Quran 4:34, ‘Beat Them’ (Wife Abuse)?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Kaleef K. Karim

Disclaimer: This article is by no means a defence of domestic violence, but a comprehensive elucidation on the Quranic passage 4:34, explaining the verse in question, in great detail, using Muslim and non-Muslim Scholarly evidences, so that readers understand the verse and its implications more thoroughly.

Quran 4:34 “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel (strength) the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.). As to those women on whose part you see 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). Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.”

The claim by critics that ‘the Quran sanctions wife abuse’, that a man can beat her wife black and blue for disobedience any-time he wants, is a complete lie.

Firstly, there is a serious sequence of events that has to take place before a husband can lightly beat his wife. When the word ‘beat’ is mentioned in the passage, it is meant in a symbolic way, it is meant to emotionally make the wife think, what she is doing is wrong. It is important to point out that the verse starts off with that men are protectors of women, it says: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other (strength).” It is also crucial to show the fact that the Quran describes three steps to be taken, before a husband can symbolically, ‘lightly beat’ her. The verse does not start off with ‘beat her whenever she disobeys’. The main aim of the passage is to prevent (restrain) a husband from using violence against his wife.

1.Qawwamuna – ‘Protectors and maintainers’

The passage begins by stating that men are ‘protectors and maintainers’ of women, this straight away throws the false argument held by critics that men in Islam are allowed to abuse their wives. Also I would like to highlight that the verse does not denote that men are superior to their wives. The Arabic word ‘qawwamuna’ used in the start of the verse literally means that men are “protectors and maintainers’.

Dr. Ahmed K. Nazir comments on the word ‘Qawwam’ (‘qawwamuna’) in his book, he says:

“Some quote the verse 4:34 (Men are the protectors and maintainers of women…) to say that, in Islam, men are the bosses of women.This phrase does not mean that men are the rulers or commanders of women. As human beings, Islam gives equal status to both men and women. This phrase means that men are protectors of women and they are responsible to spend of their property for the support of women. The Arabic word ‘Qawwam’ (protectors) means ‘One who stands firm in another’s business, protects his interests, and looks after his affairs: or it may be, standing form in his own business, managing affairs, with a steady purpose.’”[1]

Those critics who love to quote the verse (4:34) and assume that men are masters and women are servants, should get familiar with chapter 9 verse 71 of the Quran, as the same words (Qawwamanu) are used for both passages.

Quran 9:71 The Believers, men and women, are protectors (Qawwamanu) of one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise.

Thus, the Arabic word ‘Qawwamanu’ only means, to guard, protect, maintain, take-care of, not what uneducated missionaries have assumed that ‘men are masters over their wives.’ We shall now bring forth further evidence for the Arabic word ‘Qawwamanu’.

Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Religion: Q-Z gives the meaning for the Arabic word Qawwam, it says:

“Qawwam: Qawwam or qayyim is a person responsible for administering or supervising the affairs of either an individual or an organization, for protecting and safeguarding them and taking care of their needs.”[2]

We can see that the word ‘Qawwamuna’ is someone who is a ‘protector and maintainer’ for the wife, a man who is financially responsible for the family. God Almighty has assigned men the role, to be a maintainer and guardian of the household, taking care of the wife’s needs-i.e, food on the plate, clothing, shelter and protecting her physically and emotionally when she is down. This just goes to show that women in the Quran are treated with dignity, and commanded by God that they be protected.

2. Arabic word ‘Nushuz’

Next, the word ‘nushuz’. Dr. Ahmed Shafaat, who is a commentator of the Quran gives a thorough, detailed explanation on the word. He writes:

“As for those women on whose part you fear nushuz…” Before we go any further with the translation, it is important to explain the meaning of the key word nushuz. The literal meaning of the word is “rebellion”. But rebellion against whom and in what sense? We should certainly not think of this in terms the rebellion of the ruled against a ruler in a sultanate or dictatorship and conclude that it consists of the wife disobeying some of the husband’s commands. This is because the same word nushuz is used in case of a husband in verse 128 of the same surah 4, where it is said: “If a woman fears nushuz on her husband’s part…” So nushuz is something that can be feared by the husband on the wife’s part or by the wife on her husband’s part. It cannot therefore be understood in terms of the ruler-ruled relationship. To correctly understand the meaning of the word, it must be noted that both in the verse under consideration and in verse 128 the reference to nushuz is followed by a reference to the break-up of the marriage (see vv. 35, 130). If this context is kept in mind, then it becomes evident that nushuz means the type of behaviour on the part of the husband or the wife which is so disturbing for the other that their living together becomes difficult.

Now the behaviour of a marriage partner can become disturbing for the other in one of the following two ways:

1) There is no ill-will on the part of the offending party. It is simply because of some incompatibility between the two or the failure on the part of one to understand the other that one of them finds some aspect of the other’s behaviour disturbing.

2) One partner knowingly behaves or continues to behave in a way which seriously disturbs the other partner. In this case there is obviously an ill-will on the part of the first partner towards the second.
Nushuz is only this second type of behaviour, for only a deliberate ill-conduct based on ill-will can be described as “rebellion”.

There is also a measure of relativeness about nushuz in the sense that what constitutes nushuz in the eyes of one person may not be so viewed by another. For this reason, the judgment that one’s spouse has been guilty of nushuz is partly a subjective and personal one. That is why the verse says: “If you fear nushuz…” instead of for example, “if you find nushuz….” In the Holy Qur’an “fearing” signifies subjective but certain, knowledge or judgment about something.

In short, nushuz is a behaviour on the part of one marriage partner which comes out of ill-will and seriously disturbs the other partner. (Source)

3. Speaking to your wife (1) and then separating beds (2)

It is also important to highlight to everyone that, when a wife is disobedient, who is seriously disturbing the peace in marriage. The husband has to first speak to her with gentle words, to bring her to her senses that, what she is doing is wrong. When the verbal complaint to the wife is exhausted and she continuous. Then the Quran commands the husband to separate beds with her, depriving her of her sexual needs.

4. Arabic word ‘Iddribunnah’

The Arabic word ‘Iddribunnah’ for chapter 4 verse 34, has been by many critics, especially Anti-Islam propagandists websites twisted, distorted. They assume that this word sanctions (approves) of wife abuse. When the word ‘iddribunnah’ is used for the passage (Q 4:34), which means ‘beat’ (lightly), this final step the husband takes, that he beats (lightly) her. When one looks at the verse, in a historical perspective, it has always meant in a symbolic way. The husband is not allowed to hurt, bruise, break any part of her body, must also avoid the face. Prophet Muhammad (p) stated in his farewell pilgrimage:

“Treat women kindly, they are like captives in your hands; you do not owe anything else from them. In case they are guilty of open indecency, then do not share their beds and beat them lightly but if they return to obedience, do not have recourse to anything else against them. You have rights over your wives and they have their rights over you. Your right is that they shall not permit anyone you dislike to enter your home, and their right is that you should treat them well in the matter of food and clothing”. [At- Tirmidhi Arabic/English book reference: Book 1, Hadith 276]

We see from the above narration the Prophet(p), commanding Muslims that they treat they wives with kindness. Also, the prophet (p) mentioned that, if a woman is found to be ‘guilty of indecency’ that the husband should separate his bed from his wife, depriving her of her sexual needs. Then, if the wife continuous with the same old behaviour, not changed, last resort ‘beat lightly’, touching her in such a way as to not leave a mark, not to hurt her.

Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari who is one of the earliest commentators of the Quran writes on Surah 4:34. Tabari who has a tradition going back to one of the Companions of the Prophet (p), and explains the word ‘beat’, he says:
“I asked Ibn Abbas: ‘What is the hitting that is ghayr al-mubarrih?’ He replied [with] the siwak (toothbrush like a twig) and the like’. Narrated by al-Tabari in his tafsir (Dar al-fikr reprint 5:68)

Furthermore Al-Razi (865 – 925 A.D.) who is a scholar also comments on the verse:
“Al-Razi (3:222) mentions that as a rule (a) it must be a light beating and (b) the face must be avoided. He added that certain Shafi’I jurists said “coiled scarf (mindil malfuf) or his hand may be used but not a whip nor a stick.”

Here is a picture of, what a ‘Miswak’ (or Siwak) looks like:
Miswak. Siwak, brush teeth, Maswak

From the evidences presented, it is abundantly clear that the beat must be very light, that one has to use a Miswak (toothbrush) or “coiled scarf”, as scholars mentioned it. It is evident that the force utilised by a ‘folded scarf’ or a ‘miswak’ is, therefore, purely symbolic, it is in no way meant to hurt her, it is more like a shock to wake her up. I mentioned at the start of the article that, I will present non-Muslim Scholarly evidences, who know about Islamic law and the rights of women. Pay close attention to what they have to say, regarding Quran 4:34.

John Louis Esposito (born May 19, 1940) is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. Professor John L. Esposito is a Catholic Christian he says in his book “What does Islam have to say about domestic violence?” He writes:

“Domestic violence is a serious social problem in the West and globally, and the Muslim world is no exception. Many grass-roots movements and women’s organizations who work to eradicate it through education for both men and women emphasize Quranic teachings about the rights and responsibilities of men and women and about marital relations. In some Muslim societies, men use the Quran to justify domestic violence. However, many verses in the Quran teach that men and women are to be kind to and supportive of each other. Love and justice in family relationships are emphasized, and cruelty is forbidden. Quran 30:21 states, ‘And among his signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your [hearts]: behold, verily in that are signs for those who reflect.’ Quran 4:19 further commands, ‘O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness. On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing through which God brings about a great deal of good. ’Chronologically, the last Quranic verse to be revealed that addressed relations between husband and wife was 9:71, in which women and men are described as being each other’s protecting friends and guardians, emphasizing their cooperation in living together as partners, rather than adversaries or superiors and subordinates. Likewise, the hadith (Prophetic traditions) note Muhammad’s respect for and protection of women. Muhammad said, ‘The best of you is he who is best to his wife.’ Muhammad’s wife Aisha narrated that Muhammad never hit any servant or woman and never physically struck anyone with his own hand. Neither the Quran nor the hadith record Muhammad as ever mistreating or losing temper with any of his wives, even when he was unhappy or dissatisfied. Those who use the Quran to justify wife-beating point to 4:34, which says, ‘Good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, then banish them to beds apart and strike them. But if they obey you, do not seek a way against them.’ In recent years scholars have argued that ‘obedience’ refers to women’s attitude toward God, not toward her husband. Furthermore, obedience in this verse is tied to the women’s guarding of her chastity, so that an obedient women is one who does not commit sexual immorality. The word typically translated as ‘disobedience’ (Nushuz) refers to disruption of marital harmony in which one spouse fails to fulfil the required duties of marriage. It is applied elsewhere in the Quran to bother men and women. The end of the verse admonishes men not to mistreat women who obey them. Rather than granting men the right to strike their wives, reformers argue, this verse reminds men of their responsibility to treat women fairly. Quran 4:34 lists three methods to be used in resolving marital disputes. First comes admonition or discussion between the husband and wife alone or with the assistance of arbiters. This practice, also recommended by 4:35 and 4:128, is also to be used for couples considering divorce. If this fails, the second option is physical separation, sleeping in separate beds, which gives the couple space for cooling off and thinking about the future of their marital relationship. The third and final method is to strike or hit. The striking takes the singular form grammatically, so that only a single strike Is permissible. Quran 4:34 was revealed early In the Medinan period of Muhammad’s ministry, a time and place in which cruelty and violence against women remained rampant. Thus some Muslim scholars today argue that the single strike permitted in this verse was intended as a restriction on an existing practice, not as a recommended method for dealing with one’s wife.
In the major hadith collections- Muslim, Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Daud, Nasai, and Ibn Majah- hadith about striking all emphasize that striking should be done in such a way AS NOT TO CAUSE PAIN OR HARM. THESE SOURCES TRESS STRESS THAT IN CASES WHERE A SINGLE STRIKE IS USED, IT SHOULD BE MERELY SYMBOLIC. The founder of the Shafii law of school maintained that it is preferable to avoid striking altogether. Despite the fact that domestic violence continued to exist in male-dominated cultures and to be legitimated in the name of religion, neither the majority of Quranic verses nor the hadith support or permit it.”[3]

Rev. Dr. Ira Gilbert Zepp, Jr., professor emeritus of the Religious Studies department at McDaniel College, also comments on the Quranic passage 4:34, he says the following:

“The husband is the head of the household, is the final authority, and has due obedience and cooperation from his wife. If the wife is rebellious or disobedient, there are several options open to the husband. He may first try dissuade her with kind and gentle reasoning. If this fails, he may then refrain from sleeping with her. And if the above are not effective, he has Quranic permission to ‘beat her lightly’ (4:34).
Such ‘slight physical correction’ (as Yusuf Ali says) avoids her face and other sensitive areas. Striking your wife in the face (as was pictured in the film Not without my Daughter) and other forms of verbal and physical cruelty have no sanction in the Quran.
Many Muslims feel that although permitted, such activity is not advisable and is the exception much more than the rule. If all else fails, the next verse (4:35) suggests the couple seek help and counsel from a mediator. Perhaps the disagreement between husband and wife can be resolved in this open, balanced and neutral way.”[4]

Dr. Chris T. R. Hewer ‘comes from a background in Christian theology, education, Islamic studies and inter-faith studies and has worked in the field of Muslims in Britain and Christian-Muslim relations since 1986.’ Dr. Chris T.R Hewer who is of Christian faith, is another in line of respected experts commenting on the Quranic passage 4:34, he says:

“An adult woman has many rights within Islam that were granted by the Qur’an and Hadith of Muhammad but for which Western women have had to fight in the twentieth century. Both men and women have an equal responsibility to follow the Islamic way of life (Q. 33.35). A Muslim woman is allowed to own property in her own right and dispose of it without reference to her husband. She normally keeps her own name after marriage. She is permitted to make her own will to dispose of her goods after death. She has an entitlement to education at all levels equal to that of a man. She is entitled to sexual fulfilment. She has a right to engage in any profession or business. She should be consulted in public affairs, following the example of Muhammad who habitually sought the opinion of some of the Muslim women before making a decision. She has the right to keep and control her earnings, it being the duty of the husband to meet all domestic expenditure, house his family and educate his children (Q. 4.34).
There are no grounds for her to be a domestic drudge, it technically being the husband’s duty to see that hot food is laid before his wife. The only duty laid upon a wife is to be open to bear children, should God bless them, and to nurse them when they are young, although even here a wet-nurse can be retained. These are of course the ideals as provided by Islamic law but the realities in Muslim families around the world do not always follow these prescriptions.
Reference is often made to the verse of the Qur’an that appears to allow a husband to beat his wife (Q. 4.34). The context here is one of nushuz, a violation of duties on the part of the religious wife. This verse of the Quran lays down four steps to be taken, which may be seen as a correction and limitation of pre-Islamic practices. First the man should speak to his wife. If this fails, he should then refuse sleep with her. Only if this fails to change her ways, is he allowed a kind of symbolic humiliation by striking her with his miswak, a piece of wood smaller than a pencil, the tip of which is used for brushing the teeth. Even this is considered inadvisable in some schools of Islam, and any form of cruelty, including verbal abuse, is unanimously forbidden. Should all this fail, then the couple should seek arbitration within the family.”[5]

Conclusion: We can see & understand that God has commanded men to protect their wives financially, physically and emotionally. If the wife should be guilty of lewd or indecent conduct, the husband is told to first, admonish her and then if she would cease this lewdness. If she still continues in this indecency (rebellion), then he should no longer share the bed with her. Also, if she still, deliberately continuous with the same old behaviour, then the husband has the command from the Quran to beat her lightly with a Miswak (a small toothbrush). Finally, the critics false arguments, trying to criticise the Quran, assuming that ‘Islam allows wife abuse’ has thoroughly been refuted, using Muslim and non-Muslim scholarly evidences against their fictitious arguments. We get a clear picture that Islam in no way advocates’ wife abuse. Islam has always taught “to love your wife,” to feed them, to treat your wife with kindness, as it will be shown in the following statements from Prophet Muhammad (p):

Narrated Mu’awiyah al-Qushayri: “I went to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) 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. (Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Number 2139 recorded in Ibn Majah as well, and others. Verified to be Authentic by Al- Albani, As sahihah Number. 687).

Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying: “He who believes in Allah and the Hereafter, if he witnesses any matter he should talk in good terms about it or keep quiet. Act kindly towards woman, for woman is created from a rib, and the most crooked part of the rib is its top. If you attempt to straighten it, you will break it, and if you leave it, its crookedness will remain there. So act kindly towards women.” (Muslim, The Book of Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Book 8, Number 3468)

Ghazzali’s Ihya Ulum-Id-Din, Marriage:
“The most perfect of believers in faith are those who are the finest in manners and most gentle toward their wives.”[6]

References:

[1] Dispositions: Gazing Into the Amazing, Colorful, Global Crystal of Human Life [2009] By Ahmed K. Nazir M.D. page 108
[2] Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Religion: Q-Z [Copyright 2005] Dr. Ramesh Chopra page 623
[3] What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam: Second Edition [Copyright 2011] By John L. Esposito page 114 – 116
[4] A Muslim Primer: Beginner’s Guide to Islam, Volume 1 By Ira G. Zepp Jr page 127 – 128 [Copyright 1992]
[5] Understanding Islam: The First Ten Steps [Copyright 2006]  By Dr. Chris T. R. Hewer, Allan Anderson page 129 – 130
[6] Ghazzali’s Ihya Ulum-Id-Din, Marriage section http://www.ghazali.org/works/marriage.htm

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