Understanding the Qur’ānic verse on “Beating Women”
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلىَ النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ
بَعْضَهُمْ عَلىَ بَعْضٍ وَ بِمَا أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ
فَالصَّلِحَتُ قَنِتَاتٌ حَفِظَتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ وَ
الَّاتىِ تخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَ اهْجُرُوهُنَّ فىِ الْمَضَاجِعِ
وَ اضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُواْ عَلَيهْنَّ سَبِيلاً
إِنَّ اللَّهَ كاَنَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا (٣٤:٤)
the guardians of women, because God has given advantage to some people over
another, and because they spend from their wealth. Consequently, pious women are
obedient [to their husbands] and keep their secrets for God also keeps secrets.
And as for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them [first] and [next]
refuse to share their beds and [even then if they do not listen] beat them. Then
if they obey you, take no further action against them. Indeed, God is Exalted
The above quoted verse is one of the
verses of the Qur’ān that many Muslim scholars normally need to explain, clarify
and justify in length for their Muslim and non-Muslim audience. On the face of
it the verse seems to simply advise men to beat their wives if they do not obey
them. It is very normal that in our era this can easily become a controversial
When I was explaining this verse to a
group of Muslims some time ago, a very respected lady who herself is a very
devoted Muslim asked me how this verse could be best explained to others,
especially to non-Muslims who came from a totally different background. I found
this to be a very valid and relevant question and thought I should write
something in response to it. This article is my attempt at answering that
I would like to make it clear from the
outset that the aim of this article is not at all to defend or justify the
verse. The only aim of this article is to explain it so that the reader
understands the verse and its implications more thoroughly.
Another point to clarify at the start is
that this article is focusing on the part of the verse that instructs on beating
disobedient wives (underlined in the translation). The earlier parts of the
verse will be discussed, where related, only to explain the latter part of the
verse but will not be elaborated in detail as they are not the subject of this
There are two extreme approaches in
explaining and justifying the verse of beating a wife in the Qur’ān:
a. To say that this is
God’s directive and therefore it does not need to be an issue for discussion. We
therefore only need to obey it. While it is a fact that for a Muslim, God’s
directives in the Qur’ān are to be obeyed with no hesitation, I think it is our
right as human beings to demand explanation and clarification about any verse of
the Qur’ān and in fact, the Qur’ān itself has advised us to think and ponder
over its meanings. Avoiding such demands and questions can only result in
ignorance or arrogance, both of which will ultimately be destructive to Muslims
and their faith.
b. The other approach is
to eliminate the question by trying to argue that the word that is traditionally
translated as “beat them” in this verse really has a different meaning. I have
not found any reliable basis for the above argument. I think it is very clear
from the way the Arabs use the word that the verse is indeed referring to
“beating women’ and not anything else.
After the above introduction,
I would now like to proceed with the main topic of this article: explaining the
verse on “beating women” and its implications. In order to be as brief and as
clear as possible, I am going to do this in a series of short bullet points.
Understanding the verse:
1. Before any attempt to understand
the verse on beating the wife it is very important to first understand the logic
behind it. In the Abrahamic religions (not just Islam) the family unit is
considered a social unit that, like any other social unit, needs leadership and
this leadership for the reasons that are described in the verse
is given to men. It is beyond this article to explain this further but this
perspective needs to be appreciated if we want to understand the verse
correctly. Verse 34:4 starts by referring to this fact and is based on this
2. Appreciating the above, we can now
understand what nushūz in the verse means. nushūz is coming from the root
which means an elevated land and its derivatives are used for the meaning of
“rising up”. The word, like most other words and like in any language, will find
its exact meaning when it is interpreted within the context. In the context of
the verse under discussion, and considering the last point, the word means
uprising and defying authority. nushūz here means a woman who rejects the God
given authority of her husband in being her guardian.
3. What we learn from the above is
that nushūz does not mean having a different opinion. It does not mean
disagreeing either. Even occasional disobedience of a wife towards her husband
by itself cannot be called nushūz. nushūz refers to a much more serious concept,
that is, rejecting the authority of the husband (as given by God). Difference of
opinion, disagreeing and occasional disagreement are not the same as rejecting
the authority altogether.
4. It needs to be understood that the
verse has not given a mandatory religious instruction. This can easily be
appreciated by those who are familiar with the style of the Qur’ān and the style
of classical Arabic language. This is a very important point to understand. It
is not that husbands are obliged by this verse to beat their wives if the
conditions are met. It is not as if a husband who decides not to beat his
rebellious wife is disobeying God. It is therefore not correct to say that the
Qur’ān has instructed to beat wives come what may.
5. Once the above very important
point is appreciated, we can easily understand that the verse under question has
merely addressed a family issue by giving a solution that was best suited for
the socio cultural conditions of the time and the land. This is very similar to
the verse of the Qur’ān in the same sūrah that advises and permits men to marry
up to four women to address the issue of protecting orphans’ rights (4:3).
6. In Sūrah Nisā’, the verses that
address the issues related to the husband and the wife tell one to protect the
structure of the family and its sanctity and (in line with this) to bring peace
between couples (as explicitly referred to in the verse 4:35). This means that
the husband is not supposed to beat his wife to fulfil his anger or to humiliate
her. This not only is forbidden, but also works quite contrary to the above
purpose, that is, to protect the family and to bring peace.
7. Appreciating the above, the
husband needs to (and in fact is obliged to) think carefully about the
consequences of any reaction he might have in trying to correct his rebellious
wife. He should wisely use only those measures that he knows will work. He
should avoid those measures that he thinks may make the situation worse, even if
these are the measures that are given in verse 4:34.
8. It needs to be appreciated that
the advice of beating is only applicable if the earlier two advices did not
work. This means in his attempt to correct his rebellious wife, according to the
verse, the husband can only use “beating” if “admonishment’ and “refusing to
share bed” do not work.
9. The best follower of the Qur’ān
was the Prophet (sws). First, we do not have any narrations that suggest that
the Prophet (sws) ever beat his wife.
Second, we have a number of narratives reporting that the Prophet (sws) limited
beating to a hit that is not severe
(does not leave a mark) and is not on the face. Considering this, the beating is
not to punish or to change the attitude of the wife by causing her pain. Rather,
it is only a gesture of disapproval and dissatisfaction and reclamation of the
right as the head of the family.
10.It needs to be appreciated that the
verse does not advise on a permanent attitude by the husband. There can only be
two possibilities. One is that the solution of beating the wife works in which
case, as the verse instructs at the end, the husband should fear God and should
refrain from any further action. The other possibility is that beating does not
work, meaning, the wife continues to be totally rebellious to her husband’s
authority and the husband’s beating her does not help at all. This is a case of
serious difficulty between the couple and can result in their separation. In
this case verse 4:35 (the verse after the verse of beating) advises that the
help should be sought from relatives of the both sides. Therefore the beating
that the verse is referring to is simply a one off measure. No man can use this
verse to justify a regular attitude of aggression towards his wife.
11.One of the most important obligations
of a Muslim is to abide by his agreements. By being a resident of a country or
by being allowed to enter a country, the person has entered an agreement to obey
the rules of that country. If according to the regulations of the country even a
slight beating of the wife (as explained in point 9) counts as domestic violence
and is illegal, then the husband should respect this rule and observe it.
12.An objection that is sometimes made
is that in verse 4:128 the wife is advised to settle on a compromise with her
husband if she fears of the husband’s nushūz. The objection is that why in the
case of the wife having done nushūz the husband is allowed to beat her but in
the case of the husband having nushūz the wife is advised to have leniency.
Justified as it might seem, the objection is based on a totally wrong
assumption. The wrong assumption is that the nushūz in verse 4:34 is of the same
level as the nushūz in verse 4:128. I mentioned in point 2 that it is the
context of the verse that determines exactly what nushūz means. In the context
of verse 4:34, nushūz means the wife rejecting the authority of her husband.
This clearly is a threat for the whole family structure. In comparison, in the
context of verse 4:128 and the verses before and after it, nushūz only means the
husband not treating his wife justly. No doubt this is a wrong attitude but it
is nowhere as drastic as the meaning of nushūz in verse 4:34. The two different
treatments of the two nushūz in these two verses can easily be understood by
appreciating this fundamental difference between the two cases.
easily reach a conclusion by putting together all the above twelve points as a
summary of observations on the verse 4:34.
nature and by their obligation to be financially responsible are the guardians
of their wives and heads of the family. The wife may disagree and as it happens,
can even occasionally disobey her husband. However if the wife’s disobedience to
her husband means rejecting the authority that the husband has been given by the
Almighty, then this will be a serious problem as it can easily break the
structure and the sanctity of the family. In this case the Qur’ān has given (not
a mandatory instruction but an) advice that could easily fit with the socio
cultural norms of the Arab society of the time. According to this advice, the
husband is allowed to beat his wife in the above condition, if admonishing her
and leaving her bed does not work. The Prophet (sws) has advised Muslims that
the beating should be light and should not leave a mark. In fact the beating
should not be to satisfy anger, it should be merely a gesture of disapproval and
dissatisfaction. This is a one off solution that should either result in peace
or should be followed by the next major step, that is, involving close ones’
whole point of this advice is to keep the family intact and to keep peace in the
family, the husband should avoid this practice if he knows that it will not work
or, worse, it will work contrary to the purpose. Also if the regulations of the
country of residence consider even light beating to be forbidden, then the
husband is not allowed to use this measure.
like to stress again that the intention of this article was not to defend the
verse on beating wives or to make it appear good. I do not think that the verse
needs any defence. The aim of this article was merely to clarify the meaning of
the verse and its logic and conditions. For those who believe in the Qur’ān, I
hope this article brings some clarification, insight and reassurance. For those
who do not believe in the Qur’ān and like to criticize the verse, I hope this
article prompts them to formulate their criticism based on a correct
understanding of the verse.