Men and Women in Islam – Can a man beat his wife?
Understanding the meaning of ‘daraba’
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. (4:34)
In this famous ayah from Surah Nisa, which is frequently misunderstood and abused, Allah Almighty describes two types of women – those who are obedient, and guard the honour of their husbands in their absence, and those who disregard the honour of their husband, ‘those whom you fear rebellion’.
The word for rebellion is translated from the Arabic nushuzahuna, which comes from the verb nashaza meaning to divert from something, e.g. the right or left side of the motorway is called nushuz, or a mound above the ground. Therefore if a woman is rebelling, or abusing her husband this is nushuz.
The Quran has outlined the following steps as different means of saving a relationship and bringing it back to harmony.
A husband can warn his wife kindly that her behaviour is haram. This should be done in the best possible way, using the right words in the right tone, at the right time. If a man sincerely wants his wife to refrain from certain behaviours, then his advice will not succeed unless it is delivered in the right manner. Good advice given in the wrong way, will not be effective.
The husband needs to have both the right intention and the right application when he asks his spouse to change a behaviour that is painful.
Hajar – Withholding Conjugal Relations
Jumping straight into divorce is not loyalty. Loyalty is clinging to a relationship. A small mistake or even a big mistake should not necessarily break the whole family unit. Couples should try their best to fix their relationship, rather than end it. It may be that they require mediation as recommended in the subsequent ayah, when all possible internal resources have been exhausted. Therefore, a possible way to raise a red flag in a relationship is in trouble is to withhold intimate relations.
Breaking physical contact is not an open-ended option. If may get the message through, but if it does not then it cannot be prolonged indefinitely. If should not continue beyond a few weeks. If the wife is unhappy with this situation, or it continues for some months, and she is being denied her conjugal rights for a prolonged length of time, she can seek a divorce.
Daraba – Tap them
This ayah and the mention of the word ‘daraba’ (usually translated as ‘beat’) is often seen as a big taboo. It has long been the subject of intense discussion, so much so, that some would like to delete this ayah from the Qur’an.
How can we understand this ayah? First it is important to understand that it concerns a specific scenario, and should not be wrongly applied or abused.
What does daraba mean?
Daraba means a light tap. It is mentioned in the practice of tayammum where the word daraba is used to describe the act of lightly tapping the dust to wipe it on the face and hands. Clearly one does not whack the dust, or strike it forcefully, but merely taps it gently. ‘Daraba’ is more of a shake of the shoulders than a strike. So gentle in fact that it was first described as a being tapped by a siwak (toothbrush) by Imam Tabari (300 AH).
In terms of contact between people, daraba is akin to the light smack on the hand you might give a child to get their attention, so they understand that what they have done is wrong. One must always and in any scenario avoid smacking the face, or causing humiliation or pain.
As per the hadith, narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-‘As, the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
Command your children to pray when they become seven years old, and beat them for it (prayer) when they become ten years old; and arrange their beds (to sleep) separately. (Al Albani)
Here ‘beat’ does not mean beat them till they are black and blue. It just means lightly, for example a small smack on the wrist. Or a light shaking to wake them if they are asleep. It has to be seen in conjunction with the other hadith that tells us that we are not allowed to harm anyone, ‘la darar wa la dirar’:
There is neither inflicting nor returning of harm (Ibn Majah)
Anything which causes harm is haram. Underlying the small smack is mercy, not brutality or violence. In Surah Talaq, Allah Almighty says:
Do not harm them in order to straighten them. (65:6)
Understanding the context
Any ayah, taken out of context will convey a meaning directly opposite to its real meaning. Never take the literal meaning of an ayah or hadith without checking the prophetic application. In order to understand the verses of the Qur’an we have to see how the Prophet (peace be on him) applied them, and we know that the Prophet (peace be on him) never applied this ayah in his lifetime. He himself never ever laid his hand on his wives.
The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) did not strike a servant or a woman, and he never struck anything with his hand. (Muslim)
If we look at the top men in Islam none of them beat their wives. We also know from our history that it was not the norm. If it had been the case, we would not have the incident where the wife of Omar (may Allah be pleased with him) was heard shouting at him. Instead they would have been surpressed.
Omar ibn al-Khattab said that a man came to his house to complain about his wife. On reaching the door of his house, he hears Omar’s wife shouting at him and reviling him. Seeing this, he was about to go back, thinking that Omar himself was in the same position and, therefore, could hardly suggest any solution for his problem.
Omar saw the man turn back, so he called him and enquired about the purpose of his visit. He said that he had come with a complaint against his wife, but turned back on seeing the Caliph in the same position. Omar told him that he tolerated the excesses of his wife for she had certain rights against him.
He said, ‘Is it not true that she prepares food for me, washes clothes for me and suckles my children, thus saving me the expense of employing a cook, a washerman and a wetnurse, though she is not legally obliged in any way to do any of these things?
Besides, I enjoy peace of mind because of her and am kept away from zinnah on account of her. I therefore tolerate all her excesses on account of these benefits. It is right that you should also adopt the same attitude…’
An option not a command
The option of daraba (tapping) your wife is not an obligation. There is no occasion during the Prophet’s (peace be on him) life in which he himself lifted a finger on a wife or a child or any other person. In usul al fiqh (the method of deriving legal principles) a command is not an obligation unless prophetic application proves it.
Moreover, harshness in any dealing is disliked Islamically:
Verily, Allah is gentle and He loves gentleness and he rewards for gentleness what is not granted for harshness. He does not reward anything else like it. (Muslim)
‘Daraba’ is only for use in an exceptional scenario. It is not a recommendation. It is the last wake-up call before a couple end their marriage with divorce.
It is only permissible in certain circumstances in accordance with certain conditions.
It does not justify the abuse of responsibility nor inexcusable cultural practices for hundreds of years. There is no justification for the abuse of women. If a man hurts his wife, she can go to court.
Islamically you are not allowed to beat anyone or harm anyone. And similarly in this scenario to understand the word daraba as beating is wrong. Any abuse is completely wrong and haram. Islam is absolutely 100% against domestic violence.
The wife’s right to receive kindness
The last resort option of daraba should not be seen in isolation. It has to be seen in conjunction with the commands to treat women well. Islamically the wife has the right to be respected and treated kindly. This is not an optional favour from her husband. it is an obligation established through a divine command. Allah Almighty commands in the Quran:
Live with them [ your wives ] in kindness ; even if you dislike them, perhaps you dislike something in which Allah has placed much good.’ (4:19)
In another incident, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) slapped his daughter Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) when there was trouble between the Prophet’s (peace be on him) wives, however the Prophet (peace be on him) censured him for doing that.
Islam does allow the humiliation of anyone
Allah Almighty dignified all of mankind. Allah Almighty said:
Truly, We have honoured the children of Adam. (17:70)
This is for men and women and it would be a contradiction if it is permitted to beat anyone as this is a humiliation. It only makes sense if you understand that daraba is tapping not beating and has clear limits. It is not a means of violence or revenge. Islam is not a message of violence and brutality. If it allowed for half of humanity to be humiliated or abused then how would their connection with Allah Almighty be? Allah Almighty forbid oppression by anyone.
Therefore we have to understand that the concept of daraba cannot be seen as a green light to abuse your wife. It has to fall within the wider framework which does not tolerated any oppression, not just from one man to another but by Allah Himself. There are volumes that have been written about ensuring justice and rooting out oppression. However, there is only ONE verse which mentions the option, in exceptional circumstances, to bring a de-railed marriage back on track.
If we look at the context in which Allah Almighty is offering this option, it is in the situation of trying to resolve marital problems. The ayah is seeking to rectify what happened between husband and wife. If the husband tried advising his wife, tried sleeping in a different bed, but did not manage to solve the issues, his third option is to shake her gently. The smack can be mercy if it fulfils all the conditions and etiquettes and leads to resolution.
When daraba is not an option
In some situations a slap on the wrist escalates the problem and would therefore be the wrong thing to do. However if this solution increases the problem it is not a solution. We must always choose the lesser harm. If you know that someone will worsen if you use this method, that method becomes haram. All efforts are supposed to diffuse a painful situation.
When beating becomes punishable
The Qur’an is catering for all communities for all times in line with the general principle karamna bani Adam, ‘we have ennobled the children of Adam.’ All humans have to be given respect – whether men or women, old or young, you cannot smack them in a way that causes damage or humiliation.
At no time is it permissible to go beyond the limits in reprimanding someone, and particularly not the one whom you have vowed to share your life with. Allah Almighty reminds us, that if one abuses his power, he will be taken into account. Hisham ibn Hakim reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
Verily, Allah will torture those who torture people in this world. (Muslim)
Abu Huraira reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
Whoever strikes someone will receive retribution for it on the Day of Resurrection. (al Adab al Mufrad)
The background of this revelation
The reason behind this revelation is that Habiba one of the companions was slapped on the face by her husband. The Prophet (peace be on him) said he should be penalised. The ayah came as clarification. The prophetic approach here was going to be retaliation of the equivalent amount. The Qur’an is here setting the boundaries of what is permissible, and Habiba’s husband had overstepped the limit.
Though in some tribes, it is culturally accepted to beat women, this is not the norm in all tribes. If it was Habiba would not have come to complain, she would have accepted it. Yet there is specific prohibition on harming others, or humiliating them. This breeds grudges, scars, and causes psychological harm. Such a practice is not in line with the ayah or its context of reconciliation. It damages the whole of society when husbands abuse wives, and impacts on the children.
Sadly some top scholars including Imam al Ghazali followed the cultural practices and perceptions of women and for centuries this ayah has been misinterpreted.
There is no green light on beating women in Islam. If we understood this ayah correctly and dispelled the myths surrounding it, it would guide us. The whole picture comes together like a mosaic when you put all the pieces together. You can’t take one piece and extrapolate the meaning from it alone. This aim of this ayah is preservation of marriage not punishment or revenge.
November 18, 2019
November 15, 2019