Does Surah Nisa 4:34 Degrades Women? Is It True 4:34 Encourages “Beating”?

Surah Nisa verse 34 (4:34) is a very common verse brought up when discussion of Women in Islam takes place. Yusuf Ali’s translation of the verse reads:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all). ” (Quran 4:34, Yusuf Ali’s translation)

It must be pointed out that the overall image this verse portrays is quite incorrect. However, when one examines it in the light of Arabic, the verse becomes rational.

Verse begins with “men are qawwamun over women”; Arabic word qawwamun is mentioned here. The root of the word qawwamun (plural of qawwam), is qama which means “to stand or to make something stand or to establish something”. The characteristic of qawaamun in Quran is characterized by fairness. Thus in 4:134 and 5:8 Quran states:
“O you who believe! Be qawwamin with fairness…”
“O you who believe! Be qawwamin for God as witnesses to fairness…”

Therefore to qawwam over something or someone is to guard, maintain or take care of that something or someone in a proper and fair manner. In this passage Quran glorifies women and tells men to look after them in fair manner.

After mentioning that men are qawwamun over women, the verse goes on to provide the reasons:
1)”Because God has favored some of them more than others”. Although it is not explicitly mentioned whether man or woman are superior, in the context it is probable that men are understood in some way to be favored more than women. But in what ways? The verse does not give any answer. But we can justifiably take the reference to physical strength and energy in which men generally excel women and which enables men to guard women against some of the dangers to which they may be exposed in society and to take care of some of their needs.

2) Second reason for men being qawwamun over women is: “they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth”. Although Islam permits women to earn money, however duty of ‘breadwinning’ is on man. This means that they will generally be responsible for the economic needs of women and this responsibility also makes them qawwamun.

However, we must NOT conclude that Islam views men superior to female. For this statement does not exclude the possibility that in some other ways women may be favored more than men. Indeed observation shows that women are in general more patient, caring and have a more developed intuition than men. The reference of favour is in reference to Qawwamun.

There is only one criterion, which makes a person more superior in Islam and that is Taqwa (righteousness, those stay away from sins and fear Allah and have piety). Quran says:

“…Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). ” (49:13)

The fact that man has been favored in some ways more than woman does not automatically make him superior to her. It is only when his taqwa is more than hers that he can from the Qur’anic point of view be considered superior to her. And when a person’s taqwa increases to a worthwhile level the question of his superiority does not interest him, for he or she realizes that all praises are due to God.

Verse continues on to say “As for those women on whose part you fear nushuz…”, the word nushuz literally means “rebellion”. But rebellion against whom and in what sense? We should certainly not think of this in terms the rebellion of the ruled against a ruler in a sultanate or dictatorship and conclude that it consists of the wife disobeying some of the husband’s commands. This is because in verse 4:128 (same Surah), the word nushuz is used too: “If a woman fears nushuz on her husband’s part…” (Surah nisa 4:128). So a wife can fear nushuz on husband’s part also. It cannot therefore be understood in terms of the ruler-ruled relationship. To correctly understand the meaning of the word, it must be noted that both in the verse under consideration and in verse 128 the reference to nushuz is followed by a reference to the break-up of the marriage (as seen in verse 4:35, 4:130). If this context is kept in mind, then it becomes evident that nushuz means the type of behavior on the part of the husband or the wife, which is so disturbing for the other that their living together becomes difficult.

Thus the verse refers to one partner who knowingly behaves or continues to behave in a way, which seriously disturbs the other partner. In this case there is obviously an ill-will on the part of the first partner towards the second, which would result in break-up of marriage.

Now what does the Quran says about the partner in whom you fear nushuz (a behavior on the part of one marriage partner which comes out of ill-will and seriously disturbs the other partner)? Quran recommends three steps: 1) “Admonish them (first), 2) (next) leave them alone in beds 3) (and last) beat them or separate them (from you).”

1) “Admonish them“, husband can try to resolve the problems by discussion in a peaceful manner. Husband can try to point out teachings from the Quran on the topic. He can, for instance, point out the consequences of such a break-up.

2) “Leave them alone in beds“, if discussion comes to no avail then Quran prescribes, “Leave them alone in beds”. This may make them appreciate the seriousness of such a problem and see things in a different light. The separation may also ignite the love between the two.

3) “Beat them or separate them (from you)“, in most of the cases above two steps should be sufficient enough to resolve the problem, however if it still does not then Quran goes unto mention that men are allowed to use “dharb“. This word has been translated, as beating as there are verses in Quran such as 2:60, 61, 73, 8:12, 50, 7:160 etc, where the word does mean smite or strike. However in many other Quranic passage the word dharb DOES have other meanings. The word can mean constructing or coining something such as coining mathal or similitude as demonstrated in 14:24, 16:75-76, 30:28, 36:27 etc. In 2:60 the word is also used to separate two things. In 20:77 it is used of the splitting of the sea to make a way for the children of Israel to escape and in 57:13 it is used of making a wall to separate the two groups of people in the hereafter. Leaving, withdrawing or taking away is the meaning in 43:5. In 13:17 the word is used for separating truth and falsehood. The word can also mean campaigning or travelling in the land, e.g., for the purpose of trade (2:273, 73:20).

In the present context, the Qur’anic usage allows two meanings: 1) separating from the wives in the sense of living apart from them, 2) beating them. The first meaning fits the context well for some kind of physical separation is a very understandable step after suspension of sexual relations does not work. The second meaning is more natural from a linguistic point of view and has the support of a strong consensus among the commentators. In the rest of this commentary, we consider the question: how is “beating”, if that is what is intended in the verse, is to be interpreted in the light of the passage as a whole and the general teaching of the Qur’an.

The verse (if we interpret the meaning here is beating) deals with nushuz (behavior on the part of the wife which is so disturbing for the other that their living together becomes difficult). Beating is to be done after admonishing them and then leaving them alone in beds. Beating is not to go on and on but is to be tried as a last step to save the marriage. Once it is clear that it is not working it is to be abandoned in favor of some other steps involving relatives of the husband and the wife mentioned in the next verse (4:35). There is therefore, absolutely no license here for the type of regular and continual wife beating that goes on in some homes, where each time the husband is angry with his wife or with someone else he turns against her and beats her up. Domestic violence we see in the world (including west) is not at all preached by this verse.

Even so, with regards to wife beating in Nushuz (behavior on the part of the wife which is so disturbing for the other that their living together becomes difficult) following points must be noted:

a) According to some traditions, the Prophet said in his famous and well-attended speech on the occasion of his farewell pilgrimage that the beating done according to the present verse should be ghayr mubarrih, i.e. in such a way that it should not cause injury, bruise or serious hurt. Therefore some scholars like Razi and Tabari have concluded that beating should be done with a miswak or folded scarf.

b) If the husband beats a wife without respecting the limits set down by the Qur’an and Hadith, then she can take him to court and if ruled in favor has the right to apply the law of retaliation and beat the husband as he beat her.

The emotion involved may bring husband and wife closer, whilst remembering in mind that beating ought to be ghayr mubarrih (in such a way that it does not causes serious hurt, bruise or injury). Indeed, some scholars suggest the beating should symbolic (such as with miswak). Ironically, this may even protect women. This prevents, restricts as well as condemns abusive actions of husband. This prevents wife battering as is observed in some societies.

Quran further goes on to say “But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them“. Here obey means that the wife accepts the husband’s fair and justified demands or expectations. “Seek nothing against them” means that after the wife has abandoned nushuz and returned to the decent way one partner in marriage should behave towards the other, the husband should forgive and forget the past and start a new page.

Behold, God is most high and great“, the husband should remember that God is most high; he will have to give reckoning to God.

Finally, one should also remember rest of the teachings of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and the Quran:
O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may take away part of the dower [money given by the husband to the wife for the marriage contract] ye have given them, except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and God brings about through it a great deal of good. (The Noble Quran, 4:19)

And among God’s signs is this: He created for you mates from amongst yourselves (males as mates for females and vice versa) that you might find tranquillity and peace in them. And he has put love and kindness among you. Herein surely are signs for those who reflect. (The Noble Quran 30:21)”

And the believers men and women are friends one of the other, they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, and they establish worship and pay the poor due, and they obey God and his messenger. As for these, God will have mercy on them…(The Noble Quran 9:71)”

Narrated Mu’awiyah al-Qushayri: “I went to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) and asked him: What do you say (command) about our wives? He replied: Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them. (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Number 2139)”

Narrated Mu’awiyah ibn Haydah: “I said: Apostle of Allah, how should we approach our wives and how should we leave them? He replied: Approach your tilth when or how you will, give her (your wife) food when you take food, clothe when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face, and do not beat her. (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Number 2138)”

Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying: “He who believes in Allah and the Hereafter, if he witnesses any matter he should talk in good terms about it or keep quiet. Act kindly towards woman, for woman is created from a rib, and the most crooked part of the rib is its top. If you attempt to straighten it, you will break it, and if you leave it, its crookedness will remain there. So act kindly towards women. (Translation of Sahih Muslim, The Book of Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Book 008, Number 3468)

Narrated Salim: “….Umar said: ‘The Prophet forbade beating on the face.(Translation of Sahih Bukhari, Hunting, Slaughtering, Volume 7, Book 67, Number 449)

“How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her?” (Al-Bukhari, English Translation, vol. 8, Hadith 68, pp. 42-43)

Bibliography & Further Reading:
http://www.answering-christianity.com/beating_yes.htm
http://www.load-islam.com/C/Women/TafsirAyah34

By invitation2learn,

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