What does Islam’s holy book, the Quran, say about husbands beating their wives?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The Guy is posting this item himself rather than our usual answer to a question posted via the Website because this oft-discussed matter has become an important public dispute. In heavily Muslim Pakistan, the nation’s Parliament is advised by a Council of Islamic Ideology, experts assigned to make sure laws fit the faith’s mandates. The Senate’s human rights committee now wants to amend the constitution in order to abolish the Council, in part because it ruled that husbands are allowed to beat their wives.
Muslim authorities emphasize that only beating “lightly” is permitted, The Wall Street Journal said, reporting this explanation from Council Chairman Muhammad Khan Sherani: “In Islam you cannot hit a woman in a way that bruises her, or break her bone, or hit her on the face, or cause bleeding.”
Amid widespread concern over spousal abuse, feminist and Christian critics of Islam regularly cite concerns about the Quran passage the Council relies upon. As with modern Jews and Christians dealing with violent Old Testament passages that disturb modern sensitivities, Muslim interpreters warn Muslim husbands about harsh misapplication of the teaching.
Here is the scriptural text involved, from Majid Fakhry’s literal-minded English translation (New York University Press) approved by Sunni Islam’s chief seat of learning, the venerable Al-Azhar University:
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth. Hence righteous women are obedient, guarding the unseen which Allah has guarded. And those of them that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them. Should they obey you, do not seek a way of harming them, for Allah is Sublime and Great!” (4:34).
“Beat” is the typical translation, though other renditions say “scourge,” “strike,” or “hit.” The translation by A. Yusuf Ali, widely distributed by Saudi Arabia, inserts “lightly” in parentheses to express the traditional interpretation, but that hedge word does not appear in the original Arabic.
The verse begins with “in charge,” which can also rile 21st Century women. Similar translations say “superior to,” “authority over,” and “managers of,” but others convey more a sense of care and responsibility than command with words like “maintainers,” “protectors,” or “guardians.” This scriptural tradition of gender hierarchy sees husbands’ authority stemming from greater physical strength and wealth, whereas some observe that in modern times Muslim spouses’ situations are often quite different.
The verse deals with severe marital strife resulting from a wife’s inappropriate behavior toward her husband, and teaches husbands to use a four-step process toward resolution: first, stern admonition, followed by spurning (in addition to suspending sexual relations some suggest refusal to talk with the wife or other forms of shunning), and then the application of physical force. The fourth and final step, laid out in verse 35, is formal family arbitration.
Writing about 4:34 in Canada’s Al-Ummah, scholarly Lahore native Ahmad Shafaat affirms that in Islam a husband should not “seriously hurt the wife,” but criticizes those who try to explain away the verse because Muslims must not be “apologetic about any part of the Quran.” He asserts, “We can expect the Holy Quran to mention beating only if there was some wisdom in that mention.”
Of special importance for interpretation is a two-page footnote about 4:34 in “The Study Quran” (hereafter TSQ), a new English-language translation and commentary by a team of North American Muslim scholars, published by HarperOne. The work’s authenticity is strengthened by drawing upon 40 classical Islamic commentaries.
TSQ says some interpreters “seek to avoid the sense of physical hitting entirely” by arguing that the Arabic verb daraba could instead refer to separation from the wife. But that’s “not entirely convincing,” TSQ continues, because that would need support from syntax and context not found in 4:34.
Notably, TSQ states that none of Islam’s standard Quran commentaries and judicial rulings “viewed this verse as a license to commit serious physical violence or inflict bodily harm,” and the two purposeful steps that precede physical action necessarily rule out “beating one’s wife in anger.” The commentaries say beating is strictly in order to alter a wife’s behavior, “not for punishment,” and the Quran is explicit that this measure is “abandoned once she has ceased the problematic behavior.”
The scriptural context here includes verse 128 in the same chapter, which uses the same noun to address a husband’s offensive behavior. TSQ says commentaries see references to “high-handedness, arrogance, or aloofness,” as well as “neglect of his wife because of a desire or inclination toward other women or wives, or as a desire to divorce her due to a loss of affection or an aversion toward her.” The Quran says “no blame”attaches to the wife who complains, and an “accord” is needed to either resolve matters or lay grounds for divorce.
Islam also relies upon the hadith traditions regarding deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate circle. Of special relevance is one saying about the husband’s duties cited by the revered Sunni commentator Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari: “That he feed her and clothe her, that he never strike her in the face or mar her beauty, and that he not abandon her save in the house.”