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? 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. Moreover, the passage lays out a three step process which requires each step be utilized and ineffective before resorting to the next step, including wadribuhunna, or lightly hitting.  In fact, a husband that abuses this legal guideline by resorting to the second or third step where the first suffices is liable to pay compensation to the wife under Islamic law.

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.

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.

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”.

Thus, this verse was effectually meant to stop physical spousal abuse, diluting it to only one specific instance and only allowing it after this process was initiated and unsuccessful; and, only then was a husband allowed to hit his wife, with the caveat that he didn’t leave a mark. Subsequently, with the actions, sayings and guidance of the Prophet, and contemporaneous scholarly and legal opinions, the concept of spousal abuse has become repugnant to most Islamic scholars. Even Ibn Hajar, the pillar of late medieval Sunni Hadith scholarship, concludes that the Hadiths of the Prophet leave no doubt that striking one's wife to discipline her actually falls under the Shari’ah ruling of 'strongly disliked' or 'disliked verging on prohibited'. Accordingly, the consensus among scholars is that Islam does not condone any level of violence toward women.