Wife Beating and Qur'anic Verse: Understanding the Real Controversy

There is a great deal of rhetoric surrounding chapter 4, verse 34 of the Qur'an which seemingly gives a husband license to strike his wife under certain circumstances, and I find most of it misguided and unhelpful. Mostly, it's either folks trying to demonstrate that Muslims are at heart wife beaters and so their values are fundamentally inconsistent with what it means to be an American and so let's ban shari'a, or ban Muslims from planes, or ban Muslim visas, or something.  Or it's Muslims arguing in fact that the verse isn't about abuse and to argue it is results in misunderstanding the verse.  In either case, it's substituting the real ethical dilemma for a false legal one that while being more politically appealing in our sound bite spin it how you like it culture, is more obscuring than it is clarifying.

Here's the verse and I'll use Yusuf Ali's translation so nobody accuses me of making words up. (If you want to accuse him of that, you can, but it's not like I made the man authoritative):

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. 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); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).

I underlined the beating part.  Now anyone who knows anything about legal evolution can tell you that if your real problem is the physical abuse of wives by husbands based on this, on its own the verse is not the problem.  Limit, distinguish, qualify, and pretty soon you're left with a pretty thin rule.  You already see it in the translation above by Yusuf Ali. Note the "lightly" in parentheses.  That's because it's not in the actual text.  But it's certainly a plausible interpretation, certainly qur'anic verse is qualified like that all the time through reference to other interpretive techniques and other revelatory text including the Sunna.  Even more plausible is that it is a "last resort", to be used after admonishment and refusing to share a bed.  Notice the "first" and "next" are also in parentheses, but I'm sure you could see how a modern Muslim opposed to spousal abuse would say that these things are listed seriatim for a reason.  You start with the first and move up, you can't start with the last.  (The other reading would of course be that these are different options given to a man to use at his discretion in whatever order he pleases).  And finally there is the act that has to earn the rebuke, which is the woman acting in a fashion described as nushuz.  I know what that means in classical and traditional fiqh, it means she isn't obedient, but notice here it becomes "disloyalty" and "misconduct" which sounds worse.  Again, plausible.

So could you read this verse to permit a husband to beat his wife badly more or less any time she doesn't listen to him, with limited exceptions?  Probably, at least on its own, though surely some would point out the Sunna clearly wouldn't permit that I suppose. In any event, do you have to read it that way? No. And in a modern world in which there is a preexisting disfavor toward physical abuse of wives, how do you think it's going to turn out? Easy.

First, the wife has to have acted particularly badly. Then you have to admonish her. Then if she keeps doing it, you abstain from sex with her (note the pervasive Islamic attitude on female sexuality--women crave sex more than men, so if you want to set a woman straight, deny her sexual pleasure, and she'll come around), and then, and only then, if she really persists, then you can hit her lightly without using an instrument and not in the face and if you do more it's a severe sin and you are a criminal if you do even that you're really not a great Muslim but it's thinly and barely acceptable and it should be symbolic and not painful and all the rest of it.  And that's plausible too.

Go from there to a determination that there is a public interest problem with people misreading the verse to authorize really hurting their wives, as Fadlallah said, as I think even Qaradawi said though I don't remember, and it's pretty easy to get to a ban on hitting your wife via exercise of state's discretionary power and earning the full support of Muslim imams to that end.  Really, honestly, it's not a hard set of steps, lawyers see this sort of evolution in constitutional interpretation all the damn time and it is perfectly plausible and does not engender problems of legitimacy as a technique when social forces push to that result.  You can easily get to we will call the local police on you if we see so much as the slightest bruise on your wife so get straight or go to jail.

(I leave aside less plausible interpretations by the way, such as that the term used in the verse does not mean "strike", but "go away from", as in take off for a while if your wife is that rebellious.  If you can just make words mean whatever you want then of course nothing is a problem. But if they do mean things, then dharaba means strike.  So when God tells Moses strike the rock with your stick and then says out from it exploded twelve water springs from which Israel could drink, as the Qur'an does, surely it doesn't mean go away from the rock with your stick and let it explode.  You'd have to ask in any event why God would use such a confusing word if He wanted people to just walk out when their wives were rebellious).

So the problem isn't spousal abuse, or put better to the extent that spousal abuse is a problem in the Muslim world (and it is, as it is elsewhere including the United States) it's not because the Qur'an offers no alternative option.  In that sense, the Islamophobes have it wrong. But in refuting the matter, I think Muslims fail to then grapple with the deeper problem, which is what the verse clearly maintains as an ethical (i.e. not legal) sense about spousal relations.   

To illustrate, if we assumed the verse was about the treatment of children, then I think we'd be done here and no ethical problem presents itself. I just plausibly gave you the interpretation you need.  Admonish your kid if he disobeys. Abstain from addressing him (I'm leaving out the part about sex that occurs as between husband and wife because obviously it wouldn't apply here). Then if that doesn't work, strike him, lightly, not in the face, without an instrument, in a symbolic fashion, and if you take this as license to do more, then we'll take your abusing ass to jail.  I see no problem.  I slap a kid's hand all the time if he grabs something he shouldn't. Not hard obviously, but as a rebuke to show disapproval, and add a disapproving look to make it clearer.

Clearly however, that's not how I and most of my Muslim friends  see our wives. They are our partners. We seek their advice and counsel, as they seek ours. We share with them our troubles, as they share ours.  And of course we disagree, but then we communicate and work through it as partners. And that's our very strong ethical sense of how things should be. And yet that sense of equality and sharing is simply not represented, at all, in this verse. I don't mean you cannot get it from other verses, because you can. I mean you cannot get it from this one, which treats a wife as if she were a child to be admonished and set straight by a husband who has a degree over them. 

And that's the bit that should trouble any Muslim, me very much included.



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  • 1/4/2014 1:02 PM tm wrote:
    Knowing that the ethico-moral paradigm of the Qur'an is different than our progression of what is both ethical and moral, how does one choose when to differ entirely to Scripture or to even take it seriously?

    In fiqhi terms, if you're into such things, how does one relegate life's decisions to the inclusion or seclusion of Maqasid/Qawa'id which is contingent upon the interpreters values (that change over time).

    This article as well as the one on slavery which questions the sane mind differing to dead men who held positions entirely antithetical to our value system comes to mind. Please enlighten me.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/9/2014 6:15 AM Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote:
      Excellent questions, and I will attempt my own humble reply in a subsequent post to come soon, I promise.


      Reply to this
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