Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating?

Today I read an article by Qasim Rashid called “The Islamic Solution to Stop Domestic Violence”.  Cogently argued by the author, who is an American lawyer and member of the Muslim Writers Guild, the essay attempts to analyse the contentious verse 4:34 from the Quran, which has been interpreted for centuries as permission for Muslim men to strike their wives if those wives are rebellious or disobedient, to God or their husbands.

The verse translates to something like this:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

Here is a little background on the verse.*

Historically the revelation of this verse happened when Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘  hit his wife Habiba bin Zayd on the face because she rebelled against him. Her father went to Muhammad and said: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her.’ So the Prophet said: ‘Let her have her retaliation against him.’ But as she was leaving with her father to go do this, the prophet called them back, saying, ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’ and 4:34 was revealed (1).

Daraba has many definitions some of which are to beat, strike, hit, to shoot, fire, shell, to separate, part, to turn away from, leave, forsake, avoid.  Different translations can give insight into the ways these translators view the word.  For example, Yusuf Ali writes “(and lastly) beat them (lightly)”, Shakir says “and Beat them,” and Haleem marks “then hit them.”

Rashid says that the verse, with its layers of conditionality, and then taking into account the way Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, treated his wives (He specifically instructed his ummah, “Do not beat your wives”), cannot be taken as open season to beat up your wife in a violent way. Instead, the Muslim man must consider all his options, “actively foster reconciliation”, and then consider the final option, which still remains “chastising” your wife. And if you decide, not in anger, of course, but with rationality and reason, that you must still hit your wife, then do so only in a humane way, a way that will not leave marks upon the face, and that is in fact “healing”, as that’s one of the meanings of the word “daraba”, which people more commonly translate or interpret as to strike.

Now, I must at this point state that I’m a practicing Muslim who accepts the Quran as the literal, spiritual, and metaphysical word of God. The reason I don’t have any problem with verse 4:34 is because the word “daraba”, which has been translated and interpreted as “to strike”, has NINETEEN different meanings. One of which is “to heal” as pointed out by Rashid, but another is “to separate” as we see from the text I quoted above. And it’s that one that makes the most sense in the context of the entire verse: if you have problems with your wife, admonish her, do not sleep with her, and then, if the problem continues, separate. I do not accept at all that this verse meant that you can strike your wife, whether gently, forcefully, or anything in between.

It’s very telling that Muslim men, on the other hand, have accepted the most violent meaning of this word, and then twist themselves into pretzels trying to justify it, qualify it, conditionalise it (okay, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me), and propagate it. If the Prophet himself said “Do not beat your wives”, why on earth are you trying to contradict that? And then you embarrass yourselves and all of Islam by talking about this verse as a solution to domestic violence while advocating that women can be struck as a corrective measure for bad behaviour?

Why do you have to engage in mental gymnastics (to quote Urooj Zia, Pakistani journalist) so that you can feel okay about beating your wife? How can you beat your wife in a way that heals her or the relationship? Why must we always deal in irrationality to prolong our bloodlust for the patriarchy? As Asra Q. Nomani says, Indeed, Muslim scholars and leaders have long been doing what I call “the 4:34 dance” — they reject outright violence against women but accept a level of aggression that fits contemporary definitions of domestic violence”.

Instead, why don’t you read Muslim female scholars on the subject of verse 4:34, and their interpretations of the Quran, which I have to say are much closer to the spirit of Islam – the progressive, anti-establishment, anti-traditionalist revolution that came roaring out of the desert to challenge the accepted way of life amongst the Arabs of Mecca in the 7th century?

Here’s Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation of 4:34, taken from her 2007 translation of the Quran:

“Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place, then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them; truly God is Lofty, Great”.[41] “

And lest you think this verse in any way justifies men earning money while women are at home prohibited to work and earn their livelihood, I’d just like to ask you who was earning the money in the marriage between Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his first wife Bibi Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her)?

Here’s a list of women you should read, and their thoughts on 4:34 based on a quick search across the Internet.

  • Dr. Riffat Hassan – who calls the Quran the Magna Carta of Islam and believes that  the meaning of the Qur’an should be determined through hermeneutics — examination of what its words meant at the time it was written. She interprets 4:34 as being addressed to all men and women, and translates “qawammun” as anyone who earns money, regardless of gender. 
  • Dr. Amina Wadud – Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, She says that the word “nushuz” in 4:34 means “disharmony, neutral in gender”. She also says the word “daraba” means not that you have permission to beat your wife, but the verse was intended to severely restrict practices already in place during the time of the Prophet. 
  • Dr Leila Ahmad, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School (I can’t find any references online, but they’re in her book.
  • Fatima Mernissi, author of The Veil and the Male Elite

(thank you to Poppy Afzal Khan for this excellent list)

These feminist scholars who all know Arabic and have made it their life’s work to study Islam and the Quran and gender, argue that the verse is only one of many that have been interpreted in a way that is misogynistic, unfair, and against the intent of Islam to equalize men and women’s status. They argue that the Quran, the hadith and Shariah can be interpreted in a hardline way or a liberal way or a progressive way or a moderate way. And that there is a way to practice Islam that gives women full rights and respect, without reducing them to second-class citizens who must obey men, surrender their autonomy, agency, and bodies to the patriarchy.

In conclusion, I’d like to address my Muslim brothers and ask them why they just can’t come out and stand side by side with Muslim women, instead of continuing to keep them in second place? Why do they continue to insist that Allah subhana wa’taala meant for women to be inferior to men, when we all know that Allah created men and women of the same materials, imbued them with the same souls, has the same amount of reward and same amount of punishment for them in the afterlife? We can’t blame the Quran for its oppressive reading, says Asma Barlas. We can blame men and also women for those oppressive readings, that insistence on sticking to a system of slavery, that refusal to be courageous and accept that Islam means liberty and justice and equality for all.

*The verse has also been taken by most Muslims to show that men are breadwinners and are therefore in charge of women, who are by default childbearers.

The Arabic words in the verse most hotly debated over are:

Quwummun: breadwinners

Faddala: more excellent than, superior to (in the context of the translation above)

Nushuz: in the context of the translation above, “arrogance”, but also “rebellion”, “disobedience”

Daraba: in the context of the translation above, “to strike”

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