Sohail comments on the following verse of the Quran, arguing that it gives license to men to beat their wives whom they consider “disobedient”: 

Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (men) spend of their wealth. So virtuous women are those who are obedient, and guard the secrets of their husbands with Allah’s protection. And as for those on whose part you fear disobedience, admonish them and leave them alone in their beds, and chastise them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely, Allah is High, Great.

Quran 4:35

On this point, he comments: 

There’s no escaping it. The Arabic word in this verse means to beat. We’re talking physical, corporal punishment administered to a woman by her own husband.

…Why is this provision to beat your wife even present in the Qur’an in the first place?

Take half that time to think about the harms this provision enables, and of the countless women who have suffered because Allah granted their husbands air cover to beat them...

Consider a hypothetical: what if Quran 4:34 did not allow a man to beat his wife. (Would you)…

  1. Criticize the Qur’an for being incomplete?
  2. Claim that the Qur’an was missing needed prescriptions for harmonious and healthy marital relations among some elements of society, where men feared disobedience from their wives?
  3. Claim that the Qur’an lacked the moral high ground since it did not have this provision to beat one’s disobedient wife?

Refutation

This is a common allegation and perhaps one of the most misconstrued and misunderstood verses in the Quran, certainly in respect of the relations between men and women. Correct understanding of the verse has been hindered by, firstly, wilful misunderstanding by anti-Islamic critics and secondly, by an over-reliance on translations and failure to recognise that the Quran is only the Quran truly in Arabic and it is in that language that it should be studied and assessed. 

There are two ways to understand this verse. The first way has already been detailed in the refutation titled “Claims of Misogyny Refuted” and as such, the second approach will be focused on here.

This verse is quite clearly about conflict between men and women. It gives a man three courses of action to take against a woman described in the English translation as someone from whom the husbands “fear(s) disobedience”. Critics allege that if a man even “fear(s) disobedience” from his wife, this verse gives him a clear right to abuse her physically, and that it is thus promoting domestic violence. The justification, critics allege, is that the Quran views women as inferior to their husbands and should be subservient to them.

The criticism however, is entirely without merit. For the following reasons: 

The Meaning of Nushooz

The entire verse hinges about the words “those on whose part you fear disobedience”. The man’s permission to take the three courses of action outlined is dependent on him fearing “Nushooz” behaviour. The meaning of the word “nushooz” is not simply “disobedience”. The word, according to Lane’s Arabic Lexicon, means to “rise up” and all its meanings are connected to them. It can mean to verbally abuse someone, to rise up in anger, to cause someone to vomit in fright, and to attack someone. Thus, its more appropriate translation today would be “abuse”. 

A Response to Regular Abuse

Further, it is quite obvious that one does not “fear abuse from” someone who has never behaved abusively. The phrase “those on whose part you fear Nushooz (abuse)” refers therefore to a husband who fears abusive behaviour from his wife, because it has become common. He fears it because he has experience of it regularly. Otherwise, why would a person “fear” abuse (Nushooz) from someone who has never behaved abusively?

Proportionality in Situations of Conflict

Thus, the verse is giving men a license to respond to such circumstances in which their wives have become habitually abusive. As per the Quranic injunction (3:8-9) that all teachings related to specific circumstances should be interpreted in a manner that is in agreement with other, general principles given in the Quran, we must ask ourselves: Since this verse is about conflict between husband and wife, what general principle regarding conflict does this verse fall under? The answer should be clear – there is one major overarching verse in the Quran summarising the Quranic approach to all situations involving conflict: 

And the recompense of an injury is an injury the like thereof; but whoso forgives and his act brings about reformation, his reward is with Allah. Surely, He loves not the wrongdoers.

Quran 42:41

This verse lays out the Quranic rule that a response to injurious behaviour must be proportional to the injury (“the like thereof”) and also that forgiveness is the higher road if it will lead to reformation of the wrongdoer. 

Looking at the verse in light of this principle, as the Quran exhorts us to do, we now understand why the Quran gives the man three potential options of response – because the ways in which a wife might be abusive (Nushooz) might vary. His response must be proportionate. Thus, if she is verbally abusive, the man has the option of verbal admonition. If she is emotionally abusive, he should separate himself from her bed. And if she is physically violent – then a husband is given the permission to act respond physically – some would say in self defence. That this is not a license to commit abuse oneself, is clarified by none other than the Prophet of Islam himself who warned that a man, in such a situation, should not take any physical action that should leave a mark on the skin of his wife. This is much derided and laughed at by non-Muslims, who do not consider that the Prophet of Islam was laying down the boundary of when physical interaction between husband and wife becomes abusive. Those who deride this edict perhaps do not realise that the Crown Prosecution Service of the UK itself issues guidance for barristers charging domestic violence and other crimes, based to a significant extent on a literal description of the severity of physical injuries, drawing distinctions between degrees of damage to a person’s skin.

Thus, the verse does not permit “beating of wives” as Sohail would have us imagine, but it constitutes a permission for the man, in response to physical violence from his wife – as defined by the word “Nushooz” – to act in self-defence, but without being the perpetrator of domestic violence himself. 

But Women Deserve Protection, Not Men!

Reading the above, you might be wondering what the need of this verse is. Men are more often the abusers of women rather than women being the abusers of men, by a huge margin, right?

Men constitute approximately 40% of domestic violence victims in the United Kingdom as per data from the Home Office Statistic Bulletins and the British Crime Survey, as reported in the Guardian. In 2007-8 this figure rose to 45.5%. So certainly, women constitute the greater proportion of victims, at least in the UK, but the difference is not as huge as one might initially have thought.

Further, the Quran doesn’t just give guidance to men on how to respond to abusive women. It also gives guidance to women on how to deal with abusive men. And in doing so, it completely busts the myth that Islam teaches female subjugation to their husbands. 

Protection Against Male Domestic Abuse

In the fourth chapter of the Quran, God gives guidance to women on how to deal with a man who behaves in a “Nushooz” manner. The word appears in this verse too, this time, the behaviour is applied to the husbands: 

And if a woman fear ill treatment or indifference on the part of her husband, it shall be no sin on them that they be suitably reconciled to each other; and reconciliation is best. And people are prone to covetousness. If you do good and are righteous, surely Allah is aware of what you do

Quran 4:129

In this verse, the term “Nushooz” is translated not as “disobedience” but a “ill-treatment or indifference” but actually, it’s exactly the same word being used. The difference is in the perception of the translator. That men can also behave in a “Nushooz” fashion with their wives totally undermines the myth that the verse cited by Sohail gives women a subservient position of “obedience” to their husbands. If men are superior to their wives and their masters, then what question can there be of the husband behaving “disobediently” to their wives? How can a master disobey his servant? This undermines the myth that wives are created to be subservient to their husbands. Rather, both are expected to live in harmony with one another, and this verse demonstrates that. 

The process of attempting to “suitably reconcile” husband and wife to each other is related in the following verse:

And if you fear a breach between them, then appoint an arbiter from his folk and an arbiter from her folk. If they (the arbiters) desire reconciliation, Allah will effect it between them. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.

Quran 4:36

This involvement of arbiters, or third parties, is a process that has only recently been recognised in the West as a beneficial practice, in the form of marriage counselling.

Some may be taken aback by the difference in the instruction between (4:35) and (4:129). Why does God give different advice to men and women when it comes to dealing with abusive behaviour? For men, they are given the right of response and self-defence, whereas with women, they are told to rapidly involve third parties. Further, in the response permitted for men, the issue of divorce is never raised, but in the verse relating to women suffering abuse (Nushooz), the issue of divorce raises its head, though God advises that if reconciliation can be brought about then “reconciliation is best”.

The reason is obvious: If a man behaves abusively and the wife undertakes a response, there is a good likelihood it will lead to further, and potentially more serious, abuse. Thus, she is advised to immediately make him accountable to third parties, and in this is the wisdom that a woman’s consent should be given through a male guardian – so that if such a situation arises – there is always a male guardian who is aware of the marriage and is able to step in against the abusive husband and represent or indeed extract the woman from abusive conditions. In the case of men, they are expected to be capable enough to protect themselves, and not require third parties. 

Further, the issue of divorce is raised in the case of domestic abuse suffered by women, while it is not raised in the case of that suffered by men. Why? Again, because abuse suffered by women has a higher tendency of causing a threat to life, limb or property, whereas the abusiveness of women is less likely, and is thus deemed less of a threat to the victim. 

Questions for Sohail

Sohail asks the question of whether the Quran would be incomplete if it did not have these verses. He asks whether we would…

  1. Criticize the Qur’an for being incomplete?
  2. Claim that the Qur’an was missing needed prescriptions for harmonious and healthy marital relations among some elements of society, where men feared disobedience from their wives?
  3. Claim that the Qur’an lacked the moral high ground since it did not have this provision to beat one’s disobedient wife?

Excepting the deliberate misrepresentation of the verse as a “provision to beat one’s disobedient wife” – which the verse most certainly is not – we can say that yes, if the Quran did not give advice to both men and women on how to deal with abusive partners, then it would most certainly be an incomplete book. It would most certainly be “missing needed prescriptions for harmonious and healthy marital relations”. 

Or does Sohail not think domestic violence or domestic abuse is an important matter? Does Sohail believe that the 40-45% of British victims of domestic violence at the hands of their wives should not have the right of self-defence, with limitations? What advice does he think should be given to a man who is punched, kicked, spat on and bitten? Should the man not have the right to defend himself, within the reasonable limits of not causing physical harm himself? Should he not have the right to grab his attackers hands and prevent them from striking him? Should he not have the right to push away a woman punching and slapping him? Is this Sohail’s vision of a fair, equitable and just teaching? Perhaps he will argue that men should then approach the police – and on this, I would agree with him. But what advice would he give to the 12th century Iranian goat-herder? Or the 14th century merchant in Baghdad? Or indeed the 21st century man, who isn’t taken seriously by the police despite reporting it time after time after time, simply because men are expected by society to be able to deal with such problems themselves. What advice would he give them?

Grin and bear?