Analysing the so-called ‘Wife Beating Verse’: 4:34 of the Holy Quran
The Quran is the eternally relevant word of God. When the Quran addresses an issue, it must address it in a way that is beneficial for all times and places. Ayah thirty-four of Sura an-Nisa is one of the most controversial verses in the Quran. I argue in support of the verse’s apparent meaning. This is the verse rendered in the Sahih International interpretation of the Quran:
“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”
This verse presents a basic concept of the roles in an Islamic marriage, and the steps a husband is permitted to take to resolve conflicts. Exegesis reveals the line “strike them” in this verse is a restrictive phrase. The Quran addressed this practice in a time and context when it is prevalent and restricts it. At the same time, it provides guidelines that nullify this act when society comes into alignment with the views of the Prophet ﷺ on this issue. Islam restricts the practice of striking one’s wife to a non-violent, symbolic gesture, and advocates for the abandonment of the practice in general, especially when it fails to accomplish its aims of reconciliation.
Ayah 4:34 is often interpreted minimally in traditional tafsirs, and the rulings of the sunnah are often only mentioned in part. Classical scholars almost unanimously accept the literal meaning of this verse, and many of them lived in a culture where striking one’s wife was likely commonplace. Modern conservative scholars often seek to justify this verse by discussing its divine wisdom in contrast to modern objections. All of these factors contribute to the general misconception that 4:34 seeks to immortalize striking, rather than restrict it to a point of virtual extinction.
In traditional tafsir, you seldom find legal issues addressed in full. Exegetes often only mention legal issues to the extent they deem sufficient for clarifying the meaning of the text. This is in part due to the traditional function of tafsir, which was merely to explain or contextualize the Quran in plain language. Tafsir in itself should not be expected to relate the full understanding of a command or prohibition. Legal issues presented in the Quran and addressed briefly in tafsir are addressed in full in works of fiqh. If one wants to understand the legal implications of an ayah, one should turn to jurisprudence, rather than tafsir. Furthermore, many tafsirs do not address this verse in the context of the Quran’s general description of marriage. Most tafsirs are “atomistic”, meaning they deal with the Quran verse by verse as opposed to holistically. Atomistic tafsirs clarify the basic meaning of the text and/or address the contextually linguistic elements of the verse. Thus classical tafsirs often provide little insight on 4:34, and simply confirm that 4:34 permits husbands to strike their wives when they are exhibiting behavior that puts their marriage in jeopardy.
Baring the intention of tafsir in mind, it is important to note that the majority of tafsir and English interpretations of 4:34 emphasize a few points regarding the words “strike them”. The strike should be gentle, as a last resort, and can only be done in an effort to save the marriage. The majority of mutafasir see the lines “strike them” as highly conditional. In Yusuf Ali’s, Wahiduddin Khan ’s and Dr. Mustapha Khattab’s translation, they add “lightly” after the words strike them, to reflect a restriction that is deemed essential for a correct understanding of the verse. Other exegetes including T.B Irving, Syed Vickar Ahamed, and Dr. Munir Munshey add the words “finally”, or “lastly”, or “if it is useful” in their interpretations. The addition of these various words to English interpretations of the texts indicates that they are agreed upon, and highly important to understanding even the basic meaning of the verse.
Many tafsirs provide insight into why these terms might be included in standard English translations of the Quran. They elaborate at varying lengths on the restrictions that apply to this verse which are flushed out in other sources. In Ibn Abbas’s tafsir, he mentions that striking should be in a “mild unexaggerated manner”. Abul A’la Maududi comments further on the verse and indirectly sheds some light on the verses societal context. He writes:
“Though these have been permitted, they are to be administered with a sense of proportion according to the nature and extent of the offence. If a mere light admonition proves effective, there is no need to resort to a severer step. As for 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.”
Maududi’s explanation contains several main points of interest. Firstly, the steps should be followed with discretion, and the more severe steps should only be carried out after less severe steps have proven ineffective. Second, the purpose of these steps is to “mend their ways”, meaning these steps must have the potential to achieve the aim of correcting behavior or preventing divorce. Lastly, even when striking is resorted to, it must not even leave a mark. The two most important conditions Maududi identifies are this act should have a potential to be effective and help the marriage, and that it is very limited in its permissible expression. Although an analysis of Qutb’s tafsir reveals he sees substantially more benefit in the act of striking than our Prophet, Qutb provides insights regarding how and when striking might be useful in certain contexts. Qutb talks at length about the intention behind the three forms conflict-resolution in 4:34. He emphasizes that the steps are meant to restore order to the relationship. Qutb writes:
“They are indeed pre-emptive measures aimed at achieving an early reconciliation when rebellion is feared. There is no question of trying to aggravate the situation or increase hatred… there is no question of any of these measures being resorted to in the case of a healthy relationship between a man and his wife. They are preventive measures taken in an unhealthy situation in order to protect the family against collapse.”
He identifies the main use of this act as reconciliation and not aggravation. Qutbs admits that striking is not a reasonable solution in all circumstances or with all women, but he also claims that circumstances do exist where this action might prove effective. His writings show that the allowance to strike is effective at best in a highly conditional circumstance and to a particular type of woman. Striking remains heavily restricted in the circumstances. However, Qutb is consistent in defending this practice. Qutb writes:
“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.”
What Qutb is saying is that to oppose this permission is to oppose the Divine word, and he devotes his exegesis on this verse to its wisdom. He focuses his discussion on this verse on when striking is permissible rather than forbidden. However, when it is forbidden is a far more relevant topic and one that the Prophet himself was more concerned with. He was not concerned with defending this practice or encouraging its preservation. I will discuss the Prophet’s view on this matter later. It is sufficient to note that many exegetes like Qutb felt the need to defend this practice against criticism in the modern world. Qutb and Maududi suggest that the right to strike stems from the rights that husbands have over their wives as expressed in the first part of the verse.
Verse 4:34 begins:
“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth.”
This verse has been rendered in a number of ways, but the gist is that men have some authority over their wives. Maududi and Qutb, amongst a number of classical exegetes, claim that this authority relates to the superiority of men over women in general. Maududi writes, “Men are superior to women in the sense that they have been endowed with certain natural qualities and powers that have not been given to women or have been given in a less degree”. Qutb is in strong support of this position, and it would take much space to even summarize his entire view on the differences between men and women, and why men are more fit to be in charge. I do not have the time nor space to discuss the errors of this position in full.
The Quran does not make any clear distinction between the essential qualities of men and women. The Quran asserts that men and women are spiritually equal. God says in the Quran:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
Thus, the equality of all people must be accepted, and the hadith must be interpreted in accordance with this decree. According to the Quran, the only acceptable judge between people, with a specific mention of men and women, is righteousness.
Many scholars agree that the phrase “men are in charge of women” relates merely to men’s financial responsibility to care for their wives and other members of their family. “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth”. Thus the verse should be understood in full, and in the context of the verse that distributes inheritance unevenly. The uneven distribution of inheritance corresponds to the line “Allah has given one over the other”. Ibn Ajibah, along with many other commentators and the scholars of the Maliki and Shafi’s school, understands “men are in charge of women” as a statement of conditional and acquired authority. Thus if a man does not support his wife financially, he cannot lay claim to authority over her. These opinions shed light on this issue in two significant ways. First, it asserts that “men are in charge of women” is a phrase expressing a worldly responsibility and a financial obligation, rather than a statement regarding the qualities of either gender. Second, they emphasize the highly contextual permission of this verse. If the husband is not fully supporting his wife, he is no longer entitled to implement these forms of conflict-resolution, including striking. All of this goes to show that neither gender is favored in terms of innate qualities in Islam, while a distinction does exist between their financial responsibilities. These scholars exegesis provide basic points to highlight that 4:34 is a restrictive, rather than permissive verse. It addresses a dire situation, where striking gently may prove useful as a last resort or a symbolic gesture. The Quran is not allowing striking on account of a man’s superiority, or allowing spousal abuse.
The Quran must be read holistically, and its verses should be treated as part of a whole while remaining complete in themselves. I will now mention several other verses that relate to marriage in the Quran, to clarify the greater context of 4:34. The Quran mentions that women have similar rights over their husbands as men have over their wives:
“And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority].”
In this verse, it acknowledges that men are not the exclusive holder of rights in the marriage. The “degree” mentioned in this verse is the same as the one mentioned at the beginning of 4:34, namely a financial responsibility that equates to authority.
4:34 also falls within the context of a marriage idealized as a relationship of mutual compassion. “And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them, and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.” Any act that God condones within marriage must not deviate from this ideal. The Quran emphasizes compassion even in the case that one dislikes their spouse. God says, “And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them – perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.” (4:19) This ayah concerns an interesting phrase. It says you can make difficulties if your spouse commits clear immorality, while also saying, in general, you should live with them in kindness.
The terms rendered in Sahih international as “arrogance” in 4:34, and “difficulties” in 4:19 are not the same word. The word used for arrogance is نشوز (nushuz), and the one used for difficulties is فحشة (faheshat). These words have radically different meanings, where nushuz is general ill-conduct and arrogance that allows utilization of the three measures listed in ayah 4:34 for restoring the relationship; while nushuz essentially constitutes adultery. Ibn Abbas explains 4:19 in his tafsir:
“(As for those of your women) your free, married women (who are guilty of lewdness) [this is this translators rendered of the phrase, ‘make difficulties’] i.e. of fornication, (call to witness) that they were caught red-handed in the act (four of you against them) four of your free men. (And if they testify) to the Truth of the allegation (then confine them to the houses) keep them in prison (until death take them) until they die in prison (or (until) Allah appoint for them a way) out by means of stoning.”
This explains that this ayah is not saying one can cause difficulties for one’s wife simply if he dislikes her conduct. It is saying if she commits the adultery, and the necessary witnesses are able to convict her, she should be punished according to the law. In terms of matters that are not crimes in the sharia, one should treat her kindly even if one dislikes her. This shows that marriage, in general, is based on kindness and compassion, and one cannot abuse one’s wife or seek to harm them. For most people in the modern world, this presents a problem. How can the Quran tell us the marital relationship is one of love and mercy while allowing one to strike their wife? There are several major problems with the way this question is posed.
The Quran is a timeless document that addresses people living in a wide variety of cultures and ages, and what is common sense to us may not be so for others. The words “strike them” does not apply as general permission but as a restriction. Some contexts do and have existed where one could strike in the manner clarified in the sunnah, without compromising a relationship of mutual compassion. One often finds such force amongst siblings and friends. One sibling will swat the other if they are acting foolish, and this strike will not be considered an act of violence but a signal to “cut it out”. The mutual love and respect of the general relationship is not compromised by this act. The gesture transforms drastically when one strikes violently and causes harms. The sunnah restrictions on “strike them” essentially defines striking as this kind of non-violent gesture.
The sunnah restrictions on the phrase “strike them” allows it only if it does not cause harm, and the Prophet discouraged it in general. In Sunan Abu Dawud and Sahih Muslim, the Prophet says in different authentic hadiths, “do not strike her on the face, do not revile her”, and “Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah… You too have rights over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like. But if they do that, you can chastise them but not severely.” In the first hadith the Prophet commands us not to strike the face, or to verbally abusing one’s wife, which reinforces the idea that this should not be an act of hate or anger. The second hadith is rendered as chastising, but the word used is the same as the word for strike, and this is it intended meaning. This hadith calls on us to be conscious of God concerning our spouses, however it allows striking in certain cases. The case listed here is if your wife invited somebody into your home who you do not want to be it. It is presumed the wife knows you dislike this person and has explicitly gone against her husband’s wishes. When explicitly doing something that the husband dislikes, especially something that involves inviting men the husband does not trust into one’s home falls under nushuz In this scenario, one is permitted to strike “not severely”, after following the other legislated steps of conflict resolution listed in 4:34.
Scholars have paid a lot of attention to the words “strike them” in 4:34 and “not severely” in this hadith. The majority have concluded that “not severely” means that striking is little more than a symbolic gesture. Some scholars have claimed the strike should be “without violence”, basing this language on their definition on hadiths; while others emphasize it should not leave a mark, since the Prophet said, “never strike her in the face or mar her beauty”. Other scholars hold that is should not even cause pain. All of these positions assert that the act cannot constitute abuse or violence, but the strike should serve as a sort of caution. The strike is not cautioning against a more severe punishment, but of the husband’s potential willingness to progress to the next step listed in 4:35, which is seeking consultation and potential divorce. It is essentially an expression that the husband is at his wits-end, not an act of violence or physical punishment. Other scholars point out that the strike is limited even further. Khalid Yasin notes that the Prophet says that one cannot strike their wife in “any sensitive areas” which only leaves the arms, back, legs, or hands. Other prominent scholars add that the strike should be with a miswak (Ibn Abbas) or a folded handkerchief (Razi). If one considers the opinions of all of these scholars, the strike would meet the following criteria: it would be with a miswak or something similar, it would not cause harm or leave a mark, it would only be implemented after the other options had failed, and it would not fall on any sensitive areas. This leaves us with a symbolic act, that expresses one’s feelings non-verbally and non-violently. One may reject the opinions of the use of the miswak, however one must still hold to the clear regulations of the Prophet and strike “without violence” away from the face, and as a last resort.
If one transgresses any of these limits set by the sunnah, they have violated the laws of sharia, and are subject to legal punishment. Jonathan Brown writes extensively on this matter, recording the various positions on the issues in Islamic jurisprudence. He explains:
“All schools of law prohibited striking the wife in the face or in any sensitive area likely to cause injury. All except Maliki jurists held that the wife could claim compensation payments (diya) from the husband for any injury she sustained, and Hanbalis, the later Shafi’I school as well as the Maliki school, allowed a judge to dissolve the marriage at no cost to the wife if any harm had been done. In effect, any physical harm was grounds for compensation and divorce since the Prophet had limited striking one’s wife to a ‘light blows that leaves no mark’.”
This indicates that striking one’s wife in a way that violated the regulations of the sunnah is a serious offense. The shariah takes a firm stance against the utilization of 4:34 as a justification for spousal abuse. An eminent judge in Jerusalem in the 20th century address a specific instance in which a man hides behind 4:34 to justify beating his wife. The jurist writes:
“When a man hits his wife, do you know what the law, the shariah, makes for him?…One day a man who had beat his wife was brought to me and he said, ‘Allah gave me permission in this [ayah] to hit her.’ I told him the meaning of this ayah is not what he thinks and I explained to him that is was not right to hurt her or to make anything for her, but that is was important to be gentle with her. I ordered the woman to not let him come near her bed for six months until he made complete tauba. Then the man went to the higher court in front of three judges. They looked at what I had made for him and they said, ‘This is right, this is from the shariah’.”
From all of this we see that the shariah, in general, is not sympathetic to the one who strikes his wife, nor do they see spousal abuse as something allowed in the Quran. Shariah considers hitting the wife in a way that is harmful as a crime and a sin, so if one chooses to act on the permission of 4:34, they must be very careful not to exceed the limits set in the Sacred Law.
The limits on this verse do not stop here. Acting on the lines “strike them” is also regulated by the potential value of the act. I have already mentioned this is part, but virtually all scholars hold the striking is only permissible as a last resort to save the relationship. The comments on the hadith relating to striking women in Sunan Abu Dawud state, “he must avoid beating her as far as possible… beating is the last resort… if he beats her [in a manner that violates the limits of the sunnah, or] without any fault on her part, he will be responsible and called to answer”. It is the last resort for reconciling the wife’s behavior and restoring the marriage. To many people in the modern world, this is an outrageous concept. How could lightly striking one’s wife while they are upset with you possibly be the act that saves your marriage? I will remind us again that the Quran is an eternal book addressing all times and places. It is possible that a context exists where this symbolic act may effectively warn one’s wife of the impending collapse of the relationship, and cause her to correct her behavior. However, this possibility is becoming less and less common in the modern world. Authors like Qutb have sought to defend this practice, but seeking to defend it is of no use if it cannot meet another requirement for its permissibility, namely its efficiency.
If striking one’s wife will likely not produce the desired results of saving the relationship, the act becomes forbidden. The Shafi’is hold that if one does not think that striking her “will bring her back to the right path…it Is not permissible”. Khalid Yasin echoes this point, saying that if you think it is just going to make the situation worse then do not even do it. If one wants to strike their wife, they must be sure that this will improve the situation. It cannot just be an expression of anger, or done in a thoughtless moment, but should be a deliberate gesture with an aim of reconciliation. If this idea sounds completely foreign to you, and you can’t possibly consider how or when striking could accomplish it aim, it is safe to say you should not act upon it. However, even if you are completely sure it will restore harmony, and sure that it will be a gentle strike that does not cause harm or violate any of the boundaries set by the sharia, should you do it?
Generally, the Prophet and the jurists discourage acting on this verse at all, even within the bounds of shariah. A hadith already mentioned contains one of the specific instances where the Prophet allowed a husband to strike their wife without causing harm. A second hadith shows a similar scenario that expresses the extent of the Prophet’s dislike for the act. In this hadith, the Prophet said, “do not beat the handmaidens of God”, and Umar objected, claiming that many women were becoming rebellious and insulting towards their husbands. The Prophet then permitted it [in accordance with the restriction laid out] and many women came and complained to him about it. He responded by saying, those who strike their wives “are not the best among you”, or in some variations, “the best of you will not strike them”. Even in the instances where he permitted it, he did so reluctantly, and restricted and discouraged it. The instances of permissibility are far outweighed by the number of hadiths in which the Prophet forbids striking. In the authentic traditions the Prophet says, “do not revile her face, and do not beat her”, “do not beat them, and do not revile them”, “could any of you beat his wife as he would a a slave and lie with her in the evening?”, and “Never beat God’s handmaidens. Furthermore, Aisha narrates that the Prophet never hit a woman, or anybody outside of Jihad. All of these hadiths point to the fact that the Prophet’s advice was to avoid acting on this allowance as much as possible. One may ask why God did not just forbid the act in the first place, if there were so many censures against.
The law of Islam is a law that is designed for humans to follow completely. In a time when domestic violence was prevalent, the complete dissolve of the act may have resulted in people rebelling against it, and thus making the Sacred law a standard that seemed impossible to follow in full. In some ways, this verse is actually a unique example of progressive prohibition. When alcohol was forbidden, it was first forbidden only for prayer, before it was removed entirely. In this case, the act of striking one’s wife was severely limited, and the prohibition arises naturally from changing standards. What I mean by this is not that modern values could ever abrogate the Quran, but that merely our understanding of marital relationships has changed to a point to where “striking one’s wife” could seldom, if ever, accomplish its aims of reconciliation. Furthermore, disputing the value of this action in the modern world is not a reaction against the wisdom of the Quran, but conformity to the example of the Prophet. The Prophet did not act on this allowance and advised us to do the same. He allowed it only when it made sense within the context of his community, and even then He still discouraged it. Why would we seek to preserve what the Prophet didn’t see as an attribute of the best of his followers?
This brief review of the traditional understanding of verse 4:34 demonstrates that the words “strike them” are subject to many restrictions, and is not an allowance of domestic violence. On the contrary, it is restricting a practice of domestic violence that was common at the time, to no more than a symbolic expression of intense discontent. The strike may not cause damage, and must have some potential to repair the relationship. If the strike does cause harm, the husband has violated the Sacred law, and is subject to various punishments and/or the marriage will be dissolved. In general, this allowance should not be acted on, and in some schools of thought, it is prohibited to act upon it if it will not accomplish its aim. Thus, it is better to avoid this permission in general, as this will help preserve a relationship of love and mercy amongst Muslim families. Denying the current relevance of this allowance in our modern context is far from a denial of the wisdom of the Quran, and closer to following the model of the Prophet. Denying the current value in the current context does not deny the fact that this conditional allowance may still be effective in parts of the world and cultures that operate differently from our own. But even in these cases, as Muslims, we should listen to God when he says in his Quran, “[Those] who listen to the speech and follow the best of it. Those are the ones Allah has guided, and those are people of understanding.” While considering the Prophet’s statement, that those who act on this allowance “are not the best of them”.
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