A Concise Analysis in the light of Qur’anic and Hadith Texts, Prophetic Precedent, Juristic Hermeneutics, and Islamic Legal Application

In Islam, marriage is a Sunnah, a practice in keeping with the precedent, and encouragement, of the Prophet Muhammad (S), and a very important institution. Allah has mentioned that the purpose of marriage is for seeking sakīnah (tranquility) between spouses.
“And among His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility, and He has placed between you love and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for people who reflect.”
The mention of the quest for tranquility is very instructive, as it demonstrates that the ideal atmosphere in a family is that of peace, love, repose, kindness, compassion, and consideration.

Many people, who have not been victims of domestic violence, or witnesses to same, may fail to appreciate why this topic is of concern. However, there are many women all over the world that suffer all manners of abuse in the hands of their spouses, both in the West, as well as predominantly Muslim regions of the world. In the words of Jeffrey Lang, in his book, Losing My Religion: A Call for Help:
Of the Islamic legal issues I have thought about, this one – and I have deliberated on it so often since becoming a Muslim – has been for me the most difficult. Every time I reflect on it, I remember my mother and all she had to endure all those years from my father. I also know how deeply a man’s maltreatment of his spouse can scar his children. To tell the truth, I must have missed this verse the first time I read the Qur’an, or maybe the interpreter chose a more obscure phrasing because I think if I had read the above translation I might have given up on the Scripture then and there. But then again, perhaps not, because 4:34 occurs near the beginning of the text and at that point in my reading I was only concerned with what the Qur’an says about the meaning of life, so I may have just passed over it, since it is not directly related to this issue.

After I became convinced of God’s existence and the Revelation of the Qur’an, puzzlement with a single verse was not going to shake my conviction, but I nevertheless felt the need to come to terms with it. The reader will have to forgive me if below I appear to be bending over backwards to reconcile this verse with contemporary Western sensibilities. I am sure that many of
them grew up in loving, harmonious homes, and by no means would see 4:34 as a blank check for men to strike their wives; most of these will be content to cite the ancient and modern Muslim scholars who maintain that this permit is essentially symbolic. I, however, am haunted by the spectre of a short-tempered, angry brute, who rejects or is unacquainted with this particular opinion, and who takes full advantage of what he sees as his God-given right to control his wife through violence. I know what I write here will hardly affect such an attitude, but I do so in empathy with those who have been hounded by the same nightmare.

The statistics below report of the prevalence of wife abuse and domestic violence, especially in the United States and Canada. The reports have been categorized for convenience:
a. World report on domestic violence against women:
– “Around the world, at least one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during their life time.
– Available studies indicate that between 20 and 50 percent of women in various populations around the world have experienced spouse abuse at some point in their lives.

b. These are the reports of wife beating and assault in various countries and communities around the world:
– As many as 324,000 women each year experience intimate partner violence during their pregnancy.
– Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States
– In 1999, more than 27,000 cases of spousal violence were reported to police departments across the country (Canada). Eighty seven percent of the victim’s were women.
– In a Canada-wide “snapshot” taken on May 31, 1995, there were 2361 women accompanied by 2217 children living in shelters across the country. Four out of five women were there to escape an abusive situation, the majority from abuse by a current partner (64%) or ex-partner (21%).
– In the twelve months prior to this “Snapshot” taken on May 31, 1995, 365 shelters across Canada recorded over 85,000 admissions. On a typical day, they receive approximately 3000 requests from nonresidents.
– Twenty-five percent of women who entered shelters in 1995 had injuries that required medical attention, and 30% hospitalization
– Eight in ten Aboriginal women in Ontario reported having personally experienced violence
– Three in four women (76%) who reported they had been raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 said that a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date committed the assault
– In reported incidents of assault against women partners in 1996, 72% of women were assaulted by current spouse, and 28% were assaulted by a former or estranged spouse
– According to the Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS), 29% of married women have been assaulted by their partners at least once.
– According to the VAWS, 16% of women interviewed reported being kicked, hit, beaten, and sexually assaulted or having a gun or knife used against them; 11% reported being pushed, shoved or slapped; 2% reported only threats or having something thrown at them.
– The majority of women who entered a shelter were victims of physical abuse (70%) almost half of the women reported threats of abuse, and one fifth had experienced sexual abuse

c. There are also reports of murder and killing of women during the domestic violence:
– On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in this country (USA), every day.
– Pregnant and recently pregnant women are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any other cause.
– Between 1979 and 1998, 1468 women were killed by their husbands, compared with 433 men killed by their wives.
– Women who are between 15 and 19 years of age are twice as likely as older women to be killed in a violent marriage

Note that most of the above reports mentioned above are based on the cases reported to the authority. Many other cases were never reported. For instance, of women who indicated that they had been victims of spousal violence in the VAWS, only 26% had reported an incident to police.


From the root word qawwām: maintainer, caretaker, provider, supporter, somebody who stands firmly and upright, one who stands firm in another’s business, protects his interests and looks after his affairs; standing firm in his own business, managing affairs, with a steady purpose, be in charge of, manage, run, tend, guard, keep up, preserve, take care of, attend to, watch over, look after, manager, director, superintendent, keeper, custodian, and guardian.
Mohammad Asad has translated this in “The Message of the Qur’an” as – Man shall take full care of woman with bounties which had been bestowed more abundantly….” He explains, “The expression “Qawwām” is an intensive form of “Qā’im” (one who is responsible for or takes care of a thing or a person). This “Qāma alal mar’a” signifies “He undertook the maintenance of the woman” or “He maintains her” (See Lane, vol.8 pg. 2995). The grammatical form of Qawwām is more comprehensive than Qā’im and combines the concepts of physical maintenance and protection as well as moral responsibility.
From this wide range of meanings, some interpolate that a husband is responsible for his wife, i.e. her disciplining, teaching and guidance in all matters.

The word nushūz is derived from the infinite verb (nashaza, yanshuzu) which means “to become raised or to rise or elevate; to protrude or project out from the ground or hillock”. It also means raising one’s self, disobedience, refusal, refractoriness, hatred, rebellion, ill-treatment, arrogance, ill-conduct, causing discomfort, contempt, straying from proper behavior, etc.
Nushūz can be on the part of the wife, the husband, or both of them can claim it to be from the other. Abu Mansur al-Lughawiy argues that nushūz is not specific to the wife; “nushūz is anything disliked or disapproved from a spouse by the other partner” It is well summed up by the Hanbali school of thought thus: “It is one of the spouses having hatred for the other and treating each other in an improper manner”.

According to the statements of some scholars, nushūz, on the part of the wife is the act of raising herself against the husband by not obeying him. It is the disobedience of the wife in what Allah has commanded her including her obedience to the husband.[1] According to Ibn Kathir, “It is the refractoriness of the wife against the husband, neglecting his order, and opposing him and provoking him”[2]

According to the Hanafis nushūz on the part of the wife, “is the woman leaving the house of her husband without his permission and keeping her husband from her without due right”[3]

The following is the definition of al-nushūz when it is committed by the wife:

The Hanafis define nushūz on the part of the wife by, “It is the woman leaving the house of her husband without his permission and keeping her husband from her without due right”.

Maliki jurists have defined it in the following manner: It is the woman departing from the obligatory obedience to her husband, her preventing him from sexually enjoying her, her leaving the house without his permission to a place that she knows he would not permit her to go to, her leaving the rights of Allah upon her, such as performing the complete washing after sexual intercourse or fasting the month of Ramadan, and her locking the door on her husband, keeping him out.[4]

Shafi’i jurists have defined it as: “It is the wife’s disobeying her husband and elevating herself above what Allah has obliged upon her and her raising herself above fulfilling her obligatory duties.”[5]

Among the Hanbalis, jurists have defined as, “It is wife’s disobedience of her husband concerning those acts of obedience that are obligatory upon her from the right of marriage”[6]

Ibn Taimiyyah has defined it in the following manner, “It is where the wife raises herself above her husband and she is diffident towards him in the sense that she does not obey him when he calls her to his bed or she leaves the house without his permission and so forth. (In general,) it is when she is keeping him from his rights of her obedience.”[7]

Different scholars and commentators have listed various acts that may be considered as nushūz on the part of the wife, either by speech, deed or both:

  1. Speech[8], e.g. abuse, curse, insult, illegal or prohibited discussion with another man;
  2. Deeds, e.g.
    1. disobedience[9]
    2. denial of sexual gratification[10]
    3. lack of beautification for him[11]
    4. not fulfilling one of the rights of Allah upon her such as prayer (salat), fasting, etc[12]
    5. Lewdness[13] and leaving the house without his permission[14]

In all these cases, the wife is considered disobedient and therefore, has committed nushūz[15]

[1] Supra, fn no. 3.

[2] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Karim, vol. 2, p. 277: Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, 1980/1400.

[3] Al-Kasani, Bada’i al-Sana’i. vol. 4, p. 22; cited in Dr. Saalih Ibn Ghaanim’s Marital Discord

[4] Juwahar al-Ikleel, vol. 1, p.328

[5] Al-Majmu’ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab, vol.16, p.445.

[6] Al-Kafi fi Fiqh al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, vo. 3, 137.

[7] Ibn Taimiyyah, Majmu’ Fatawa Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taimiyyah, vol. 32, p.277.

[8] Hashiyah al-Baijoori, vol. 2, p.137; Ibn Qudamah, al-Kafi, vol. 3, p. 137, cited in Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih Ibn Ghaanim’s p. 24

[9] Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2,  p. 277: Dar al-Fikri, Beirut, 1980/1400.

[10] Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni, vol.7, p. 46; cited in Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih

[11] Saalih Ibn Ghaanim, Marital Discord, translated by Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo p. 18

[12] Qurtubi, al-Jamiu Li Ahkam al-Quran vol. 5-6: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, Beirut 2000/1420; al- Majmu’ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab, vol. 16 p.445; cited in marital Discord by Dr. Saalih Ibn Ghaanim, p.18

[13] The prophet’s Farewell Pilgrimage sermon, Salih Muslim

[14] Fatawa Shaikh al-Islam, Ibn Taimiyyah vol. 32 p. 277; cited in Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih ibn Ghaanim, p.25.

[15] Tafsir al-Manar, vol.5, pp. 76-77; cited in marital Discord by Dr. Saalih ibn Ghaanim, p.26.

The case of nushūz of the husband may include the following:

  1. Refusing sexual intercourse with the wife.[1] Concerning this, Ibn Taimiyyah stated, “The harm that comes about to the woman by the man avoiding sexual intercourse with her is such that the marriage may be dissolved under every circumstance, regardless if it was intentional from the husband or unintentional, or if he had the ability to perform sexual intercourse or not”[2]
  2. When the husband orders the wife to do something forbidden or illegal, such as going out in public displaying her beauty, or having anal intercourse, etc.[3]
  3. If the husband apostates from Islam, that is considered nushūz ….[4]
  4. Also, nushūz on the part of the husband is his not fulfilling adequately his marital obligations, or conditions (e.g. food, drink, clothing, shelter, etc)[5]
  5. Note that maltreating the wife, e.g. physically assaulting the wife, is also a form of nushūz on the part of the husband.

Jeffrey Lang notes that the lexicons do not have much to say on the noun nushuz. Generally it connotes” animosity,” “belligerence,” “hostility,” “antipathy,” or “dissonance.” Dictionaries also commonly offer the interpretation, “disobedience of a wife toward her husband,” when applied to a married woman, and, “brutality of a husband toward his wife,” when describing a married man. These latter two marital and gender specific definitions are apparently not pre-Islamic but reflect the influence of Muslim jurisprudence. Later in the same surah (4:128) the Qur’an discusses what a woman should do if she fears nushuz from her husband, and again we may assume that to the Qur’an’s first audience this had the more general sense of “animosity”, “hostility”, etcetera.[6]

It is very important to note here that the description of nushūz by some scholars, as evidenced above, is more liberal than that of others, and are based mostly on their respective interpretations as opposed to clear textual (nassi) elaboration on the term. What may be inferred from their comments is that most of the scholars are describing their understanding of the meaning of nushūz by giving specific examples of it.

However, a concise, even if broad definition of nushūz that would be acceptable to most of these jurists is that it indicates any action on the part of the husband, or the wife, that clearly violates the marital rights or responsibilities of either as provided for by the Shari’ah, as well as any other rights or responsibilities if such are agreed upon between the husband and wife in a marriage contract. And majority of scholars relate this in particular to fāhishah or moral (especially, sexual) indecency that could threaten the contractual sanctity of the marriage. This position is supported by the Prophet’s usage of the term fāhishah mubayyina[7] as a basis for daraba when he was delivering his last sermon.[8] In addition, acts of violation of essential obligatory religious responsibilities by either partner also constitute nushūz.

[1] Al-Bahuti al-Hanbali; Kishaaf al-Qinaa’ an Matn al-Iqnaa’ vol.5, pp.184, 210, 213; Ibn Abideen, Radd al-Mukhtār ala al-Darr al-Mukhtar  wa Hashiyah vol.3, p.190; Tafsir al-Manar, vol. 5, p.76; all cited in Marital Discord, by Dr. Saalih Ibn Ghaanim.

[2] Ibn Taimiyah, al-Fatawa al-Kubra, vol. 4, p.562; Ibn Taimiyah, Majmuah al-Fatawa, vol.32, p. 40; all cited in Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih Ibn Ghaanim, p.33.

[3] Surah Luqman Quran 33:10 is the basis to show for the seriousness of such an offence.

[4] Al-Khalafat al-Zaujiyah, p. 39; cited in Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih Ibn Ghaanim p. 34

[5] Saalih Ibn Ghaanim al-Sadlaan, Marital Discord, translated by Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo: al-Basheer Publications and Translations, p.33.

[6] Jeffrey Lang, Losing My Religion: A Call for Help, Amana publications, Beltsville, MD, USA, 1425AH / 2004AC

[7] Mubayyina: clear, open, or public

[8] As recorded in Sahih Muslim and Tirmidhi.

The Arabian society to which the Prophet (S) was first sent was one in which it was a very common practice for men to beat their wives. The Prophet (S) abhorred this practice, and so prohibited it outright. The practice having been widespread, the society found the prohibition too radical to manage, hence the protests from particularly the men. The Qur’an (4:34) brought the proscription a step back, institutionalizing a gradual approach to reforming the behavior of the men towards their wives.

It is important to clarify some points here. The first is that by all standards it must be established that the wife in question is a recalcitrant type. Secondly, that the case is not a trivial one. Thirdly, that even in such serious situations, Allah still imposes on the husband various limitations before he would be permitted to hit. And we must add that that hitting or tapping must be ghayr mubarrih, otherwise it is prohibited. The steps prescribed by the Qur’an include advising the wife (admonition) which gives the wife the chance to respond, clarify things and reflect on her behavior or misbehavior. If the misbehavior or misunderstanding is not resolved by communication, the husband can separate himself physically from his wife for a while. These prescribed stages are steps in anger management.[1] Fourthly, that the degree and number of beating is only symbolic[2] which is best described as a merciful beating.

The story of Ayyub (Job) in the Qur’an is a good example of symbolic beating, i.e. a beating to satisfy a vital purpose but not necessary to hurt the person. The story, as it is referred to in Quran 38:44, is that “when Job was being tested, his wife lost her faith and blasphemed. As a result, he took an oath to strike her as punishment. A dilemma was thus created. The divine solution to this dilemma is expressed in the Qur’anic verse (38:44). It instructs the Prophet, to satisfy his oath to discipline his wife by ‘striking’ her with a handful of grass (or basil).[3]The intent of this instruction was to satisfy the promise without harming the wife…”[4] Lastly, that the husband is not just permitted in any way to take the law into his hand. He is still accountable to the law and ultimately to God.

Ibn Kathir (and other commentators of Qur’an) while giving the occasions for the revelation (asbab al-nuzul) reported a Hadith from Ja’afar bin Muhammad, from his father, from Ali who said, “A man came to the Prophet (SAW) with his wife, and she said, O Messenger of Allah! Truly, my husband, so-so, son of so-so of the Ansar, beat me,” and it had a mark on her face. Then the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said “He has no (right) for that”. Then Allah, the exalted revealed (the verse): ‘Men are the protectors of women…’ Then, the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said, “I had wanted (a particular decision on) an issue, but Allah wanted the contrary”[5]

There is no contradiction between Allah’s order and the Prophet order, in the Hadith above. The revelation simply changed the approach prescribed by the Prophet in eradicating wife abuse. It did not authorize wife abuse. It only introduced a transitory stage for change, using its usual principle of gradualism.

The Qur’anic approach of gradualism is predicated upon the fact that fundamental changes in human consciousness do not usually occur overnight.[6] Instead, they require a period of individual or even social gestation. For this reason, the Qur’an uses a gradual approach to change entrenched customs, beliefs, and practices, except in fundamental matters,[7] such as the belief in the unicity of God and the prophet-hood of Muhammad (SAW). The importance of the principle of gradualism is that it allows for better understanding of implications, sincerity in conviction, and a lasting behavioral change. However, it does not apply to fundamental moral principles where Qur’an flatly prohibits behaviors which conflict with them. For examples it prohibits murder, and more specifically, female infanticide[8].

[1] Journal of Law and Religion, vol. .xv, numbers 1 and 2, p.61, 2000 – 2001: Hamline University School of Law, USA.

[2] For further discussion on this, see the topic “What can Prompt Wife Beating”, below,

[3] Ibn ’Abidin, Radd al-Mukhtar vol. 5, p.659 (19th Century repr., Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 1994.

[4] Supra, Fn 38, p.64.

[5] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Quran al-Azim, vol.2, p.276, Beirut:Dar al-Fikr 1980/1400. This hadith is considered mursal as its chain stops at Hasan al Basri without mentioning the Companion narrator.

[6] For more discussion on the topic, see Azizah al-Hibri, Islamic Constitutionalism and the Concept of Democracy, 24  case W. Res. J. Intl. L. 1-27 (Winter 1992), PR 9 – 10. See also, Abd al-Hamid  Mutawalli, Al-Islam, pp. 71-72 (Alexandria: Mansha’at al-Ma’arif n..d.); cited in Journal of Law and Religion vol. xv nos. 1 and 2, 2000 – 2001, p.55.

[7] Ibid

[8] Quran 2:219; 4:43; 5:90. See short discussion in al-Hibri, Islamic Civilization, Supra, fn 43

Majority of the scholars and the interpreters of the Quran, both classical and modern, overwhelmingly establish the meaning of “daraba” to be physical chastisement. The hitting which has a lot of limitations and controls, is a mere symbolic measure used in correcting and not to dehumanize, oppress, or harm the wife. These limitations help to clarify that the only form of daraba permitted in Islam is that which does not harm (ghayr mubarrih). So, domestic violence or spouse abuse, or physical abuse, assault, or battery is definitely not what this discussion addresses, because such are emphatically condemned by Islam. To buttress this important point, let us consider the following:

  1. In the mass-transmitted (mutāwatir) Hadith of the Farewell Pilgrimage, the Prophet (SAW) said: fadribūhunna ghayr al-mubarrih (without causing harm).[1]
  2. In his Tafsir, Imam al-Tabari quoted Aba’ as saying: I asked Ibn Abbas: What is the hitting that is ghayr al-Mubarrih? He replied: (with) the siwak (twig used for brushing teeth) and the like.”[2]
  1. Narrated Salim “… Umar said: The Prophet forbade beating on the face”[3]
  1. The husband should not hit the woman in the face, or hit her hard, or leave an effect (darb ghayr mubarrih wa lā mu’aththir)[4]
  2. The beating should not cause harm or be heavy… cannot be on the face or other vulnerable areas. If it causes harm, the woman is entitled to damages.[5]

It is thus clear from Prophetic instructions and elaboration of Muslim jurists that the daraba spoken about in Q 4:34 cannot be equated with domestic violence or wife abuse, nor even the image that the phrase “wife – beating” conjures up. Therefore, our discussions concerning the meanings of daraba are all within the ghayr mubarrih (non – harmful) restriction.

[1] Sahih Muslim

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari (translation), Punishment of Disbelievers at War with Allah and His Apostle, vol.8, Book 82, number 833.

[3] Sahih al-Bukhari (translation), Hunting, slaughtering, vol.7,Book 67, no. 449.

[4] Al-Tabari, Jamiu al-Bayan fi Tafsir al Quran, vol.5, pp.43-45, 29th cent. Repr. Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1978; cited in Journal of Law and Religion vol. xv nos. 1 and 2.

[5] Al-Nawawi, Rawdat al-Talibin vol.5, pp. 676 – 677; cited in Journal of Law and Religion.

Islam enjoins a marital relationship based on mutual love and respect between spouses, describing marriage as a source of tranquility.[1] Thus differences and tensions in the relationship are expected to be addressed amicably, and in a manner that reflects these concerns for love, compassion, and mutual benefit. Whereas it is normal for a couple to experience tension and frigid relationship in their marriage, Islam clearly condemns domestic violence as a means to resolving marital conflicts, or even as a way to keep the wife under control. The contention may be put forth that Islam prescribes wife beating in the Qur’an. The response to this argument is that what the Qur’an mentions does not equate with the image conjured up by the phrase, “wife beating”, or physical abuse. Islam in no way recommends nor tolerates such acts. This is clear from the fact that permission for “hitting”, or “tapping”, or “patting”, all being valid meanings for the Arabic word, daraba, is qualified in the Prophetic traditions with the condition that such tapping, or patting, or hitting, be done without causing harm (i.e., ghayr mubarrih).


 Interestingly, the type of striking that modern western legal systems consider to be physical abuse or domestic violence is the hitting or beating that causes physical pain or harm, which is exactly what Islam forbids, as evidenced by a number of Prophetic traditions (ahadith) cited in this discussion. This is in line with one of the broad objectives (maqasid[2]) of the Islamic law and worldview (Shari’ah), namely, the preservation of life, or the enhancement of life, as would be more broadly articulated in contemporary maqasid and usul[3] terminology. The Islamic legal maxim, “la darar wa la dirar” (there shall be no harming, nor reciprocating of harm) is applicable here as well. This is one of the legal maxims that declares the prohibition of causing harm to one’s self or others.

Furthermore, Islamic law does not just stop at considering such spousal abuse as prohibited; it actually has a legal framework for punishing an abusive spouse. Distinguished classical jurists have expounded on the position that hitting may not cause harm or be heavy, and cannot be on the face or other vulnerable areas. And, that, if the man causes his wife harm, then she is entitled to damages.[4] The Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i madhāhib[5] (sing. madh-hab) would find a husband liable if he harms his wife, while the Hanbalis would not find him liable.[6] This majority view is all in keeping with the Islamic legal provision of Qisas.

The sacred month for the sacred month, and for the prohibited things, there is the Law of equitable retribution (qisas). Then whoever transgress the prohibition against you, you transgress likewise against him. And be conscious of Allah, and know that Allah is with those who are God-conscious.[7]


Qisas refers to equitable retribution under Shari’ah. It provides for a person that is harmed or injured by another to have the right of meting equal injury or harm to the convicted aggressor. However, even though the Qur’an guarantees the victim (or the victim’s family, in the case of murder) a life for a life and an eye for an eye, that is not the common currency of in practice (also based on Qur’anic preference) the victim usually gets monetary compensation, and the aggressor pays a fine, serves jail time, or any other punishment that the judge or the particular legal code concerns deems equitable. In Islamic law, crimes that do not have a fixed (hadd) punishment are handled under the judge’s qualified prerogative, called ta’zir.

The right to equitable retribution (qisas) in the case of injury is a fundamental human right enjoyed by any citizen within the jurisdiction of an Islamic legal system. In fact, the Qur’an describes this right to qisas as a life saver.

And there is (a saving of) life for you in qisas, O’ people of understanding, that you may become God-conscious.[8]

This right is a God – given right, and is not forfeited by a woman when she becomes married. On the contrary, her husband is held to an even higher level of responsibility on the basis that he is legally responsible for protecting her, both financially and physically. So, jurists have argued that his legal and social responsibility towards her makes him more liable than if he was an unrelated person or stranger. Thus jurists have upheld that anything which is injurious or leaves a mark on the woman’s body is actionable as a criminal offence, and that the woman is entitled to seek for divorce on that grounds if she so desired, just as she is entitled to equitable retribution (qisas).[9] This position is adopted in many personal status codes in Muslim countries, such as Jordan and Kuwait.[10] Pakistan established a similar qisas and diya[11] provision in 1990[12]. In the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara, a woman was awarded monetary compensation by a Shari’ah court for losing her tooth to an abusive husband in a case of domestic violence.[13]

Having looked at the Islamic legal bases for equitable retribution that is applicable in the courts, let us briefly consider whether these laws are effective in intervening in domestic violence cases among Muslims. The Pakistani qisas and diya laws have been criticized as being ineffective. In many other countries, women are not even aware of the fact that the legal system protects their fundamental God-given right of protection from harm, whether from their husbands, or from other people. Many, yet, are restrained from the fear of being stigmatized by their communities. This presents a challenge to contemporary scholars and jurists to lead legal reforms that will result in more effective protection for victims of domestic violence.

[1] Surah Rum, Qur’an 30:21

[2] Maqasid al Shariah is a field of Islamic discourse that considers and articulates the broad objectives of Islamic law.

[3] Usul al Fiqh refers to Islamic legal theory, or, simply, the basis and juridical principles for deriving Islamic law.

[4] See Abu Zakariyya al-Nawawi, Rawdat al-Talibin, n. 142, at vol. 5, 676-677. Cited in Azizah Yahia al-Hibri, Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities, Journal of Law and Religion, vol. XV, Numbers 1 and 2, 2000-2001.

[5] Madhahib (sing. madhhab): Schools of Islamic jurisprudence. There are four universally acknowledged Sunni schools, the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and the Hanbali, and two Shiite schools, the Ja’fari and the Zaydi.

[6] Wihbah al-Zuhayli, Al-Fiqh al-Islami wa Adillatuh, vol. 4. Cited in Azizah Yahia al-Hibri, Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities, Journal of Law and Religion, vol. XV, Numbers 1 and 2, 2000-2001.

[7] Surah al-Baqarah, Qur’an 2:194. See also Qur’an 2:178, 5:45, 16:126, 17:33, 22:60,  and 42:40.

[8] Surah al-Baqarah, Qur’an 2:179

[9] Abu al-Barakat Ahmad al-Dardir, al-Sharh al-Saghir, vol. 2, 512

[10] Jordanian Code ch. 12 art. 132 ; Kuwaiti Code pt. 1, bk. 1, tit. 3, ch. 1, art. 126. See Azizah Yahia al-Hibri, article Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. XV, p.64

[11] Monetary compensation. Classical jurists have, on the basis of Islamic texts, laid down that the diya for manslaughter is the value of 100 camels, while the diya for any organ, such as an eye, is half the value of diya for manslaughter.

[12] Despite this law against domestic violence, the Pakistani legal system has come under criticism for being lax in applying this law, as Pakistani society has aided many wife abusers in evading or circumventing this law. There have been recent calls for the review of the qisas and diya law in Pakistan.

[13] Zamfara state declared a return to the full application of Shari’ah law in 1999. Several other northern Nigerian states, who had hitherto been applying a limited (civil) aspect of Shari’ah following restrictions by the former British colonial authorities, followed the Zamfara lead.

Men are the providers of women with what God has favored some of you over others[1] and with what they expend of their wealth. Thus virtuous women are obedient (qānitāt), guarding in secret (lil ghayb) what God has guarded. And those (women) from whom you fear their antipathy (nushuz), exhort them,[2] leave them alone in bed, and beat them (udribu-hunna). Then if they give in, then do not seek a way against them. Truly God is ever most high, great. And if you fear a break up between them, then appoint an arbiter from his people and an arbiter from her people; if they both desire making up,[3] God will reconcile them. Truly God is ever exalted, great (4:34-35).

I will look at this passage from different angles. First, I focus specifically on the translation and some key words in the passage and their possible meanings, leaving aside for the moment external evidence from the Hadith literature and scholarly commentary. Then I consider some of the most commonly cited traditions of the Prophet that speak to this topic. Finally, I mention how Muslim jurists have understood 4:34.

I have tried to be as literal as possible in the above translation of 4:34-35. Interpreting the passage is fairly straightforward, but the four transliterated Arabic phrases pose difficulties. The description of

virtuous women as “obedient” (qānitāt) could mean “obedient to God,” as made clear by comparison with 33:31, 33:35, and 66:5, or equally, “obedient to their husbands.” The former seems preferable since qānitāt is used to describe here “virtuous (or pious) women” (sālihāt) and hence appears to signify a religious quality.

Al ghayb means “absence,” “that which is absent,” “that which is concealed,” “the unseen,” “the imperceptible,” or “the secret.” Most interpreters prefer “guarding in secret” or the near equivalent “guarding the unseen” to “guarding in absence.” The last accords with a famous hadith,[4] which will be discussed later.  Either of the first two interpretations is consonant with the overall tenor of 4:34, which attempts to cope with marital discord in private before finally resorting to outside arbitration as described in 4:35.

There are various interpretations and understandings on what is the meaning of “daraba”. The literal meaning of “daraba” is to beat, strike, or hit. The verb “daraba” (transitive and intransitive) has several meanings including literal, figurative or allegorical connotations. There are about seventeen usages of the word “daraba” in the Holy Quran.[5] The compilation of the various connotations of “daraba” and its derivatives in the Qur’an produces approximately seventeen distinct nuances as shown in the following verses:

“God propounds (daraba Allahu) the parable…” (16:75, 76, 112; 66:11)

“When (Jesus) the son of Mary is held up as an example (duriba), behold, your people raise a clamor thereat (in ridicule)!” (43:57)

“See what similes they strike (darabū) for thee: but they have gone astray, and never can they find a way.” (17:48)

“Do not invent similitudes (fa la tadribū) for God: for God knows, and you know not.” (16:74)

“When you travel (wa idha darabtum) through the earth…” (4:101)

“Then We covered (fa darabna) their ears, for a number of years, in the Cave, (so that they did not hear)”. (18:11)

“Shall We then take away the Revelation from you (afa nadribu ‘ankum al dhikr) and repel (you), because you are a people transgressing beyond bounds?” (43:5)

“…they should draw (wa ‘lyadribna) their veils over their bosoms … and that they should not strike their feet (wa la yadribna bi arjulihinna) so as to draw attention to their hidden ornaments…” (24:31)

“…Travel by night with My servants, and strike a dry (solid) path (fa ‘drib lahum tarīqan) for them…” (20:77)

“Then We told Moses: Strike the sea with your staff (idrib bi asāk al bahr). So it divided and each separate part resembled the huge firm mass of a mountain”. (26:63)

“God does not disdain to use the similitude (an yadriba mathalan) of things, lowest, as well as highest…” (2:26)

“And remember Moses prayed for water for his people; We said: ‘Strike the rock with your staff (fa qulna ‘drib bi asāk al bahr)’ Then there gushed forth from it twelve springs…” (2:60)

“…they were covered with humiliation and misery (duribat ‘alayhim al dhillah wa al maskanah); they drew on themselves the wrath of God…” (2:61)

“Disgrace covers them (duribat ‘alayhim al dhillah)…” (3:112)

“But how (will it be) when the angels take their souls at death, and smite their faces and their backs (yadribūna wujūhahum wa adbārahum)?” (47:27)

“…I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: you smite above their necks (fa ‘dribu fawq al a’anaaq) and smite all their finger-tips off them.” (8:12)

“And take in your hand a raceme (bunch) of soft leaves and stroke therewith (fa ‘drib bihi): and break not your oath…” (38:44)

“Therefore, when you encounter the unbelievers (in hostility) smite their necks (fa darb al riqāb); at length, when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly on them…” (47:4)

“O you who attain to faith! When you go abroad (idha darabtum) in the cause of God, investigate carefully…” (4:94)

“… So a wall shall be erected between them (fa duriba baynahum bi sūr), with a gate therein. Within it will be mercy throughout, and outside it, all alongside, will be (wrath) and punishment!” (57:13)

“Then did he turn upon them (idols) striking them with the right hand (darban bi yamīn)”. (37:93)

The variety of meanings of “daraba”, according to the above Qur’anic quotations, is as above, whereas, in the rest of the quotations, it means to impel, to shock, to slap, or to damage.[6]

Lang continues that the verb daraba, whose command form udribū appears in Q 4:34, is rich in meaning. Lane’s discussion of it spans several folios in his famous lexicon. Among the scores of connotations listed are “to beat”, “to strike “, ” hit “, “to shoot”, “to make music “, “to separate”, “to part”, “to impose”, “to turn away from”, to “to leave”, “to avoid”, to “shun”, “to sting”, “to disregard”, “to ignore,” and “to pay no attention to”.

Nevertheless, narrowing its meaning in a given instance is not as difficult as it may first seem, because in Arabic verbs acquire various connotations only in combination with specific prepositions.

For instance, daraba acquires the meaning of “to separate” in combination with bayna, and the meanings of “to turn away from,” “to leave”, “to avoid”, and “to shun” in combination with the Arabic word ‘an (i.e., daraba ‘an …). In the passage in question, daraba is not combined with either of these prepositions. Yet Lane points out that the command form of the verb, udribu, with or without ‘an, can mean “ignore,” “pay no attention to”, or “turn away from”, as well as “beat”, “hit”, or “strike.”[7]  Hence, udribu-hunna, could mean, “beat them” or “strike them,” or alternatively, “turn them away,” “ignore them,” or “shun them.”

Exegetes have always maintained that 4:34 presents a prioritized series of steps, not to be taken simultaneously. The increasing severity of the successive actions supports this view. Hence, from the above analysis we obtain two possible procedures, depending on the meaning we assign to udribu, to be followed by a husband who is fearful of his wife’s growing aversion toward him. If we interpret udribu to mean “beat,” then he should first admonish her. If this yields no positive effect, the husband should then sleep apart from his wife for a while. If this proves unsuccessful, he should beat her, although Muslim scholars insist that the beating should be light. If she remains hateful of him, and he still has hopes of saving the marriage, then 4:35 recommends bringing in family representatives from both sides to help effect reconciliation. This is, of course, a last resort, because when family is brought into a marriage conflict, bitterness toward their respective son or daughter in-law is likely to persist even if their

children iron out their differences, which could contribute to further marital discord later on.

If instead of assuming that udribu means “beat,” we understand it to mean, “turn away from,” then everything we said in the previous paragraph applies, accept with regard to the third step. From this perspective, if a husband is troubled by his wife’s belligerency toward him, and if exhortation followed by temporary cessation of sexual relations does not instigate reconciliation, then the husband might try completely ignoring his wife for a while. If after this their marriage remains in trouble, family representatives should be brought in. From a purely rational standpoint this alternative interpretation seems preferable to the traditional one, for with regard to the latter it is hard to see how inflicting physical punishment on the wife would lesson her resentment of her husband. If anything, one would think that beating her would accomplish just the opposite. On the other hand, appealing to his wife’s conscience, followed by cessation of sexual relations, followed by the silent treatment are progressive nonviolent steps that might salvage the marriage if the wife still has deep-seated affection for her husband. This interpretation of udribu also fits with the non-violent character of all the other recommendations, including the fourth step of bringing in family conciliators.

Some contemporary Muslim scholars[8] and intellectuals interpret daraba in Quran 4:34 to connote meanings other than beating. The thrust of these minority interpretations depend primarily on deductions from the various meanings of “daraba” in the Quran, as well as the general objective of marriage being love (mawaddah) and mercy (rahmah). They also base their conclusion on the actual practice of the Prophet (SAW) himself when he was faced with a nushuz situation in his own household, as opposed to what he permitted other Muslim men to do in similar situations, even as he still discouraged them. They argue that the best interpretation of “daraba” is to walk away from the wife for some time, i.e. leaving the marital home. For instance, AbuSulayman says:

“The most straightforward interpretation is hence that of departure, separation or seclusion. This arrangement, where the estranged husband deserts his wife altogether for some time, helps to bring the situation to a possible resolution because it is the final step beyond admonishing her and refusing to share her bed. Now, as the husband is away, the wife has ample opportunity to rethink the whole situation, to ponder the eventual consequences, and to realize the inevitable outcome of disobedience and rejection, namely, divorce”. [9]

He further argues that[10], this interpretation of the meaning of daraba “is consistent and in line with the Prophetic tradition and actual practice of the Prophet, as attested in the narrative which related that the Prophet moved away from his wives when they rebelled after their demands for a better standard of living were denied”.[11]

The difficulty with this interpretation is that it is weakened by the fact that the ahadith that mention daraba place its meaning in a context that very obviously means to hit, or strike, albeit “Ghayr mubarrih” (not causing harm). This may account for the reason why classical jurists generally did not draw their conclusions based primarily on linguistic considerations, but on the technical and specific meaning of daraba as evidenced in the ahadith.

Before turning to the Hadith literature for further elucidation, we round out our examination of marital nushuz in the Qur’an by briefly considering 4: 128.

And if a woman fears antipathy (nushuz) from her husband or desertion (i’rād), then there is no blame on them if they settle things peacefully between themselves, for peace is best, but selfishness is ever-present in the soul. And if you do good and are God-conscious, then truly God is ever aware of what you do. (4:128)

And if they separate, God provides for everyone from His abundance. And God is ever unstinting, wise. (4:130)

Note the absence of a series of explicit steps like those in 4:34-35. After mentioning that it is certainly not wrong for a woman in this situation to try to resolve the problem with her spouse peacefully and privately, the Qur’an next discusses separation of the couple. The cautionary phrase, “there is no blame on them,” suggests that the wife should exercise due caution in trying to solve this problem privately, because a belligerent husband when confronted presents obvious risks. For this reason the Scripture then moves immediately to separation. Hence if the husband is displaying real enmity toward his wife, she may first try to work things out peacefully, but her interest might be better served by a formal separation, especially if he becomes more antagonistic toward her, or has already, in effect, deserted her. At this point she could seek the help of her family and others to either effect reconciliation, or, if necessary, divorce.

Thus far we have seen that linguistically two interpretations of 4:34-35 are possible; one results in a procedure that includes the possibility of wife beating and the other steers clear of physical

violence. All things being equal, I believe that many modern Muslims would prefer the second interpretation, but the case for it diminishes when we factor in the hadiths that treat this subject.

[1] The two preceding verses make it clear that inheritance distribution (women generally receive half the share of inheritance prescribed for men (4:11)) is mainly referred to here. They read: “And do not covet what God has favored some of you over others. For men is a share from what they earned and to women a share from what they earned. And ask God of His benevolence, truly God is ever aware of all things. And to everyone We have appointed heirs of that which parents and near relatives leave. And as to those whom you pledged your right hand (support?), give them their due. Truly God is ever witness over all things” (4:32-33).

[2] The verb wa’azu means “to preach,” “to appeal (to someone’s conscience)”

[3] I translated islah here as “making up.” It has many nuances that convey the general idea of “restoration.”

[4] Cf. traditions 2 and 9 below.

[5] AbdulHamid A. AbuSulayman, Marital Discord, Recapturing the full Islamic Spirit of Human Dignity; IIIT, 2003/1423, p.17.

[6] Ibid, p. 19

[7] Edward Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, Fredrick Unger Publishing (1956),

page 1779, first column, two-thirds down the page.

[8] Among the proponents of this alternate interpretation are AbdulHamid AbuSulayman and Laleh Bakhtiyar, the latter having published a translation of the Qur’an where Q4:34 is interpreted in accordance with this view.

[9] Ibid, pp. 20 – 21

[10] Some scholars believe that this is a form of boycotting (2nd measure) and not necessarily a new measure on its own; see Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih ibn Ghaanim, p.42

[11] For full details of this incident in the sunnah, see, for instance: Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 5395; Sahih Muslim, no. 2704; Sunan al-Tirmidhi, no. 3240; Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, no. 24588: cited in Marital Discord, AbuSulayman, IIIT, 2003/1423,  p.26, e.g. Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 2, p.229, The Book of Fasting, Chapter II, Musnad al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, vol.2, p31, all cited in Marital Discord by Dr. Saalih ibn Ghaanim al-Sadlaan, pp.41-42.

The Hadith literature contains a fair number of traditions that discuss wife beating. The following (numbered for later reference) are from the most respected compilations.

(1) Narrated Abdullah bin Zama: The Prophet forbade laughing at a person who passes wind, and said, “How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats his stallion camel and then he embraces (i.e. sleeps with) her?” (al Bukhari).

(2) Jabir ibn Abdullah narrated that on the occasion of the Prophet’s Farewell Pilgrimage, the Messenger of God said: Fear God concerning women. Verily you have taken them as a trust of God and intercourse with them has been made lawful to you by God’s words. You too have a right over them, that they should not allow anyone onto your bed whom you do not like. And if they do that, then you can beat them but not severely. Their right upon you is that you provide for them food and clothing in a fitting manner (Muslim).

(3) Laqit ibn Sabirah narrated that he said to the Messenger of God: “I have a wife who has something in her tongue (i.e. is insolent). He (the Prophet) said, “Then divorce her.” I said, “Messenger of God, she had company with me and I have children from her.” He (the Prophet) said, “Then request her (to stop). If there is some good in her, she will do so; and do not beat your wife as you beat your slave-girl”
(Abu Dawud).

(4) Narrated Mu’awiyah ibn Haydan: I said, “Messenger of God, how should we approach our wives and how should we leave them?” He replied: “Approach your tilth when and how you will, give her food when you take food, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face, and do not beat her” (Abu Dawud).

(5) Narrated Mu’awiyah al Qushayri: I went to the Messenger of God and asked him: “What do you say about our wives.” He replied, “Give them food from what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them” (Abu Dawud).

(6) Narrated Mu’awiyah al Qushayri: Mu’awiyah asked, “Messenger of God, what is the right of the wife of one of us over him?” He replied, “That you should give her food when you eat, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not strike her on the face, do not revile her or separate yourself from her except in the house” (Abu Dawud & Ibn Majah).

(7) Narrated Abdullah ibn Abu Dhubāb: Iyās ibn Abdullah ibn Abu Dhubāb reported that the Messenger of God said: “Do not beat God’s female servants.” Then ‘Umar came to the Messenger of God and said that the women have become emboldened toward their husbands. So the Prophet gave permission to beat them. Then many women came pouring in to see the family of the Prophet to complain about their husbands. So the Messenger of God said: “Many women have poured in to see Muhammad’s family complaining against their husbands. They (masculine plural) are not the best among you” (Abu Dawud).

(8) Narrated Umar ibn al Khattab: The Prophet said: “A man is not to be asked as to why he beat his wife” (Abu Dawud, al Nasa’i, Ibn Majah).

(9) Narrated Amr ibn al Ahwas al Jushami: Amr heard the Prophet say in his farewell address on the eve of his last pilgrimage, after he had glorified and praised God, he cautioned his followers: “Listen! Treat women kindly; they are like prisoners in your hands. Beyond this you do not owe anything to them. Should they be guilty of flagrant misbehavior, you may remove them from your beds and beat them, but do not inflict upon them any severe punishment. Then if they obey you, do not have recourse to anything else against them. Listen! You have rights upon your wives and they have their rights upon you. Your right is that they shall not allow anyone you dislike to trample your bed and that they do not permit those you dislike to enter your home. Their right is that you should treat them well in the matter of food and clothing (al Tirmidhi).

In a search for traditions of the Prophet that deal with wife beating the first thing we notice is their scarcity in the earlier and most respected extant collections. The Muwatta of Imam Malik (died 177 A.H. /793 C.E.), the earliest compilation to have come down to us, contains no direct sayings of the Prophet of this kind. The Sahih of al Bukhari (died 256 A.H. /869 C.E.) contains only one such hadith, which strongly disapproves of wife beating (tradition 1 above). The Sahih of Muslim (died 261 A.H.l874 C.E.) contains one saying of the Prophet (tradition 2 above) that treats this topic. In contrast, when we come to the Sunan of Abu Dawud (died 275 A.H.l888 C.E.), we find six traditions that address the issue of wife beating (traditions 3 through 8 above). In tradition 3 the Prophet forbids a Companion to beat his hostile wife. Hadiths 4-6 are slightly different versions of a single saying and probably come from the same authority, there being an apparent uncertainty as to which Mu’awiyah (al Qushayri or ibn Haydan) actually transmitted it. Taken together these three versions prohibit beating and reviling a wife. In tradition 7 the Prophet first prohibits beating one’s wife, then allows it, and then censures those who do it (“They are not the best among you”). Tradition 8 seems to give husbands a free hand in this matter. Tradition 9, which appears in al Tirmidhi’s collection, is a variant of tradition 2. It concisely states what came to be the agreed upon legal position. Most classical works that discuss wife beating stipulate that it must not be severe and that it is only allowed in cases of flagrant misbehavior, such as stipulated in this saying and tradition 2.

Not counting variants, the above reports are evenly divided on the issue of wife beating; three disapprove of it and three allow it, although one of the latter (tradition 7) is in the end critical of those who beat their wives (too severely?) and another (traditions 2 and 9) limits the severity of the chastisement and specifies when it is justified. Many of the ancient scholars had an obvious explanation for the disparity: the Prophet originally forbade wife beating, but with the revelation of 34:4 he revised his position. There is even a hadith that attests to this:

A woman complained to the Prophet that her husband slapped her on the face, which was still marked by the slap. At first the Prophet said to her: “Get even with him,” but then added: “Wait until I think about it.” Later on 4:34 was revealed, after which the Prophet said: “We wanted one thing but God wanted another, and what God wanted is best.”

Although this hadith provides a neat explanation, Muslim scholars suspect it. Firstly, it is narrated only on the authority of al Hasan al Basri and it is mursal .Secondly, it implies that before the revelation of 4:34, the Prophet’s exhortations on this matter reflect his personal opinion, which contradicts what came to be the widely held doctrine that all of his Sunnah was divinely inspired.

It does not take much ingenuity to reconcile traditions 1-9, the dogma of divine inspiration of the entire prophetic Sunnah, and the timing of the revelation of 4:34. The simplest solution is to assume that the Prophet originally forbade wife beating, then later on abrogated this prohibition (tradition 7), all under divine inspiration, and then sometime still later 4:34 was revealed. From this perspective, if we take udribu to mean “beat,” then 4:34 was always in tune with the current divinely inspired sunnah, since it was revealed sometime after the sunnah prohibiting wife-beating had been repealed by the sunnah permitting it. This was the position taken by Imam al Shafi’i’ i, who cited tradition 7 for evidence.

The above traditions come from collections that are highly esteemed in Sunni Islam. The Sahihs of al Bukhari and Muslim are the two most respected Hadith sources and most Muslims accept without question that the traditions in them are fully accurate. The Sunans of Abu Dawud and al Tirmidhi are widely regarded as the third and fourth most authoritative hadith compilations, respectively, although they are well known to contain some questionable reports. All the same, I have not been able to find negative comments on any of these traditions on isnād-analytic grounds, although that is not to assert that such criticism has not been made; it only means I have been unable to find it.

The Hadith scholars normally limited their critique of traditions only to their isnāds, but an examination of their matns (texts) might also provide clues to their authenticity. I believe it could be accepted as a general principle that the more the moral dictates of a hadith are ahead of its time, the greater the likelihood they reflect genuine teachings of the Prophet. For if a precept flies in the face of the cultures that produced the first few generations of Muslims, then it is hard to imagine how it could have gained wide acceptance, unless it really did originate with the Prophet. Hence on these grounds alone, we can be confident that the above traditions forbidding wife beating are based on authentic Prophetic instruction. It has to be remembered that women had a lowly rank in the civilizations that came under Muslim rule in the first two Islamic centuries. A wife’s position vis-a-vis her husband was similar to that of his children, and quite frequently she was just beyond puberty when she married. From this historical perspective, a woman, emotionally and intellectually, was hardly more than a child, her contribution to society limited to bearing and raising offspring and satisfying men’s sexual needs. In this milieu, where a wife was essentially the ward of her husband, it would indeed seem outlandish to forbid men to physically discipline their wives.

Even in pre-Islamic Arabia, where women had more freedom and suffered fewer restrictions than they did in the surrounding more advanced cultures, they were held in very low regard. The Arab patriarchy saw the woman as an inherently irrational, frivolous being, preoccupied with self-beautification and the acquisition of baubles. The Qur’an provides the following disturbing illustrations of this attitude.

Or has He taken daughters to Himself of what He creates and chosen you to have sons? And when one of them is given news of that of which he sets up a likeness to the Merciful, his face becomes black and full of rage: “What! [Am I to have] one decked with ornaments and unable to make plain speech in disputes?” (43:16-18)

And they ascribe daughters unto God. Glory be to Him! And for them is what they desire! And when the birth of a daughter is announced to one of them, his face becomes black and he is full of rage, avoiding people because of the evil of the glad tiding he has received. [And he deliberates:] Shall he keep
it with contempt or bury it in the dust? Oh, evil is what they decide. (16:57)

Here we are presented two extreme and reciprocal symptoms of a pathological contempt for women: the adoration of an imaginary and unattainable object of male desire, and simultaneous suffocation and devaluation of real womanhood.

The misogyny of the times was also reflected in the very real ways women were treated as male property. Tribes would raid each other to expropriate women as booty. Slave owners forced their slave-girls into prostitution (24:33). A man could acquire an unlimited numbers of wives and concubines. Men harassed and propositioned women in the streets. Apparently, women also viewed themselves in this way, for the many Qur’anic commands against immodest dress, lewd and lascivious public behavior, and adultery indicate that very many women saw themselves as little more than objects of male sexuality.

This objectification of the feminine is starkly exposed in the custom of zihār, by which a man divorces his wife while not allowing her to leave his house and marry elsewhere. By merely saying “You are as my mother’s back,” a husband was able to permanently desert his wife while at the same time confine her to his home. In this way he was able to keep possession of “his women” for whom he had no further use. The practice was apparently so entrenched that the Qur’an had to condemn it twice.

Those of you who put away their wives by calling them their mothers-they are not your mothers. None are their mothers save those who gave them birth, and they utter indeed a hateful word and a lie. (58:2)

God has not made for any man two hearts within him, nor has He made your wives whom you desert by zihār your mothers… (33:4)

More evidence of ancient Arabia’s misogyny could be obtained from the historical sources, but this may be overkill, for a culture that condones the above practices clearly has low regard for women. This brings us back to our earlier assertion that the proscription against wife beating was much at odds with the cultures that came under early Islamic rule, and hence, based on the above principle, increases our conviction that it originated with the Prophet.

But can we not invoke the same principle in support of tradition 7 that censures wife beaters and traditions 2 and 9 that permit only mild wife beating? Would not these be out of synch with the times? Perhaps, but is not the sight of a severely beaten wife always offensive, even to the most woman-denigrating males? A ban on wife thrashing could be accepted as prevention against cruelty but a ban on all physical punishment could be seen as an attack on male authority. The argument here is also less compelling since these traditions seem to back off from a more progressive policy.

It could be true, as tradition 7 explains, that the prohibition of wife beating proved too liberal in seventh century Arabia. If this is really the case, then the modification of the ban might be interpreted as a concession to the primitiveness of the times and the original proscription could then be seen as the ideal to be imposed when conditions permit. Others, however, would insist that, for whatever reason, the Prophet’s last word on this subject abrogates his earlier pronouncements. A more skeptical approach might see in these traditions a post-Prophetic accommodation to an unshakable patriarchy that was projected back to the Prophet. A lot depends on the trust given to these remaining traditions. As already mentioned, they are generally considered authentic, but once more we can examine their texts (matns) for anything that might stand out.

Until now we have said little about tradition 8, the most difficult for opponents of patriarchalism. This hadith is one of the most cited on anti-Islam websites and receives virtually no mention by Muslim writers on the status of women in Islam. It may be that the tradition is not widely accepted but I have found no such assertion. Of all the traditions mentioned above, this one can be properly considered an outlier, that is, one whose message diverges markedly from the others. All of the other traditions prohibit, curb or frown on wife beating, but tradition 8, if taken at face value, appears to give the husband a free hand. Due to the exceptional nature of this hadith and in consideration of the Qur’an’s several exhortations concerned with just and kind treatment of women, I doubt that it represents an authentic teaching of the Prophet.

Traditions 2 and 9 relate the Prophet’s admonitions concerning the treatment of women on the occasion of his last pilgrimage. If genuine, then reading udribu in 4:34 as “to turn away from” is not tenable. In these accounts the Prophet is undoubtedly commenting on 4:34, and the statement, “and if they do that, you can beat them but not severely,” confirms that the command form of daraba in this verse means, “beat.” But there is reason to question the accuracy of these two reports, in spite of their near universal acceptance. In them the Prophet explicitly states that if a wife invites other men to her spouse’s bed, the husband may apply 4:34, with the proviso that any beating must not be severe. Now I assume that, “allow onto your bed,” implies having sexual relations of some sort. If this is the case, then we obtain a formula for dealing with a promiscuous wife that is exceedingly lenient, even by today’s standards: first admonish her;
if she persists, then sleep apart from her for a while; if she still persists, then lightly chastise her; if she finally quits the illicit behavior, then take no further action, otherwise he should seek family arbitration. I suppose that by the above principle we should be doubly inclined to believe that this way of handling a wife’s infidelity is Prophetic, accept that it also seems out of synch with the Qur’an; for the Scripture treats adultery as a major sin and prescribes very strict measures to combat it. Thus, all things considered, I doubt the accuracy of these two accounts.

This takes us finally to tradition 7. It appears in al Shafi’i’s Musnad and in the collections of Abu Da’ud, al Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, al Tabarani, and al Hakim. AI Nawawi grades it sahih (authentic) in his Riyad al Salihin, as does al Suyuti in his at Jami’ at Saghir. Its narrator, ‘Umar ibn al Khattab, is once again the proponent of stern treatment of women. While his reputation for severity is probably rooted in truth, the great frequency with which ‘Umar assumes this role in the Hadith literature makes one wonder if he did not become a convenient personage to ascribe harsh views on women. This, however, is not evidence for or against the tradition under discussion. One might question that the Prophet would rebuke men for wife beating just after giving them permission to do it, but he could have been objecting to the cruelty with which some of them did it. On a doctrinal level, several hadiths have ‘Umar and other highly respected
Companions beating their wives, while this tradition appears to exclude them from the community’s elite, but again the severity of the chastisement could be at issue here. In sum, the text of tradition 7 contains nothing substantial to cause suspicion.

This examination of the matns of these traditions is rather limited, but even a more thoroughgoing critique would probably not produce conclusive results. Undoubtedly, the great majority of believers would still insist on their authenticity regardless of the soundness of the findings. This does not mean that Muslims living in the West must feel at variance with the larger society’s condemnation of spouse abuse. Every text on Islamic Law, ancient and modern, states that it is unlawful for a husband to severely beat his wife. Most jurists assert that a man is allowed to chastise his spouse only in cases of flagrant indecency and that even here it is preferable to avoid it. Scholars stipulate that it is not permissible to strike the face, cause any bodily harm, to be harsh or leave any marks. It is not at all a whitewash to state that Islamic scholars oppose any act that would qualify as spouse abuse in contemporary Western law. Of course, on the ideological level, modern feminists will reject the notion that a husband has the right to beat his wife, however lightly, for although it might be only a “symbolic” act, as some modern Muslim writers assert, it is still a symbol of male domination of women.

About His beloved and noble Messenger, Allah declares in the Qur’an:

There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example for anyone that hopes in Allah and the Last Day, and remembers God often.[1]


The Prophet Muhammad was the best of exemplars in character and conduct towards others. He was the exemplar par excellence as he was sent to perfect noble conduct. As a husband and family leader, we learn from his character the most beautiful expressions of love for his wives, children, and even domestic staff.

His home was not a utopia where conflicts did not exist, nor jealousy manifest between his wives. However, the manner in which the Prophet handled such instances offers great examples in compassion, love, regard, patience, and deep maturity. Nu’man ibn Bashir narrated that:

“Abubakr came and sought permission to enter the Prophet’s house. He heard Aisha raising her voice over that of the Prophet’s. After being permitted, he entered, got hold of her, and said: O daughter of Umm Rumman, why are you raising your voice over that of the Messenger of Allah? The Prophet intervened and prevented him from hitting his daughter. When Abubakr left, the Prophet consoled her and said: Did you see how I saved you from him? After a while, Abubakr returned, sought permission to enter, and this time he saw the Prophet joking and laughing with Aisha. Abubakr said: O Messenger of Allah, allow me to be part of your peace, just as you have allowed me to be part of your conflict.”[2]

In this remarkable insight into the Prophet’s relation with his wife, we see how he tolerated his beloved wife, Aisha, raising her voice above his, how he still protected her from her father’s physical chastisement. We see how just moments later, him and the same wife began joking and laughing.

In another moving story, the Prophet demonstrated remarkable sensitivity to his wife, Safiyyah, during a journey. Dr. Al-Shammari shares the following account in his book, The Prophet Muhammad: The Best of All Husbands:

“Safiyyah bint Huyay narrated that the Prophet (S) performed Hajj with his womenfolk. At some points during their journey, a man would descend from his riding animal, and would steer the animals to quicken their pace. Hence, the Prophet told him to hurry up the ‘vessels’ (implying the women). As the riding animals of the women started moving faster, the camel of Safiyyah bint Huyay knelt down and overthrew her. She was the most sensitive of all of them, and she began to cry. When the Prophet found out, he came to her and wiped her tears with his own hands, upon which she started to cry even more. The Prophet (S) told her not to cry but she became even more fitful and began to crying inconsolably. Se he ordered the people to dismount, even though he had not wanted to dismount, and the caravan dismounted…”[3]

To console his wife publicly would have been considered a soft trait for a man, especially a man of power, in his society. In fact, in many modern societies, such attitudes are the norm. However, the Prophet demonstrated the love and compassion he had for his wife, Safiyya, as to wipe her tears away publicly, and even go the length of halting the journey of an entire caravan out of respect and sensitivity to the feelings of his wife.

In another report, Anas ibn Malik narrated that after the Prophet married Safiyyah bint Huyay, “… thereafter we proceeded to Madinah, and I would see him covering her with his cloak, while she walked behind him. He would also kneel beside his camel, in order to let Safiyyah put her feet on his knees and climb on to the camel.”[4]

This is such an amazing picture to behold. Let us for a moment close our eyes and picture this scene: The great Prophet, the last Messenger of Allah – A man to whom revelation comes accompanied by host of Angels led by their leader, Jibril. A man who ascended the heavens himself to witness the wonders of Allah and to receive revelation. A man who, being a Prophet, yet wielded political power on earth. Now picture him with his beloved wife, kneeling in the sand beside a camel, and helping his blessed wife step on his knees with her foot in order to climb the camel he has knelt beside. Such is the epitome of love and honor that the Prophet showed to his wives. He never raised his hand against any of his wives, not even the ghayr mubarrih type. Rather, he consistently stated the undesirability of hitting or striking women, despite the Qur’anic verse.

“The permissibility of such symbolic expression of the seriousness of continued refraction DOES NOT IMPLY ITS DESIRABILITY.   In several ahadith, Prophet Muhammad (P) discouraged this measure.  Among his sayings are the following: “Do not beat the female servants of Allah;” “Some (women) visited my family complaining about their husbands (beating them). These (husbands) are not the best of you;” and”[It is not a shame that] one of you beats his wife like [an unscrupulous person] beats a slave and maybe he sleeps with her at the end of the day.” (See Riyadh Al-Saliheen, op.cit, p.p. 137-140).  In another hadith the Prophet (S) said:
…How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then he may embrace (sleep with) her?… (Sahih Al-Bukhari,op.cit., vol.8.hadith 68,pp.42-43).””[5]

This shows that even though the Qur’an permits darb, it does not necessarily encourage it, nor is it necessarily desirable, as is evident in the Prophetic example. In fact, the Prophet (S) discouraged a lady from marrying a man who was known to beat women. Fatimah bint Qays (RA) reported that Mu’awiyah, Abu Jahm and Usamah bin Zaid proposed her. Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said:

“As for Mu’awiyah, he is a poor man with no property. As for Abu Jahm, he beats women, but take Usamah bin Zaid”. She pointed with her hand objecting the idea of marrying Usamah. But the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “Obedience to Allah and obedience to His Messenger is better for you”. She said: I married him, and I became very happy”.[6]


The Prophet also reminded Muslims that the nature of women is delicate and sensitive, and that men should acknowledge this God-given feminine attribute. This may be deduced from the following narration:

Abu Hurairah (RA) reported Allah’s Apostle (SAW) as saying: “he who believes in Allah and the Hereafter, if he witnesses any matter he should say good words or keep silent. Take care of women for a woman is created from a rib and the most crooked part of rib is its upper most. If you attempt to straighten it, you will break it; and if you leave it, its crookedness will remain there. So treat (them) kindly”[7]

In conclusion, we have looked at the issue of domestic violence, studied some key terms used in the Qur’an related to chastising a recalcitrant wife, and weighed different arguments regarding the meaning of the crucial term, “daraba”, whose effect we have seen to be primarily symbolic, on the basis of Prophetic clarification and competent juristic elaboration. We have examined the Qur’anic verse 4:34 in the light of linguistic analysis, hadithic contextualization, social realities, psycho-emotional marital dynamics, and Islamic methodology harmonious with the maqasid of Shariah. We have seen that there is a gradual-ness in the Qur’anic prescription for resolving or managing marital discord. Islam is a way of life that seeks, as one of its grand objectives, to promote happiness and harmonious family living, rather than disrupting and destroying same. And these considerations ought to be borne in mind when dealing with different issues concerning Islam and Muslims, such as the issue of domestic violence, which, unfortunately is the big elephant in many Muslim homes that nobody wants to talk about. Meanwhile, families are being destroyed, and many women are suffering in silence because abusive men are ignoring guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah on handling marital tensions, or they are using the Qur’an wrongfully as an excuse to abuse their wives. Muslims must be proactive in promoting what is right and just, and condemning and preventing what is wrong and unjust. And Allah knows best.

[1] Surah al Ahzab, Qur’an 33:21

[2] Related by Ahmed, cited in Dr. Ghazi al-Shammari, The Prophet Muhammad: The Best of All Husbands, International Islamic Publishing House (IIPH), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2009

[3] Musnad Imam Ahmad, Hadith no. 2/143 – 144

[4] Bukhari

[5] See Jamal Badawi article,   “Is Wife Beating allowed in Islam?”

[6] Sahih Muslim, Book 9, Hadith no 3527; or Summarized Sahih Muslim compiled by al-Hafiz Zakiuddin Abdul-Azim al-Mundhiri, Darussalam, Riyadh, Hadith no. 862.

[7] Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Nikah, no.5185; Sahih Muslim, Book 8 (Kitab al-Nikah), no. 3468, or Summarized   Sahih Muslim, compiled by al-Hafiz Zakiuddin Abdu-Azim al-Mundhiri; Darussalam, Riyadh, Hadith no.844.