Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife? The Quran, Hadith and Domestic Violence

Bismillah.  I began work on this at about 5am on 1st January and, Praise God, have completed it around 55 hours later.  I am grateful to all my teachers and friends who encouraged me to write this work.

My conclusion is simple: God and Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly wished to
ban domestic violence, as numerous hadiths indicate.  The verse was always known
to be a temporary compromise, an extremely limited concession that required
minimum use of violence, if at all.  “New” findings are:

1. Numerous hadiths say emphatically, “Don’t beat your wives.”  The Qur’an
apparently says, “You may beat your wives.”  This apparent difficulty must be
resolved.  The verse is perhaps the most quoted by critics and enemies of Islam,
the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

2. The article tries to highlight a basic and serious flaw with the way many
Muslims read and teach the Qur’an, including some preachers and clerics.
Helping to correct this problem will, God-willing, open the way to dealing with
numerous other controversial issues and “problematic” ayahs and hadiths.

3. Many issues around human rights and women’s rights, gender-equality,
dhimmitude etc. may be fruitfully-addressed along similar lines.

Feedback is welcome, especially from students and scholars of Islam as well as activists and reformers, particularly those involved with women’s rights.  If you find the work of value, I would be grateful if you could help circulate it as widely as possible, and publicise its conclusions that are given in a 2-page summary at the beginning of this 17-page study, and repeated below (with additions) for easy reference.  May Allah reward you. – U.H.

Read the study here: Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife – The Quran on Domestic Violence

With the Name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

HAVE YOU STOPPED BEATING YOUR WIFE?

THE PLAIN TRUTH ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE & THE “WIFE-BEATING” VERSE OF THE QUR’AN, INCLUDING A HOLISTIC STUDY OF IMPORTANT BUT RARELY-QUOTED HADITHS ON THE SUBJECT

© Usama Hasan (London, UK)

3rd January, 2011

CONTENTS

1    SUMMARY OF THIS STUDY.. 3

2    INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND.. 5

3    THE QUR’ANIC VERSE REFERRING TO WIFE-BEATING.. 6

3.1       Notes on this verse. 6

3.2       Ibn ‘Ashur’s Contextualisation of the Verse: Then and Now.. 8

4    SOME HADITHS RELATED TO THE VERSE OF WIFE-BEATING   9

4.1       An Apparent Difficulty. 10

4.2       Resolution of the Difficulty. 10

4.3       A Fundamentalist Interpretation. 10

4.4       The Normative, Orthodox Interpretation. 10

4.5       A Refutation of Alternative Interpretations of “Beat Them”. 13

4.6       A Weak Hadith That Might Otherwise Justify Wife-Beating. 15

5    CONCLUSION.. 17

SUMMARY OF THIS STUDY

  1. There is a verse (ayah) of the Qur’an (Surah al-Nisa’ or Chapter: Women, 4:34) that may appear to condone domestic violence against women.  The verse says, “You may beat your wives.”
  2. Domestic violence is a problem in most, if not all, communities and societies.  For example, current statistics indicate that approximately 1 in 3 British women experience domestic violence during their lifetime.  Although the overwhelming majority of cases of domestic violence in Muslim households are due to wider human factors such as difficulties with relationships and anger-management, a handful of cases involve the husband feeling justified in using violence against his wife on the basis of this Qur’anic text.
  3. Such an attitude is not uncommon amongst socially-conservative Muslims who are “religious” in a formal sense: for example, a conservative leader of Indian Muslims is said to have given a public statement in 2010 denouncing a new law in India that criminalised domestic violence, thus: “They are taking away our divine right to hit our wives.”
  4. This fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Qur’an is sometimes sanctioned by the legal system in Muslim-majority countries, for example, as in the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court ruling of October 2010.
  5. A large number of hadiths (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) contain the explicit, emphatic prohibition, “Do not beat your wives!”
  6. These hadiths may appear to contradict the Qur’an, if the latter is read in a superficial, fundamentalist way.
  7. A holistic reading of the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadiths, taking into account the socio-historical context of the revelation of the Qur’an and of the Prophetic guidance preserved in authentic hadiths, shows clearly that God and Muhammad wished to ban wife-beating and domestic violence completely.  As a temporary measure, and as a step on the way, an extremely limited, reluctant concession was given that only allowed minimal violence as a symbolic gesture of displeasure on a husband’s part.  This was in a strongly patriarchal society that used to bury baby girls alive because of their gender and where sons would inherit their fathers’ wives.  Such practices were outlawed by Islam, which also granted rights to women in 7th-century Arabia that were only achieved by European women in the 19th century, such as the independent right to own their property upon marriage.
  8. The evidence for this interpretation is overwhelming, from the 8th-century AD Mufti of Mecca, ‘Ata bin Abi Rabah, who ruled that “a man may not hit his wife” to the 20th-century Mufti of the Zaytuna in Tunis, Ibn ‘Ashur, who ruled that the State may ban domestic violence and punish any man who assaulted his wife.
  9. The “gradualist” approach of the Qur’an and Sunnah described in this case is a common feature in Islam.  Other examples are the prohibition of wine, gambling, fornication and adultery.  Modern reformers argue that the same principle applies to the abolition of slavery and the struggle towards gender-equality.
  10. Recently, a number of Muslim thinkers and scholars, unfamiliar with the holistic approach to the Qur’an, Hadith and Shari’ah embodied in the universalist Maqasid theory of Islamic law, have attempted to re-translate the “wife-beating” verse to mean something else.  Alternative translations and interpretations include temporary separation of husband and wife, travelling and even making love as a way of solving marital disputes.  A prominent example of this is Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar’s recent translation, The Sublime Qur’an (2007) that is largely-promoted based precisely on her translation of the wife-beating verse. Although well-intentioned, such interpretations and translations are either grammatically unsound or far-fetched, or both.  Furthermore, they ignore the overwhelming evidence provided by the Hadith traditions and simply do not placate the critics of Islam.  The normative, orthodox account of the issue in this study provides a thorough, honest and principled solution to the difficulties apparently posed by the wife-beating verse.
  11. The presence of hadiths with weak isnads (chains of narration) that would otherwise justify wife-beating may be evidence that some early Muslims themselves misunderstood the issue and either fabricated or misreported traditions on the subject.  The value of the work of expert Hadith scholars throughout the ages who meticulously sifted genuine narrations from the weak ones, may be seen to be crucial.  The work of al-Albani, a 20th century Hadith scholar, is especially valuable, for example his gradings for every hadith in the four famous Sunan collections of Sunni Islam.  Albani concentrated more on the chains of narration than the meanings of the traditions, but nevertheless confirmed that all the hadiths banning wife-beating or only allowing a limited concession are authentic whereas all those justifying it absolutely are weak.
  12. This study highlights a fundamental problem with the way many Muslims, including some scholars and clerics, read the Qur’an.  Rather than being read as a “textbook” or “instruction manual” as some superficial, populist, fundamentalist or Hadith-rejecting preachers advocate, it should be remembered for what it is: a collection of divine signs, guidance and wisdom revealed by God to the heart of His Beloved, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, by God via the Archangel Gabriel (Jibril), the Holy Spirit, peace be upon him.  This guidance was transmitted by practice and oral teaching (remember that “Qur’an” means “A Reading” and hence oral transmission) at first, and only collected by the Companions as a written book after the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, for fear of this Divine Treasure being lost for ever.  Furthermore, this guidance was always supposed to be manifested by righteous people of piety, humility, good character and the remembrance of God, taking their situation and socio-historical contexts into account.  A critical awareness of hadith and history has always been required, along with the worship of God and the service of humanity, to be guided towards the true way of following the Qur’an.

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14 Responses to “Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife? The Quran, Hadith and Domestic Violence”

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  2. fred Says:

    I always view 4:34 as a “count to ten” approach to calming down before striking out. In other words, it tells men not to react in anger. If a man is still angry after sleeping on it…he should be going to Allah in prayer for help with his unhealthy rage rather than blaming his rage on his wife.

    If you skip ahead just two ayat to ayat 4:36, it is clear that there is a lesson in 4:34 not a command.

    And serve Allah. Ascribe no thing as partner unto Him. (Show) kindness unto parents, and unto near kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and unto the neighbour who is of kin (unto you) and the neighbour who is not of kin, and the fellow-traveller and the wayfarer and (the slaves) whom your right hands possess. Lo! Allah loveth not such as are proud and boastful…(Quran 4:36)

    Unless Allah would say be kind to everyone but your wife, these two ayat are meant to be understood (as always): mercy preceding wrath. Quran often seems to say “two things”. One would support a harsh action and the other a merciful one. We know Allah loves to show us Compassion and Mercy and we must never interfere with Allah’s desires to show anyone Compassion and Mercy.

    If a man beats his wife, he has deprived his wife of Allah’s kindness in Compassion and Mercy.

    • Usama Hasan Says:

      Thank you for that, Fred. There is much that can be learnt from the ayat before and after 4:34. But unless we move away from fundamentalism and excessive literalism, we will always face a very difficult question about 4:34. I am suggesting ways of answering the question: How can the All-Merciful appear to allow violence against women in the Word of God? Even if it is minimal, severely-limited and symbolic, it is still wife-beating to some degree. The other problem is that, practically speaking, the verse is much-misunderstood and mis-applied in Muslim societies.

      • fred Says:

        Quran can never be understood ayat by ayat. It must be read and contemplated on. It must be taken into the heart and become a vehicle for the Compassionate and Merciful One.

        Also Laleh Bakhtiar has done some wornderful research into the word so often translated as “beat” in 4:34.

        Every chapter (but one) of Quran starts with a call from The Compassionate and Merciful One. It means every surah is a call to honor the Compassionate and Merciful One through Compassionate and Merciful actions. Beating one’s wife is disobeying the call to Compassion and Mercy.

  3. mkhatree Says:

    Good article, brother Usama.

    Have you come across this link: http://www.quran434.com/wife-beating-islam.html

    It seems to be a well-researched article which first aims to explain the linguistic base of the verse before explaining the meaning, so that people understand the idea of contexts in verses and words having several different meanings.

    • Usama Hasan Says:

      Thank you. OMG! A whole website on that ayah! Underlines how crucial the ayah is. Very well-intentioned, but I think it’s ultimately the wrong approach. Let’s call a spade a spade: daraba means to hit/strike, and my guess is that this is the overwhelming meaning that jumps to the mind of over 99% of Arabic-speakers of whatever level when they hear this ayah. It is about time that we faced that fact squarely and came to terms with it. Plus, what about the dozens of hadiths mentioning “darb al-nisa'”? Do people wish to perform linguistic gymnastics on all of those also?

  4. Huda Says:

    Interesting read..Im inclined to agree but not entirely sure what the conclusion of the whole thing is…obvious as that ‘should’ have been…its still not. I mean, leave aside the fact that this verse is a regular source of ammunition for the critics of Islam – focussing just on the verse in the wider context and in the bigger picture that Islam provides of family and in particular relations between the spouses…beating just doesnt ‘fit in’ anywhere.

    My qualm with the traditional interpretation has always been (excuse my bluntness here) that it is at best, silly, and at worst – downright moronic. Reason being that the Arabic of the verse states ‘beat’ whereas practically every English translation casually slips in the word ‘lightly’ in brackets (probably to dampen the utter shock of the reader methinks)- something entirely missing from the original text. Now if the word in question indeed translates to ‘beat’ then it should mean for the man to beat to his heart’s content. Thats assuming (as you have) that the word DOES mean to beat.

    Because the issue at hand is not the ‘effect’ of the beating in terms of physical pain or the like – it is the very gesture – something objectively, undeniably and blatantly, very very demeaning. As such, the popular ‘miswak/toothpick’ argument doesnt quite cut it for it still condones the very action albeit limiting the extent. If extent were the question, this may be relevant, but it is not.

    My point is – it is high time scholars came clean about this and stopped beating about the bush under the guise of one thing or another. People want clear-cut and bold answers to questions like this. This verse needs to be explained clearly and bluntly so there is no room left for confusion and doubt.

  5. Abu Sufyaan Says:

    Assalaamu alaikum

    First of all, I found your headline offensive – I know you are trying to grab the attention of the readers, but I have never beaten my wife and i have no intention of doing so. Your headline may suggest to an uninformed reader that most muslims are in the habit of beating their wifes.

    Second, regarding your conclusion “God and Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly wished to ban domestic violence, as numerous hadiths indicate.” If this is so clear , then why did non of the scholars of the past mention such a statement for the last fourteen hundred years?

    Thirdly, you seem intent of trying to find ways to appease the critics of Islam . I think the critics will always find something to have a go at , so it is pointless to make it an aim to appease them. If there was really a big problem of “domestic violence” amongst practising muslimgs, then an article addressing the Islamic viewpoint would be of benefit.

  6. ahadithstudies Says:

    Thank you for that link mkhatree. It makes most sense.

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  8. Daniel Johnson Says:

    Hi Usama

    It was nice to meet you after the Three Faiths Forum last week and to hear some of your views on literalism. Thanks also for directing me to this article – some of which I shall now include in my lecture in on Women in Islam.

    I have a couple of questions regarding Sharia Courts – which seems to be a topic that is popular during Q&A sessions at the moment. You have my email address with this form so If your could let me have yours that would be great an I forward you some questions?

    Daniel

  9. being_there Says:

    Salaamun ‘ala man ittiba al huda.

    Your critique of Bakhtiar (and others) in the article is interesting, yet ultimately problematic since the linguistic evidence you present is not as conclusive as you make it out to be. In this connection, I refer you to the following brief blog article:

    http://tazweej.blogspot.com/2011/05/have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife.html

    Fi amaan illah

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