A recent Huffington Post editorial, “Women Retake Islam,” calls on Muslims to improve the status of women by “rediscovering the progressive jewel at the heart of Islam.” The author, Kamran Pasha, rightly attributes much of the misogyny in places like Saudi Arabia to regional customs rather than religion. Yet despite the many valid points he raises, he undermines his own argument by selectively disregarding elements of the Islamic tradition that seem unfriendly to women. This inconsistency begs a question which cannot be overlooked…
How can we “rediscover” Islam while ignoring the difficult aspects of Islamic orthodoxy?
Near the conclusion of his piece, Pasha discusses a controversial Qur’anic verse (4:34) which is often taken to mean that a husband may “strike” his wife, as a last resort, for “disobedience.” Questioning this interpretation, he cites the work of contemporary scholar Laleh Bakhtiar, who notes that the Arabic word for “strike” or “beat” can also mean “separate [oneself] from.” “Considering that [the Prophet’s wife] Aisha herself said that Prophet Muhammad never struck his wives, children or servants,” Pasha writes, “Ms. Bakhtiar’s interpretation is likely the authentic one based purely on the Prophet’s own example.” According to Pasha, the claim that 4:34 licenses men to “hit” their wives illustrates how “the [Qur’an] has often been interpreted by later generations in ways the Prophet himself would never have supported.”
But the earliest Muslim sources paint a less palatable picture. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923 CE), a revered scholar whose Qur’anic commentary remains influential today, cites several hadiths (accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet) which suggest that verse 4:34 was revealed to exonerate a husband who slapped his wife. The woman reportedly came to Muhammad demanding justice, her cheek still marked from the blow.  According to a number of narrations, the Prophet “wanted [to apply] retaliation,” but the verse was revealed before he did.  This seems to suggest that the Qur’an allows Muslim men to strike their wives.
Other pieces of evidence indicate that while the Prophet was never violent with his wives, treating them with particular gentleness, his followers were permitted to “beat” their wives during his lifetime. A hadith in the book Sunan Abu Dawud claims that Muhammad once forbade beating, but later allowed it when his companion ‘Umar complained that women were growing “emboldened.”  Some classical scholars, such as Imam Al-Bayhaqi (d. 1066), claim that this permission was given in light of verse 4:34, which had already been revealed.  For others, including Imam Shafi`i (d. 820), the chronology is unclear. 
Soon after the alleged beating allowance, a large group of women gathered outside the Prophet’s house, complaining about their husbands’ abuse. Although Muhammad declared that those men were “not the best” among his community, he did not punish them, stop them, or compensate their wives. 
Another narration goes even further, quoting the Prophet as promising, “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.”  Moreover, in his final sermon to the Muslim community, the Prophet allegedly compared women to prisoners and prescribed “non-severe” beating as a punishment for a wife’s “open” lewdness:
Treat your women well. They are as captives in your possession. You have no rights over them except that [i.e. physical enjoyment and that they protect their husband’s interest in respect of themselves and his property]. If they act licentiously in an open way, then leave them alone in their beds and beat them but not severely. If they obey you, you have no way against them. 
These narrations, among others, have led scholars to conclude that the correct meaning of the verb in verse 4:34 is “beat” them.
There are very mixed messages about “beating” in the hadith literature. Several reports seem to forbid it entirely; Abu Dawud quotes the Prophet as saying, “Do not beat [women].”  In other narrations, the Prophet commands, “Do not beat Muslims,” and warns that “anyone who gives a beating” will answer for it on the Day of Judgment.  Still other hadiths assume that a moderate level of beating is permissible in some situations, and admonish against beating a slave “more than he deserves.” 
Although the traditional view of 4:34 does affirm “beating,” Muslim scholars have narrowed its scope to the point where the term is almost meaningless. Based on a variety of hadiths, and the broader principles of Islam, they have ruled that any “beating” must avoid the face and must not cause injury. The Prophet allegedly used the Arabic words ghayr mubarrih to describe how it should be carried out. When asked to explain this phrase, which can be rendered as “not violently,” a respected companion of the Prophet named Ibn Abbas suggested that the husband should strike his wife with a twig.  Classical scholars certainly agree that verse 4:34 does not condone domestic violence as we define it today, but they insist that the text does say “beat them.”
While dozens of Prophetic accounts enjoin kind and gentle treatment of women, the unsavory fact remains that according to “authentic” hadiths, the Prophet allowed and even commanded men to strike their wives in certain contexts. Pasha selects a hadith from Aisha to suggest that verse 4:34 does not permit a man to hit his wife,  but counterarguments can be made just as easily, and more effectively, using other narrations. Picking and choosing from the hadith literature without a clear methodology does not demonstrate that “feminist” readings of verse 4:34 are at the “heart of Islam,” nor does it prove that “the Prophet himself would never have supported” traditional understandings of 4:34. By taking this approach, Pasha sidesteps some important questions. How, for example, do we reconcile hadiths that forbid beating with those that prescribe it? And if the revelation of verse 4:34 prevented a man from being punished after violently slapping his wife, how does this square with the restricted scholarly view of “beating”? If we are to make an earnest effort to discuss and understand the position of women in Islam, we must be willing to engage with the Islamic tradition as it is – not as we wish it were.
1. Idriss, Mohammad Mazher, and Tahir Abbas. Honour, Violence, Women and Islam. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. (p. 105)
2. Mahmoud, Mohamed. “To Beat or Not to Beat: On the Exegetical Dilemmas over Qur’an, 4:34.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126.4 (2006): 537-550. (p. 539)
3. Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitab Al-Nikah, no. 2141
4. Chaudhry, Ayesha. “Wife-Beating in the Pre-Modern Islamic Tradition: An Inter-Disciplinary Study of Ḥadīth, Qur’anic Exegesis and Islamic Jurisprudence.” Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2009. (p. 58)
5. Browning, Don S., M. Christian Green, and John Witte Jr.. Sex, Marriage, and Family in World Religions. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. (pp. 197-8)
6. Chaudhry: 2009, 63
7. Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitab Al-Nikah, no. 2142
8. Riyad As-Saliheen, Ch. 34, no. 276. This hadith is repeated in Sahih Muslim, with “beat them” (fadribuhun: فَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ) translated as “chastise them” in some versions. (Compare Abdul Hamid Siddiqui’s translation (Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Hajj, no. 2803) with that of ʻAbd al-ʻAzim ibn ʻAbd al-Qawi Mundhiri (Mukhtaṣar Ṣaḥiḥ Muslim, Kitab Al-Hajj, p. 375).) The Arabic text of Sahih Muslim and other compilations can be searched at Muhaddith.org.
9. Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitab Al-Nikah, no. 2139
10. Al-Adab Al-Mufrad Al-Bukhari, IX, no. 157 & 185 respectively
11. Ibid., no. 177, 180
12. Idriss and Abbas: 2010, 105
13. Juynboll, G. H. A.. Encyclopedia of Canonical Ḥadīth. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007. (p. 261)
14. This narration is quoted in Sahih Muslim, Kitab Al-Fada’il, no. 5756: “Aisha reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) never beat anyone with his hand, neither a woman nor a servant […]”
(Photo by rosmary)
Peter Gray recently finished his BA in Asian Studies at Clark University with a special focus on Indonesia. A Muslim convert, he writes about Islam, “Islamophobia” and interfaith dialogue at muslimerican.wordpress.com.