Does the Quran allow men to beat their wives?

March 19, 2013

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

The verse 4:34, which allows a man to ‘strike’ his wife in case of stubborn disobedience, has been wildly misrepresented by opponents of Islam and even some Muslim men. It is often wrongly translated as ‘beating.’ In fact, the ‘striking’ in the verse is a symbolic gesture meant as a last resort, before divorce, for husbands whose wives refuse to stop violating the terms of their marriage contract. There are very strict legal restrictions on how a man may discipline his wife. Interpreted in its complete context, the verse is actually a prohibition on domestic violence.

It is not permissible in Islam for a man to deliberately harm his wife physically or emotionally.

Allah said:

وَلَا تُضَارُّوهُنَّ لِتُضَيِّقُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ

Do not harm them in order to make it difficult for them.

Surah al-Talaq 65:6

‘Ubayda ibn al-Samit reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لاَ ضَرَرَ وَلاَ ضِرَارَ

Do not cause harm or return harm.

Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 2340, Grade: Hasan

All scholars unanimously agree that the striking mentioned in the verse is “without severity” (ghayru mubarriḥ) or “without pain” (ghayru mu’allim). It is only in the case when a wife habitually violates her marriage contract and after other means have been taken but failed to correct her behavior. It illegal in Islam for a husband to cause bruises, injuries, or any harm whatsoever to wife.

Amr bin al-Ahwas reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَلَا وَاسْتَوْصُوا بِالنِّسَاءِ خَيْرًا فَإِنَّمَا هُنَّ عَوَانٌ عِنْدَكُمْ لَيْسَ تَمْلِكُونَ مِنْهُنَّ شَيْئًا غَيْرَ ذَلِكَ إِلَّا أَنْ يَأْتِينَ بِفَاحِشَةٍ مُبَيِّنَةٍ فَإِنْ فَعَلْنَ فَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ضَرْبًا غَيْرَ مُبَرِّحٍ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا

I enjoin you to treat women well, for they are like captives to you. Verily, you have no right treat them otherwise, unless they commit flagrant immorality. If they do so, then you may separate from their beds and strike them without causing pain, but if they you then you may do nothing against them.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1163, Grade: Sahih

Ata’ reported: Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

ضَرْبًا غَيْرَ مُبَرِّحٍ

It is a striking without severity.

It was said, “What is a striking without severity?” Ibn Abbas said:

 بِالسِّوَاكِ وَنَحْوِهِ

It is with a toothstick or something similar.

Source: Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī 4:34

Al-Razi writes:

أن يكون الضرب بمنديل ملفوف أو بيده ولا يضربها بالسياط ولا بالعصا

It should be a striking with a folded handkerchief or his palm, and he should not strike her with whips or clubs.

Source: Tafsīr al-Rāzī 4:34

Ibn ‘Ajibah writes:

فإن لم ينفع فاضربوهن ضربًا غير مؤلم ولا شائن

If other measures bring no benefit, then strike them without causing pain or disgrace.

Source: al-Baḥr al-Madīd 4:34

Al-Qurtubi writes:

وَالضَّرْبُ فِي هَذِهِ الْآيَةِ هُوَ ضَرْبُ الْأَدَبِ غَيْرُ الْمُبَرِّحِ وَهُوَ الَّذِي لَا يَكْسِرُ عَظْمًا وَلَا يَشِينُ جَارِحَةً كَاللَّكْزَةِ وَنَحْوِهَا فَإِنَّ الْمَقْصُودَ مِنْهُ الصَّلَاحُ لَا غَيْرَ

The striking in this verse is a striking of discipline without severity, which may not break bones or disgrace with injuries as if it were a clenched first, and so on. Indeed, the purpose is rectification of behavior and nothing else.

Source: Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī 4:34

Al-Tusi writes:

وأما الضرب فانه غير مبرِّح بلا خلاف قال أبوجعفر هو بالسواك

As for the striking, there is no disagreement that it is without severity. Abu Ja’far said it is with a toothstick.

Source: Tafsīr al-Tibyān 4:34

Al-Zamakhshari writes:

وَقَالُوا يَجِبُ أَنْ يَكُونَ ضَرْبًا غَيْرَ مُبَرِّحٍ لا يَجْرَحُهَا وَلا يَكْسِرُ لَهَا عَظْمًا وَيَجْتَنِبُ الْوَجْهَ

Scholars said it must be a striking without severity. It may not cause injury, nor break bones, and he must avoid the face.

Source: al-Kashshāf 4:34

Ibn Kathir writes:

قَالَ الْحَسَنُ الْبَصْرِيُّ يَعْنِي غَيْرَ مُؤَثِّرٍ قَالَ الْفُقَهَاءُ هُوَ أَلَا يَكْسِرَ فِيهَا عُضْوًا وَلَا يُؤَثِّرَ فِيهَا شَيْئًا

Hasan al-Basri said: It means a striking without a trace. The jurists said: It may not break limbs, nor cause a mark of any kind.

Source: Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr 4:34

Al-Tabarsi writes:

وقيل في معنى غير المبرح أن لا يقطع لحماً ولا يكسر عظماً وروي عن أبي جعفر أنه الضرب بالسواك

It is said that the meaning of ‘without severity’ is that it does not break skin and not break bones. It was narrated from Abu Ja’far that it is a striking with a toothstick.

Source: Majma’ al-Bayān 4:34

To summarize all the restrictions placed on ‘striking’ by the scholars: it is with a light object like a toothbrush, handkerchief, or palm, not a club or whip, it must not cause pain, injury, harm, or disgrace, it must not leave any bruise or mark, and it must not be on sensitive areas like the face. A man who violates any of these restrictions is held legally responsible and his wife may divorce him for it, all of which amounts to a prohibition of domestic violence.

Taken altogether, this ‘striking’ is nothing more than a teaching mechanism intended to convey to his wife the gravity of her unwarranted behavior, because the final step afterwards is divorce. The Prophet (ṣ) would use such a symbolic ‘striking’ with his male companions as a means of catching their attention.

Abu Dharr reported:

فَضَرَبَ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ بِيَدِهِ عَلَى مَنْكِبِي ثُمَّ قَالَ

The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, struck my chest with his hand and he said…

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1825, Grade: Sahih

In this instance, the Prophet (ṣ) ‘struck’ Abu Dharr on the chest before giving him an important lesson about leadership. It was not intended to hurt him or disgrace him, but rather he wanted to get his attention.

In fact, some of the early Muslims understood the ‘striking’ to be metaphorical and not physical at all.

Ata’ said:

 لَا يَضْرِبُهَا وَإِنْ أَمَرَهَا وَنَهَاهَا فَلَمْ تُطِعْهُ وَلَكِنْ يَغْضَبُ عَلَيْهَا

A man should not strike his wife if he commands her and prohibits her and she does not obey him, but rather he should show her his anger.

Source: Aḥkām al-Qur’ān li-Ibn al-‘Arabī 4:34

Indeed, the Prophet (ṣ) never hit a woman or a servant unless he had to defend himself or his community in battle. This is the righteous prophetic model which Muslims are supposed to emulate.

Aisha reported:

مَا ضَرَبَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ شَيْئًا قَطُّ بِيَدِهِ وَلَا امْرَأَةً وَلَا خَادِمًا إِلَّا أَنْ يُجَاهِدَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, never struck anything with his hand, neither a servant nor a woman, unless he was fighting in the path of Allah.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2328, Grade: Sahih

In this regard, the best course of action for a Muslim man is to never strike his wife at all. The action of symbolically striking his wife, within the aforementioned legal limits, is considered by scholars to be permissible but ‘disapproved’ (makruh), meaning a Muslim man will be divinely rewarded for not doing so.

Iyas ibn Abdullah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَقَدْ طَافَ بِآلِ مُحَمَّدٍ نِسَاءٌ كَثِيرٌ يَشْكُونَ أَزْوَاجَهُنَّ لَيْسَ أُولَئِكَ بِخِيَارِكُمْ

Many women have come to the family of Muhammad complaining about their husbands striking them. These men are not the best among you.

Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 2146, Grade: Sahih

In another tradition, the Prophet (ṣ) rhetorically criticized men who beat their wives while marriage in Islam is supposed to be based upon love, mercy, and partnership.

Abdullah bin Zam’ah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

بِمَ يَضْرِبُ أَحَدُكُمْ امْرَأَتَهُ ضَرْبَ الْفَحْلِ أَوْ الْعَبْدِ ثُمَّ لَعَلَّهُ يُعَانِقُهَا

How does one of you strike his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace her?

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5695, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet (ṣ) would also warn women in the community about men who would beat their wives. For example, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, advised Fatimah ibn Qais not to marry a man who was known for hitting women, saying

وَأَمَّا أَبُو الْجَهْمِ فَرَجُلٌ ضَرَّابٌ لِلنِّسَاءِ وَلَكِنْ أُسَامَةَ

As for Abu al-Jahm, he frequently beats women. Rather, you should marry Usamah.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1480, Grade: Sahih

Hence, even with all the limitations placed on striking a wife, scholars still discouraged Muslims from doing so.

Al-Shafi’ee said:

والضرب مباح وتركه أفضل

Striking is permissible, but avoiding it is better.

Source: Tafsīr al-Rāzī 4:34

And Al-Nawawi writes:

وَإِنْ كَانَ مُبَاحًا لِلْأَدَبِ فَتَرْكُهُ أَفْضَلُ

Even if it permissible for discipline, it is still better to avoid it.

Source: Sharḥ al-Nawawī ‘alá Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2328

On at least two separate occasions the Prophet (ṣ) separated a man from his wife because he was physically abusing her.

Ali ibn Abu Talib reported: The wife of Al-Walid ibn ‘Uqbah came to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and complained to him, saying, “O Messenger of Allah, Al-Walid has beaten me!” The Prophet said:

قُولِي لَهُ قَدْ أَجَارَنِي

Say to him: The Prophet has granted me protection.

She returned later and she said, “He did not give me anything except more beatings!” The Prophet tore a piece of cloth from his shirt and he said:

قُولِي لَهُ إِنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَدْ أَجَارَنِي

Say to him: Verily, the Messenger of Allah has granted me protection.

She returned later and she said, “He did not give me anything except more beatings!” The Prophet raised his hands and he said:

اللَّهُمَّ عَلَيْكَ الْوَلِيدَ أَثِمَ بِي مَرَّتَيْنِ

O Allah, you must deal with Al-Walid, for he has sinned against me twice.

Source: Musnad Aḥmad 1257, Grade: Sahih

Yahya ibn Sa’id reported: Habibah bint Sahl was the wife of Thabit ibn Qais and she was the neighbor of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. Thabit had struck her, so she appeared at the door of the Prophet and she said, “Thabit and I can no longer be married.” The Prophet said to Thabit:

خُذْ مِنْهَا وَخَلِّ سَبِيلَهَا

Take what she owes to you and let her go her way.

Source: Sunan al-Dārimī 2200, Grade: Sahih

As such, classical jurists upheld the right of a wife to seek a divorce if her husband harms her, either physically by hitting her or emotionally by insulting or neglecting her.

Khalil al-Jundi writes:

ولها التطليق بالضرر البين

She may have a separation due to harm caused.

Source: Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 1/111

And Al-Dardir writes:

للزوجة التطليق على الزوج بالضرر وهو ما لا يجوز شرعا كهجرها بلا موجب شرعي وضربها كذلك وسبها وسب أبيها

The wife may have a separation from her husband due to harm caused that is not legally permissible, such as abandoning her without a legal necessity, or striking her likewise, or cursing her or her parents.

Source: al-Sharḥ al-Kabīr 2/345

Finally, the Prophet (ṣ) strongly encouraged Muslim men to treat women in general, and their wives in particular, with the utmost respect and chivalry. The measure of a man’s character is directly related to his treatment of women.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَكْمَلُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِيمَانًا أَحْسَنُهُمْ خُلُقًا وَخِيَارُكُمْ خِيَارُكُمْ لِنِسَائِهِمْ خُلُقًا

The most complete of the believers in faith are those with the most excellent character, and the best of you are the best in behavior to their women.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1162, Grade: Sahih

In sum, the Quran does not allow Muslims to harm or ‘beat’ their wives. Rather, the ‘striking’ mentioned in the verse is a symbolic gesture and a last resort to correct a wife’s misbehavior, before initiating divorce. If a husband harms his wife in any way, she has the right to seek a divorce from him. Muslim men should follow the example of the Prophet (ṣ), who never hit his wives and would behave honorably, chivalrously, and compassionately with women.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.