Domestic Violence in Early Islam

Does the Quran really give permission to husbands to hit their wives, or is that just “Islamophobic” slander?

This is Part 9 in the sharia series.

See Ten Sharia Laws that Oppress Women.

This series of articles about Islamic sharia law is written for journalists, educators, lawyers, judges, city council members, legislators, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and anyone else who occupies the “check points” in society. They initiate the national dialogue and shape the flow of the conversation. They are the policy and decision makers.

They have heard the critics of sharia and conclude that the critics are exaggerating (and maybe some have overstated things). The critics may even be “Islamophobes.” Islam is a world religion and deserves respect, after all.

Yet the intellectual elites may also have a private, gnawing doubt about sharia, for they have heard accounts of abuse in the Islamic world, even in the Muslim community within their own country. But they say to themselves that Islam is being hijacked by extremists.

Online articles and websites have sprung up that communicate, among others things, an essential message: there is nothing wrong with sharia.

For example, Summer Hathout is a prosecutor in Los Angeles, an activist for women’s rights, and a Muslim. She belongs to the Muslim Women’s League, USA. She denies that sharia promotes domestic violence, concluding in her short online article:

To those of us who know Islam and the Quran, violence against women is so antithetical to the teachings of Islam that we look at those who use our religion against us as misguided, misinformed or malevolent.[1]

But what does the other side in Islam say?

Saudi Iqraa TV aired a talk show that discussed this issue.[2] Jasem Muhammad Al-Mutawah, a scholar on family issues, holds a sample rod that husbands may use to hit their wives. He says:

There is a wife with whom using hard words is useful, and there is a wife with whom it is not. There is a wife with whom using quiet, good words is useful, in contrast, there is a wife with whom if you use hard words her obstinacy will only increase, and thus the problem will get worse. In contrast, there is a wife with whom the situation is the opposite: If you use calm words with her, she will not grasp them, and the problem will continue… We all know that Allah has given authority to the man, including admonishing and guiding the wife in cases of disobedience, banishing her from the bed, and then – the beatings.[3]

Both statements are by Muslims. Has the Saudi scholar hijacked true Islam? Where is the truth between the two opinions?

And if original Islamic sharia permits wife beating, can modern Islam rescue women from the abuse?

THE QURAN

THE HADITH AND ONE OTHER SOURCE

Green Skin

No Sex after Beating

Not with Severity

What Muhammad Did

Change of Mind

Beating for Disobedience

Not on the Face

Umar’s Opinion

CLASSICAL SHARIA LAW

MODERN ISLAM

Traditional Interpretations

Reformist Interpretations

CONCLUSION

 

THE QURAN

Quran 4:34, which should be read carefully, says that husbands may hit or beat their wives.

34 Husbands should take full care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in the husbands’ absence. If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great.[4] (Quran 4:34)

In the next translation of the verse, Abdullah Yusuf Ali adds notes in parenthesis, which are not original to the Arabic. The sequence of steps and the implied soft meaning of “beat them (lightly)” are as follows:

34 … 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)… (Quran 4:34)

The third version of the verse by Ahmed Ali translates the relevant line by adding parenthetic glosses not originally found in Arabic. Worse, he badly mistranslates the Arabic word for hitting or beating:

34 … As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing)[5] . . . (Quran 4:34)

Thus the word for hitting or beating has vanished. This latter translation flatly contradicts the two cited above and many others: “beat” (Fakhry); “scourge” (Pickthall); “beat” (Dawood); “beat (lightly)” (Hilali and Khan); “chastise” (Maulana); “chastise” (Khan); “beat” (translator of Maududi); “beat” (translators of Sayyid Qutb); “beat” (Committee of Muslim translators of Ibn Kathir); “beat” (Shakir); “chastise” (Khalifa); “beat” (Sher Ali); and “beat” (Asad).

The word they are translating is daraba (root is d-r-b). Hathout comments erroneously, “The Quran itself uses daraba 16 times, and in nine of those instances, the meaning is to separate or depart.”[6] However, it is used about 58 times, and the context determines its meaning. Sometimes it can mean, for example, “to strike a similitude or example”; or “strike out on a journey.”[7]

According to the hadith in the next section, daraba in 4:34 can only mean to “hit” or “beat.” Husbands are not striking their wives with a similitude or out on a journey. None of those two meanings make sense in the context of v. 34. In contrast, Ahmed Ali’s wording, which the activist and attorney Hathout latches on to despite the numerous translators who disagree with Ali and her, distorts the plain meaning of the words by a clever linguistic sleight-of-hand (see below, Modern Islam).[8]

Since this verse is so controversial we should look at the historical and literary contexts, which can be summarized by Sayyid A’La Abul Maududi (d. 1979), who was an Indo-Pakistani scholar who wrote a multivolume commentary on the Quran. He says that Chapter 4, itself titled “Women,” was revealed at different times, but still in the timeframe of A.D. 625 to 626.[9]

Muhammad is establishing his Muslim community in Medina in the face of opposition and adverse circumstances, though Islam manages to overcome them. Verse 34 fits into the framework of vv. 1-35, which sees the specific establishment of rules for the family. For instance, in the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud in 625, in which the Muslims lost a lot of men, Muhammad says that orphans should be given their property and not to replace their good things with bad, which means to deal fairly and wisely with their assets (vv. 1-6).

Also, Muhammad discusses the rules for inheriting property, such as one son having the share equal to two daughters or that a husband should inherent half of his wife’s property, unless they have children, in which case he inherits one-fourth (vv. 11-14). Then, if women or men in a segment of Muslim society commit lewd acts, they should be punished, unless they repent (vv. 15-18). Next, a large section deals with marriage rules, like not marrying mothers, daughters, sisters and so on (vv. 19-28). Finally, he lays down rules against greed and murder, and again returns to a law of inheritance (vv. 29-33).

Thus, it is in this family environment that the targeted v. 34 is located, and Muhammad lays out yet one more rule in v. 34 – how to deal with an unruly or rebellious wife.

THE HADITH AND ONE OTHER SOURCE

The hadith are the narrations or traditions about the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions outside of the Quran. Sunni Islam takes them very seriously. For more discussion of the hadith, see the article in this series, titled What Is Sharia? We also include early biographer Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) as the other source. He is considered reliable by modern historians (except for the miracles and some chronology).

All the sources, together, form a coherent picture about domestic violence in original Islam.

Green Skin

The hadith collector and editor Bukhari (d. 870) reports this incident about widespread spousal abuse in the early Muslim community in the context of marital confusion:

Rifa’a divorced his wife whereupon ‘Abdur Rahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complained to her [Aisha] of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating). It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Apostle came, ‘Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!”[10]

One of the frequent claims about Islam is that it improved women’s life compared with the so-called Time of Ignorance before Islam arrived on the scene. But Aisha says she never saw suffering as much as the believing (Muslim) women suffer.

No Sex after Beating

In the next hadith Muhammad says that a man should not beat his wife like a slave and expect to have sex with her later that night.

Narrated Abdullah bin Zama: The Prophets said, “None of you should flog his wife as he flogs a slave and then have sexual intercourse with her in the last part of the day.”[11]

The main point is that the wife is better than a slave, so her husband should not hit her as if she were one – severely – if he wants sex later. But he can still beat her.[12]

Not with Severity

Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) was a biographer of Muhammad and not a hadith collector. He confirms that husbands should not beat their wives with severity. He summarizes this part of one of Muhammad’s sermon, which was delivered during his last pilgrimage to Mecca and heard by thousands:

You have rights over your wives and they have rights over you. You have the right that they should not defile your bed and that they should not behave with open unseemliness. If they do, God allows you to put them in separate rooms and to beat them but not with severity. If they refrain from these things, they have the right to their food and clothing with kindness. Lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you having no control of their own persons.[13]

This sermon reveals that Muhammad sees the hitting of wives only in egregious circumstances, like “open unseemliness.” It also repeats the counsel that husbands should at first separate from such wives and only afterwards apply physical force. Nonetheless, the sermon affirms that wives are like prisoners and have no control over their own persons.

The next hadith from Muslim’s hadith collection shows Muhammad matter-of-factly sizing up three men for a recent divorcee to marry. One of them is a “great beater of women.” Muhammad does imply that the man’s excessive hitting does not make him the best choice for the divorcee. However, what is of interest is that Muhammad does nothing to control him.

Fatima bint Qais… reported that her husband divorced her with three pronouncements and Allah’s Messenger… made no provision for her lodging and maintenance allowance. She (further said): Allah’s Messenger… said to me: When your period of ‘Idda is over, inform me. So I informed him. (By that time) Muawiya. Abu Jahm and Usama b. Zaid had given her the proposal of marriage. Allah’s Messenger… said: So far as Muawiya is concerned he is a poor man without any property. So far as Abu Jahm is concerned, he is a great beater of women but Usama b. Zaid… She pointed with her hand (that she did not approve of the idea of marrying) Usama. But Allah’s Messenger… said: Obedience to Allah and obedience to His Messenger is better for thee. She said: So I married him, and I became an object of envy.[14]

What Muhammad Did

The following report is narrated by Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite young girl-wife. The context shows Muhammad going out of the house to visit a graveyard and pray over the dead. Aisha followed him. She returned just before he did, but he noticed she was out of breath and asked her why.

…He [Muhammad] came (to the house) and I [Aisha] also came (to the house). I, however, preceded him and I entered (the house), and as I lay down in the bed, he (the Holy Prophet) entered the (house), and said: Why is it, Aisha, that you are out of breath? I said: There is nothing. He said: Tell me or the Subtle and the Aware would inform me. I said: Messenger of Allah, may my father and mother be ransom for you, and then I told him (the whole story). He said: Was it the darkness (of your shadow) that I saw in front of me? I said: Yes. He struck me on the chest which caused me pain.[15] … (emphasis added)

The last clause is the key. He struck her on the chest and caused her pain.

Change of Mind

The next passage from Abu Dawud’s collection records Muhammad at first saying that husbands should not beat their wives. But Umar, one of his chief companions and the future second caliph, informed him that the wives were becoming “emboldened towards their husbands.” So now Muhammad changes his mind and allows husbands to hit:

Iyas b. Abd Allah b. Abi Dhubab reported the Apostle of Allah… as saying: Do not beat Allah’s handmaidens, but when Umar [the future second caliph] came to the Apostle of Allah… 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 Apostle of Allah… complaining against their husbands. So the Apostle of Allah… said: Many women have gone round Muhammad’s family complaining against their husbands. They are not the best among you.[16]

The men are not the best for beating their wives, so that offers a little hope for the wives. But what is disappointing is that Muhammad did not put a stop to the violence immediately.

Beating for Disobedience

Then a woman complains that her husband beats her because she recites two chapters in the Quran while she is praying. Her husband prohibited it, but she did it anyway. Muhammad said to recite only one chapter.

Abu Said said: A woman came to the Prophet… while we were with him. She said: Apostle of Allah, my husband Safwan b. al-Muattai beats me when I pray, and makes me break my fast when I keep fast, and he does not offer dawn prayer until the sun rises.· He asked Safwan who was present there about what she said. He replied: Apostle of Allah, as for her statement “he beats me when I pray,” she recites two suras [chapters in the Quran] (during prayer) and I have prohibited her (to do so). He (the Prophet) said: If one sura is recited (during prayer), that is sufficient for the people.[17]

The hadith goes on to show Muhammad conforming to the husband’s wishes in the wife’s complaints against him about his making her break her fast and his not praying early in the morning. The husband has absolute control. And why would Muhammad forbid him from hitting her when the Quran permits it? But why does the Quran permit it? Devout Muslim scholars say Allah revealed it. The rest of us are doubtful.

Not on the Face

This one in Abu Dawud’s collection says not to hit her on the face:

Narrated Mu’awiyah al-Qushayri: 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.[18]

And this parallel hadith says not to beat the wives.

Narrated Mu’awiyah al-Qushayri: I went to the Apostle of Allah … 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.[19]

Clearly, the second one is intended to be clarified by the first – not on the face. But the second one does give a glimmer of hope to reform, even though, as written, the hadith contradicts the Quran.

Umar’s Opinion

Before leaving Sunan Abu Dawud, we should look at a short hadith, which says:

Umar b. al-Kattab reported the Prophet… as saying: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.[20]

Umar was soon to become the second caliph after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632. Umar reigned from 634-644. The hadith is not exactly clear unless we are overlooking the obvious. The permission to beat will be so well known throughout the Muslim community that no one will question it. Or does Umar believe that beating will become so rare that no one will ask about it (an unrealistic prediction)? Either way, hitting is still in the Quran and in real life, especially when Umar was alive. He even recommended it (see next in the Classical Law section)[21]

CLASSICAL SHARIA LAW

This body of law is founded on the Quran and hadith, as jurists searched through both to make rulings on various issues. For more discussion, see the article titled, What Is Sharia? in the series.

Only a fraction of classical Islamic law books has been translated into English, and the ones that have do not cover wife beating, except two. The jurists would have the need to rule on the topic in a family court, if the wife lodged a complaint. The reason for the oversight in the translated ones can only be guessed at, but it is probable that the Quran is so clear about wife beating that there was no need for the jurists to debate the matter.

Whatever the reason, we can be confident that the two translated law books book examined here represent the views of the other schools of law, precisely because, as mentioned, the Quran is so clear.

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri’s (d. 1368) Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law summarizes rulings in the Shafi’i School of law. Misri and two later scholars opine:

When a husband notices signs of rebelliousness in his wife… (O: whether in words, as when she answers him coldly when she used to do so politely. or he asks her to come to bed and she refuses, contrary to her usual habit; or whether in acts, as when he finds her averse to him when she was previously kind and cheerful), he warns her in words (O: without keeping from her or hitting her, for it may be that she has an excuse. The warning could be to tell her, “Fear Allah concerning the rights you owe to me,” or it could be to explain that rebelliousness nullifies his obligation to support her and give her a turn amongst other wives, or it could be to inform her, “Your obeying me… is religiously obligatory”). If she commits rebelliousness, he keeps from sleeping (O: and having sex) with her without words, and may hit her, but not in a way that injures her, meaning he may not (A: bruise her,) break bones, wound her, or cause blood to flow. (O: It is unlawful to strike another’s face.) He may hit her whether she is rebellious only once or whether more than once, though a weaker opinion holds that he may not hit her unless there is repeated rebelliousness.[22]

Those opinions put limits on the husband’s permission to hit his wife: he may not break bones, wound, cause bleeding, or strike her face.

The above opinion says that husbands may hit their wives if they rebel. Misri and later scholars define rebellion as follows:

The Prophet… said: (1) “Allah will not look at a woman who is ungrateful to her husband, while unable to do without him.” (2) “When a man calls his wife to his bed and she will not come, and he spends the night angry with her, the angels curse her until morning.” (3) “It is not lawful for a woman to fast when her husband is present, save by his leave, nor to permit anyone into his house except with his permission.” (4) “Whoever leaves her husband’s house [A: without his permission], the angels curse her until she returns or repents.” (Khalil Nahlawi:) It is a condition for the permissibility of her going out… that she takes no measures to enhance her beauty, and that her figure is concealed or altered to a form unlikely to draw looks from men or attract them. Allah Most High says, “Remain in your homes and do not display your beauty as women did in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance.” (Quran 33:33)[23]

Malik (d. 795), a founder of a major school of law and also a reliable hadith collector and editor, records a hadith that shows Umar, the second caliph (r. 634-644), commanding a husband to beat his wife because she tried to stop her husband from having sex with his slave girl; the wife thought she could stop him by establishing a too-close relationship with the slave girl. The wife got suckled; that is, the wife got nursed by the slave girl. Then the slave would become a foster relative, like a foster mother of sorts, and so sex between her husband and the slave girl would become illegal.

Yahya related to me from Malik that Abdullah ibn Dinar said, “A man came to Abdullah ibn Umar when I was with him at the place where judgments were given and asked him about the suckling of an older person. Abdullah ibn Umar replied, ‘A man came to Umar ibn al-Khattab and said, “I have a slave girl and I used to have intercourse with her. My wife went to her and suckled her. When I went to the girl, my wife told me to watch out because she had suckled her!”’ Umar told him to beat his wife and to go to his slave-girl because kinship by suckling was only by the suckling of the young.”[24]

The wife went to extreme measure to get her husband to stop having sex with his slave girl. But Islam allowed it. Please see the article in this series about slavery.

CAN MODERN ISLAM REFORM AND STOP THE ABUSE?

A reformist reinterprets the Quran and calls for the reform of Islam, while a traditionalist believes that Islam, revealed in the Quran and presented in the authentic hadith, is fine the way it and defends it. Usually, religious leaders and scholars selected in this section, but sometimes a Muslim who is in the public eye is included too.

Some reformists stretch the plain meaning of Quran 4:34, but first we look at the traditionalists.

Traditional Interpretations

Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), an early leader of the Muslim Brotherhood based in Egypt, says that after the first two steps are taken (admonishment and banishment from the bed), then hitting is ordained of Allah, but only as a last resort and only against extra-stubborn women. Since hitting is a divine decree, no counterargument is valid. Muslims – and indeed all of humanity – would be better off if they submitted to the divine will.

When neither admonition nor banishment from one’s bed is effective, the situation may need a different type of remedy. Practical and psychological indications suggest that in certain situations this measure may be the appropriate one to remedy a certain perversion and to bring about satisfaction. Even when such a pathological perversion exists, a woman may not sufficiently feel the man’s strength for her to accept his authority within the family, at least not unless he overcomes her physically. This is by no means applicable to all women. What we are saying is that such women do exist and that Islam considers this measure a last resort used necessarily to safeguard the family. We have to remember here that these measures are stipulated by the Creator, who knows His creation. No counter argument is valid against what the One who knows all and is aware of all things says. Indeed to stand against what God legislates may lead to a rejection of the faith altogether.[25]

Maududi, after outlining the first two steps in the verse itself and reminding husbands to administer the steps in proportion to the offence and to do so only reluctantly, comes to the third step, beating:

As to a beating, the Holy Prophet allowed it very reluctantly and even then did not like it. But the fact is that there are certain women who do not mend their ways without a beating. In such a case, the Holy Prophet has instructed that she would not be beaten on the face, or cruelly, or with anything which might leave a mark on the body.[26]

Then Maududi sizes up the facts as he sees them: “certain women do not mend their ways without a beating.” He does not question whether the entire policy was inspired.

Normally, M.A.S. Abdel Haleem should be considered a moderate. It is his translation that is mostly used in the entire series. But like Qutb and Maududi, Abdel Haleem analyzes the verse head on without forcing the natural meaning into an artificial or convoluted one.[27] After elaborating on the three-step process found in 4:34 itself (correcting, admonition, no sex), he concludes that husbands should not hit their wives for any ad hoc reason, according to the husbands’ whim or angry outburst, but only for the wives’ outright unseemly, lewd behavior (the first part of v. 34). And hitting should be used only after the first two remedial steps have been tried and only once, lightly.

Despite Abdel Haleem’s excellent exegetical method that reaches an honest but troubling conclusion, we may ask the same question that many Muslim scholars ask rhetorically, according to his quotation of them: “if the Quranic teaching in this matter is not fair and sensible, then what are the alternatives?”[28]

This is indeed the right question, but Abdel Haleem’s answer falls short of the mark. “Surely it is better to remind the wife of her duty, or sulk for a while, or even strike her lightly, and then bring in arbiters who could, if all attempts at reconciliation fail, rule in favor of divorce [in 4:35].”[29]

In reply, however, a more acceptable alternative runs as follows: correcting and admonishing are sound; no sex may be sound, if the wives are indeed committing sexual acts outside of the marriage; yet the final step, hitting, is completely wrong and immoral in all cases, no matter how lightly administered, so it can be omitted; and the fourth and fifth steps in v. 35 (arbitration and maybe divorce as a last resort) are sound, though the divorce would be sad.

This is the alternative that Abdel Haleem and the Muslim scholars are looking for: husbands should never hit their wives for any reason. Modern interpreters should take out that step. Omitting it is doubly important when 4:34 says that husbands may hit their wives if they fear “open unseemliness” and “high-handedness,” quite apart from whether these two character flaws are actually in their wives. This places the interpretation of the wives’ character flaws in the hands of their husbands.

Thus Abdel Haleem’s analysis still leaves the door open to abuse.

Another traditional interpreter of Quran 4:34 is Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips. After describing corporal (bodily) punishment for children, i.e. spanking, and the West’s moral decline because many parent do not spank, he then describes Islam’s justification for hitting wives:

It is true that the Shareeah [sharia] does permit a husband to hit his wife. Allaah stated that in the Qur’aan [4:34]. The Prophet… also said, “You have rights over your women that they do not allow anyone you dislike into your home. If they disobey you, you may spank them. And the woman’s right on you is that you clothe her and feed her justly, according to your means.”3 However, that permission is under special conditions and with severe limitations. A husband is not permitted to beat his wife simply because she spilled his tea, burnt his toast, forgot to iron his shirt, etc. for example. The Qur’aanic permission given is specifically in the case of divorce, as a last resort to save the marriage. The Qur’aanic verse outlines the procedures which should be followed in the case of a rebellious and unjustly disobedient wife. She should first be verbally advised of her obligations. If that fails, the husband should then cease having sexual relations with her. Failing that, if the husband sees it useful, and as a final step in order to bring her back into line he is allowed to hit her. What is meant by the Prophet’s words “…If they disobey you…” is rebellious disobedience to instructions permitted by Islaamic law. As to instructions which contradict the Shareeah, she is instructed to disobey. The Prophet , , , said, “Creatures should not be obeyed if it means disobedience to the Creator.” As regards the hit, it should not be physically damaging and it should not be in the face as the Prophet… said … “Do not hit her in her face nor curse her…”4 and “Do not beat your wives as you would your servant girls in pre-Islamic times.”5 If the husband abuses this conditional permission and brutalizes his wife, her male relatives have the right to intervene and the case can be taken to the courts if it is severe enough.

Consequently, the intent of this beating is not inflicting pain and punishment but merely to bring the woman back to her senses and re-establish authority in the family.[30]

The problem with Bilal Philips’ analysis is that he goes from spanking children (or not spanking them causing moral decline in the West) to hitting wives, which re-establishes “authority in the family.” The leap is too far. Further, hitting may be a last resort and done lightly, as he says, but doesn’t the husband act rebellious? Why doesn’t the Quran permit his wife to hit him? Truthfully, hitting by either spouse should never be done.

The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) is made up of religious scholars, most of whom have their doctorates in Islamic law or other Islamic subjects; they are qualified to write fatwas (religious rulings or opinions). The site uses the write-in Question and Answer format.

A wife writes in that her husband abuses her terribly, such that she has black eyes and a bloody nose. One scholar says this abuse is completely wrong. And another elaborates:

Hitting women as a disciplinary remedy is a last cure and a final resort. It is the end of a stage of a gradual curative program. Doctors of Quranic exegeses unanimously have stated that hitting, if needed, must not be harsh, and they likened it as hitting by a tooth stick.[31]

This observation about a “tooth stick” needs clarity. In Arabia in the seventh century a toothpick was not like today. It was a branch taken from a shrub around Mecca and Medina, in Western Saudi Arabia today. “The most widely used tree twigs since early times [are called] the Siwak or Miswak. The stick is obtained from a plant called Salvadore Persica that grows around Mecca and the Middle East area in general… Salvadora Persica is in fact a small tree or shrub with a crooked trunk, seldom more than one foot in diameter, bark scabrous and cracked, whitish with pendulous extremities.”[32]

Granted, the toothpick branch may not kill, but it could still inflict injury.

The answer by the AMJA scholar concludes:

The crux of the matter is that light hitting is a way of cure and discipline that is valid in some circumstances and with some people. It is a bitter remedy that should be annulled by good and righteous people. Sharia has ruled out controlling guidelines that regulate the relationships between husbands and their wives, especially hitting, so as not to become a tool of torture in the hands of harsh and lout husbands to enslave their wives!

Then, remains now that wise and smart wives should not excite their husbands` anger and wrath, their stubbornness and might, they should realize that their kindness politeness, and good manners to their husbands equal the degrees of fasting, charity, and all other subordinate religious duties. The smart wife can absorb her husband`s anger and discontent by being kind and obedient to him, and if she fears disobedience and haughtiness from his part towards her, she must remind him of Allah`s mercy and forgiveness, and if he is as adamant as ever, she can seek counseling and advice of people of knowledge to make him more flexible and responsive. Finally, she can pray to Allah to help her in her plight and dilemma.[33]

In a reply to another question written in to AMJA about an abusive husband, a different scholar offers some remedial steps for the abused wife; then he says divorce is permissible.

The scholar writes:

That being said, it is allowed for a woman to seek divorce if she is mistreated by her husband. She may do that if she feels their marriage is a source of more harm than good for her (and her kids) in this life or the one to come. She will be granted divorce if she can prove that she is mistreated. If she is not mistreated, (or she can’t prove it,) yet she hates to live with him and believes she can’t maintain the marriage while observing the bounds of Allah, it is allowed for her to seek separation through khul’, which entails giving the man back his dower.[34]

The Islamic scholar at AMJA, before he reaches his permission to divorce, fails to understand batterers and offers unrealistic solutions (read the full reply). But at least he gives the battered wife a way out, in the above excerpt. To prove the abuse, let’s hope she takes picture of her face and let’s hope the Muslim judge is reasonable and grants her the divorce.

Reformist Interpretations

The organization Sisters in Islam (SIS) is a Malaysian group that reinterprets the Quran and Islam from a modern perspective. An executive summary by the organization of an article written by feminist Kecia Ali concludes:

The numerous possible interpretations of Q[uran] 4:34 serve to highlight the role of human (and therefore fallible) intellect in comprehending scripture. The fact that so many different views exist as to what any particular word such as daraba, “to strike” shows that any attempt to fix the meaning of this (or any) verse once and for all is doomed to failure.

There is a sharp divide between traditional interpretations of this verse, which stress female obedience and male authority, and contemporary interpretations, which emphasize the financial component of men’s marital duties and the limits on a husband’s power over his wife. Many Muslims have gravitated toward the latter views, as they are more in keeping not only with modern sensibilities in general but also the Quranic portrayal of women in other verses as full human beings and partners in the relationship of marriage. Yet, however convincing one finds the progressive arguments that a man striking his wife is not permitted by Q[uran] 4:34, it is impossible to remove all difference or hierarchy from this verse without doing violence to the Quranic text itself.

This is not a problem unique to marriage or to relations between men and women: the tension between equality in spiritual matters and hierarchy in worldly matters applies to many social situations addressed by the Quran (such as wealth/poverty or freedom/slavery). Nor is it unique to the Quran or Islam; such tensions exist in other scriptures and in other religions. These considerations do not help to determine the meaning of Q[uran] 4:34 or to resolve the difficulties it presents for those Muslims committed to women’s equality with men. However, they serve as a reminder that no matter how one interprets this verse, one must not do so in isolation, but rather with careful attention to its full scriptural and social contexts.[35]

In other words, they just do not know the plain meaning of the verse, but it has male hierarchy built into it, which is common to all religions; the verse, however, is actually very clear, and it still poses difficulties for Muslims “committed to women’s equality with men.”

What do other Muslim women interpreters think about this verse?

Amina Wadud, Islamic Studies Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, offers her viewpoint.[36]

Unwilling to deny the divine inspiration and validity of 4:34 for today, she stretches credulity to get around the difficulties. She simply looks up in an Arabic lexicon the word daraba used in the verse, which means “to strike,” and finds a meaning in another context that suits her. So “to strike” does not always signify a physical hit, but may also mean “to strike out” on a journey.[37]

However, as we have noted in the section on the Quran, this is a misuse of language, for the context and the intent, when they are as straightforward as those in Quran 4:34, must determine the meaning of a word. When the context clearly says that husbands may “strike” wives, it does not mean husbands may “strike out on a journey.” The phrase “in the land” is missing, but it is the key in the Quran for the clause “strike out on a journey.” Hence, Wadud’s doubtful interpretation indicates that she too cannot manage to stay with the clear and plain meaning when the context and intent are straightforward. However, she gets credit for pointing out that Islam arose in a patriarchal society that influenced the fledgling religion.[38]

Hathout is another female commentator. But before we challenge her interpretation, we first challenge Ahmed Ali’s odd translation, above, since it serves as the background to her misinterpretation. He bases his clause “and go to bed with them (if they are willing)” instead of the more accurate “hit them,” on the same shaky reasoning that Wadud uses. He too goes to a dictionary and picks out a context that suits him, noting that daraba sometimes means to have intercourse among humans. His example: “the stud camel covered [darab] the she-camel.”

Moreover, Ali’s translation does not fit the clear meaning of the rest of the verse, and this is why he must supply a false addition in parenthesis: “(if they are willing).” But this confuses the sequence in 4:34 itself: admonition, no sex, hitting. In Ali’s sequence, in contrast, a husband goes from ignoring his wife in bed one moment, to having sex with her without her repentance (admonition – no sex – sex).

Rather, sexual relations happen only after the successful three-step process of dealing with a rebellious wife and her repentance: admonition – no sex – hitting – repentance – sex. No reputable scholar denies this sequence and the remedial purpose behind it; hence the many translators cited above disagree with Ali, because his translation mixes up the order.

Thus, like Wadud, he stretches credulity, for the clear and non-metaphorical meaning of daraba in this verse – not in other verses in the Quran nor in written records about the sexual habits of camels in seventh-century Arabia – is “to hit” or “to strike” wives.

With Ali’s mistranslation as the background, Hathout latches on to his apologetics because it suits her presuppositions, even though many translators disagree with Ali and her. Revealingly, she quotes him without the parenthesis around the added words “if they are willing.” Her omission misleads the unsuspecting reader that the clause is original, whereas it is actually supplied by Ali in order to smooth over his jarring mistranslation.

As noted, according to the clear and straightforward translation of 4:34, daraba does not mean metaphorically “to have sex,” but literally “to strike” or “to hit.”

Further, Hathout writes:

Islam was introduced to Arabian society more than 1,425 years ago. That society, like the rest of the world at that time – and much of today’s world – was dominated by a patriarchal elite power structure. That power structure did not take kindly to the advent of Islam, in particular the Islamic teachings of equality among all people, including women and slaves.

The teachings of Islam posed a threat to the Arabian power structure, which had not encountered a similar threat to its very existence. Aside from persecuting the early followers of Islam, the power elite needed to dilute the teachings of Islam.

Unfortunately for women, much of the corrosion in Islam’s message pertained to issues related to women. Why? Historically women have been easy targets; it was an easy way for the powerful to ensure they maintained control over at least one segment of society.

The subjugation of women is important on a number of societal levels for the power elite. Once women are excluded from the potential power base on a societal level, the next logical step is to exclude them from decision making or power at the domestic level.[39]

Hatout in her short article goes astray when she denies the clear teaching of Quran 4:34: Husbands may hit their wives. However, her thesis that domestic violence emerged outside of Islam as a struggle of the power elites to control things may be the right one. But is she willing to follow through on her thesis? Muhammad should not have incorporated wife beating into his sacred book. But he did, so that verse has an expiration date – the seventh century. Islam needs to be reformed by stating clearly that the verse is invalid for today. Hatout’s historical interpretation is on the right track, however.

The American Muslim (TAM) features a petition that shows 10,000 men opposed domestic violence. The context of this petition is the honor killing of a Muslim girl.

We, the men of the board and staff of the Muslim Consultative Network, stand against domestic violence in any and all forms. In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we ask Muslim men to stand with us against this societal ill that is strictly forbidden in Islam….

…Islam clearly condemns domestic violence. Once a number of women came to the Prophet… to complain that their husbands had beaten them. The prophet announced that men who beat their wives are not good men. The prophet also said, “Do not beat the female servants of Allah.” Surah Al-Baqarah [Chapter 2] from the Quran states: “Retain them in kindness or release them in kindness. But do not retain them to their hurt so that you transgress (the limits). If anyone does that he wrongs his own soul. Do not take God’s instructions as a jest.”[40]

However, the main text of the petition does not quote Quran 4:34. Also the verse in Chapter 2 (229) does not refer to domestic violence, but to divorce. Muslim men are to “release” their wives with kindness and not keep any material possession that belongs to the wives. So TAM takes the verse out of context and does not deal with the main one. Was this an intentional cover up?

To sum up this section on modern Islam, these quoted examples from Muslim scholars and religious leaders and a lawyer will seem old and outdated in a few years. But the main point will still be clear: can Islam reform and stop the domestic violence? The traditionalists have 1,400 years and a clear Quranic verse to back them up. Islam is an extremely conservative religion and loathe to reform, so the reformists have an uphill climb.

CONCLUSION

Hathout notes in her article that all societies have domestic violence. That’s true and morally wrong. But Islam enshrines it in the Quran. That’s also true and morally wrong. Muslims believe that Allah through Gabriel brought it down to Muhammad, so it is a blessing for all societies today, because all of its verses reflect Allah’s universal truths.

With such divine endorsement for hitting wives, can Islam reform on this matter? Are Muslims willing to believe that the third step (hitting) has an expiration date, back in the seventh century?

Abdel Haleem, like Qutb, Maududi, Wadud, Ali, and Hathout, are reluctant to question the validity of this Quranic revelation. Therefore, all of them and other Muslim scholars not discussed here are unwilling not only to deny the divine inspiration of 4:34, but they also seem reluctant to interpret it as fitting only within seventh century Arabia and hence as irrelevant for today.

Apparently, with such a rigid and unrealistically high view of Quranic inspiration, this denial of the verse’s inspiration would create too much cognitive dissonance or mental shock them.

To reform, however, one must confront problems head on, not pretend that they do not exist or explain them away. But if these scholars are reluctant and even defend or explain away sacred verses by linguistic contortions, what about ordinary Muslims, and especially what about fanatics? Surely they too would be hesitant to confront the problem. The policy of domestic violence of the Islamic scholar holding up sample rods, noted in the introduction of this chapter, is the inevitable result for fanatics, and divinely endorsed hitting is the inevitable result in the average household.

However, if Muslims are reluctant to reform or to set aside passages in the Quran that no longer apply today, they must avoid a dubious approach to the uninformed seekers around the world. Muslim scholars must never soft-sell or whitewash domestic violence in the origins of their religion, which Muhammad himself engaged in at least once against his child-bride Aisha.

Hitting or beating wives in Quran 4:34 is a gigantic social and cultural step backwards. Pointing this out is not culturally insensitive, but truthful and sensitive towards our own culture. And not pointing it out would be to defer too much to a violent custom.

It is archaic and cultural, not timeless and universal. It does indeed have an expiration date, during the time of Muhammad and the first four caliphs – not to mention that it should never have been invented and imposed in the first place (see the second point and Historicism as a theory to help Muslim scholars reach this conclusion).

Sometimes Muslim scholars say the West is arrogant, and maybe that is true in some cases. But refusal to learn from others is also a sign of arrogance.

The standards that are outlined in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) are universal values that never have an expiration date. They can guide us in detecting bad values, like hitting wives, even rebellious or unseemly ones. Spousal abuse is wrong because it denies women a high quality of life without fear; it denies them liberty of their own bodies and persons; and it denies them physical and mental well being and happiness.

Therefore sharia should never be inculcated into the American way of life or anywhere else around the free world. No intellectual elite should refer to it to pass a law, issue a ruling based on it, incorporate it into any school curricula, or implement a policy with it.[41]

This article fist appeared at Jihad Watch on August 16, 2012, but has been updated here.

Articles in the Series

More Punishments:

[1] Summer Hathout, “Don’t Hold All Muslims Responsible for Men Who Misuse Quran, Beat Women,” Muslim Women’s League (no date).

[2] Steven Stalinsky and Y. Yehoshua, “Muslim Clerics on the Religious Rulings Regarding Wife-Beating,” March 22, 2004, Memri.org, Special Report No. 27.

[3] Ibid.

[4] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2010). If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website quranbrowser.com and type in the references.

[5] Orooj Ahmed Ali, al-Quran, rev. ed., (Princeton UP, 1984, rev. 1986, rev. 1994).

[6] Hathout, “Don’t Hold.”

[7] According to Hanna E. Kassis, A Concordance of the Quran (Los Angeles: UCP, 1983), 410-11, daraba is used a total of about fifty-eight times and means, depending on its context, to “strike, smite, stamp, beat; to liken or strike (a parable or similitude), to cite (an example or a dispute); (daraba fi al-ard) to journey; to draw or cast (a veil); (with prep. ‘ala) to pitch on, to stamp; (with prep. ‘an) to turn something away; (with prep. bayn) to set up between, to separate; (noun verb) striking, smiting, etc.; (with preposition fi) journeying.” For our purposes here we keep track only of three definitions, since they are the most frequent. Strike a similitude: 2:26; 13:15; 14:24, 25; 14:45; 16:74, 75, 76, 112; 17:48; 18:11, 32, 45; 22:73; 24:35; 25:9, 39;  29:43; 30:28, 58; 36:13, 78; 39:27, 29; 43:17; 47:3; 59:21; 66:10; journeying: 2:273; 3:156; 4:94, 101; 5:106; 73:20; hit or beat: 2:60, 73; 4:34; 7:160; 8:12, 8:50; 18:11; 20:77; 26:63; 37:93; 38:44; 47:4, 27. The most frequent use of daraba is to strike a similitude, and the context makes it easy to determine that meaning: stories of long ago are used as illustrations or examples. Most instances of this definition occur in the Meccan chapters, which were written between A.D. 610 and 622, when Muhammad had no military, so the battles had not yet taken place. He had to live in peace with his neighbors. At that time, he told stories about peoples and prophets in ancient times, who serve as reminders of righteousness. Next, as for journeying, this definition is also clear in its context because of the phrase fi al-ard, “throughout” or “in the land” (ard means “land” or “earth”). Finally, hit or beat can be decided from its context. Angels are said to beat pagans (8:50, 47:27). Moses strikes the water or the rock (2:60; 20:77, 26:63); Muslim jihadists are commanded to strike the neck or fingers of pagans (8:12; 47:4). And husbands are permitted to hit or beat their wives (4:34).

[8] When Hathout says daraba means to “separate” or “depart,” she must be referring to “journeying.” But that definition comes into play only with the phrase “in the land,” which does not appear in 4:34.

[9] Sayyid A’La Abul Maududi, The Meaning of the Qur’an, 4th ed., vol. 1, trans. Ch. Muhammad Akbar and ed. A. A. Kamal, (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 2003), 297-303. Chapter 4. His translation and commentary are available online at englishtafsir.com.

[10] Bukhari, Dress, 007.072.715, with slight mechanical adjustments. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[11] Idem, Marriage, 007.062.132, with slight mechanical adjustments.

[12] Dr. Salah al-Sawy, Secretary General at the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA), in his reply to the question “Can A Husband Hit His Wife in the Face?”, Question ID no. 620, amajonline.com, April 23, 2005, comments on the narration and says that the husband who hits his wife and then has sex with later is wrong.

[13] Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, trans. Alfred Guillaume (New York: Oxford UP, 1955), 651.

[14] Muslim, Divorce, 009.3526, with slight mechanical adjustments; cf. 009.3527.

[15] Idem, Prayer (Salat), 004.2127, emphasis added. The notes in brackets are mine; the ones in parentheses are the translator’s. I made slight mechanical adjustments.

[16] Abu Dawud, Marriage, 011.2141, with slight mechanical adjustments. My comments are in brackets. The translator’s comments are in parentheses.

[17] Idem, Fasting, 013.2453, with slight mechanical adjustments. The notes in brackets are mine; the ones in parentheses are the translator’s.

[18] Idem, Marriage, 011.2137

[19] Ibid. 011.2139. The parenthetical insertion is original.

[20] Ibid. 011.2142, with slight mechanical adjustments.

[21] The translator of Abu Dawud says that the short hadith means husbands should hit as a last resort (note 1468, which is not online). However, that is not necessarily the right interpretation of the hadith because it assumes that men in the original Muslim community followed Muhammad’s word to the letter. Not every human obeys like that. That specific and brief hadith says nothing about a last resort. Quran 4:34 opens the door to hitting, last resort or not.

[22] Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994),540-41. The comments label “O” are done by Sheikh Umar Barakat (d. post-1890), and the comments by “A” are done by Sheikh Abd al-Wakil Durubi (b. 1914). The emphasis is the translator’s.

[23] Ibid. 682, with minor mechanical adjustments. The inserted comments “A” are by Sheikh Abd al-Wakil Durubi. Khalil Nahlawi (d. 1931) is a Hanafi scholar of Damascus.

[24] Malik ibn Anas, Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formation of Islamic Law, rev. ed., trans. Aisha Bewley, Inverness, Scotland: Madina Press, 1989, 2001), 30.2.13, with slight mechanical adjustments. This law book is also available at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

[25] Sayyid Qutb, In the Shade of the Quran, vol. 3, trans. and ed. Adil Salahi and Ashur Shamus (Markfield: Islamic Foundation, 2001), 137.

[26] Maududi, Meaning, vol. 1, 333, note 59.

[27] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Quran: Themes and Style, (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001).

[28] Ibid. 55.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, “Difficult Dawah Questions,” Dawah: Invite to God, with mechanical adjustments.

[31] Dr. Salah al-Sawy, Secretary General at the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA), in his reply to the question “Can A Husband Hit His Wife in the Face?” Question ID or fatwa no. 620, amajonline.com, April 23, 2005.

[32] M. Ragaii El-Mostehy et al. “An Oral Health Device,” Mission Islam.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hatem al-Haj, “Angry, Mean, Inconsiderate Husband. Please Advise,” Question ID or fatwa no. 83029, amajonline.com, November 3, 2010.

[35] “Kecia Ali: Muslim Sexual Ethics: Understanding a Difficult Verse, Quran 4:34,” Sisters in Islam. My insertions are in brackets. The parenthetical comments are original.

[36] Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford UP, 1999).

[37] Ibid. 76.

[38] Ibid. 80-82.

[39] Hathout, “Don’t Hold.”

[40]10,000 Muslim Men against Domestic Violence,” The American Muslim, October 8, 2010.

[41] This series of articles does not contrast Christianity and Islam on the topic of women. However, readers may be curious about it. If so, they may click on this article, here. Neither the Old Testament nor especially the New Testament says anything about hitting wives, and the Old Testament can come up with harsh punishments.

 

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