وَاللاَّتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ
And (as to) those [women] on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and [if that does not make any difference, then] leave them alone in the sleeping-places and [if that does not make any difference, then] strike them. (al-Nisa, 4/34)
A reliable study of the Qur’an can only be made when the mind is freed of previously held beliefs and notions, because pre-judging and viewing its concepts without objectivity will only lead to closed-mindedness and inflexibility. This is the one danger that every discerning researcher must avoid at all costs.
One of the verses that the opponents of Islam and the proponents of women’s rights have singled out in order to impugn the ordinances of Qur’an is the one mentioned above. The verse concerns the issue of the desertion (nushuz) of women. Instead of trying to objectively understand the true purport of the verse, they have resorted to strident criticism, unaware that discussions based around an incorrect presumption leads away from the truth and obstructs thinking.
In fact, through a detailed and necessary study of the word “yadribuhunna” (strike them) in the verse, one can infer two distinct meanings, which we will explain in some detail below:
The first meaning is derived by considering the apparent meaning of daraba, which is to hit; and the majority lean towards this interpretation.
The second meaning, which is consistent with a study of the context of the matter being discussed in the verse, is an alternate translation of the word daraba, which is a word with several different meanings. One can consider the possibility of this second meaning, which is indignation and disregard, as a response of the man to the nushuz displayed by his wife. This conforms to the extensive meaning of daraba, which includes parting and separation.1
Another meaning of daraba is to “turn away from” or “to dispense with”; therefore when referring to the speech of someone who is speaking nonsense, or to a piece of baseless writing, one may say, “fadribuhu ‘ala’l jidar” (throw it at the wall), which is an allegory for, “do not pay attention to it”.
The meaning of parting and separation for daraba can also be applied to the verse under consideration, and a study of the verse can be done on this very basis, because it has been mentioned that the term darabahas been used here because it denotes a sudden parting as opposed to a gradual one.2
Therefore, it seems that here the Qur’an advises the husband who has unsuccessfully tried to censure his rebellious wife by two milder means, to finally separate (daraba) from her. However, he should avoid any harshness towards her and patiently await for his action to have an effect; he should allow her to think over matters and to takes steps towards what is best for her. Therefore, when interpreted in this manner, we can say that the verse means to say: If a woman shirks her responsibility and acts inappropriately, then the husband must attempt to remedy matters in the prescribed stages.
Initially, the man must gently counsel his wife, and remind her of her responsibilities, and encourage her to reconsider her actions which have resulted in the unhappiness in the life they share together.
However, if the efforts of the husband are to no avail, and the wife persists in her improper behaviour, he must react conservatively by only leaving the marital bed but remain in the house and make no overt change to the normal routine of the household. This is because the verse of the Qur’an stipulates only the act of leaving the bed at this stage and no more.
If this action also does not bring about a change in the wife’s conduct, and she persists in behaving against her own interest, and the husband’s efforts are all in vain, then a sterner measure is required in an attempt to break the impasse. This step requires the husband to cut off all contact with his wife within the house and lead a completely separate life. It is as if he has removed the wife from her place of focus in the household, with the intention that she herself changes her mind and alters her disagreeable behaviour to prevent a further deterioration in the situation.
It is true that in this situation the wife still lives in the house and benefits from material and other comforts, but she will not be in the spiritual and emotional state to feel at peace, and this may motivate her to acknowledge her responsibility towards the family and take the first steps to restore harmony and allow the family to advance towards a better and happier life.
However, if we take daraba here to mean “striking”, and we assume that the Qur’an requires that in such circumstances, the man should compel his wife to resume her duties and responsibilities by raising his hand to her, so that she comes back to her senses, then acting on this interpretation will probably have an adverse effect for the reasons discussed below:
1. The books of jurisprudence state that the slightest physical violence towards one’s wife, if it bruises her skin, carries a penalty (diya) and such an act of chastisement is not permitted for the man for any reason. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether a lighter or soft blow may have any effect in chastising a rebellious wife and causing her to alter her behaviour; in fact it is highly unlikely that such an act would resolve anything.
In cases of nushuz, the jurists are more concerned with (legislating for) the action of the man with regards to stopping the maintenance of his wife and not the matter of beating or physical chastisement. As a rule, jurists have not made a thorough examination of the issue of beating, rather they have focused on its secondary details; such as the number and frequency of blows, the circumstances under which the perpetrator is excused from having to pay the penalty or blood-money (diya), or if the woman displays her fractious behaviour continually and every day, how many times may the man resort to hitting her, and for how long such violence is permitted, etc. These questions need to be discussed in detail but even a lengthy examination may not be able address all the issues that arise in this regard.
2. Usually physical discipline will only push a woman into a position of bitterness and animosity, especially when she realizes that the husband has used his last resort and can do no more to stop her; at this time she may feel there is nothing more he can direct at her.
3. Any physical action will usually result in an adverse reaction, and may drive the woman to become even more entrenched and resolute in her misbehaviour. This is especially the case especially for women who have a quarrelsome nature and who are more prone to antagonism than women of a calmer and more level-headed temperament.
Therefore, the use of punishment and force on this type of women will only harden their obstinacy, sometimes leading to a loss of control on both sides with unpredictable results. Whenever one embarks on a method of chastisement to bring about compliance and ultimately restore an affectionate relationship between the spouses, there is always the possibility that the outcome may not be positive, or that the rift between them becomes even deeper or the chance of any mutual agreement in the future is weakened.
4. To compel the woman into compliance through physical violence is not an agreeable process psychologically for both spouses and will not provide inner contentment to either one. In time it will erode their love for one another and ultimately may lead to the breakdown of the marriage. On the other hand, it seems that the previously described step of total disassociation from the wife, while she still lives within the household, may be the stimulus that causes her to review matters and think about the future and persuade her to reform her behaviour.
Furthermore, such a rejection by her husband is unpleasant for the wife and she would not be able to bear or tolerate it for long.
5. No one can deny that the final step in this series of actions, which apparently seems irrevocable, where the wife has resolutely rejected all the efforts of her husband to restore harmonious relations, is divorce. Divorce is the last resort when every other course of action fails.
Therefore when all three steps fail to achieve the compliance of the wife, and no amount of reasoning can change her inappropriate behaviour, the husband embarks on a course of permanent separation and dissolution of the marriage by invoking divorce. When the husband is convinced that nothing will break the impasse and that the marital bond has broken down completely, he brings about relief from the stormy relationship through the agency of divorce, without the need for any physical chastisement or action.
6. We know that Islam has paid a special attention to the spirit and true meaning of earthly life, and the paths that lead to the its best conclusion. For this reason, it promotes a sound relationship between members of the family and recognizes that a strong attachment between husband and wife will result in the prosperity of a family.
As a result of the great respect accorded to women in every aspect of life, the husband has not been allowed to put the least pressure on his wife to perform household chores or to force her to do something that is against her disposition. In fact, the wife has also been given the choice to ask for payment from her husband for breastfeeding their child.
By appreciating that Islam has adopted a holistic approach to the issues relating to women, which incorporates their rights and honour in the household and in society, it is not improbable that in Islam’s view, men cannot react with physical violence in the face of the rebellious behaviour of the wives because it is not compatible with the Islamic ethos of love and harmony amongst the spouses in a family.
The holy Prophet (S) has stated: I am amazed at the one who strikes his wife, while he is more deserving to be struck himself; do not strike your wives with canes, because there is a legislative retaliation (qisas) for that. Rather, chastise them with a curtailment in their maintenance; thus, you shall gain felicity in this world and the next. 3
Here the Prophet (S) reminds men that it is more beneficial to them to gain the attention of women by punishing them by curtailing their allowances rather than by physically striking them. This is because, on the one hand, it will discourage them from rebellious and improper conduct, and on the other, you will not be answerable in front of God and, in the hereafter, you will have a defence for your actions.
7. Finally, if it is insisted that the meaning of daraba in this verse is indeed chastisement through physical means, as the apparent reading suggests, it must be stated that this is not an obligatory command, so that this step becomes incumbent on a husband whose wife exhibits nushuz or rebelliousness, and that he has no choice but to resort to physical chastisement. In fact, there are indications that suggest the use of other means, such as curtailing living expenses, by which he can deal with nushuz, and compel his wife to reform. Thus, the step suggested by the verse is instructive in that it mentions one way of rectifying the wife’s behaviour and recalling her to her responsibility.
Therefore, if in times when human thought and reasoning had not yet matured, it was possible to counter the nushuz of a wife through physical discipline, albeit with special conditions, in these times when we are in a more enlightened era, a different reaction to nushuz is needed. For this reason it is necessary to change and adapt the existing methodology and not to ignore the needs of the age.
Therefore, nowadays when women have reached a much higher level of education and maturity of thought, the process of staged separation initiated by the husband to control the rebellious behaviour of his wife is likely to succeed in convincing her to change her position. It can bring about an atmosphere which is free of strife and antagonism, which is easily achievable, and restore harmony in the relationship and family life. And this is possible by considering both possible meanings of the word daraba in God’s word, as we have explained.
The Qur’an lends itself to a wide range of interpretation – and indeed, this is part of the miracle of this divinely inspired text. For this reason, this independent and living entity shall endure for all time.