The Right to Beat Wives
Social Issues
Question asked by .
Answered by Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Why does the Qur’ān give husbands the right to beat their wives? This sounds like pure savagery. Are we women to be treated as animals? I have seen my own father misusing this right on my mother. This has always distressed me. Please allay my apprehension.


Before I answer your question, let me allude to a few basic premises which need to be understood beforehand in this regard:

It is a common observation that every human individual born on this earth has to remain dependent on a number of relationships throughout his lifetime and without these he cannot embark on the tempestuous voyage of his life. In the prime of his youth, he might consider himself to be the king of the world but during his childhood and old age he needs the love and affection of the near ones which must not cease with time. In both these periods of life, he must be looked after by those who have warmth and compassion for him. In other words, his life demands relationships which should be permanent in nature so that his parents, children, brothers and sisters -- all can play their role in his life. Keeping in view this all important aspect, Islam lays its social structure on the basis of a permanent relationship between a man and a woman. This relationship comes into existence in the form of an everlasting marriage bond and the two constitute the basic ingredients of a family. On the permanence and well being of the institution of the family stands the whole fabric of a society. In other words, if this institution looses its stability, the whole society is shaken from its roots and reduced to a state of communal anarchy. Islam wants to preserve this set-up as much as possible. For this very reason, the Prophet (sws) has regarded the severing of marital ties in the form of divorce as a most unpleasant happening. The right granted to a husband to physically admonish his wife in a certain situation is a last resort to preserve this set-up. It needs to be appreciated that this right has been given to the husband as the head of the family. As such, it is a requisite of authority. In other words, it is not ‘gender specific’ it is ‘authority specific’, that is whoever has the authority to head a family must be given this right. In other words, had a wife been made the head of the family, she would have had this right.

However, there are several details regarding this right which must be understood. Before they are mentioned, it is essential that the family set-up envisaged by Islam be first understood. In this regard, what needs to be appreciated is that a husband and a wife complement one another. Complementing one another means that they complete certain voids present in each other. Each has certain dominant characteristics peculiar to it. The Qur’ān says that for a healthy society, both sexes should acknowledge each other’s inborn qualities and characteristics and not become jealous:

And in no way covet those things in which Allah has bestowed you His gifts more freely on some of you than on others: Men shall be given a share from what they earn and women shall be given a share from what they earn, and ask Allah of His bounty. For Allah has full knowledge of all things. (4:32)

In other words, what the Qur’ān is implying here is that the real sphere of competition is not natural abilities for they have been bestowed by the Almighty; it is the sphere in which one uses these abilities to earn for one’s self some reward in the Hereafter in which men and women should strive and compete with each other.

The Qur’ān then goes on to describe the organization of the family set-up by saying that a husband is the appropriate choice to head a family:

Men are the guardians of women because Allah has given one superiority over the other and because they    [--- men ---] support them from their means. (4:34)

According to this verse, men are more suited to head a family because of the fact that they are physically and temperamentally more suited. This suitability has been ingrained in their nature by the Almighty. Their physical strength and mental disposition make them more appropriate of the two to carry out this responsibility. The word qawwām (guardian) combines in it the concepts of physical protection and moral responsibility.

The second reason pointed out by this verse for this choice is that on a man lies the responsibility of earning for his wife and children. It is but natural for one who financially maintains and looks after the individuals entrusted to him to be at the helm of their affairs. In this regard, however, it must remain clear that Islam does not forbid women to earn a living. It has only freed them from the responsibility of earning, which lies upon men. It also needs to be understood that the verse does not say that the one among the husband or wife who supports the family should become the head; husbands, whether their wives earn or not, are liable for this responsibility. A woman may earn if she likes or if some need arises, but since she has not been entrusted with this duty she has not been given the governing position in the family. Moreover, the verse very clearly states that men’s superiority to women is not absolute; it is only relative and confined to certain spheres. Consequently, there are certain spheres in which women by nature -- physical, physiological  as well as psychological -- are far superior to men and much more suitable to do certain tasks.

Next, the Qur’ān urges pious women to adopt two attitudes in order to promote harmony and well-being within the set-up of a family:

So, pious women are obedient [to their husbands] and keep their secrets for Allah also keeps secrets. (4:34)

Firstly, they should adopt an attitude of submissiveness and docility before their husbands. Just as law abiding citizens obey the rules and regulations of the state they are a part, wives should follow the code of conduct of the family set-up they constitute. Generally, all differences of opinion should be resolved in an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence. The husband and wife should try to win over one another through love and affection and convince each other through arguments and reasoning. A husband who tries to impose his opinion on his wife is a long way from the art of governing a house, and a wife who makes it a point to differ with her husband is a long way from the art of dealing with him. However, whenever there arises a situation of anarchy and disorder which threatens to disrupt the whole family set-up, the wife, according to the Qur’ān must adopt an attitude of submission and adjustment.

Secondly, women should be very faithful to their husbands as far as keeping secrets is concerned. The shortcomings of a husband’s personality need to be concealed. Women who hide the flaws and mistakes of their husbands promote an atmosphere of mutual trust in the family and many a time are able to reform them. Men, of course, should reciprocate in this attitude. 

After mentioning the attitudes which promote a healthy family set-up, the Qur’ān then goes on to vest a husband with the authority of gently chastising his wife. This admonishment, as mentioned earlier is a last resort to preserve the family structure since breaking up a family has many serious consequences for both parties, the children and the society. A house which has two masters is a house which is bound to doom. Whenever a wife begins to stand up against her husband, the only way out perhaps is to separate the two. This right of chastisement is a final step to avoid this separation. However, as pointed out before there are several details regarding this matter which must be understood.

Firstly, this right should only be resorted to, if the wife begins to adopt a rebellious attitude and starts to challenge the authority of her husband as the head of the family. The Qur’ān terms this attitude as nushūz. It says that when a husband fears such an attitude from his wife which threatens to disrupt the whole family set-up should he adopt this procedure. It should be noted that the Qur’ān has not used the word ‘disobedience’. Any difference of opinion or altercation is not to be resolved by this procedure. Disagreements and disputes must be settled mutually. It is only when the wife stands up against the authority of her husband should this procedure be employed. Anything less than this does not pertain to this procedure of admonishment.

Secondly, the Qur’ān has laid down a complete procedure which must necessarily be followed in this regard. It says:

As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them [first] and [next] refuse to share their beds and [last] beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. (4:34)

It is clear that a good time should elapse in each of the stages mentioned in the verse. The husband should first of all admonish his wife and convince her to give up her defiant behaviour. He should exercise all the patience he can muster to urge and beseech her to change her stance. If after repeated pleas and continuous admonition in a considerable span of time, the wife continues to persist in her rebellious attitude, he has the authority to go on to the second stage by avoiding marital contact with her. This detachment, it is clear, is a form of reproval, and a very strong appeal to the wife to correct herself. Again, this attitude should continue for a substantial period of time so that the point is driven home. It is highly unlikely that most wives would persist in their arrogance after these two initial stages. In all probability, patience, forbearance, and restraint would have conquered their hearts. However, even after this stage, if a wife refuses to accept the authority of her husband, the husband has the right to finally resort to gentle physical affliction.

Thirdly, if the husband is left with no alternative but to physically punish his wife, he must be very careful in this regard and must not wound or injure her. He should bear in mind that the Prophet (sws) in his last sermon has emphatically directed the husbands to refrain from striking severely (darban ghayra mubbarihin). He should remember that this physical chastisement is similar to the one a mother gives to a rebellious son or the one a teacher gives to an unruly student. He must be aware that in case he misuses this authority in any way, he would be held responsible before the Almighty on the Day of Judgement. In this world also, his wife has the right to report his behaviour to the authorities who can punish him for any misconduct in this regard.

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