Discussing Qur’an 4.34
On the Subject of Wife Beating
“How do you treat women?”
“You treat them well, don’t you?”
“You don’t require women to cover their faces, do you?”
“You don’t beat women, do you?”
Maybe you have heard questions like these before when getting to know someone for the first time because you are a Muslim or are in some way associated with Islam. Maybe you have heard them from a first date. Maybe you have heard them from a colleague. Maybe you will hear them in the future. The common assumption behind variations of these questions is this: Islam treats women poorly, so anything associated with it raises red flags. There are controversial words many people take to be unsavory in the Qur’an. They wrestle with their meaning. They permit men to “strike” their wives. I would like to explore this further.
“Men are the upholders and maintainers of women by virtue of that in which God has favored some of them above others and by virtue of their spending from their wealth. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [their husband’s] absence what God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear discord and animosity, admonish them, then leave them in their beds, then strike them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Truly God is Exalted, Great” (Qur’an 4.34).
Three Ahadith Depicting Muhammad’s Displeasure of Hitting Wives
Before dealing with Qur’an 4.34 above, we must acknowledge Muhammad — the founder of Islam — was confronted with all kinds of issues from his followers, including those involving the discord between spouses. This is what ahadith, or reports of Muhammad’s sayings, suggest.
In one hadith it is reported the wife of al-Waleed complained to Muhammad about her husband’s physical abuse. Muhammad told her to tell her husband that the Prophet “has given me protection.” After she told her husband she is under Muhammad’s protection, her husband continued to hit her. She returned to Muhammad with the news her husband hit her again, and, upon hearing this, he ripped a piece of his garment off, gave it to her as proof for her husband, and repeated what he had told her earlier: “Tell him: ‘The Messenger of Allah has given me protection.’” Shortly after returning home her husband hit her more, so what did she do? Well, she returned to the Muhammad a third time with news of her husband’s aggressive behavior. Muhammad called on God to punish her husband.¹ Although this hadith is rated weak, it is one illustration of a time when a wife complained to Muhammad about a husband’s physical abuse. This report also shows Muhammad’s displeasure of hitting wives. As one scholar points out, there is a lot left out of this hadith in regards to how al-Waleed hit her.² Ayesha S. Chaudhry raises many interesting questions about this, asking: “Did he use a fist, an open hand, a hard object, or a soft object? Also, what exactly does it mean to be under Muhammad’s protection? Why did he not summon al-Waleed himself? Did Muhammad send this woman back to her aggressive husband?” We do not know.
In a hadith rated sound, Umar complained to Muhammad about how women in the community have become “emboldened” ever since he prohibited men from hitting their wives.³ In response to Umar’s reasons for why the prohibition should be lifted, Muhammad gave men permission to hit their wives. As a consequence many women complained about their husbands to Muhammad’s family — which caused Muhammad to reportedly say men that beat their wives “are not the best among you.” In one version of this hadith Muhammad reportedly said that “only the worst of you will hit.” Here we have another instance of Muhammad’s displeasure of hitting wives recorded in ahadith. Chaudhry observes that this report does not say what initially caused Muhammad to prohibit men from hitting their wives. It also does not describe the offensive behavior of the women that Umar complained to Muhammad about. The reader is left in the dark about the details yet again.
The ahadith above show a culture in which men did not hesitate to hit women, so most did not consider it morally repugnant. Whether or not this reflects pre-Islamic values is a curious one. The ahadith above reveal something else too: they depict Muhammad as an arbiter of disputes. Muhammad’s high moral character was well-known, especially with his marriage to Khadija. People called him the Trustworthy One, for he “was the keeper of their credit notes and secrets,” writes the author of The House of Islam.⁴ It is telling women felt safe enough to confide their complaints about their husbands to him. After all, Muhammad allowed his wives to argue with him — a fact that upset some of his male companions. In a sound hadith widely used by many contemporary Muslims, it is reported Muhammad never lifted his hand to hit a woman.⁵ Because of such reports about Muhammad’s own example showing he did not hit women, major legal scholars like al-Shafi’i (767–820 CE) “considered it something to be avoided.”⁶
Three Possible Explanations for 4.34
What is going on with 4.34 in the Qur’an if Muhammad, as depicted in the ahadith above, strongly disliked hitting women? Some scholars have attempted to put the whole story in its political and historical context. Karen Armstrong proposes the issue of hitting wives was raised during one of the most politically charged times of Muhammad’s life, when the Meccan army was preparing to descend on Muslim community and extinguish it, so with the potential elimination of the Muslim community hanging over his head, Muhammad chose not to upset the applecart so that the men would not abandon him at the moment they needed to mount a defense.⁷
Mark 10.5: “Because of Your Hardness of Heart . . .”
Maybe readers can draw on the Gospels as an example in order to construct a reason for the inclusion of “strike” in 4.34. The Gospel of Mark paints a picture of Christ’s confrontation with the Pharisees over the issue of divorce.⁸ Since Christ opposes divorce with the use of proof texts from the higher Law of creation in Genesis 1.27 and 2.24, the Pharisees refer to the Mosaic Law to show that it is allowed. To quote his opponents, Moses “permitted a man to write his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.” Christ revealed the reasoning behind Moses’ commandment allowing divorce: men’s hearts were stubborn, and it was only for this reason that he allowed it, for in the beginning it was not so. Maybe Christ was aware of how the law of divorce could be easily manipulated, leaving women destitute afterwards.⁹ One Christian commentary concludes “this legislation was adapted to the imperfect moral condition of the people, who were as yet quite unprepared for a higher moral code.”¹⁰ Going back to our story of ahadith and 4.34, I am reminded of Christ’s interactions with the Pharisees here. An interpreter of the Qur’an may take a similar stance with regards to 4.34, believing it was only allowed because of the stubbornness of men’s hearts.
To Restrict Male Aggression through Gradualism
4.34 appears to tackle male aggression in a variety of ways. It commands a husband to take steps to restore a healthy relationship with a wife filled with animosity in a gradual, progressive manner. First, the husband must admonish her; second, if admonishing her does not work, then the husband must separate himself for a period of time from his wife; third, if separation for a period of time does not work, then the husband is permitted to strike her. Note striking is the last resort here. I see the first two steps as a cool down period for the frustrated husband, so I see it as a way to reign in male aggression in seventh century Arabia and diffuse anger so step three will not be triggered. 4.34 says men should “seek not a way against” women in a state of animosity. One Muslim scholar says this “alludes to the fact that continuing in those measures after the goal of obedience is met is transgressing the limits, arbitrary action and injustice.”¹¹ Another contemporary Muslim scholar states 4.34 is not in response to any simple disobedience, such as a wife refusing to clean up after her husband. Rather, it refers to “lewd acts.”¹²
What if a measure is not met and the husband ends up at the third and final step? How should one strike if one is commanded to strike? Not only is hitting the last resort, but The Study Qur’an says restrictions are further imposed on how one strikes, for Muslim “commentators are unanimous that to strike here refers to a moderate and noninjurious form of physical force — ‘without violence’ . . . Some commentators assert that this ‘striking’ should not even cause pain.” This notion of a noninjurious strike is rooted in Muhammad’s last sermon. What does a noninjurious strike entail? Ibn Abbas, one of Muhammad’s cousins and a major early commentator of the Qur’an, was reportedly asked, “What is striking without severity?”¹³ He said striking is restricted to the use of a miswak, which is described as “a soft small fibrous twig used as a toothbrush in the Arab Peninsula.”¹⁴ This is so any pain can be avoided. Azizah al-Hibri sees this practice as somewhat equivalent to marriage counselors advising partners to use styrofoam sticks to strike the other in order to vent anger.¹⁵ For her, there is no way 4.34 condones domestic violence here, because it would conflict with other verses in the Qur’an — such as the statement that God “established affection and mercy” between spouses.¹⁶ Also, in the Qur’an there is the story of Job, in which the prophet is commanded to strike his wife with a handful of grass.¹⁷ This is an illustration of a noninjurious strike.
I have not engaged in an exhaustive analysis of 4.34. My purpose is to merely scratch the surface, provide some context, offer a preview of what a few Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have said about it, and to show the idea of striking in the Qur’an might have been transformative and progressive for the time period and place in which it was revealed. Umar, for example, found the behavior of the women in Medina to be outrageous. As I mentioned earlier, he was blown away by the fact Muhammad allowed women to argue with him. This is one reason the Qur’an advocates an approach of gradualism. Any society saturated in such violent treatment of women and the other is bound to find the notion of gradualism to be a hard pill to swallow.¹⁸ While I do favor Azizah al-Hibri’s approach of gradualism the most as an interpretive framework, I think interpreting 4.34 will continue to pose problems since it can be misused and abused, especially when it is read in isolation and not with the broader scope of the Qur’an and reports about Muhammad in mind.
² See Ayesha S. Chaudhry’s “‘I WANTED ONE THING AND GOD WANTED ANOTHER…’: The Dilemma of the Prophetic Example and the Qur’anic Injunction on Wife-Beating.” My summary of the ahadith above is based on her excellent overview.
⁴ See Ed Husain’s The House of Islam: A Global History.
⁵ Sahih Muslim 2328.
⁶ See The Study Qur’an.
⁷ See Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. She concludes with the following: “Yet again, the conflict with Mecca had compromised his vision and forced him to adopt a course of action that, in more normal circumstances, he would have preferred to avoid. The Qur’anic legislation about women is intertwined with verses about the war, which inevitably affected everything that happened in Medina at this time; Muhammad knew that he had no hope of surviving a Meccan onslaught with disaffected troops.”
⁸ Mark 10.1–10.
⁹ See April D. Deconick’s Holy Misogyny. The Mosaic Law “was understood by Jesus to be a late concession made by Moses to comply to men’s desires. It did not reflect God’s original intent for the married. Jesus appeals to the creation story (which occurred chronologically before the establishment of the Mosaic Law), suggesting that God’s original intent for men and women was a form of marriage that made the two inseparably one.”
¹⁰ See Pulpit Commentary.
¹¹ See Abdul-Azeem Badawi’s The Precise Presentation of the Fiqh of the Sunnah and the Noble Book.
¹² See Abou El Fadl’s “On the Beating of Wives.”
¹³See al-Tabari’s tafsir of this verse.
¹⁴ See Azizah Y. al-Hibri’s “An Islamic Perspective on Domestic Violence.” She goes on to add many Muslim jurists advocated for the use of “a handkerchief, or some other similar object that communicates to the wife her husband’s frustration without causing her physical harm.”
¹⁶ Qur’an 30.21.
¹⁷ Qur’an 38.44.
¹⁸ See Abdu’l-Baha’s description of pre-Islamic Arabia in Some Answered Questions. He said:
“These Arab tribes were most barbarous and rapacious, and in comparison with them the wild and fierce natives of America were the Platos of the age, for they did not bury their children alive as these Arabs did their daughters, claiming this to be an act of honour and taking pride therein. Thus many of the men would threaten their wives, saying, ‘If a daughter is born to you, I will kill you.’ Even to the present day the Arabs dread having daughters.
Moreover, one man could take a thousand wives, and most husbands had more than ten wives in their household. When these tribes waged war against each other, the victors would take captive the women and children of the vanquished, regard them as slaves, and engage in buying and selling them.
If a man died and left behind ten wives, the sons of these women would rush at each other’s mothers, and as soon as one of them had thrown his mantle over the head of one of his stepmothers and claimed her as his lawful property, that unfortunate woman would become the captive and slave of her stepson and the latter could do with her as he pleased. He could kill her; or shut her up in a pit; or beat, curse, and torment her day after day until at last she perished. In all this he was, in accordance with the laws and customs of the Arabs, free to do as he pleased. The rancour and jealousy, the hatred and enmity that must have existed between the wives of a man and their respective children are perfectly clear and require no elaboration. Consider then what the life and condition of those wronged women must have been!
These Arab tribes subsisted upon mutual pillage and robbery, so that they were perpetually engaged in strife and warfare, killing one another, plundering each other’s property, and seizing the women and children and selling them to strangers. How often would the sons and daughters of a prince spend the day in luxury and ease and find themselves at nightfall reduced to utter abasement, wretchedness, and bondage. Yesterday they were princes, today they are captives; yesterday they were honoured ladies, today they are slaves.”