Domestic Violence in Islam
This is primarily due to a failure to understand Islam’s legal position on intimate partner violence (IPV) and the meaning and legal implications of the imperatives nushuz and wadribuhunna found in verse 4:34.
Although there is little research available on IPV in Islamic history, it is possible to deduce Islam’s legal position on IPV from the Qur’an, Sunnah and the context of historical and contemporary fatwas (legal verdicts). Since this article is restricted to one aspect of IPV – namely, wife abuse – it is necessary to contextualise Islam’s legal position on IPV by examining, albeit briefly, Islam’s attitude towards the treatment of wives.
This attitude is best expressed in the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.
The Qur’an eloquently describes the reciprocal marital relationship stating “they (your wives) are your garment, and you are a garment for them” (2:187). In the Qur’anic paradigm, marriage is represented as a means of tranquility, protection, encouragement, peace, kindness, comfort, justice, mercy and love (2:187 & 229-237; 4:19 & 25; 9:71; 30:21).
It indicates that marriage is a sharing between two halves of society, and that its objectives, besides perpetuating human life, are emotional wellbeing and spiritual harmony. In fact, an entire chapter exclusively entitled “The Women” describes guidelines of behaviour, code of ethics and conflict resolution in all aspects (e.g. care, inheritance, marriage, divorce, conflict resolution, etc) that relate to women (4:1-176).
The precedent of a marital relationship based on care, mercy, kindness, mutual consultation and justice was set by direct examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad and is well documented in the books of hadith. The Prophet Muhammad said, “The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best behaviours, and the best of you are those who are best to their wives.”
In reference to the relationship between husband and wife, Abu Hurairah, a leading companion, says that he heard Prophet Muhammad saying, “A believer should bear no malice to his wife, if he dislikes one of her habits, he likes another of them.”
It is well established that Prophet Muhammad never hit his wives, although they argued with him and held different opinions to him. He described the best men as those who are best to their wives, strongly reprimanding men who hit their wives and then would have intimate relations with them later.
When asked about a husband’s responsibility towards his wife, the Prophet said “Give her (your wife) food when you take food, clothe when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face, and do not beat her.”
Further, under the legal concept of darar, the Ottoman courts decreed that an abused wife was able to annul her marriage contract and the most important proof needed was to show that the husband had broken the marriage contract or that the marriage caused the woman harm. Therefore, physically assaulting a wife violates the marriage contract and is grounds for immediate divorce.
Research based on Shari’ah records from the Ottoman courts contains evidence of the ability of women to seek retribution when subjected to abuse.
In 1687 the Shari’ah courts of Aleppo ruled against abusive husbands in several cases of domestic violence. For example: “In one court case from May 1687 Fatima bt Hajj, Ali filed a lawsuit against her husband testifying that he was abusing her, he had hit her with a stick on her body and on her mouth causing her to bleed. She claimed that he was constantly abusive. In her defense she brought along five witnesses. The court reprimanded the abusive husband, ordering that he be given ta’zir (discretionary corporal punishment).”
Clearly, the Islamic position is one where IPV is forbidden by Prophetic Traditions and is sanctioned against in the legal texts. Accordingly, any violence and coercion used as a tool of control or subjugation in the home is oppression and is unacceptable in Islam, even if sanctioned by cultural practices.
It is unacceptable for beating to be carried out except in a legal situation where capital punishment exists within the Islamic legal code. Any form of violence that results in the shedding of blood, breaking bones or causing wounds requires ta’zir, and is valid grounds for a wife to annul her marriage contract.
So, if Islam clearly condemns all forms of violence against women, what does verse 4:34 of the Qur’an sanction? While there are many English translations of Qur’an 4:34, a recent translation by Ahmad Zaki Hammad renders the meaning as follows:
“Men are the maintainers [qawwamuna] of the affairs of women, for God has preferred in bounty one of them over the other, and for what they spend to sustain them from their own wealth. Thus, righteous women are devoutly obedient, safeguarding their sacred trusts in the absence of their husbands.
For God has ordained such trusts to be safeguarded. So as to those wives whose flagrant defiance [nushuzahunna] you fear, you shall admonish them. And, should they persist, part with them in bed. And, should they persist, strike them with a light hand [wadribuhunna]. But if they obey you, then do not seek to go against them in any way. Indeed God is ever exalted, all great.”
There is no agreement on the translation of the verse. Therefore, for a proper understanding of the meaning and implications of the verse it is necessary to look beyond English translations of the Qur’an and look to the interpretive principle established by the scholarly consensus of specialists in the Sacred Law.
It is clear from scholarly tradition that wadribuhunna that is referred to in the verse is only relevant in the situation where a married woman has committed open adultery, and that to “beat” a woman simply because she is disobedient cannot possibly be a legitimate understanding.
The greater maqasid or higher objectives of Islamic law regarding marriage indicate that the beating of women is forbidden in Islam; that the wadribuhunna referred to in 4:34 has specific conditions and is to be used only in certain situations. Many Prophetic traditions generally relating to beating and violence in Islamic law support this view.
Therefore, IPV is a separate issue from the context of the verse, and such actions should be condemned unconditionally.
About El Fadl even alludes to the fact that the word “beat” (as used, for instance, in phrases like “to beat around the bush” or “beat it”) in English has many meanings, indicating that “beat” and “strike” in English are not simply limited to violence inflicted with the hands. It is in the same light that he examines the meaning of the Arabic verb used in verse 4:34, stating that “daraba” can cover an equally wide range of meanings. These include to travel, to get out, to strike or beat, to set up or establish, to give, to condemn, to ignore, to seal, to cover, to explain, amongst other meanings.
Consistent with this contextualisation, those who render the English translation of wadribuhunna to mean beat/strike argue that it should “not be on the face, or cruelly, or with anything which might leave a mark on the body,” and that “his [man] strokes should be symbolic, the law forbids that which leaves bruises or other marks.”
In other words, the “beating” is conditional, and is “symbolic.” For example, in the fourth edition of The Majestic Qur’an: An English Rendition of its Meanings, Hakim Murad, Mostafa Badawi and Uthman Hutchinson argue that:
“It should be observed that the sanctions of progressive severity to be used against unruly wives are a warning to the latter that things are taking a very serious turn. They are designed to avoid divorce and are not permission for the husband to persecute or batter his wife …
If a man has to administer physical correction to a wife, his strokes should be symbolic, the law forbids that which leaves bruises or other marks. A wife with a complaint against her husband’s treatment may apply to a magistrate to deal with the matter.”
In the context of the life of the Prophet and his companions, a person who slapped his slave on the face was required to free them, and this has been explained fully in a hadith that states “whoever beats his slave on the face or beats him unjustly, the expiation is to free the slave.”
The hadith which refers to the impermissibility of hitting on the face is “if you fight a brother of yours, avoid hitting the face, for God created Adam in his image.” The point is this, if it is impermissible to beat the face of anyone while fighting and that it is forbidden to beat a slave’s face, how much more impermissible is it when it comes to the situation of one’s wife?
When the highly renowned classical Muslim jurist, Ibn Rushd, was asked “whether a man who caught his wife performing lewd acts with a foreign man in bed could beat his wife and imprison her,” he responded that “the husband may forgive his wife or divorce her, but anything beyond that would be a transgression.”
This is based on Qur’an 2:231, “And when you divorce women and they reach their prescribed time, then either retain them in good fellowship or set them free with liberality, and do not retain them for injury”, and Qur’an 65:2, “Either stay with them in kindness or divorce them with kindness.”
Given all of above, it seems evident that wife beating is not only “immoral” but is inconsistent with the higher objectives of Islamic Law, namely, the preservation of life, honour and intellect. It is also inconsistent with the Prophet’s example and many traditions that describe beating as “hateful and detestable.”
Islamic law, based on the Qur’an, Sunnah and views of leading jurists and scholars, is clearly against all forms of intimate partner violence, as it creates havoc in martial harmony – a fundamental aspect of marriage. Verse 4:34 does not condone violence against women, and a proper understanding of its implications can only be achieved through a contextual deliberation of the verse.
Within the Muslim community, there are individuals who are unaware of the actual intent of verse 4:34. Many of the cases of wife beating (in particular) can be invalidated by a proper understanding of the intent of the verse.
Given the above, it seems safe to assert that it is not Islamic Law that is the cause of IPV (and specifically wife beating) found in Muslim societies, but others factors are at play including cultural norms and practices, and heterogeneous influences.
The cultural norms and practices of some Muslims, particularly those from strongly patriarchal societies, may assign an inferior status or secondary role to women that may subject some women to abuse in their relationships.
It is my contention, therefore, that most of the cases of wife abuse can be explained by the husband’s ignorance of the basic teachings of Islam on the kind and just treatment of women.
Mohamad Abdalla is the Founding Director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit, Brisbane, and Director of the Queensland node of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies.