid of falling into a similar situation will be able to avoid what happened to me. Some people have called me a heroine for doing so, but I don't know why. Maybe people have appreciated that I dared to talk about a taboo subject so that others don't face the same thing. In my opinion it isn't about being heroic, but about talking about what happens in reality. However uncomfortable it is, it's better to talk about reality than to pretend that nothing bad is ever happening. I believe I've encouraged other victims of domestic violence to follow suit. I'm now campaigning with a human rights organisation which has received many letters and I have also received personally many letters of support from women saying that they will fight back.
BBC News, April 30, 2004
"My parents ... made clear that they would disown me," Iqbal said. "My father even said ... 'You're lucky you live in America because if you lived back home, you would have been dead by now.' "
She was hiding out in her office at work when a friend put her in touch with Robina Niaz, whose organization, Turning Point for Women and Families, helps female Muslim abuse victims.
"It was such a relief ... to speak about things that ... I thought no one would understand," said Iqbal, who has received counseling from Niaz for more than two years and calls Niaz her "savior." "Robina understood the cultural nuances ... the religious issues," Iqbal said. "There's a lot of denial," she said. "It makes it much harder for the victims of abuse to speak out."
When Niaz launched her organization in 2004, it was the first resource of its kind in New York City. Today, her one-woman campaign has expanded into a multifaceted endeavor that is raising awareness about family violence and providing direct services to women in need. Niaz's mission began after a difficult period in her own life. Born and raised in Pakistan, she had earned a master's degree in psychology and had a successful career in international affairs and marketing when she moved to the United States to marry in 1990.
"It was a disastrous marriage," she said.
As Niaz struggled to navigate the American legal system during her divorce, she said she appreciated how lucky she was to speak English and have an education. She realized that many immigrant women without those advantages might be more likely to stay in marriages because they didn't know how to make the system work for them.
"If this is how difficult it is for me, then what must other immigrant women go through?" she remembered thinking.
After volunteering with South Asian victims of domestic violence, Niaz, who speaks five languages, got a job using those skills to advocate for immigrant women affected by family violence.
But Niaz's focus changed on September 11, 2001. "I was no longer a Pakistani-American ... I looked at myself as a Muslim."
Niaz said the backlash many Muslims experienced after the terror attacks made abuse victims more afraid to seek help; they feared being shunned for bringing negative attention to their community.
"Women who were caught in abusive marriages were trapped even more," recalled Niaz.
In 2004, Niaz used her savings to start Turning Point for Women and Families. Today, her work focuses on three main areas: providing direct services to abused women, raising awareness through outreach, and educating young women -- an effort she hopes will empower future generations to speak out against abuse. Crisis intervention services are a critical element of Niaz's efforts. Through weekly counseling sessions, she and her team provide emotional support to the women while helping them with practical issues, such as finding homeless shelters, matrimonial lawyers, filing police reports or assisting with immigration issues. Niaz has helped more than 200 Muslim women. While most of Turning Point's clients are immigrants, the group helps women from every background. While Niaz has support from many people in New York's Muslim community, she acknowledges that not everyone appreciates her efforts. She keeps her office address confidential and takes precautions to ensure her safety."There have been threats ... but that comes with this work," she said. "I know that God is protecting me because I'm doing the right thing."
CNN Heroes, September 25, 2009
One Muslim woman who has spoken about this type of domestic violence is The Daily Beast’s Asra Q. Nomani, author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, who describes the widespread denial in Muslim-majority societies of wife-beating in the Qur'an as the "4:34 dance".
Such appalling recommendations occur because we haven't yet universally drawn a line in the sand, as Muslims, and said that this verse may have been progressive for the seventh century when women were supposedly beaten indiscriminately, but it isn't compatible with the modern day, if read literally. Instead, we do something called the "4:34 dance," suggesting that the light beating be the result of everything from hitting a woman with noodles (yes, you read that right) to a traditional toothbrush, called a “miswak,” from the root of a plant.
Asra Q. Nomani, The Daily Beast, September 8, 2010
The objections of Islamic modernists
Though they constitute a very small minority, many Islamic modernists have protested against the Islamic tradition and its understanding of the Islamic scriptures which straightforwardly appear to instruct men to beat their wives. While these modernists have had extremely limited influence in the Muslim world, they have frequently been embraced by Western media outlets as possible enactors of religious reform in Islam. Serious, mostly non-Muslim scholars of Islam have been similarly heartened by such voices but remain highly skeptical of those modernists who attempt to 're-write' the past by denying the Islamic tradition's historical embrace of some sort of physical domestic discipline against women. Moreover, to many in the Muslim world, this attempt at 'modernizing Islam' appears to be a sort of contemptible moral concession to the west, analogous, even, to holding the door wide open for enemies with ambitions of 'intellectual colonialism'. As the 2021 edition of the widely acclaimed Muslim 500 puts it, "Islamic modernism remains popularly an object of derision and ridicule, and is scorned by traditional Muslims and fundamentalists alike".
Pamela K. Taylor
References to Quranic verses
Pamela K. Taylor is the co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, former director of the Islamic Writers Alliance, and a strong supporter of the female Imam movement. On the Faith Panelist Blog, she writes:
To be sure, domestic violence is indeed against the teachings of Islam, and murder of family members is especially repugnant. The Qur'an teaches that men should remain with their wives in kindness, or separate from their wives with kindness, and specifically that they should not stay with their wives in order to do harm to them (2:229, 2:231). It offers a vision of spousal equality when it prescribes a decision making process within the family of mutual consultation (2:233), and labels both husband and wife with the term "zauj" (4:1 and others) and describes them as protecting garments for one another (2:187).
The relevant portion of Quran 2:229 reads as follows: "The divorce (is) twice. Then to retain in a reasonable manner or to release (her) with kindness." The relevant portion of Quran 2:231 reads: "And when you divorce the women and they reach their (waiting) term, then retain them in a fair manner or release them in a fair manner. And (do) not retain them (to) hurt so that you transgress." Both of these verses speak of men 'retaining' their women, denoting possession and one-sided agency. Quran 2:233 speaks of the gender-specific roles that men and women must play in raising a child - a far cry from gender equality. The Arabic word zauj simply means spouse. Quran 2:187, while equal in its application of the 'garment' metaphor to both genders, is also a stand out example of how the Quran conceives of itself as primarily addressed to men, and not both genders equally - it opens with the following: "Allowed unto you, on the night of fasts, is consorting with your women."
Taylor states that 'domestic violence is indeed against the teachings of Islam'. This statement does not withstand historical scrutiny, as attested by 14 centuries of Islamic legal thought, all of which endorses wife-beating. It is equally unacceptable as a description of Islamic scripture, a representative sampling of which has been quoted in the above portion of the present article. In light of these observations, it is perhaps unsurprising that Taylor's work as an activist has been consistently ridiculed by the broader Islamic community.
References to hadiths
The hadiths cited by Taylor doubtless exist and, discussed above in present article, make it clear that Muhammad made attempts to moderate the severity of the beatings being undertaken by his companions and, for a brief period, even prohibited these beatings outright. Notably, Taylor does not mention that, in the very same hadith she quotes, Muhammad at first forbids wife beating, but then changes his mind on the advice of Umar (see Sunan Abu Dawud 11:2141). Later, in the same hadith, when some women complain as a result, he makes the remark about the men who beat them quoted by Taylor. That the hadith Taylor chose to cite as evidence that domestic violence is 'indeed against the teachings of Islam' is also the same hadith which marks Muhammad's transition to the final position he took at the behest of Umar which permitted domestic violence - a strange decision on Taylor's part.
Contestation of the word daraba
Daraba is used for many, many things in the Qur'an, from sexual intercourse to parting company, from metaphorically striking a parable to physically striking a person or thing. The vast majority of commentators, have understood the meaning of 4:34 to mean hitting. Modern interpreters such as Ahmed Ali and Laleh Bakhtiar, have made a case that this interpretation is wrong.Bakhtiar's argument is particularly strong.
Taylor cites Laleh Bakhtiar, an Islamic modernist who argues that Islam does not instruct violence against women and that the word daraba in Quran 4:34 means 'to send away'. Bakhtiar's influence has generally been confined to the Western academy (outside of Islamic studies departments) and has, alongside Taylor's work, been all but comprehensively ridiculed by the wider Islamic world. Her decision to translate Quran 4:34 to suit her modernist interpretation in her English translation of the Quran triggered immense controversy, and many Islamic scholars issued statements denouncing what they described as her 'alteration' of scripture, resulting in the Islamic Society of North America banning the sale of her work in Islamic bookstores in Canada.
Taylor describes Bakhtiar's argument as 'particularly strong'. While this may be Taylor's view, no serious scholar has endorsed Bakhtiar's interpretation (see Wife Beating in the Qur'an).
Muhammad never hit a woman
"Then, how," she asked, "do you explain that when he had problems with his wives, he admonished them, he refrained from sleeping with them for a month, but he never went to the third step and hit them? Was he being disobedient to Allah, or have we misunderstood verse 4:34?" To which, she says, the scholars had no answer.Her answer is that we have misunderstood 4:34, and that we have to look at what the Prophet actually did after that month's separation -- which was to offer his wives the choice of divorcing him or remaining with him while resolving to avoid the behaviors he found so objectionable. While, she translates "daraba" as "to go away from them," (which is the most common usage of the term in the Qur'an), it seems that it might be better rendered as "to strike a bargain with them."
While second-hand anecdote presented by Taylor may well be true, there are several hadith accounts (quoted and discussed above in the present article) which directly contradict or undermine Aisha's report about Muhammad never striking a servant or woman - interestingly, the hadith which records Muhammad striking Aisha herself, and allowing his companions to do the same are found in more reliable hadith collections (that is, Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari) than the collection in which the hadith from Aisha quoted by Taylor is found (Sunan Abu Dawud). It is also probable that Islamic scholars would reject the idea that Muhammad ever struck his wives, as this would perhaps undermine his theological status as the Insan al-Kamil (lit. 'the perfect man') - this, however, amounts to theological dissonance rather than a historically-sound objection.
Taylor also suggests that the usage of the word daraba in Quran 4:34 can plausibly be read to mean 'separate from them' or even 'strike a bargain with them'. She presents in evidence of this suggestion that the word daraba is most often used throughout the Quran in the former sense. This particular claim does not withstand scrutiny, as the word is most often used in the Quran to mean 'strike'. Countless traditional Islamic scholars and linguistic authorities - one of whom, it should be mentioned, Taylor is not - have shown such readings, time and again, to be bereft of linguistic merit.
- International inventory of domestic violence services - Global list of abuse hotlines, shelters, refuges, crisis centers and women's organizations, with domestic violence information in over 80 languages
- Wife Beating in Islam - by Silas
- Domestic violence in Islam: The Quran on wife-beating - by James Arlandson
- Wife-beating, sharia, and Western law - Asia Times
- Saudi Judge Says it's Ok for Men to Beat Their Wives
- Algeria: Prison for Violent Husbands is Against Koran, Mufti
- Wife-beating allowed under sharia law, UAE court rules - The Guardian notes this article later had to be 'Removed for legal reasons'
- daraba - Lane's lexicon Book I page 1777
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, London: Oneworld Publications, 2014, p. 275
- dad-ghayn-tha Lane's Lexicon Book I page 1793
- lahada Lane's Lexicon page 2676
- awja'a - Lane's Lexicon
- Lane's Lexicon Book I page 182
- al-tafsir.com Tabari's tafsir for 4:34
- al-Tabari 4:34
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, London: Oneworld Publications, 2014, p. 276
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p. 280-81
- Ayesha Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 106
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p. 276, 278
- Ayesha Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition., p. 111
- Ayesha Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 108
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p. 277
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p. 272, 282
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, pp. 280-285
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p. 271, 277-78
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p. 279-80
- Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, London: Oneworld Publications, 2014, p. 272
- Atia Abawi - Afghan women hiding for their lives - CNN, September 24, 2009
- Maryam Nayeb-Yazdi - The violence that may never end - Iranian.com, February 15, 2006
- Afif Sarhan - Iraq’s Domestic Violence Plight - Islam Online, May 31, 2009
- All together now: YES for wife beatings! - 360 East, May 7, 2006
- Natasha Tynes - Disturbing report on wife beating in Jordan - Mental Mayhem, April 10, 2005
- PAKISTAN: Domestic violence endemic, but awareness slowly rising - The Advocates, March 11, 2008
- Violence against women rises by 13% Violence against women rises by 13% - The Express Tribune, June 29, 2010.
- Doug Alexander - Addressing Violence Against Palestinian Women - The International Development Research Centre, June 23, 2000
- Qatar: divorce peak caused by women, survey - ANSAmed, February 23, 2012
- Murder a fact of life for women in Turkey - Hurriyet Daily News, February 20, 2011
- Yonca Poyraz Doğan - Women's groups outraged by Cabinet's drastic changes to violence bill draft - Today's Zaman, March 1, 2012
- Mediterranean: EU Study, Domestic Violence Between 40%, 75% - ANSAmed, May 9, 2011
- S. Abdallah Schleifer; Tarek Algawhary; Aftab Ahmed, eds, "IIIC. Islamic Modernism", The Muslim 500 (2021 Edition ed.), Amman, Jordan: The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, p. 59, https://themuslim500.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/TheMuslim500-2021_Edition-low_res_20201028.pdf The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (MABDA المركز الملكي للبحوث والدراسات الإسلامية) is an independent research entity affiliated with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought is an international Islamic non-governmental, independent institute headquartered in Amman, the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.