Domestic violence is undeniably a problem in our communities. The statistics show that it is not a thing unique to Muslims or to non-Muslims. Simply being Muslim does not make us immune to the social ills that surround us. For us, though, the difficulty surrounding domestic violence concerns a particular verse in the Qur’an, often misunderstood, misinterpreted and then used to justify abuse. These misunderstandings must be corrected.
In the Qur’an, Allah Most High says,
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللّٰهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَّبِمَا أَنفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ ۚ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللّٰهُ ۚ وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ۖ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا ۗ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has preferred the one above the other and because they spend their wealth on them. Righteous wives are devout and guard what Allah would have them guard in their husbands’ absence. If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of Allah], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them: Allah is most high and great (Nisa’, 4:34).
This verse speaks about the status of men and women, the characteristics of great women, and about the disobedience of the wife to the husband, with a strict step-by-step process of the measures to be taken in such a situation. Scholars and communities from various countries differ in their interpretation of this verse. Some modern explanations and Qur’an translations miss the point completely or distort the original understanding of the verse due to social, cultural and political influences and pressures. By consulting some of the earliest sources of Qur’an interpretation, we come to a basic uniform understanding that interpreting the word darb in the verse as “beating” is incorrect, due to the common connotations of “beating” in English.
Beating refers to “an act of striking with repeated blows so as to injure or damage” (Merriam Webster) or “a punishment or assault in which the victim is hit repeatedly” (Oxford). Rather, darb here is more a symbolic physical reprimand, a hit or tap, to express displeasure, not hitting with the intention to cause a wound or other physical harm, or even anything that would leave marks. The face and any other sensitive areas have to be absolutely avoided in any case. Such conditions are clearly contrary to what is generally understood by “beating.” Many of the hadiths that have been related from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) regarding hitting describe this darb as being “ghayr mubarrih” (for instance, see Muslim, 1218), which means “non-severe and non-violent” (Lane’s Lexicon). Similarly, when the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) cousin Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him), the famous exegete among the companions, was asked its meaning, he explained that it meant striking her with a siwak or the like (Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan, 8:314). A siwak is a toothstick usually the size of a straw or so. A reading of many of the earliest tafsir sources, such as Tabari (d. 310/922), Ibn Abi Hatim (d. 327/938), Tha‘labi (d. 427/1035), Wahidi (d. 468/1075), Sam‘ani (d. 489/1096) and Baghawi (d. 510/1116), confirms this understanding.
Even then, to take any physical action is the final stage mentioned after all the preceding steps have been taken, and only if those steps are to no avail. When the husband finds her high-handed and in contravention of the religious demands of marriage, he is first to verbally advise and admonish her. If this does not work, then he is to ignore her in bed, meaning to leave off intimacy with her. All of this is to clearly express his displeasure and to bring the relationship back on its tracks. If this does not work, only then does the verse sanction the right to darb. In most cases, it could be assumed that the situation would probably be too far gone to be repaired even with a hit. What type of marriage can survive in any healthy way once the situation reaches this level anyway? Hence, hitting is not an obligatory last step, but rather an optional desperate and final measure to save the relationship, and that probably only in some cultures. Unfortunately, in the cases of abuse (as it is rightly termed), this process and the conditions mentioned are hardly ever followed.
Some have translated darb as “separation,” “going away” or “departing,” likely in an attempt to avoid the connotation of hitting entirely. This is disingenuous as it is not corroborated by the classical sources and centuries of scholarship. Apologists would like to claim that no physical element to discipline exists in the Qur’an. But how can something mentioned clearly in the Qur’an be denied. On the other hand, there are some who think the go-to method is always the rod and invoke the above verse in their defence. These are two extremes, and both are wrong.
If we now turn to the prophetic practice in this regard, as that is the primary source we turn to for understanding of the Qur’an, we find that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) never hit any of his wives. He had many wives at the same time, and there were certainly occasions when he got upset, just as in any other family setting. It is related that he stopped speaking to them, even for up to a month on one occasion, but he did not hit them. His youngest wife, Lady ʿA’isha (may Allah be pleased with her), reports that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) never struck anything with his hand, neither women nor servant (Muslim, 2328; Abu Dawud, 4786).
At one time, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) completely prohibited the companions from hitting by saying, “Do not hit the female servants of Allah.” Soon ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) came and reported that women had become emboldened and disobedient toward their husbands. So the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) lifted the prohibition. Then a number of women came to his wives to complain of their husbands. So the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) made an announcement discouraging those who hit that such men were not the best among you (see Abu Dawud, 2146; Mirqat al-Mafatih, 5:2127).
Another time the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) exhorted, “None of you should beat your wife as he would a slave, then make love to her at the end of the day” (Bukhari, 5204). This is to highlight that beating someone as described could only have been caused by revulsion of the wife. So he is saying how can anyone with even a bit of sense beat up his wife, and then still feel comfortable enough to make love to her in the evening if he reviles her so much. It is sadly the case that there are people who beat their wives, with wilful disregard for the teachings of Islam. This behaviour is completely repulsive.
My observation is that people of any faith or no faith hit because it is their local culture to do so. Both the men and women are accustomed to the system and feel that it is the only way to get anything done. This system is not what Islam calls toward. Sometimes it stems from things we’ve seen in our own families, or something from movies or dramas. Once, a friend disclosed to me that he had beaten his wife. He was clearly horrified at himself for having stooped to this level. It came as a shock to me too because he did not strike me as a violent person. He never repeated such aggression again. My assessment was that he had unwittingly resorted to such behaviour based on what he may have observed in his family or community. Such unhealthy cultural models must be deconstructed and eliminated.
Domestic abuse does not just take place through physical beating. Sometimes emotional and psychological abuse is much worse, whether that be through controlling or coercive behaviour, intimidation and threats, sustained criticism, undermining, name calling, making them feel insignificant, withholding money or even the silent treatment. It makes the victim feel worthless and kills their self-esteem, which results in them harbouring grudges and hate for their spouse. Some people endure this throughout their married lives. They should not have to do so.
Someone involved in the perpetration of any abuse should go and seek forgiveness immediately. He should ask himself: Why am I doing this? Is this going to make her love me more? Or is she going to only hate me due to my degrading oppression? The dignity, honour and respect that must exist between husband and wife is destroyed with beating and violence, whether it be physical or emotional and psychological. It does not foster respectful obedience; it only makes her life a living hell. If you have reached the level of abusing or beating your wife, there is a serious problem and you need to get professional help. Beating your wife will not solve your issues.
It should also be remembered that there are a minority of cases, sizeable in their own right, in which the abuse can go the other way and a man finds himself to be the victim. In the vast majority of cases, though, it is men abusing women. If either spouse has a problem with the other, the way to overcome the issue is never violence but positive reinforcement and open communication.
It is in the nature of this world that we be faced with problems and things we don’t like, but it is up to us to focus on the positive. It is sad that so many people, after years or decades of being married, have not broken the ice and tasted the true sweetness of marriage. People are missing the true sense of what a healthy relationship between a husband and wife is meant to mean. Domestic violence has no place in this relationship, and those who find themselves victim should know that this is not what their religion allows or condones and should seek help, whether that is by getting other loved ones involved or going to the authorities.