Can a man beat his wife in Islam?
Due to cultural norms which have prevailed over time, men have assumed heavy handed, authoritarian positions over their wives. They have dominated their wives, often citing plenty of weak and fabricated narrations to justify this behaviour and attitude. They have expected subservience from their wives with a sense that they have been given this position in Islam. However, if we unpick these assumptions, we have to look at the hadith that are being quoted. We cannot rely on any hadith which is not authentic and if it is authentic we need to know its context. We need to know the commentary on it.
Beating the wife
A woefully misunderstood concept stems from not understanding the meaning of the famous ayah in Surah Nisa:
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 (wadaribu hunna). But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (4:34)
In the 21st century, the quoting of this ayah can make us to feel embarrassed. When people say, ‘Your Quran tells you to beat your wife’. I feel like saying, ‘Oh yes. It’s an obligation; it’s like salah, you have to beat your wife five times a day’. Obviously this is not the case, so how are we supposed to understand it?
Firstly we cannot delete any ayah from the Quran because we are embarrassed by it. We cannot change it to satisfy some people, or to feel that we so are advanced and we don’t go through these classical texts. It is the Quran and it is divine revelation? So when the Quran says wadribu hunna– strike them, from the verb daraba – to strike, what does it mean?
From a linguistic point of view, what does daraba mean?
What is the meaning of daraba? I recently read an interpretation of the word daraba as ‘leave the house’ or ‘stay away from your wife’. This is not true. There are two types of word in the Quran, the clear and the ambiguous. Daraba is not an ambiguous word. You can’t invent a new meaning for a word, which is in fact a very common word. What did the companions understand? They understood daraba to mean to beat or to strike. It can mean travel, but this is not what the companions understood. So the word itself is clear.
There are some words in the Quran which are unclear, these are known as mutashabih, for example in the ayah on divorce in Surah Baqarah which contains the word daraja, Allah Almighty says the wife should wait for three quru.
Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods (quru), and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. 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]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (2:28)
The word ‘quru’ has two meanings, it can mean purity as well as menstruation. It is not clear from this ayah whether the wife has to wait for three period cycles, or three cycles of purity. Accordingly there is a huge discussion and two different opinions on which one is meant.
With daraba the linguistic meaning is clear, but what does the ayah mean? We had a meeting of 15 -20 scholars to discuss this ayah and it took a full day. We are clear that it is not a general ayah which can be taken and applied, like salah. Nor does it mean travel, so the husband travelled away from his wife. This is not what they understood.
Part of a process to salvage a marriage
Hitting one’s wife was a practice in the community before Islam. Islam came to place limits on the interaction between men and women and clarify what is permissible or not. The Prophet (peace be on him) said before he passed away that men have to treat women with kindness. The context of the ayah is related to a situation where a husband fears his wife is having an affair. He is trying to salvage a marriage which is falling apart. He is given three steps to bring his marriage back from the brink.
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 (nushuz) – [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. (4:34)
First there is moidha, (advice) which means the husband gently and kindly with sincere intention and the right knowledge – with the right tone, right words and at the right time – advises his wife that she is harming their marriage. It is not a venting session or an opportunity to criticise her, but to guide her to become better. It is not an opportunity to mock her. If she does not listen, he can move to the next level. If she is not prepared to listen, he can give her the silent treatment. He doesn’t look at her, talk to her or sleep with her. If this also fails, he has the permission to ‘strike’ her, which is by no means an obligation. This does not apply to every scenario. He cannot jump to this level without exhausting the previous options. Or without good reason.
When is it permissible
There are boundaries. This ayah cannot be applied if a wife didn’t cook biryani properly for her husband. When can it be applied? When he fears ‘nushuz’ which is translated as arrogance from the root nashaza which means high place. Can we understand that if the wife is undermining her husband’s authority, and treating him with arrogance that he has the right to beat her? No. It is the last part of a process. It means that the husband has serious concerns and suspicions about his wife.
What constitutes a strike
Daraba means strike once not to hit repeatedly. It is not even a hard strike but more of a tap.
When we look at the other ayah in the Quran concerning tayammum, Allah Almighty says tayammum is of two strikes (darbatan). The scholars tell us that the Prophet (peace be on him) patted his hands on the dust and then on his face. He did not whack himself with his hands or with any force. It was a light tap. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
Tayammum is two strikes (darbatan) of the earth: one strike for the face and one strike for the hands up to the elbows. (Sunan al-Daraqutni)
In the hadith about disciplining children when they are not praying but it has been obligatory for them, the word daraba means to strike them very lightly.
Teach your children to pray when they are seven years old, and smack them (lightly) if they do not pray when they are 10 years old, and separate them in their beds. (Abu Dawood)
He further clarified that if you did this once or twice and it did not bring the desired result, it is haram to continue to use this method. And when you strike the child, you must not leave a mark and you must not strike the face. Contrastingly children were being giving corporal punishments until it was finally banned in the 1980s in UK state schools and only in the 1990s by private schools. Islam had put limits on it 1400 years ago.
Similarly the Prophet (peace be on him) clarified that when a husband does strike his wife it has to be light – darban ghayra mubarrih, that it must not leave a mark and that it must not be on the face.
I certainly enjoin you to treat women well for they are like your captives, and you do not have any right to treat them otherwise unless they commit a clear obscenity. If they do so, you may forsake their beds and then strike them without causing pain (ghayra mubarriḥ), but if they obey you then you may not do so. (Tirmidhi)
Scholars have a consensus that daraba is effectively symbolic, not a means of inflicting injury, pain or bruising. To the extent that they compare it to being struck by a toothbrush. In effect, it is not so much a strike but a symbolic wake up call. Like shaking someone by the shoulders who is not listening.
Sadly, people have not understood the concept and it is commonly assumed across the Muslim world that a man can hit his wife and use the Quran to justify it. This is wrong.
If we look at from the Prophet’s example, the understanding of the word in relation to the hadith and salah, the Qur’anic ayah on tayammum and in the process of saving a relationship when the wife is in the wrong, we can see that the Quran is offering an option not a prescription which might offer a solution.
Allah Almighty does not say in the ayah that it is an obligation to beat your wife. There have been real court cases where men have been charged with beating their wives, and when asked by the judge why they did so, they replied in court, ‘Allah said so’. As simple as that. I have witnessed this myself. This is completely wrong. Allah Almighty connected daraba to ‘nushuz.’ What is nushuz? They are serious issues. For example, the wife is troublesome, causing issues and probably he suspects she is having an affair or talking to someone behind his back or receiving someone in his home without his permission. He might have some evidence and some suspicions. Link this idea to the Farewell Sermon, when the Prophet (peace be on him) said a woman is not allowed to let anyone in the home without her husband’s approval.
I receive cases day in day out, when children are involved, the last thing you want for them is their home to be broken. The husband could end the marriage straightaway, but Islam is giving him marital advice on his last three resorts to restore the family unit, when the wife is causing harm. It is providing him with alternate options to make her see sense. Divorce will cause more harm to the family, and Allah Almighty is giving them all possible chances to resolve their troubles and to keep the family together.
It is not a licence to commit violence, and it is not prescribed. If her prefers to divorce her that’s fine.
If he does hurt her, this is haram.
There is no obligation to beat the wife. He is not sinful if he does not do this. When we look to the sunnah, we do not find a single example of the Prophet (peace be on him) being harsh to his wives, let alone lifting a finger on them. There is no instance where he hit them.
If a wife is going in the wrong direction then you need someone to bring her back. Just as you might do for a friend you know is doing something wrong. If you love them, you might follow the same process – try advising them, even have a fight with him, to make them understand. It is a sign of love.
Sadly, some scholars have not understood this an act of loyalty and love, but a green light to hit their wife with a toothbrush. They say ‘Yes, you can hit her, but with a siwak’. The point is not the siwak, but the about a loving, caring husband who does not want to destroy their relationship.
At the end of this day this is guidance for the qawam, the person in charge of the relationship how to resolve issues when the relationship is going wrong. How to bring his team together.
What if the husband is in the wrong
If a wife finds that her husband is having issues, then there is an ayah from that if she suspects infidelity from his side she can ask for a divorce. In the Maliki school, the wife can do moidha and follow the same process as the man.
Divorce is allowed twice. Then, either honourable retention, or setting free kindly. It is not lawful for you to take back anything you have given them, unless they fear that they cannot maintain God’s limits. If you fear that they cannot maintain God’s limits, then there is no blame on them if she sacrifices something for her release. These are God’s limits, so do not transgress them. Those who transgress God’s limits are the unjust. (2:229)
Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
The wife of Thabit bin Qais came to the Prophet (ﷺ) and said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger, I do not find fault with Thabit bin Qais (may Allah be pleased with him) in respect of character or religion, but I dislike (and fear) that I might commit an act of Kufr fil-Islam (that which is contradictory to Islamic behaviour).’
Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) asked her, ‘Will you give him back his garden?’
And she replied, ‘Yes,’ so Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said to him, ‘Accept the garden and divorce her, with one pronouncement (of divorce).’ (Bukhari)
I had a real case where a woman was beaten by her husband so she went to karate classes and within a few months she learnt how to defend herself. When he next tried to hurt her, she knocked him down and warned him never to hit her again. He backed down straightaway. There is no justification for hurting the wife or for domestic violence.
If a wife is hurt by her husband, she should report this to the police. It is not sabr for her to put up with abuse. It is haram for her to tolerate such behaviour. It also sets a very bad example for her children which they will inherit and which will damage them. She must not put up with this. And if she does not report this, and the police find out, she also risks losing her children.
Delivered as part of the Misunderstood Verses course on 8th December 2019. Transcribed by A Khan
January 15, 2021