Saturday, December 10, 2005

Wife-beating, Misogyny, and All That Jazz …

Antagonists of Islam have been raising quite some hell over verse 4:34 of the Holy Qur’an. Their main contention is that since the verse permits a husband to "beat" his wife in certain conditions, it has sanctioned physical abuse or violence. We will insha’Allah consider here not only the allegations made, but also why they were made, why some of our Muslim brothers have actually been apologetic about it, what the correct refutation to these allegations is, and what lessons we should learn from this whole issue of attacking the Qur’an.

First and foremost, we need to emphasize the obvious fact lost on so many that the Qur’an is in Arabic. The Holy Qur’an itself has proclaimed in several places that it has been revealed in the Arabic language (12:2, 13:37, 16:103, 20:113, 26:195, 39:28, 41:3, 41:44, 42:7, 43:3, and 46:12). The reason for the Qur’an being in Arabic is that it should be perfect in every respect:

And indeed We have put forth for men, in this Qur'an every kind of similitude in order that they may remember. An Arabic Qur'an, without any crookedness (therein) in order that they may avoid all evil which God has ordered them to avoid, fear Him and keep their duty to Him. (Qur’an, 39:27-28)

It is obvious that any translation of the Qur’an is NOT the Qur’an. The translation will necessarily be imperfect and will contain some degree of “crookedness”. Thus, the argument that the Qur’an says that a man is allowed to scourge, beat, or be violent towards his wife just because an English translation has used those words, is a reflection of the contender’s ignorance or prejudice. To deal with the issue at hand, we will have to turn to verse 4:34 of the Qur’an as it is in the original Arabic:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاء بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللّهُ وَاللاَّتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلاَ تَبْغُواْ عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلاً إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

The verse has sometimes been translated as follows:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend [to support them] from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient [to God and to their husbands], and guard in the husband's absence what God 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, if it is useful], but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means [of annoyance]. Surely, God is Ever Most High, Most Great. (Qur’an, 4:34)

The Arabic phrase adh-re-boo-hun-na has been translated to mean “beat” them. The root verb employed here is dharaba, which is used in the sense of “to strike”, but it can be used to mean anything from a gentle tap to a fatal blow, as is evident from its use in the Qur’an at other places:

Mild tap:

So We said: "Strike him (the dead man) with a piece of it (the cow)." Thus God brings the dead to life and shows you His Signs so that you may understand. (Qur’an, 2:73)

Then he turned upon them, striking (them) with (his) right hand. (Qur’an, 37:93)

Moderate strike:

And indeed We inspired Moses (saying): "Travel by night with My slaves and strike a dry path for them in the sea, fearing neither to be overtaken [by Pharaoh] nor being afraid (of drowning in the sea)." (Qur’an, 20:77)

Then We inspired Moses (saying): "Strike the sea with your stick." And it parted, and each separate part (of that sea water) became like the huge, firm mass of a mountain. (Qur’an, 26:63)

And (remember) when Moses asked for water for his people, We said: "Strike the stone with your stick." Then gushed forth therefrom twelve springs. Each (group of) people knew its own place for water. "Eat and drink of that which God has provided and do not act corruptly, making mischief on the earth." (Qur’an, 2:60)

And We divided them into twelve tribes (as distinct) nations. We directed Moses by inspiration, when his people asked him for water, (saying): "Strike the stone with your stick", and there gushed forth out of it twelve springs: each group knew its own place for water. We shaded them with the clouds and sent down upon them Manna and the quails (saying): "Eat of the good things with which We have provided you." They harmed Us not but they used to harm themselves. (Qur’an, 7:160)

Severe blow:

(Remember) when your Lord inspired the angels, "Verily, I am with you, so keep firm those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who have disbelieved, so strike them over the necks, and smite over all their fingers and toes." (Qur’an, 8:12)

And if you could see when the angels take away the souls of those who disbelieve (at death), they smite their faces and their backs, (saying): "Taste the punishment of the blazing Fire." (Qur’an, 8:50)

Then how (will it be) when the angels will take their souls at death, smiting their faces and their backs? (Qur’an, 47:27)

So, when you meet [in military engagement] those who disbelieve, smite (their) necks till when you have killed and wounded many of them, then bind a bond firmly. Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity, or ransom [according to what benefits Islam], until the war lays down its burden. Thus (you are ordered by God), but if it had been God's Will, He Himself could certainly have punished them (without you). But (He lets you fight) in order to test some of you with others. But those who are killed in the Way of God, He will never let their deeds be lost. (Qur’an, 47:4)

The million-dollar question here is, “In what sense has the verb dharaba been used in verse 4:34?” It is over this question that all the dust is raised. To answer this question, we will turn to the fundamental rule of Qur’anic exegesis, which is that the exegesis of the Qur’an is carried by the Qur’an itself, or al-Qur'an yufassiru bacduhu bacdan (different parts of the Qur'an explain one another) and yuhmal al-mutlaq cala-muqayyad (unqualified statements should be interpreted in the light of qualified ones). Since the implied intensity of the strike mentioned in 4:34 has not been qualified there explicitly, we will interpret it in the light of the qualified statement made at the only other verse in the Qur’an that categorically refers to “wife-beating”:

"And take in your hand a bundle of thin grass and strike therewith (your wife), and break not your oath. Truly! We found him patient. How excellent (a) slave! Verily, he was ever oft-returning in repentance (to Us) (Qur’an, 38:44)

Obviously, the kind of “beating” implied is one which does not cause emotional or physical injury but at the same time vents the husband’s anger and frustration, and also passes a strong signal to the wife that the marriage is in serious jeopardy. In this context, the verb “beat” is misleading and treacherous because wife-beating usually has the connotation of involving physical and/or psychological abuse. The word should perhaps be replaced by the relatively more accurate word "hit" or maybe "strike".

The second fundamental rule of Qur’anic exegesis is that the exegesis is carried out in consonance with the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. In this connection, the following authentic hadith from Sahih Muslim is indeed a direct exegesis of verse 4:34 from none other than the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, himself:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, in his Farewell Pilgrimage said: "Lo! My last recommendation to you is that you should treat women well. Truly they are your helpmates, and you have no right over them beyond that – except if they commit a manifest indecency (fahisha mubina = adultery). If they do, then refuse to share their beds and beat them without indecent violence (fadribuhunna darban ghayra mubarrih). Then, if they obey you, do not show them hostility any longer. Lo! You have a right over your women and they have a right over you. Your right over your women is that they not allow whom you hate to enter your bed nor your house. While their right over them is that you treat them excellently in their garb and provision."

This is the correct, final, and binding explanation / interpretation / exegesis of the verse in question. Note that the following conditions apply for the beating to be done:

  • The wife should have been treated with kindness before.
  • The wife has been indulging in manifest indecency (fahisha mubina means openly lewd behavior).
  • She has not heeded to verbal admonishment.
  • She has not heeded to the refusal of sharing bed with her.
  • The beating has to be done without indecent violence (fadribuhunna darban ghayra mubarrih). This certainly does involve the command that the face should not be hit, as is evident from several hadiths.

Continuing with our theme that the second fundamental rule of Qur’anic exegesis is that the exegesis should be in consonance with the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, the obvious and natural question to ask is, “What is the practice of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, in this regard?” The simple and straightforward answer to this question is that the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, never beat any of his wives. Thus, we infer that “beating”, under the conditions stipulated above, is permitted but discouraged.

Now I will turn to an interesting comparison of Islam’s standpoint on wife-beating with the contemporary criminal law on that issue. The following crimes are related to wife-beating:

An abusive relationship is defined as one that is characterized by the use or threat of physical or psychological abuse.

Physical abuse is abuse involving contact intended to cause pain, injury, or other physical suffering or harm.

Psychological abuse refers to the humiliation or intimidation of another person, but is also used to refer to the long-term effects of emotional shock.

Domestic violence is any violence between current or former partners in an intimate relationship, wherever and whenever the violence occurs. The violence may include physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse.

Battery involves an injury or other contact upon the person of another in a manner likely to cause bodily harm.

Assault is a crime of violence against another person.

Violence refers to acts —typically connotative with aggressive and criminal behavior —which intend to cause or is causing of injury to persons, animals, or (in limited cases) property.

Injury is damage or harm caused to the structure or function of the body caused by an outside agent or force, which may be physical or chemical.

The common denominator in all these crimes is physical or psychological pain, injury, harm, and damage. The Prophetic commandment of darban ghayra mubarrih (without indecent violence) certainly absolves Islam (and protects Muslims) from the crimes quoted above. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the Islamic and modern concepts of violence are remarkably similar (though there are subtle differences).

Having cleared up the issue of wife-beating as far as Islam is concerned, we may well question, “Why do our antagonists make such a fuss about the verse in question when it is clear that no crime is being committed and the moral high ground, as set out by the beautiful method of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, is to never beat one’s wife?” This is an important question, for it underscores a number of points regarding the psychodynamics of the Islamophobe. You will notice from any Islamophobic article on the Islamic viewpoint of wife-beating that the writer is hell-bent on proving that Islam enjoins or allows violent wife-beating. To that effect, he is ready to use any device through which he can achieve his required aim. He certainly does not believe in the first two fundamental rules of Qur’anic exegesis outlined above. Therefore, he will use meanings and interpretations of words and phrases that are in keeping with his diabolical agenda, rather than use those meanings and interpretations that are in keeping with the rule, “The Qur’an is its own exegesis.” He will also tend to ignore the prophetic Sunnah as a practical exegesis of the Qur’an. Instead of viewing the Qur’an and Sunnah as complementary, he will view them as independent entities and will even seek to prove a contradiction where all that is meant is supplementation. He might even use a hadith with weak authenticity and pit it against a Qur’anic injunction, totally ignoring of course several authentic hadiths which prove the contrary. Such a methodology is entirely understandable since he doesn’t quite love the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. His final aim is to demonize Islam as a misogynist religion and ultimately prevent women from entering the fold of Islam because, ironically, more women than men are entering Islam (1, 2, 3).

It is unfortunate that some of our Muslim brothers have had to resort to apologetics that are usually the domain of Christian missionaries. This is probably because the level of knowledge has fallen very low these days, just as moral relativism has reciprocally increased exponentially, so we have forgotten the basic fact that Qur’anic exegesis is done through (1) the Qur’an itself, (2) the Sunnah, and (3) the exegesis of the early exegetes. These sources clearly show that the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, understood the phrase adh-re-boo-hun-na to mean "strike them" as explained in the foregoing discussion. The other meaning of dharaba as “to leave” (i.e. to get separated from one’s wife) is a valid meaning and even makes sense here, but it is not consistent with the sources of exegesis outlined above. We should be careful and vigilant that in trying to protect our religion from the slander of the Islamophobes, we shouldn’t get caught in their trap of moral relativism.

Reference: “Wife beating”, by G F Haddad (I strongly recommend that you read this article.)

1 comment:

B. James Stinson said...

Two Michigan State University law students have written a scholarly article on wife beating and wife discipline in Islamic Law, posted on Cienfuegos blog at and I have posted brief comments on my Therapeutic Family Law blog at