Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife? The Quran, Hadith and Domestic Violence
1/25/2011 12:44 PM
Written by Usama Hassan
Bismillah. I began work on this at about 5am on 1st January and, Praise God, have completed it around 55 hours later. I am grateful to all my teachers and friends who encouraged me to write this work.
My conclusion is simple: God and Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly wished to ban domestic violence, as numerous hadiths indicate. The verse was always known to be a temporary compromise, an extremely limited concession that required minimum use of violence, if at all. “New” findings are:
1. Numerous hadiths say emphatically, “Don’t beat your wives.” The Qur’an apparently says, “You may beat your wives.” This apparent difficulty must be resolved. The verse is perhaps the most quoted by critics and enemies of Islam, the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
2. The article tries to highlight a basic and serious flaw with the way many Muslims read and teach the Qur’an, including some preachers and clerics. Helping to correct this problem will, God-willing, open the way to dealing with numerous other controversial issues and “problematic” ayahs and hadiths.
3. Many issues around human rights and women’s rights, gender-equality, dhimmitude etc. may be fruitfully-addressed along similar lines.
Summary of the study:
1. There is a verse (AYAH) of the Qur’an (SURAH AL-NISA’ or Chapter: Women, 4:34) that may appear to condone domestic violence against women. The verse says, “You may beat your wives.”
2. Domestic violence is a problem in most, if not all, communities and societies. For example, current statistics indicate that approximately 1 in 3 British women experience domestic violence during their lifetime. Although the overwhelming majority of cases of domestic violence in Muslim households are due to wider human factors such as difficulties with relationships and anger-management, a handful of cases involve the husband feeling justified in using violence against his wife on the basis of this Qur’anic text.
3. Such an attitude is not uncommon amongst socially-conservative Muslims who are “religious” in a formal sense: for example, a conservative leader of Indian Muslims is said to have given a public statement in 2010 denouncing a new law in India that criminalised domestic violence, thus: “They are taking away our divine right to hit our wives.”
4. This fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Qur’an is sometimes sanctioned by the legal system in Muslim-majority countries, for example, as in the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court ruling of October 2010.
5. A large number of hadiths (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) contain the explicit, emphatic prohibition, “Do not beat your wives!”
6. These hadiths may appear to contradict the Qur’an, if the latter is read in a superficial, fundamentalist way.
7. A holistic reading of the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadiths, taking into account the socio-historical context of the revelation of the Qur’an and of the Prophetic guidance preserved in authentic hadiths, shows clearly that God and Muhammad wished to ban wife-beating and domestic violence completely. As a temporary measure, and as a step on the way, an extremely limited, reluctant concession was given that only allowed minimal violence as a symbolic gesture of displeasure on a husband’s part. This was in a strongly patriarchal society that used to bury baby girls alive because of their gender and where sons would inherit their fathers’ wives. Such practices were outlawed by Islam, which also granted rights to women in 7th-century Arabia that were only achieved by European women in the 19th century, such as the independent right to own their property upon marriage.
8. The evidence for this interpretation is overwhelming, from the 8th-century AD Mufti of Mecca, ‘Ata bin Abi Rabah, who ruled that “a man may not hit his wife” to the 20th-century Mufti of the Zaytuna in Tunis, Ibn ‘Ashur, who ruled that the State may ban domestic violence and punish any man who assaulted his wife.
9. The “gradualist” approach of the Qur’an and Sunnah described in this case is a common feature in Islam. Other examples are the prohibition of wine, gambling, fornication and adultery. Modern reformers argue that the same principle applies to the abolition of slavery and the struggle towards gender-equality.
10. Recently, a number of Muslim thinkers and scholars, unfamiliar with the holistic approach to the Qur’an, Hadith and Shari’ah embodied in the universalist MAQASID theory of Islamic law, have attempted to re-translate the “wife-beating” verse to mean something else. Alternative translations and interpretations include temporary separation of husband and wife, travelling and even making love as a way of solving marital disputes. A prominent example of this is Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar’s recent translation, THE SUBLIME QUR’AN (2007) that is largely-promoted based precisely on her translation of the wife-beating verse. Although well-intentioned, such interpretations and translations are either grammatically unsound or far-fetched, or both. Furthermore, they ignore the overwhelming evidence provided by the Hadith traditions and simply do not placate the critics of Islam. The normative, orthodox account of the issue in this study provides a thorough, honest and principled solution to the difficulties apparently posed by the wife-beating verse.
11. The presence of hadiths with weak ISNADS (chains of narration) that would otherwise justify wife-beating may be evidence that some early Muslims themselves misunderstood the issue and either fabricated or misreported traditions on the subject. The value of the work of expert Hadith scholars throughout the ages who meticulously sifted genuine narrations from the weak ones, may be seen to be crucial. The work of al-Albani, a 20th century Hadith scholar, is especially valuable, for example his gradings for every hadith in the four famous SUNAN collections of Sunni Islam. Albani concentrated more on the chains of narration than the meanings of the traditions, but nevertheless confirmed that all the hadiths banning wife-beating or only allowing a limited concession are authentic whereas all those justifying it absolutely are weak.
12. This study highlights a fundamental problem with the way many Muslims, including some scholars and clerics, read the Qur’an. Rather than being read as a “textbook” or “instruction manual” as some superficial, populist, fundamentalist or Hadith-rejecting preachers advocate, it should be remembered for what it is: a collection of divine signs, guidance and wisdom revealed by God to the heart of His Beloved, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, by God via the Archangel Gabriel (JIBRIL), the Holy Spirit, peace be upon him. This guidance was transmitted by practice and oral teaching (remember that “Qur’an” means “A Reading” and hence oral transmission) at first, and only collected by the Companions as a written book after the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, for fear of this Divine Treasure being lost for ever. Furthermore, this guidance was always supposed to be manifested by righteous people of piety, humility, good character and the remembrance of God, taking their situation and socio-historical contexts into account. A critical awareness of hadith and history has always been required, along with the worship of God and the service of humanity, to be guided towards the true way of following the Qur’an.
Download the study (pdf).
Editor's Note: This summary of the research has been republished with the permission of Br. Usama Hassan.