The Hitting of a Woman / Verse 4:34

To be clear, Islam stands firm in support of equity for men and women.  As a rule, Islam condemns any kind of violence, especially violence against women. But what about marital violence? What about Verse 4:34?

As to those women (wives) on whose part you see ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) hit them (lightly, if it is useful); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). 4:34

To answer this question, one should consider the plain meaning of the words, historical context, including hadith, and textual comparisons.

So, what does this passage really say and is it finalizing the ruling or more of a step in the process to eliminate spousal abuse?  First, the word used in the text for ill-conduct is nushuz, meaning a grave sin or disloyalty within the marriage. Accordingly, the verse only applies to this specific situation.  

There are numerous verses in the Quran regarding marital relations which repeatedly speak about mercy and affection and kindness when discussing marital relations and marriage. Moreover, in practice, the Prophet Muhammad, the ideal for every practicing Muslim male, never hit a woman. Prophet Mohamed considered the behavior toward one’s spouse as a determining factor of one’s character.  He said: “The best of you are those who are the best to their wives.” 

And in action the Prophet advised against marrying someone with violent behavior.  When a woman came to him to ask about a man who had proposed to her he responded that she should avoid a certain individual based on abusive behavior and encouraged her toward another man with good behavior.  

Like alcoholism, spousal abuse was a significant problem in 7th century Arabia. The above verse was the first step in eliminating a common behavior, spousal abuse, that was accepted in society at that time by restricting it. In fact, the Quran and Hadith often create gradual mechanisms to shift society from a violent/abusive/dangerous past toward a sound moral standard.

This verse was a part in a series of stages meant to stop physical spousal abuse.  An approach equivalent to the one dealing with alcohol (addressing the issue in various stages and then finalizing the rule for the alcohol to be forbidden). The only difference in this analogy is that with alcohol the Quran alone finalized the ruling and with spousal abuse both the Quran and Sunnah finalized the ruling.  This method is common within Jurisprudence with the actions, sayings and guidance of the Prophet supporting this conclusion.  Prominent Islamic scholars likewise agree that spousal violence is prohibited. For instance, Ata, from the 1st century of Islam stated, “a man must not hit his wife. “. Likewise, Imam Al-Bhukari named one of the chapters in his famous book “The Hitting of a Woman is Disapproved”. Furthermore, shari’ah records of Othmani courts contain evidence of “the ability of women to seek retribution when subjected to abuse”.

Accordingly, Islam does not condone any level of violence toward women.