“Violence Against Women”

A business woman from Canada sent me several questions she had about the Qur'an and Islam. Initially I sent her a brief response and promised to provide her with more detailed reply. The following was her first question and my response follows.  Finally she took shahadah
- M. Amir Ali

“Qur'anic text: 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 you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) do not share their beds, (and last) beat (tap) them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all). (4:34) …In the absence of strict qualifiers, persons may interpret the matter in their own way, which can lead to excesses and real abuse. Wife Beating? by Jamal Badawi, Ph.D.”

"This is horrifying and unacceptable. Surely Allah knows that man will interpret this based on his own agenda. No wonder we saw women being beaten with stick by the Taliban men. I don’t believe for a second that God, who is just and merciful and who made women too would allow men, who are supposed to be our protectors, physically enforce their perception of this ruling on us. A “tap” to you and a “tap” to me are two different things. I have been the victim of domestic violence I can tell you first hand that 103 lbs of woman is no contest to 200 lbs of man, regardless of how one evaluates a “tap”. There is never a way to safely prevent injury when a male strikes a female. This is also a contradiction – if we are weaker why would Allah allow this broad generalization to even be published, knowing full well that some will abuse it? If Allah goes to the trouble to tell you exactly how to wash, I suspect he wouldn't leave room for doubt on something with such dire consequences."

Answer by Dr. M. Amir Ali:

You opened your question with the words “Qur’anic text” and there is a problem of understanding that the translation of the Qur’an in any language is not the Qur'an nor is it Qur’anic text. I advise people to read at least four different translations of the Qur’anic verses which may appear troublesome for acceptance. In addition, one should look at commentaries by good Muslim scholars to find what their research of words, phrases and concepts given in a verse are explained. I recommend following a few Qur’an translations and commentaries for study. You may pick any one of them and make it your main source of study but refer to others in case of a problem of understanding and appreciation.

  • The Message of the Qur'an by Muhammad Asad, Dar Al-Andalus Ltd., Gibraltar, 1980
  • Towards Understanding the Qur'an Trans. by Zafar I. Ansari from Tafheem Al-Qur'an by Syed Abul-A'ala Mawdudi, Islamic Foundation, Leicester, England. Volumes 1 to 7 have been published, more to be published to complete the work.
  • The Holy Qur'an, Text, Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Amana Publications, Brentwood, MD
  • In the Shade of the Qur'an by Syed Qutub (multi volume work beginning to be published) by Islamic Foundation, Leicester, England.
  • Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged) Translated under the supervision of Safiur-Rahman Mubarakpuri, Darussalam Publishers, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (This is a multi volume work)

There are many excellent commentaries of the Qur’an in Arabic and Urdu which are not yet available in an English translation.

Verse 4:34 deals with qawwam which refers to responsibility, not dictatorship, by man over his family. The family unit is an administrative cell where someone has to be responsible, but with responsibility goes authority, not dictatorship. The Islamic principle of administration is shura (consultation) as commanded in the verse 42:38.

Another topic of the same verse is nushuz which has been translated slightly differently as a given scholars sees fit according to his understanding. Below I give exact quotes from three different translators and commentators and this point should become clear. One clarification about the term nushuz is appropriate:  it applies to a breach of trust that includes developing an inappropriate relationship outside of marriage. Another complex word used in the same verse is wadribuhunna, commonly translated “and beat them”, may be out of line.

Mary Ali has the following understanding:  words in Arabic are based primarily on three letter root words and derivations are changed somewhat by adding letters to them.  Examples are sajada (derived from three letter 'sjd'), meaning to prostrate, and masjid, meaning the place where the prostration is done.  Similarly daraba ('drb') means to beat and the word in the Qur’an which people have translated as ‘beat’ is actually adriba ('adrb'). According to the dictionaries where I have been able to find the word adriba the meaning is to abandon, forsake, leave alone – not beat.   This verse has been a problem to me for a long time.  I also cannot imagine that God would allow men to beat their wives.  Whenever I find something that is troubling or does not make sense to me I will not accept it blindly.  I will question it and continue to look for an answer that does make sense.  Islam is a very practical, simple, and rational religion.  Everything makes sense if you think about it.  You may not like it but it does make sense. In those cases I will accept it. Accordingly the meaning of this part of the verse would be as follows: “As for those (women) from whom you find ill-will (or rebellion), admonish them, deny them intimacy in bed, (finally if necessary) abandon them.”  This verse was revealed in the early Madinan period. Later, verses about divorce were revealed and divorce took the place of abandonment or divorce as a final solution if what is said in 4:35 (arbitration) did not work out. I believe that beating women was the translation of male dominated society and it was an error.

With regard to the word qawwam, this word has been translated as protectors and maintainers of women because God has given one more than the other.  In every situation, whether it be a class, group, club, family or even country, someone has to have the final say in making decisions.  In the class it is the teacher, in a club it is the president, in the country it is the President, and in the family it is the man.  It does not mean that he is a dictator.  He is required to consult, cooperate and coordinate with his wife for the betterment of the family.  However, in the end he is ultimately responsible for his family and will be answerable to God on the Day of Judgment.  He must provide everything for the family from food to clothing to shelter to protection.  The wife is not required to do this.  Her role in the family is primarily to bear children.  If necessary, she can do his job but it is impossible for him to do hers.  When she is pregnant and afterward when she needs protection and care, he is required to give it.  If a couple decides to have an alternative arrangement, such as her working and him staying home with the children, it is OK as long as they both agree to it.  Although most of the raising and training of children is done by the woman, the man must also help.  Children need direction from both the mother and father to be successful and productive individuals. 

Below please find translations and commentaries by three scholars of the twentieth century.

Muhammad Asad translation of the Qur'an:

34. Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter [42], and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has (ordained to be) guarded [43]. And as for those women whose ill-will [44] you have reason to fear, admonish them (first); then leave them alone in bed; then beat them [45]; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!

35. And if you have reason to fear that a breach might occur between a (married) couple, appoint an arbiter from among his people and an arbiter from among her people; if they both want to set things aright, God may bring about their reconciliation. Behold, God is indeed all-knowing, aware.

Footnotes by Muhammad Asad:

[42]  Lit., "more on some of them than on the others" –  The expression qawwam is an intensive form of qa'im ("one who is responsible for" or "takes care of" a thing or a person). Thus, qama 'ala 'l-mar'ah signifies "he undertook the maintenance of the woman" or "he maintained her" (see Lane VIII, 2995). The grammatical form qawwam is more comprehensive than qa'im, and combines the concepts of physical maintenance and protection as well as of moral responsibility: and it is because of the last-named factor that I have rendered this phrase as "men shall take full care of women".

[43] Lit., "who guard that which cannot be perceived (al-ghayb) because God has [willed it to be] guarded".

[44] The term nushuz (lit., "rebellion" – here rendered as ill-will) comprises every kind of deliberate bad behaviour of a wife towards her husband or of a husband toward his wife, including what is nowadays described as "mental cruelty"; with reference to the husband, it also denotes "ill-treatment", in the physical sense, of his wife (cf. verse 128 of this Surah). In this context, a wife's "ill-will" implies a deliberate, persistent breach of her marital obligations.

[45] It is evident from many authentic traditions that the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one's wife, and said on more than one occasion "Could any of you beat his wife as he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?" (Bukhari and Muslim).  According to another tradition, he forbade the beating of any woman with the words, "Never beat God's handmaidens". (Abu Da'ud, Nasa'i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hibban and Hakim, on the authority of Iyas ibn `Abd Allah; Ibn Hibban, on the authority of `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas; and Bayhaqi, on the authority of Umm Kulthum). When the above Qur'an-verse authorising the beating of a refractory wife was revealed, the Prophet is reported to have said: "I wanted one thing, but God has willed another thing – and what God has willed must be best" (see Manar V, 74). With all this, he stipulated in his sermon on the occasion of the Farewell Pilgrimage, shortly before his death, that beating should be resorted to only if the wife "has become guilty, in an obvious manner, of immoral conduct", and that it should be done "in such a way as not to cause pain (ghayr mubarrih)"; authentic traditions to this effect are found in Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Da'ud, Nasa'i and Ibn Majah. On the basis of these traditions, all the authorities stress that this "beating", if resorted to at all, should be more or less symbolic – "with a toothbrush, or some such thing" (Tabari, quoting the views of scholars of the earliest times), or even "with a folded handkerchief" (Razi); and some of the greatest Muslim scholars (e.g., Ash-Shafi'i) are of the opinion that it is just barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided: and they justify this opinion by the Prophet's personal feelings with regard to this problem.

Mawdudi translation of the Qur'an:

34. Men are the protectors and maintainers of women [56] because Allah has made one of them excel over the other [57], and because they spend out of their possessions (to support them). Thus righteous women are obedient and guard the rights of men in their absence under Allah's protection [58]. As for women of whom you fear rebellion, admonish them, and remain apart from them in beds, and beat them [59]. Then if they obey you, do not seek ways to harm them. Allah is Exalted, Great.

35. If you fear a breach between the two, appoint an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both want to set things right [60]. Allah will bring about reconciliation between them. Allah knows all, is well aware of everything [61].

Footnotes by Mawdudi and/or translators:

[56] A qawwam or qayyim is a person responsible for administering and supervising the affairs of either an individual or an organisation, for protecting and safeguarding them and taking care of their needs.

[57] The verb used here – a derivative of the root fdl – is not used to mean that some people have been invested with superior honour and dignity. Rather it means that God has endowed one of the sexes (i.e. the male sex) with certain qualities which He has not endowed the other sex with, at least not to an equal extent. Thus it is the male who is qualified to function as head of the family. The female has been so constituted that she should live under his care and protection.

[58] It is reported in a tradition from the Prophet (peace be on him) that he said: 'The best wife is she who, if you look at her, will please you; who, if you bid her to do something, will obey; and who will safeguard herself and your property in your absence.' (Cited by Ibn Kathir, and reported by Tabari and Ibn Abi Hatim. See Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 3 vols., ed. Muhammad 'Ali al-Sabuni, 7th edition, Beirut, 1402 A.H./1981 C.E.; vol. 1, p. 385 and n. 1- Ed.) This tradition contains the best explanation of the above verse. It should be borne in mind, however, that obedience to God has priority over a woman's duty to obey her husband. If a woman's husband either asks her to disobey God or prevents her from performing a duty imposed upon her by God, she should refuse to carry out his command. Obedience to her husband in this case would be a sin. However, were the husband to prevent is wife from performing either supererogatory Prayer or Fasting - as distinct from the obligatory ones - she should obey him, for such acts would not be accepted by God if performed by a woman in defiance of her husband's wish. (See Abu Da'ud, 'Sawm', 73; Ibn Majah, 'Siyam', 53- Ed.)

[59] This does not mean that a man should resort to these three measures all at once, but that they may be employed if a wife adopts an attitude of obstinate defiance. So far as the actual application of these measures is concerned, there should, naturally, be some correspondence between the fault and the punishment that is administered. Moreover, it is obvious that wherever a light touch can prove effective one should not resort to sterner measures, Whenever the Prophet (peace be on him) permitted a man to administer corporal punishment to his wife, he did so with reluctance, and continued to express his distaste for it. And even in cases where it is necessary, the Prophet (peace be on him) directed men not to hit across the face, nor to beat severely nor to use anything that might leave marks on the body. (See Ibn Majah, 'Nikah', 3 - Ed.)

[60] The statement: 'if they both want to set things right', may be interpreted as referring either to the mediators or to the spouses concerned. Every dispute can be resolved providing the parties concerned desire reconciliation, and the mediators too are keen to remove the misunderstandings between them and to bring them together.

[61] Whenever the relationship between a husband and a wife starts to break down, an attempt should first be made to resolve the dispute at the family level, before it is aggravated and leads to the disruption of the matrimonial tie. The procedure to be followed is that two persons, one on behalf of each family, should be nominated to look into the matter together and devise means whereby the misunderstanding between the spouses may be brought to an end. Who should nominate these mediators? God has not specified this so as to allow people full freedom to choose the most convenient arrangement. The parties would be free, for instance, to decide that the mediators be nominated either by the spouses themselves or by the elders of their respective families. If the dispute is brought before the court, the latter also has the right to nominate mediators, representing the families of both parties, before referring the matter for judicial verdict.

There is disagreement among Muslim jurists about the extent of the mediators' authority. The Hanafi and Shafi'i schools are of the opinion that they normally have no authority to issue a binding verdict. All they may do is to recommend the solution they advocate, whereafter the spouses have the right either to accept or to reject it. The exception is if the spouses have nominated the mediators to act on their behalf in regard to either talaq or khul': they will then be bound by their verdict. This is the opinion of the Hanafi and Shafi'i schools. Another group of jurists argues that the authority of the mediators is confined to deciding how the spouses should reconcile their differences, and does not extend to the annulment of marriage. This is the opinion of Hasan al-Basri and Qatadah, among others. Yet another group holds the opinion that the mediators have full authority both in respect of reconciliation and annulment of marriage. This is the opinion of Ibn ' Abbas, Sa'id b. Jubayr, Ibrahim al-Nakha'i, al-Sha'bi, Muhammad b. Sirin and several other authorities.

The precedents which have come down from early Islam, however, are the judgements of  'Uthman and 'Ali. These indicate that they conferred upon the mediators the authority to issue judgements binding on both parties. When the dispute between' Aqil b. Abi Talib and his wife Fatimah b. 'Utbah b. Rabi'ah came up for the judgement of 'Uthman, he nominated Ibn ' Abbas and Mu'awiyah b. Abi Sufyan from the families of the husband and the wife respectively. He also told them that if they thought that separation was preferable, they should declare the marriage annulled. In a similar dispute 'Ali nominated mediators and authorized them either to bring about reconciliation or annul the marriage, whichever they considered appropriate. This shows that the mediators do not have judicial authority as such. (See the commentaries of Ibn Kathir and Jassas on this verse – Ed.) Such authority, however, may be conferred upon them by the courts, in which case their decision will have the force of a judicial verdict.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation of the Qur'an:

34. Men are the protectors [545] 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 [546]. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first) [547], (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them [548] means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all).

35. If ye fear a breach between them twain, appoint (two) arbiters, one from his family, and the other from hers [549]; If they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation: for Allah hath full knowledge, and is acquainted with all things.

Footnotes by Abdullah Yusuf Ali:

[545] Qawwam: one who stands firm in another's business, protects his interests, and looks after his affairs; or it may be, standing firm in his own business, managing affairs, with a steady purpose. cf. 4:135.

[546] Or the sentence may be rendered. "and protect (the husband's interests) in his absence, as Allah has protected them." If we take the rendering as in the text, the meaning is: the good wife is obedient and harmonious in her husband's presence, and in his absence guards his reputation and property and her own virtue, as ordained by Allah. If we take the rendering as in the note, we reach the same result in a different way: the good wife, in her husband's absence, remembering how Allah has given her a sheltered position, does everything to justify that position by guarding her own virtue and his reputation and property.

[547] In case of family jars four steps are mentioned, to be taken in that order. (1) perhaps verbal advice or admonition may be sufficient; (2) if not, sex relations may be suspended; (3) if this is not sufficient, some slight physical correction may be administered; but Imam Shafi'i considers this inadvisable, though permissible, and all authorities are unanimous in deprecating any sort of cruelty, even of the nagging kind, as mentioned in the next clause; (4) if all this fails, a family council is recommended in 4:35 below.

[548] Temper, nagging, sarcasm, speaking at each other in other people's presence, reverting to past faults which should be forgiven and forgotten - all this is forbidden. And the reason given is characteristic of Islam. You must live all your life as in the presence of Allah, Who is high above us, but Who watches over us. How petty and contemptible will our little squabbles appear in His presence!

[549] An excellent plan for settling family disputes, without too much publicity or mud-throwing, or resort to the chicaneries of the law, The Latin countries recognize this plan in their legal systems. It is a pity that Muslims do not resort to it universally, as they should. The arbiters from each family would know the idiosyncrasies of both parties, and would be able, with Allah's help to effect a real reconciliation.


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