Enemies and critics of Islam have often isolated a particular verse from the Quran that seemingly sanctions male physical violence against women. However, as Imam Muhammad al-Asi argues, their understanding is based on a failure to grasp the nuances of the Arabic language and assign necessary weight to numerous strictures prohibiting it.
And as for those women [wives] whose protuberant behaviour [nushūzahunna] you have reason to fear, reprove them [first]; then desert them in bed; then jolt them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, Allah is certainly most High, Great! (4:34).
It is this ayah that has caused so many attacks on Islam as being a religion that oppresses women by giving men the right to beat their wives and that sanctions violence in the family. However, the ayah simply states the fact that men have an initiative position regarding their wives. That is it. It does not agitate for men becoming torturers of their wives and feeling religious about it. Nor does it negate a woman altogether, rendering her the slave of her husband as a matter of faith. At the same time, it does not blur the line between a feminine wife and a masculine husband.
A person by the name of Mu‘awiyah ibn Ḥaydah al-Qushayri came to the Prophet (pbuh) and asked, “O Messenger of Allah! What right does a wife have over us [the husbands]?” He replied, “To feed her as you feed yourself, to clothe her as you clothe yourself. [And if discipline is the issue] you avoid her face, [and] do not use foul language. If you abandon her it is only in the bedroom [sexual intercourse].” The Prophet (pbuh) is also reported to have said speaking to men,
“Do not hit the gentle servants of Allah [meaning women].” Then ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab came to the Prophet (pbuh) and complained of a type of mutiny by wives against their husbands. At this point, the Prophet (pbuh) tolerated men disciplining their wives by impinging on them [or nudging them]. Following this, a procession of women gathered around the Prophet’s (pbuh) household complaining about their husbands’ behaviour. So the Prophet (pbuh) finally said, “Many women circled the household of Muhammad complaining about their husbands. Those [husbands] are not your noblemen.
He also said, “The best of you is the best to his wife and family, and I am the best to my wife and family.”
These incidents at the dawn of Islamic history in the time of Allah’s final Prophet (pbuh) reveal the influences of materialistic and power-centric societies. During the time of the Prophet (pbuh), people had to be gradually weaned off their cultural and traditional practices. That took time but eventually the Islamic generations that followed were rooted deeply in a sense of equality for both sexes and equal treatment between husband and wife. So long as Islamic standards are not violated by cultural residuals or economic interests these standards exemplify the coextensive relationship that binds in perpetuity the two complementary halves of the human soul: wife and husband.
The word fa-idribuhunna in ayah 4:34 has an alternative meaning, which is not normally associated with the mainstream understanding of the word. To explain how this meaning can be extracted, the word will have to be linguistically deconstructed down to its root level and then reconstructed to carry another, perhaps more pertinent, interpretation that still lies within the range of derivatives from the original root.
The Arabic language has a derivative system that organizes and determines how other words can be extracted from a root word. In this instance, the root word is the past-tense verb daraba. The most common, general, and denotative meaning of the word is to hit, to strike, or to poke. But given that many other words can be derived from the root daraba, its nucleus meaning lends itself to a wide range of connotations. For instance, it can also be used as a phrase word: in the Arabic language the phrase daraba fi al-ard means he goes out to make a living; the phrase daraba allahu mathalan, meaning Allah has coined a similitude, occurs in the Qur’an; and the phrase daraba ‘anhu means he averted him.
Continuing in this direction, other verbs can be extracted from daraba, such as idtaraba: the phrase yadtaribu al-mawj refers to waves colliding or moving wildly, the word idtirab means incoherent movement, and an issue out of balance is referred to as amr mudtarib. And there are still more derivatives of the same root: in financial circles the word mudarabah refers to loaning someone money, and ∂arb in some context may mean a sort. Suffice it to say that an undiversified explanation of the meaning of daraba and its derivatives is simplistic, uninformed, and misleading. This explains to some extent why some people have misconstrued the all-encompassing meaning of this ayah.
One of the nouns that can be derived from the verb daraba is dirab, a word mostly used to describe copulating animals. In Arabic, no one ever refers to the act of two animals mating as a marriage or nikah; the word nikah only applies to the union of a husband and wife in matrimony and wedlock. This ayah alludes to a damaged husband and wife relationship in which the sexual intimacy that comes with nikah is no longer there. Each spouse is at an emotional distance from the other, and frigidity has set in between them. So, if they were to be instructed to rejoin in what used to be the intimacy, the affection, and the passion of love, they would be told to have a dirab and not a nikah. Therefore, the wording of the ayah takes into consideration the reticence and remoteness that now characterizes the relationship between an unromantic husband and a frigid wife. Corresponding to this fact, it could be said that the word fa-idribuhunna replaced the word fa-inkihuhunna.
This gives a new meaning to the required behaviour that should be initiated by a husband toward a wife that is disposed to keeping an emotional distance from him. Still, however, there is no contradiction between the two understood meanings of the word fa-idribuhunna. Human nature is complex, and the range of meanings encompassed by the word is fine-tuned by a delicate understanding of Allah’s (Â) choice of wording and instruction as they relate to our ambivalent feelings toward each other.
…It must be reiterated that a man’s quwama [initiative position] does not give him an open-ended permit to strike, hit, and beat his wife. Some of this untoward behaviour is justified by hadiths that are largely discordant with the Qur’an. One such hadith is from al-Shaybani’s book, Taysir al-Wusul ilaa Jami‘ al-Usul min Hadith al-Rasul, Volume 3, in which ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab is reported to have relayed the following quote from the Prophet (pbuh), “A man is not to be asked: for what reason did you hit your wife?” This is a prime example of how a purported hadith stands in stark contradiction to the meaning, intent, and purpose of Allah’s (Â) words in the Qur’an. Whatever erroneous implications that may be derived from this assumed hadith are also contrary to other hadiths. A man cannot administer corporal punishment to his wife without compunction. This amounts to a type of aggression, and a man cannot aggress against his wife, or for that matter anyone else, without just cause. This type of rancorous behaviour is unacceptable by the standards of scripture, logic, and justice. But in the body of hadiths there are some that are incompatible with the Qur’an and other well-established quotations of Allah’s Prophet (pbuh).
The hadith quoted above says in effect that a husband is completely unaccountable for his actions. Is this not placing such a husband above the law? How can people, who want to justify this kind of licence to beat without any qualms of conscience, selectively forget other ayat in the Qur’an and well-known hadiths such as,
And so, he who shall have done an atom’s weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom’s weight of evil, shall behold it (99:7–8).
…and befitting to them [the women] is in proportion to what is required of them… (2:228).
…either retain them [the wives] in a fair manner or let them go in a fair manner… (2:231).
I counsel you to be copious [and considerate] to women, they are your dependents…
Are those who make a secure commitment to Allah (Â) expected to violate this ayah and exempt the husband from accountability just because of a historical culture that demeans women? Can a husband hit his wife just because he feels like it? Can a husband hit his wife because he needs to satisfy a sadistic urge? Can a husband hit his wife simply because “he wants to take it out on her?” All such interpretations are ridiculous, unreasonable, insane, and not in keeping with any guidance or mercy that comes from Allah(Â).
This whole lesson in a sense is meant to try to head off and refrain from the worst permissible license Allah (Â) has given man: divorce. In present society there is a tendency to see divorce both as a source of individual unhappiness and as an index or cause of wider social disorder. However divorce might be evaluated, few people in conducting these debates have any doubts as to the meaning of the term. To be divorced represents a clear legal status, the outcome of which is usually accompanied by clearly defined practices such as the establishment of separate households and agreements over the division of property and the maintenance of, custody over, or access to any children. Divorce is frequently equated with marital breakdown although it is clear that the two need not be the same.
In summarizing what can be deduced from ayat 4:34–35, the six points below have been established:
1. Even though this fact — the quwamah of men over women — has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and still continues to be misrepresented, men are in a position of initiative, of taking the first step when compared to women. But this does not suggest men are automatically, genetically, or sexually paramount to women.
2. If a man fails to live up to his role as the person who is responsible for the physical safety and financial security of the family, the wife has the right to dissolve the marriage. Marriage is sustained in an important way, among other things, by the man (the husband) living up to his masculine “first step” and financially supporting his family, “men are in an initiative position vis-à-vis women: that is because of what Allah has given them in excess and due to what they spend of their wealth [to fund their families]…” However, if he is encountering temporary difficulties in providing for his family, then this does not qualify as a basis for a wife to choose divorce as a remedy, “And if he is in hard times then the provision is for better times…” (2:280).
3. A husband may duly expect his wife to protect their mutual love trust in his absence, “And the virtuous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy Allah has [ordained to be] guarded.” She is expected to comply to him within the domain of their joint obedience to Allah (Â), and as such, she is entrusted with his possessions, her feelings, and a fetus who may be in her womb.
4. The husband is duty bound to provide all necessities and amenities to his wife on par with what he provides for himself.
5. There is a process the two spouses are required to follow in order to prevail over their incompatibilities: advice, bedroom abandonment, and a husband to wife jolt. And if none of that works they are to refer the matter to two arbiters who will try to impartially settle the whole affair.
6. Once a wife reconciles her emotions with her husband’s and her behaviour blends back into compatibility with him, the husband no longer has the right to take any action against her. Circumstances like these tend to generate an attitude of revenge; and the ayah clearly prohibits such conduct.
The equality and equal treatment of both men and women is a theme that runs throughout the Qur’an. No Muslim — male or female — who fuses into the spirit of the Qur’an can reconcile himself or herself with the macho image of a male dictator in the family. Impossible. Some pertinent ayat underscore the equality of men and women in their own gender roles, in their family postures, and in their social positions. The biological parity of male and female are established in the ayah,
[He] created you [male and female] from one bio-entity; and from it He created its mate and from both of them He dispersed many men and women… (4:1).
The words of heaven in the Qur’an establish man’s and woman’s equal share of responsibility, for example, with regard to the “original sin” in paradise, both man and woman — Adam and Eve (pbut) — are equally admonished,
Thereupon Satan whispered to the two [Adam and Eve] with a view to making them conscious of their nakedness, of which [hitherto] they had been unaware; and he said, “Your Sustainer has but forbidden you this tree lest you two become [as] angels, or lest you live forever.” And he swore to them, “Verily, I am of those who wish you well indeed!”
And thus he led them on with deluding thoughts. But as soon as the two had tasted [the fruit] of the tree, they became conscious of their nakedness; and they began to cover themselves with pieced-together leaves from the garden. And their Sustainer called out to them, “Did I not forbid that tree to you and tell you [that], verily, Satan is your open foe?” The two replied, “O our Sustainer! We have sinned against ourselves, and unless You grant us forgiveness and bestow Your mercy upon us, we shall most certainly be lost!” (7:20–23).
In other ayat Allah (Â) makes it known that their human responsibility is on the same level,
Whoever does what is good and right — whether male or female — as long as there is commitment to Allah, will live a favourable life… (16:97).
Whoever does wrong shall not be compensated except by its equivalent, and whoever does what is right and good whether male or female — in a state of commitment to Allah — they are the ones who will enter paradise with an infinite providence (40:40).
The nonpartisan words of the Qur’an have enshrined the equal responsibility of men and women in implementing Allah’s (Â) instructions and in carrying out His orders,
A committed Muslim man and a committed Muslim woman have no choice [but to obey] when Allah and His Apostle determine something… (33:36).
Once both return to Allah (Â), Muslim men and women may look forward to equal rewards for the same actions done on earth,
Verily, for all men and women who have acquiesced to Allah, and all committed men and committed women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before Allah], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember Allah unceasingly: for [all of] them has Allah readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward (33:35).
This Book of equality has also placed men and women on comparable political grounds,
Committed Muslim men and committed Muslim women are allies of each other; they work on constructing the self-evident good and they work on deconstructing the self-evident wrong… (9:71).
The Qur’an has given men and women the same right of ownership and acquisition. They both are entitled to the fruits of their own labour and legitimate means of possession,
Men have a share of what they have gained and women have a share of what they have gained… (4:32).
Men and women also have the right to inherit their family’s surpluses at the time of death; the shares though are allocated in accordance with their respective financial responsibilities, almost all of which are assigned to men,
Men shall have a share in what parents and kinsfolk leave behind, and women shall have a share in what parents and kinsfolk leave behind, whether it be little or much — a share ordained [by Allah] (4:7).
Furthermore, the Qur’an equally requires both men and women to mutually safeguard each other’s reputation and social status. Neither men, nor women may assassinate another’s character or back-bite each other,
O you who are committed to Allah! No men shall deride [other] men: it may well be that those [whom they deride] are better than themselves; and no women [shall deride other] women: it may well be that those [whom they deride] are better than themselves. And neither shall you defame one another, nor insult one another by [opprobrious] epithets; evil is all imputation of iniquity after [one has attained to] commitment; and they who [become guilty thereof and] do not repent, it is they, they who are evildoers! (49:11).
After reading all these ayat and many more in this fair Qur’an how can anyone have the audacity to say that Islam sanctions male bigotry or considers men to be superior and women to be inferior?
These types of accusations can only come from individuals who have an axe to grind against the Qur’an, the Prophet (pbuh), and Islam.
Imam Muhammad al-Asi is currently working on the first-ever English Tafsir of the Qur’an titled: The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture. This article is comprised of extracts from Volume 6. Imam Asi has a translation of the Qur’an also forthcoming. Both the tafseer volumes and translation are published by ICIT. Imam is based in Washington D.C.