Of late there has been some discussion over the verse in the Qur’an concerning the “beating” of your wife. I was wondering if you could explain this verse a bit further. It seems as though the initial reading of the verse would justify physically hurting your wife if she was out of line.
Is that really the case?
Maintaining a balance between responsibility and authority is an important issue in modern Organizational Theory. There can be a difference of opinion regarding the extent of power (authority) delegated for performing a particular duty (responsibility); but obviously, if someone is assigned a duty he must be given a reasonable degree of authority that is necessary to perform his tasks. For example, if we assign the Police Department the task of prevention of crime in a society, we will have to give the necessary degree of authority to the personnel of that department. In case we refuse to do so then the department cannot be held responsible for any crime committed in the society. As stated earlier, there can be a difference of opinion regarding the extent of the authority given to perform a particular duty but the basic principle that every responsibility must entail adequate authority cannot be questioned.
Keeping the above explanation in mind, consider the concept of the “society”. Society has generally been defined as the web of relationships and interactions among human beings. A closer look at society shows that its basic and primary unit is the family; actually, society, as a whole, is nothing more than the various family groups that comprise it. Therefore, in building a stable society, it is of utmost importance that this basic and primary unit should be given all the stability that it can be given. It is only for this reason that most, if not all the teachings of Islam regarding the social set up are directed towards achieving this particular end. Obviously, one of the most important requirements for providing stability to the institution of family is to build it up on a sound basis and to define its authority/responsibility hierarchy. If you look at the referred verse closely, you shall see that it is actually giving this definition. The verse reads as follows:
Men [as husbands] are responsible for their women because God has made the one superior to the other [in different spheres] and because they spend of their wealth. Therefore, righteous women are obedient [to their husbands] and guard their secrets as God has also guarded secrets. As for those from whom you fear refusal of obedience, admonish them and [if this does not effect their behavior then] leave them alone on their beds and [if even this does not effect their behavior then] beat them. (Al-Nisaa 4: 34)
Marriage between two individuals is the beginning of the formation of a family and for a family to be properly constituted and organized, which in turn would result in a stable society, the referred verse has given it a responsibility/authority structure. A typical family normally consists of a man, a woman and their children. An important point to note in this verse is that rather than defining the whole responsibility/authority structure, the verse has restricted its definition to the responsibility/authority relationship between a man and his wife. The reason for restricting this definition only to a man and his wife, and not mentioning the position of children, is also quite obvious. It is only here that man, in general, has and can commit a mistake. Obviously, no one will object when we say that parents – father and mother – are jointly and severally responsible for the proper upbringing and well being of their children. However, when it comes to man and wife, we may, by “rashly” applying the principle of equality, make a mistake. Thus, it is only in the case of the husband-wife relationship that the Qur’an has provided its guidance.
According to the referred verse, it is actually the men (as husbands) who are ultimately responsible for providing their women with an atmosphere, which is conducive for their well being (in this world as well as in the hereafter) and, as a result, for the whole family. Two reasons have been given for delegating the position of the head of the family unit to men. Firstly, because it is they who have been made responsible for earning the livelihood for all the family members; and secondly, because, in comparison to women, they are more suited physically and emotionally to be given this responsibility, just as women are more suited for a number of other responsibilities.
After declaring the responsibility of the man as the head of the family, for the smooth functioning of the household, women are advised and persuaded to recognize the heavy responsibility placed on their husband’s shoulders and to remain obedient to them. It is in this context that the husbands, for the purpose of fulfilling the responsibility placed on their shoulders, are advised to admonish their wives if they feel that their wives refuse to be obedient to them and thereby hinder them in fulfilling the responsibility that has been placed on them. In case their admonition turns out to be in vain, they should then avoid conjugal relations with them to make them realize the gravity of their disobedient attitude. In case even this step fails to improve the wives’ behavior, the husbands are then advised to beat them lightly.
We may determine in the light of the referred verse of the Qur’an that unless the matter is of the nature of “Nushooz” or refusal to accept the position of the other and thus may ultimately result in the breaking of the household, the man should not resort to beating. Obviously, in the stages of admonition and restrain from conjugal relations, the matter shall be brought under extensive discussion and views shall be exchanged thoroughly. Seen in this perspective, the referred verse has actually provided a safeguard for women against domestic abuse and beating. Men, in other words, have been restrained from resorting to any kind of physical punishment, unless it is determined that the matter is one of “Nushooz“. They are not allowed to take any such action on the basis of any trivial difference of opinion.
As should be obvious from the above explanation the stated authority is given to a man only to fulfill the responsibility of maintaining a peaceful and smooth running of the family. If women are allowed to show disrespect towards the responsibility assigned to the man, it is quite likely that the same attitude is transferred to the other members of the family and an environment of complete anarchy is allowed to take charge. It must also be kept in mind that such situation of anarchy, if left unchecked for some time, in the basic unit of the society, i.e. the family, can find its way to the very roots of the whole society and then destabilize its whole structure. Islam does not want such a situation to materialize and it is only to prevent it that it has given the referred commandment.
This is the complete context and nature of the statement that you have referred to in your question.
16th February 1998