The Quran on beating wives
James M. Arlandson
Does the Quran permit husbands to hit their wives, or not?
Summer Hathout is a prosecutor in Los Angeles, an activist for women’s rights, and a Muslim. She denies that Islam promotes domestic violence, concluding in her short article:
To those of us who know Islam and the Quran, violence against women is so antithetical to the teachings of Islam that we look at those who use our religion against us as misguided, misinformed or malevolent.
On the other hand, Saudi television aired a talk show that discussed this issue. Scrolling three-fourths of the way down the link, the readers can see an Islamic scholar holding up sample rods that husbands may use to hit their wives.
Where is the truth between the two extremes?
Unfortunately, the male Middle Eastern scholar is far closer to the truth than the American female Muslim activist and apologist (defender), for Sura 4:34 in the Quran indeed permits husbands to hit their wives, though the verse says nothing about rods.
It is true, as Hathout notes, that all societies have domestic violence; however, Islamic societies have it enshrined in their eternal word of Allah, unlike, say, the New Testament, which does not have even a faint hint of it. With such divine endorsement from Allah, can Islam reform on this matter?
To demonstrate how domestic violence is embedded in the Quran, this article follows a specific method of exegesis (detailed analysis of a text) in four stages. First, translations from Muslim scholars are offered, so that they, not Westerners, speak for their own sacred text. Second, the historical context and the literary context of the targeted verse are explained, so the life of Muhammad and the early Muslim community can shed some light on the dubious practice. Besides clarifying the verse, this stage is also designed to prevent the standard, reflexive “out of context” defense from Muslim apologists. Third, we allow Muslims themselves to interpret the content of the Quranic verse. This stage is subdivided between the early traditions and four modern commentators, including Hathout. Finally, we ask a few questions about Islam and the possibility of reform, pointing out that Christians are allowed to doubt whether God would send down such a verse, especially when Islam claims to fulfill Christianity.
Translations of Sura 4:34
The first stage gives three Muslim translations of Sura 4:34, which should be read carefully in order to understand the Muslims’ interpretation at the fourth stage.
Egyptian-born M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, educated at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, and Cambridge University and now professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, translates for Oxford University Press (2004), as follows:
4:34 Husbands should take full care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in the husbands’ absence. If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a scholar working out of Lahore, Punjab, E. Pakistan, began his translation in 1934 and revised it a third time by 1938. He notes in parenthesis, not original to the Arabic, the sequence of steps and the implied soft meaning of “beat them (lightly)”:
4:34 ... As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly) ...
This sequence in Yusuf Ali’s translation is important for the Muslims’ interpretation, below, so readers should zero in on them now.
Ahmed Ali was an author of fiction, and he translates the relevant line for Princeton University Press (1984, rev. 1986), adding parenthetic glosses not originally found in Arabic:
4:34 As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing).
This translation flatly contradicts the two others cited here and many others: “beat” (Fakhry); “scourge” (Pickthall); “beat” (Dawood); “beat (lightly)” (Hilali and Khan); “chastise” (Maulana); “chastise” (Khan); “beat” (Maududi); “beat” (Salahi and Shamis, Muslim translators of Sayyid Qutb); “beat” (Committee of Muslim translators of Ibn Kathir); “beat” (Shakir); “chastise” (Khalifa); “beat” (Sher Ali); and “beat” (Asad, whom Hathout quotes in her article).*
In contrast, Ali’s wording, which the activist and attorney Hathout latches on to despite the numerous translators who disagree with Ali and her, reverses the plain meaning of the words by a clever linguistic sleight-of-hand. We allow reputable Muslim scholars to challenge this misinterpretation in the fourth stage, below. But for now it shows how far some (not all) Muslim apologists (defenders of Islam) will go to iron out the harsh words in the Quran.
Historical and literary contexts of Sura 4:34
The second stage in our exegetical method is to establish the historical and literary contexts of Sura 4:34.
Sayyid A’La Abul Maududi (d. 1979) was an Indo-Pakistani who worked hard at establishing a theocracy in Pakistan through the Jamaat-i-Islami. He is highly respected traditional commentator who says that this sura, itself titled “Women,” was revealed at different times, but still in the timeframe of AD 625 to 626. Muhammad is establishing his Muslim community in Medina in the face of opposition and adverse circumstances, though Islam manages to overcome them. Verse 34 fits into the framework of vv. 1-35, which sees the specific establishment of rules for the family. For instance, in the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud in 625, in which the Muslims lost a lot of men, Muhammad says that orphans should be given their property and not to replace their good things with bad, which means to deal fairly and wisely with their assets (vv. 1-6). Also, he discusses the rules for inheriting property, such as one son having the share equal to two daughters or that a husband should inherent half of his wife’s property, unless they have children, in which case he inherits one-fourth (vv. 11-14). Then, if women or men in a segment of Muslim society commit lewd acts, they should be punished, unless they repent (vv. 15-18). Next, a large section deals with marriage rules, like not marrying mothers, daughters, sisters and so on (vv. 19-28). Finally, he lays down rules against greed and murder, and again returns to a law of inheritance (vv. 29-33).
Thus, it is in this family environment that the targeted v. 34 is located, and Muhammad lays out yet one more rule in v. 34 – how to deal with an unruly or rebellious wife (The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 1, pp. 297-303).
Interpretations of Sura 4:34
The third stage is to interpret Sura 4:34, but we should let Muslims speak for themselves about the troublesome verse, beginning with the earliest traditions and ending with the modern era.
The early traditions confirm that hitting wives actually happened and was sanctioned in Muhammad’s day and in his community. Domestic violence runs deeply and early in Islam, contrary to Hathout’s apologetics (defense).
Ibn Ishaq (c. 704-768), a biographer of Muhammad, who is considered mostly reliable by modern historians (except for the miracles and some chronology), summarizes this part of Muhammad’s sermon, which was delivered during his last pilgrimage to Mecca and heard by thousands:
You have rights over your wives and they have rights over you. You have the right that they should not defile your bed and that they should not behave with open unseemliness. If they do, God allows you to put them in separate rooms and to beat them but not with severity. If they refrain from these things, they have the right to their food and clothing with kindness. Lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you having no control of their own persons. (Guillaume’s translation, p. 651)
This passage reveals that Muhammad sees the hitting of wives only in egregious circumstances, like “open unseemliness.” It also repeats the counsel that husbands should at first separate from such wives and only afterwards apply physical force. Thus, the sequence in Ibn Ishaq’s account and in Sura 4:34 overlap somewhat.
Bukhari (810-870) and Muslim (817-875) are two collectors and editors of hadith (saying and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran) and are considered completely reliable. They record this troubling pronouncement:
Narrated Abdallah b. Zama: “None of you must flog his wife as as he flogs a slave, and then have sexual intercourse with her in the last part of the day.” A version has, “One of you has recourse to whipping his wife as a slave and perhaps he lies with her at the end of the day.” (Mishkat, trans. James Robson, vol. 1, p. 688 or Marriage, chapter XI)
Does this hadith give permission or not? Is the husband allowed to whip her, except not as severely as a slave is whipped because a man’s wife lives and has sex with him? Or does it prohibit whipping altogether? In any case, it does not disconfirm, that hitting – if not whipping – is permitted.
Bukhari reports this incident about the wives in the early Muslim community in the context of marital confusion and an odd remarriage law:
Rifa'a divorced his wife whereupon 'AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. 'Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complained to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating). It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah's Apostle came, 'Aisha said, "I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!"
No one should doubt that this reflects the lives of many women in this foundational religious community. How could it be otherwise when Allah permits husbands to beat their wives? Would the true God allow such a thing even when the Old Testament does not?
Another collector and editor of hadith, Tirmidhi (821-894), a student of Bukhari, though not having as high a status as his teacher, records this tradition:
You have a right in the matter of your wives that they do not allow anyone whom you do not like to come into your houses; if they do this, chastise them in such a manner that it should not leave an impression.
The following report is narrated by Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite young wife, whom he married when he was in his fifties and she was around nine or ten years old (they were betrothed when she was six, see this article for details). The context of the line shows Muhammad sneaking out of the house, to visit a graveyard and pray over the dead. Aisha followed him. She returned just before he did, but he noticed she was out of breath and he asked her why. She told him, and apparently fearing for his life as he saw her in the shadows, he punished her. Says Aisha: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain” (Muslim, vol. 2, no. 2127). So Muhammad committed domestic violence on his young wife.
The hadith collection Sunan Abu Dawud is also considered reliable. This passage records Muhammad first saying that husbands should not beat their wives (vol. 2, nos. 2139 and 2141), but Umar, one of his chief companions, informed him that the wives were becoming “emboldened towards their husbands.” So now Muhammad changed his mind: ... “[H]e (the Prophet) gave permission to beat them.” However, the women complained to Muhammad’s family, but he retorted: “Many women have gone round Muhammad’s family complaining against their husbands. They are not the best among you” (vol. 2, no. 2141).
This passage is very revealing. First, it shows that Muhammad chose a bad path at the behest of one of his companions. To be blunt, what kind of leader is this? Second, the women complained, and this can only mean that they were getting hit. But rather than changing his policy back to the more merciful one, he merely said that these men are not “the best among you.” Third, he still should have reconsidered his new ruling. But no matter, for Allah revealed Sura 4:34 to him. This trumps everything. However, would the true God send down such a practice?
Before leaving Sunan Abu Dawud, we should look at a short hadith, which says: “Umar b. al-Kattab reported the Prophet ... as saying: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife” (vol. 2, no. 2142). Whether this asking is done at Judgment Day or here on earth, it is still troubling. This is the kind of passage that shocks many Westerners. If Muslims would assert that wife-beating was relevant for the seventh century alone, then that may be fine, though one would have the right to wonder whether the true God would say such a thing in the first place. But Muslims believe that this policy expresses the divine will of Allah for all times and places; it is needed to correct human nature—though no command was sent down for wives to beat their husbands to correct their human nature.
Finally, Ibn Kathir, a highly respected Medieval commentator, references another passage from the hadith editor Muslim. Muhammad says this at his farewell pilgrimage:
Fear Allah regarding women, for they are your assistants. You have the right on them that they do not allow any person whom you dislike to step on your mat. However, if they do that, you are allowed to discipline them lightly ... (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 3, p. 446, ed. Safiur-Rahman al Mubarakpuri, Riyadh: Darussalam)
Ibn Kathir informs us that “discipline” entails the physical. Also, not allowing anyone that a husband may dislike to step onto his mat is similar to the earlier hadith that says no man is allowed into the husband’s house without his permission (see Tirmidhi, above). Arab culture differs from ours, so in today’s world this invitation to a man whom the husband dislikes may amount to inappropriate sexual contact, even if the act is not committed.
All in all, the earliest traditions, representing others, allow husbands to hit their wives, so the difficulties in Sura 4:34 have an additional historical context and cannot be explained away from that standpoint. Domestic violence sits at the heart of Islam, not at its periphery, contrary to Hathout’s apologetics.
Four modern interpretations
We may now turn to four modern commentators, who seem uncomfortable with Sura 4:34, so they react variously to explain it. They cannot bring themselves to deny that it came down from God. Sometimes this section can get a little technical, but the reader should bear with this because the last three of the four interpreters reveal a larger agenda for unsuspecting Westerners who do not know the details of Islam.
After outlining the first two steps in the verse itself (admonition and no sex) and reminding husbands to administer the steps in proportion to the offence and to do so only reluctantly, Maududi comes to the third step, beating:
As to a beating, the Holy Prophet [Muhammad] 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. (vol. 1, p. 333, note 59)
Thus, Maududi’s hesitations and qualifications around the sentence in bold print make him seem embarrassed to apply this Quranic teaching. Nevertheless, he sizes up the facts as he sees them: “certain women do not mend their ways without a beating.” So he is not entirely reluctant, after all. Surely it is this archaic idea about women that permeates the Muslim world. However, even if devout Muslims today do not go as far as Maududi, how can they deny this verse as written, especially since they believe that God through Gabriel brought down the Quran?
What do two Muslim women interpreters think about this verse? Amina Wadud, Islamic Studies Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, in her book Qur’an and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford UP, 1999), offers her viewpoint.
Unwilling to deny the validity of such a dubious revelation as Sura 4:34, she stretches credulity to get around the difficulties. She simply looks up in an Arabic lexicon the word Daraba* used in the verse, which means “to strike,” and finds a context that suits her. So “to strike” does not always signify a physical hit, but may also mean “to strike out” on a journey (p. 76). However, this is a misuse of language, for the context and the intent, when they are as straightforward as those in Sura 4:34, must determine the meaning of a word. Thus, when the context clearly says that husbands may “strike” wives, it does not mean husbands may “strike out on a journey.” Ockham’s razor, which says that the simplest and plainest explanation is better than a convoluted one, applies to Sura 4:34, and that is why numerous translators cited above disagree with Wadud.
Hence, Wadud’s doubtful interpretation indicates that she too, more so than Maududi, fluctuates between holding on to Sura 4:34 and dispensing with it. Her agenda guides her, rather than staying with the clear and plain meaning when the context and intent are straightforward.
Hathout is the second female commentator, but first we must challenge Ahmed Ali’s odd translation, since it serves as the background to her misinterpretation. He bases his clause “and go to bed with them (if they are willing)” instead of the more accurate “hit them” on the same shaky reasoning that Wadud uses. He too goes to a dictionary and picks out a context that suits him, noting that Daraba metaphorically (key word) means to have intercourse, as in his example “the stud camel covered [darab] the she-camel.” To back up this interpretation, he cites the ambiguous hadith by Bukhari and Muslim (see above) that questions whether a husband should hit his wife, but he fails to cite other clear hadiths, such as the ones by Muslim and by Abu Dawud (see above). Thus, reliable hadiths in fact support hitting wives, contrary to Ali’s assertion in his notes.
Moreover, Ali’s translation does not fit the clear meaning of the rest of the verse, and this is why he must supply a false addition in parenthesis: “(if they are willing).” But this confuses the sequence in 4:34 itself: admonition, no sex, hitting. In Ali’s sequence, in contrast, a husband goes from ignoring his wife in bed one moment, to having sex without her repentance (admonition, no sex, sex). Rather, sexual relations happen only after the successful three-step process of dealing with a rebellious wife and her repentance: admonition, no sex, hitting, repentance, sex. No reputable scholar denies this sequence and the remedial purpose behind it; hence the many translators cited above disagree with Ali, whose translation mixes up the order. Thus, like Wadud, he stretches credulity, for the clear and non-metaphorical meaning of Daraba in this verse – not in other verses in the Quran nor in written records about the sexual habits of camels in seventh-century Arabia – is “to hit” or “to strike” wives. His agenda guides him.
With Ali’s mistranslation as the background, Hathout latches on to his apologetics because it suits her ideology, even though many translators disagree with Ali and her. Revealingly, she quotes him without the parenthesis around the added words “if they are willing.” Her omission misleads the unsuspecting reader that the clause is original, whereas it is actually supplied by Ali in order to smooth over his jarring mistranslation. As noted, according to the clear and straightforward three-step process in Sura 4:34, Daraba does not mean metaphorically “to have sex,” but literally “to strike” or “to hit.” Ockham’s razor should again cut away convoluted misinterpretations.
Hathout presents Islam only in the best possible light to Americans, even though this entails breaking down the natural interpretation of Sura 4:34, and even though numerous other translations by Muslim scholars, hadiths, and commentators contradict Ali’s and her misinterpretation. Her agenda guides her. Contrary to her thesis that domestic violence emerged outside of Islam as a struggle of the power elites to control things, seeds of violence have been planted in the very heart and core of the Quran and Muhammad himself. These seeds have grown up within Islam; they have not been transplanted to it.
Haleem, whose translation we used above in our first stage, is the last of our modern Muslim scholars to interpret Sura 4:34 in his Understanding the Quran (2001), pp. 46-55. Unlike Wadud, Ali, and Hathout, he analyzes the verse head on without forcing the natural meaning into an artificial or convoluted one. After elaborating on the three-step process found in Sura 4:34 itself (admonition, no sex, hitting), he concludes that husbands should not hit their wives for any ad hoc reason, according to the husbands’ whim or angry outburst, but only for the wives’ outright unseemly, lewd behavior (the first part of v. 34). And hitting should be used only after the first two remedial steps have been tried and only once, lightly.
Despite Haleem’s excellent exegetical method that reaches an honest but troubling conclusion (unlike Hathout’s weak exegesis and whitewashed conclusion), we may ask the same question that many Muslim scholars ask rhetorically, according to his quotation of them: “if the Quranic teaching in this matter is not fair and sensible, then what are the alternatives?” (p. 55). This is indeed the right question, but Haleem’s answer falls short of the mark:
Surely it is better to remind the wife of her duty, or sulk for a while, or even strike her lightly, and then bring in arbiters who could, if all attempts at reconciliation fail, rule in favor of divorce [in Sura 4:35]. (p. 55)
However, a more acceptable alternative runs as follows: the first step (admonition) is a sound one; the second step (no sex) may be sound, if the wives are indeed committing sexual acts outside of the marriage; yet the third step (hitting) is completely wrong and immoral in all cases, no matter how lightly administered, so it can be omitted; and the fourth and fifth steps in v. 35 (arbitration and maybe divorce as a last resort) are sound, though the divorce would be sad. This is the alternative that Haleem and the Muslim scholars are looking for: husbands should never hit their wives for any reason; they should take out the third step.
Omitting the third step of hitting is doubly important when Sura 4:34 says that husbands may hit their wives if they fear “open unseemliness” and “high-handedness,” quite apart from whether these two character flaws are actually in their wives. This places the interpretation of the wives’ character flaws in the hands of their husbands, even if an objective observer may clarify that he or she sees no flaw in the wives. Sura 4:34, then, opens the door to abuse of the worst kind.
We now reach the fourth and final stage in our exegetical method, applying the issue of domestic violence in Islam to today.
Are Muslims willing to take out the third step (hitting) when it is explicit in the Quran?
Haleem and his quoted Muslim scholars, like Maududi, Wadud, Ali, and Hathout, are reluctant to question the validity of this Quranic revelation. As Hathout notes in her article, Muslims believe that Allah through Gabriel brought down the eternal Quran to Muhammad; it is a blessing to all societies today, for its many verses reflect Allah’s universal truths. Therefore, Muslim scholars are unwilling not only to deny the inspiration of such verses as 4:34, but also to interpret them as fitting only within seventh century Arabia and hence as irrelevant for today. Apparently, with such a rigid, absolutist, and unrealistically high view of Quranic inspiration, this would create too much cognitive dissonance or mental shock for Muslims with an agenda.
To reform, however, one must confront problems head on, not pretend that they do not exist, or explain them away. But if these scholars are reluctant and even defend or explain away sacred verses by unnatural linguistic contortions, what about ordinary Muslims, and especially what about fanatics? Surely they too would be hesitant. The twisted theology of the Islamic scholar holding up sample rods is the inevitable result for fanatics, and divinely endorsed domestic violence is the inevitable result in the average household.
However, if Muslims are reluctant to reform or to deny passages in the Quran, they must avoid a dubious approach to uninformed Westerners: they must never soft-sell or whitewash domestic violence and other violence in the origins and core of their religion, some of which, like jihad, Muhammad himself engaged in – not in the periphery of their religion, as Hathout and Ahmed Ali inaccurately assert or imply. An agenda to make Islam – flaws and all – seem acceptable to Westerners is wrong.
And Muslims should not be surprised if Christians challenge the claim that Islam and the Quran complete and fulfill Christianity and the New Testament. Christians are allowed to ask, without undergoing the accusation of being “misguided, misinformed or malevolent” (Hathout’s words), whether God would send down a revelation that promotes domestic violence in a later sacred text, when their own New Testament rightly and justly omits this.
Therefore, hitting or beating wives in Sura 4:34 is a gigantic social and cultural step backwards and challenges whether God through Gabriel brought down the Quran in the first place so late in history, after the love of God was shown through Christ. He never said that husbands should hit their wives, and neither did the New Testament authors.
Jesus saves. Muhammad says to hit.
* Three Western translators have the following for the three-consonant root D-r-b (Daraba) in Sura 4:34: “scourge” (Rodwell); “beat” (Arberry); and “spank” (!) (Cleary).
Further discussion and documentation on this issue:
More background information and context to the verse:
The article Top ten rules in the Quran that oppress and insult women has many links at the bottom which demonstrate various aspects of this Islamic oppression in the modern world.
Articles by James Arlandson
Answering Islam Home Page