Until the past few years, I, like many Muslims, felt uncomfortable with verse 4:34 of the Quran, which seemingly justifies violence against women. I could not come up with a justification for it, and none of the explanations I heard from others felt satisfactory. Eventually an answer to this conundrum began shaping itself in my mind as I studied works on the philosophy of governance, legal theory and evolutionary biology. Below I explain this answer.
To begin addressing the issue, the first principle we can state on this matter is this, which will help make the rest of the matter clear:
There is no such thing as humanely beating a woman.
Scholars, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, have mentioned that there are various restrictions on the way a man can beat a woman, as if this makes it less bad. It does only very slightly. It does not answer the question of why the Quran allows such a thing. I never plan to beat a woman in my life. Like most middle class Muslim men, I cannot even imagine how one goes about beating a woman; it sounds as ridiculous and awkward as the idea of beating my father.
It appears to me that one thing that has prevented every Western Muslim thinker I know of from making sense of the verse is the fact that they do not take the time to understand the Arabic wording of the verse:
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.1
The Arabic word qawwamūn is translated as “protectors and maintainers” in English or something similar to it, and this leads to the verse sounding like nonsense. Why on earth would the Quran go from the idea of financial support and protection for women to the idea of striking them in the same verse? The problem is that “protector and maintainer” is not exactly what qawwamūn means. Qawwamūn means “figures of authority who are in charge of and take care of (something)”.2 Verse 4:34 is about the issue of authority and law-enforcement within a household as I will explain, the idea of financial support and physical protection is only a subset of it.
Domestic violence, as the phrase is commonly understood, is prohibited in Islam; a woman has the right to not be abused by her husband. This is the general rule; Islam does not tolerate cruelty and injustice toward anyone, whether man, woman, child or even animal. But verse 4:34 establishes an exception in the matter of authority and discipline in a household. The point of this verse is the establishment of a certain type of order within an Islamic household.
Throughout the world, the police have the right to strike a person who is about to break the law, for example a person who want to set fire to a building. The police are required to sternly warn the person to stop their behavior, and if they do not, they have the right to intervene physically and subdue the person to prevent them from doing harm. The right of the police to strike any citizen they want given the right circumstances establishes a certain type of order within society. It does not lead to a reign of terror; look at a peaceful and quiet Western town and you will find that that peace and quiet is protected by the existence of a police force who have the right to use violence when necessary.
Internal Family Law and Its Enforcement
In the West, law enforcement is the job of the police; they are given the right to use violence when necessary to carry out this job. Islam creates a second law enforcement jurisdiction that is non-existent in the West, that of the family, with the power of policing given to a husband (rather than a police force) within this internal family jurisdiction (later on I will discuss why this power is given to men rather than women).
Similar to the police, men are not allowed to abuse this authority. Police brutality and husband brutality can both be severely punished by the law. Verse 4:34 gives a man the authority to police his household. If his wife is about to do something highly damaging, such as trying to invite a lover into the house, he has the right to sternly warn her to stop and to use force against her if she does not.
Here, it should be stated that under Islamic law a woman should have the right to divorce any time she wants. If her husband is abusive, besides having access to agencies protecting women, she should also be able to threaten to leave him, and the police should be there to protect her rights and prevent her from being kept as a wife against her wishes. Middle Eastern countries have been notoriously bad at protecting women’s rights, this is slowly changing, and Islam can actually be used as justification for creating agencies that protect women’s rights.
Islamic law creates this situation inside a family:
- A husband has the right to police his household and to use violence in the extremely rare case where his wife wants to do something completely unacceptable in their culture and society.
- A woman has the right to leave her husband any time she wants.3
- A woman has the right to be free from cruel treatment and abuse, and has the right to enjoy the police’s protection from abuse.
In the vast majority of marriages (perhaps 99.99%), husbands will never have to use their right to violence, the same way that in a peaceful society the vast majority of people are never beaten by the police, despite the fact that the police have the right to strike any citizen when necessary. Islamic law, similar to Western law, creates a certain social order that does not do violence to anyone as long as no one tries to break the law. A husband’s right to act as policeman is irrelevant except in the extremely rare case when a wife, for whatever reason, 1. insults and threatens him by her actions, 2. does not listen to admonishment and 3. does not want a divorce. That is quite a ridiculous situation that very few couples will find themselves in.
A person may ask, if this verse truly applies to only 0.01% of marriages, why would the Quran have a verse about it? For the same reason that Western law has many clauses on the use of violence by the police despite the fact that only 0.01% of citizens are ever subject to police violence. The right to use violence is what matters here, not the actual using of violence. When a Western town gives the police the right to use violence, they do not do so because they like to watch the police beat people up, but because they know that if the police did not have the right to use violence, they could not deal with the extremely rare cases in which violence is needed.
You cannot establish social order without giving someone the power to enforce it. A law is useless talk unless there is someone who can enforce the law, and the enforcement of law in human society requires the power to use violence (only the power, not the actual using of violence). While Western law defines a certain legal code enforced by the police where necessary, Islamic law defines this, and also, in addition to it, defines internal family law (non-existent in the West) that husbands can enforce through violence where necessary.
Senseless Beatings and Cultural Mores
When talking about 4:34, people’s minds immediately jump to an imaginary or real wife who is beaten by a cruel husband. But that has nothing to do with 4:34. The violence in 4:34 is similar to police violence; if it is cruel, if it is senseless, if it is unnecessary, then that is forbidden and should be punished by law. 4:34 only justifies violence in cases where the couple’s culture considers the violence justified. The woman’s own relatives should be able to look into the case and agree that the husband’s actions were justified.
What situations could possibly justify a husband striking a wife? This is similar to asking what situations could possibly justify the police striking a citizen. If we think of good citizens being beaten by the police, we naturally find that cruel and unjustified. So to sensibly answer the question, we have to think of bad citizens, those who do deserve violence according to the law worldwide. A bad citizen would be one who is mugging someone, or trying to steal a car, or trying to rape a woman. People will generally agree that police violence is justified in preventing such citizens from carrying out their intentions.
Verse 4:34 deals with the issue of bad wives, the way that Western laws allowing police violence are there to deal with the issue of bad citizens (I will address the question of bad husbands later on). In regards to good wives versus bad wives, verse 4:34 has this to say:
The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.
The Arabic word that is rendered as “disloyalty” above is nushūz, which according to al-Rāzī means something like “mutiny”, it is when a person acts as if they are superior to a figure of authority (as in a soldier acting in disregard of an officer’s rank).4 It literally means “to consider oneself superior”, the word can be described to refer to a patch of land being higher than another.56
The word nushūz is vague and does not clearly define what situations deserve a strong response and which ones do not. I believe this is in order to leave it to each family, culture and society to decide it for itself. All wives probably know what their husbands’ “deal-breakers” are, things that he would consider a severe insult and a betrayal, and these things can be different for different people. The most flagrant case of nushūz is a wife trying to have an affair. In general, nushūz is any case in which a wife acts in disregard and disrespect to the Islamic social order that the Quran wants to establish within the family.
Verse 4:34, by giving the husband the right to act as policeman in his household, allows him to act forcefully and decisively in such matters, defending his interests and those of his family and children against a wife who is intent on senselessly damaging him and his family.
It is true that striking a woman is cruel; it is cruelty justified by her intention to do something equally cruel; threatening the future and happiness of her own family.
In a Muslim society, a woman should never have occasion to say that her husband beat her without reason. If that is true, her husband is punishable by law. If she was struck by him, it would be in situations like this:
I tried to cheat on my husband, he found out and sternly warned me to give up the idea. I did not. He told me I should get a divorce if I don't want to be with him anymore, but what I want is to stay married to him and enjoy the benefits that come with it while having a lover on the side. We had a fight and he physically subdued me and took my phone away from me so I wouldn't be able to talk to my lover.
While in a Western country a husband in the above situation is required to let his wife do whatever she wants, only having recourse to divorce (the police will probably laugh at him if he was to give them a call and complain that his wife wants to sleep with another man), under Islamic law, a husband is given the authority to be the law-enforcer himself in such a case. This creates a situation in which there is zero tolerance for a wife acting against the interests of her husband. She is required to either accept to live amicably and faithfully with her husband or to get a divorce. Verse 4:34 ensures that there will be no “in-between” situations where a wife is only half faithful or respectful toward a husband, for example staying with him for the sake of the children while doing whatever she wants in her private life without concern for his interests. She is either fully committed to her life with her husband or she gets a divorce. While Western law tolerates all shades of commitment from full commitment to zero commitment between a husband and wife, Islamic law allows only full commitment or divorce, and gives the husband the right of violence to ensure that this will be the state of things in his family.
Theoretical Laws versus Real-Life Effects
Above, I have explained the theory behind verse 4:34. But that is only half the picture. Verse 4:34 creates a certain social order, a certain type of society, that an outsider may be completely unable to imagine from the wording of the verse. The type of society it creates is one in which it is unthinkable for a woman to flagrantly act in opposition to her husband and his household (the most glaring example being that of infidelity). It is as unthinkable for her to act thus as it is for a Western citizen to think of counterfeiting money. While in the West we do not live under a police reign of terror, we know that if we were to do something that severely threatens social order, such as making counterfeit money, law-enforcement will have something to say about it. We do not need the police to strike us to not make counterfeit money. We just know that in our society, in our social order, the making of counterfeit money is totally unacceptable and will bring down violence on the person who tries it.
In the same way, in an Islamic society, a woman knows that within the social order she lives in, she cannot act flagrantly in opposition to her husband; she knows that this is totally unacceptable in her society and can bring down violence on her. If there is a need for her to oppose her husband, she has the right to argue with her husband, to demand the support of her family and his family, to demand the support of women’s agencies, to sue him in court and to threaten divorce. These things ensure that her husband cannot abuse his authority and that her rights are not neglected. What she does not have the right to is acting in a way that damages her husband and his household. She is free to get a divorce; but while she chooses to be with him, she has to act in good faith toward him.
The “Rule” of Husbands
Giving husbands the right of policing does not make them tyrannical rulers, the same way that giving the police the right of policing and striking citizens does not make them rulers in society. Husbands and the police are both subject to higher laws that restrict their powers. In an Islamic society, both the husband and wife are subject to the law and its various restrictions. They are both servants of God who do their best to please Him. One of them, the husband, has the powers of the police delegated to him to deal with the extremely rare case of having to enforce internal family law. It is true that no sensible wife would act in a way that threatens her husband and his family, similar to the way that no sensible citizen would act in a way that threatens society and requires police action. But not all wives or citizens are sensible, therefore the law sees the need to give certain people the right to use violence against those rare wives or citizens that do not act sensibly.
In focusing on the extremely rare situations when violence becomes necessary, discussions of Islam and domestic violence ignore the overwhelming majority of marriages in which a husband striking his wife is considered unthinkable. It is like focusing on police brutality in a peaceful town and ignoring the 99.99% of the citizenry who live in peace and never have any dealings with the police.
A husband who habitually beats his wife is similar to a policeman who habitually beats citizens for no reason. Such a husband or policeman should be severely punished, and if they cannot stop their violence, they should be fired from their jobs (a judge should force the husband and wife to separate, and should fire the policeman).
Why Make Husbands Policemen?
Even if it is admitted that the mere right of using violence against a wife does not lead to an epidemic of domestic violence (and my experience of Muslim societies in Iran, Iraq and the United States illustrates this beyond doubt), one may doubt if giving men the authority to act as part-time policemen in their households is the best way to organize society.
The Quran’s theory is that society functions best when husbands are recognized as authorities in their households, with the power to act swiftly, decisively and even violently when their interests are seriously threatened.
The feminist (etc.) theory is that society functions best when a husband and wife have equal shares of authority in their households, somewhat similar to a country or company having two presidents.
Which theory is true? A great many scientific studies would be needed to find out beyond reasonable doubt which type of society functions best. Such studies should try to answer these questions:
- Do women in devout Muslim households suffer more or less domestic violence compared other women?
- Are women in devout Muslim households more or less likely to suffer depression than other women?
- Are women in devout Muslim households happier and more fulfilled or less compared to others?
- Are children brought up in a devout Muslim family more or less likely to suffer trauma compared to children brought up in a non-devout Muslim family, compared to children brought up in non-Muslim families from societies of equal development and prosperity?
- What type of society is more sustainable? Devout Muslim societies are sustainable in that families can produce enough children to replace the parents. Western societies are all failing at this; they are all slowly going extinct.
Note they keyword devout. Considering an alcoholic who regularly beats his wife representative of Islam just because he calls himself Muslim is something only a propagandist would do. Any study of the effects of the Quran’s teachings, including the teaching in verse 4:34, should focus on people who actually take the whole of the Quran’s teachings seriously.
My contention, and the Quran’s, is that a devout Muslim society will function better and will be happier than either a non-devout one or a modern, liberal and irreligious one.
Verse 4:34 explains why God considers men worthy of the authority He has given them in their households:
Men are qawwamūn (keepers, protectors and authorities) over women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.7
The Quran gives two reasons:
- Men are inherently (i.e. genetically) suited to the role of being figures of authority in their households
- Men are the financial maintainers of women (by Islamic law)
The Quran’s contention, therefore, is that a family functions best when a man is the chief authority, because it is in the nature of human families that they function best when a man is the chief authority. According to the Quran, humans have evolved (for a reconciliation of Islam and evolution see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis) in a way that makes males different from females, and this difference justifies different roles within a relationship.
This difference does not mean that a man is given the right to do whatever he wants in his family. He is subject to the law and any abuse of his powers can be punished by law.
The question of whether men are really evolutionarily suited to be the chief authorities in their families cannot be settled by argument. It requires hundreds of scientific studies. Simply thinking of the 1% of men who abuse their powers tells us nothing about the 99% who do not. You cannot judge social policy by thinking of a few glaring bad examples. You have to study all of society. You cannot judge verse 4:34 by thinking of the hundred families in a Muslim city in which the husbands are abusive and ignore the 10,000 families in which the husbands are not abusive.
At this point a reader may wonder why there is a need for dealing with bad wives, while no similar clause exists in the Quran for dealing with bad husbands. What about a husband intent on doing harm to his family or wife?
Islam considers a man’s family an extension of himself. He is supposed to take care of it as a part of himself. This “sense of ownership” is designed to make him devoted to his wife and children, putting their interests on an equal footing to his own personal interests. In Islam, the family unit is arranged in such a way as to make it nonsensical for a man to try to damage it, for him it would be like shooting himself in the foot.
This “sense of ownership” seems necessary to motivate men to feel attached to their families and to work hard for its benefit. Without it, you get selfish, irresponsible and child-like men like some of those in the West who are focused on their own individual pleasures and interests at the expense of their families.
In Islam, the family man is a ruler of his own little kingdom, attached to it and its interests. In the West, this type of attachment has broken down for many people. This is perhaps an important reason for the low fertility rates of all modern irreligious societies. Men are no longer willing to bear the great responsibility of having to care for children. For a Western man, a child represents a serious risk and responsibility who does not add any privileges or advantages to his life. He would rather enjoy intimacy with a woman without worrying about children. For a Muslim man, things are completely different. For him a child is an addition to the family unit, which itself is an extension of himself. The law forces him to take care of his wife and children, but it also grants him the privilege of being the unchallenged authority in his household. He is granted a little kingdom and is held responsible for it.
When it comes to the issue of a bad husband, the Islamic social order of having the man as the chief authority in the household means that it does not make sense for a wife to be a disciplining authority over him. If the husband is bad, she has to use alternative methods that make sense within her position in the family:
- Asking for support from her and his family.
- Asking for support from community leaders, such as imams.
- Asking for the support of government agencies.
- Threatening divorce.
Devout Muslims and Habitual Wife-beaters
It is my contention that the more devoutly Muslim a man is, the less likely he is to be a wife-beater. There are hundreds of verses in the Quran that call him to be kind and forgiving. A single verse that allows violence in extremely rare circumstances is not going to be sufficient to wipe out the teachings of these hundreds of other verses from his mind. Any person with sufficient intelligence to understand the Quran will feel restricted by it in his ability to be mean and violent toward others, including his own wife and children, rather than feeling encouraged by it.
In fact, it is my contention that there is no such thing as a man who reads the Quran at least once a year and who habitually beats his wife.
I have no respect for a man who beats his wife and will never befriend a man who thinks he has the God-given right to beat women when the mood strikes him. I am not unique in this regard. In the devout Muslim society I come from, a man who is known to beat his wife is considered a hooligan and a fool, a person unworthy of befriending. Yet we are all Muslims who take the Quran seriously, including verse 4:34.
Verse 4:34’s main function is a defense of Islam’s “patriarchy”. It makes it impossible to give the Quran a feminist reading that sees men and women as exactly equal. It gives men higher authority in their households and goes as far as delegating some of the powers of the police to them. This is a completely anti-feminist way of organizing society, and for this reason feminists who wish to “feminize” the Quran will be forced to either ignore 4:34 or to give it far-fetched interpretations (as Laleh Bakhtiar has done).
Those who have occasion to talk about 4:34 are generally middle and upper middle class people for whom domestic violence is unthinkable (and it is that way for me too). But saying that 4:34 is unnecessary because our men and women are mature and sensible enough to act as honorable adults toward one another is like saying the police are unnecessary because we sensible people do not plan to break the law.
The police’s main function is not violence, it is the protection of social order. By using violence against the very small minority of citizens who wish to break the law, a certain type of order is created that everyone follows. The same applies to verse 4:34. By giving husbands the right of violence against the extremely small minority of wives who desire infidelity and other ways of damaging their families, a certain type of social order is created where wives are required to be 100% committed to their families. 4:34 establishes a social order in which wives are either fully committed or get divorces.
The vast majority of wives are already fully committed and do not need violence to make them so, the same way that the vast majority of citizens are fully committed to being good citizens and do not need violence to make them so. But it is foolishness to say that social order does not need a policing power to protect it. Without a violent power protecting against threats to order, social order will break down, as seen in cases where the police abandon a town (such as during a police strike), which quickly leads to looting and rioting by irresponsible citizens.
The Islamic social order that requires wives to be fully committed functions peacefully and without violence in the overwhelming majority of cases; 4:34 ensures that there is a policing power that protects this social order and can respond to those extremely rare cases where this order is threatened.
People have the right to wonder if this is the best way to create happy families and societies. But without a great number of unbiased scientific studies there can be no conclusive answer. It might seem “obvious” to someone that this is not a good way to create happy families and societies, but this is just a personal bias unless they can provide statistical data to back up their opinion. There are faithful and loyal wives among both Muslims and irreligious people, but if devout Muslim wives are on average 50% more likely to be loyal, and their families are 20% more likely to be happy and to avoid being broken up, then that is all we need to know to tell us that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the sociological consequences of the Quran’s teachings.
As Muslims, we believe that God knows better than anyone else how families and societies should be organized, therefore even if we dislike the idea of violence against women (as perhaps all of us do), we have to believe that God knows best. Even the Prophet Muhammad had reservations about 4:34. Al-Rāzī, in his aforementioned exegesis of verse 4:34, mentions a narration from Ibn ʿAbbās in which he says that a woman came complaining to the Prophet that her husband had struck her. From the passage, it appears that the Prophet would have liked to punish the husband according to the law of qiṣāṣ, but verse 4:34 is revealed to him confirming that the husband was within his rights. The Prophet is quoted as saying “We wanted something, but God wanted another thing. And what God wants is best.”
To summarize, verse 4:34 creates an informal police force made up of husbands. They are charged with the protection of the integrity of their families and are given the power of violence as a last resort in the carrying out of this duty. Any use of violence by a husband that falls outside of this definition can be punished by the law.
Interfacing With Secular Law
It should be mentioned that most legal systems do not recognize the validity of the use of violence against a wife in any circumstance except in that of physical self-defense. For this reason Muslims living under such laws are required to follow those laws. By the fact of accepting to live under a secular legal system and enjoying its protection, one also accepts to abide by its limitations. Upholding the “social contract” inherent in living under a secular legal system takes precedence over applying parts of Islamic law that conflict with it. In Islam the protection of life, property and dignity are the prime purposes of the law, so a secular legal system that affords these things but prohibits applying certain branches of Islamic law is still largely in accordance with Islam.
Fighting Violence Against Women
While 4:34 teaches us that there are extremely rare cases in which violence against a wife is justified, this should not make us indifferent toward cases of domestic abuse. The Quran throughout it is opposed to injustice and cruelty, and needless to say this means that we should be opposed to injustice and cruelty toward women. Until recently Muslim societies (and of course non-Muslim ones too) were quite apathetic toward the issue of cruelty toward women. Things seem to be improving.
An intelligent legal theorist should have no trouble seeing that giving someone policing power is bound to lead to abuse if there is no oversight, therefore the creation of agencies protecting women against abuse should be an essential part of any developed Islamic legal system. Women should enjoy all of the protections of a country’s constitution and should have recourse to the authorities if they suffer abuse on the hands of their husbands, fathers or others.
It is not contradictory to fight violence against women while defending verse 4:34. It is similar to fighting police brutality while defending the police’s right to use violence when needed.
Is a woman allowed to "beat" her husband if he plans on doing something terrible? (I mean beat as in to kick some sense into him, like a little slap or something...) Let's take your example of wanting to burn the house down
That is similar to the case of a citizen striking a policeman who wants to do something harmful. While her action runs contrary to 4:34, it is in accordance with other laws regarding the protection of life and property. So if her action is clearly justified, there would no reason to hold it against her, she can even be praised for doing the right thing.
In legal thinking, often numerous laws apply to the same situation all at the same time. It is up to the jurist to make sense of the complexities of the law and real life and come up with what is just and sensible. Islamic law is not made to be applied by senseless robots, but by intelligent humans who want to do what is just and right and kind in all circumstances.