Is the Quran to Blame? Looking at Domestic Violence and Scriptural Interpretation

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Is the Quran to Blame? Looking at Domestic Violence and Scriptural Interpretation

How have passages from the Quran been interpreted and misinterpreted with regards to domestic violence? Part two of this series by Hadia Mubarak focuses on scripture, while part one looked at the statistics and issues around domestic violence within Muslim communities.

What role does religion play in influencing Muslims’ views on domestic violence? A 2017 report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) finds that Muslim Americans are just as likely to report domestic violence cases to law enforcement as other faith groups in America. Yet they were nearly twice as likely to report such cases to religious clergy as well.

Does the resort to religious clergy reflect Muslims’ presumption that domestic violence is a faith-based problem or rather, does it reflect the view that religion provides a way out? What complicates this discussion is misinterpretation of religious scripture.

As historians, scholars of religion and psychologists have argued, religious texts do not drive human behavior. However, they influence our beliefs, perceptions of the world and moral compass. For this reason, it is critical we directly address sources of confusion and gross misunderstanding of the Quran’s view on domestic violence.  More specifically, one passage of the Quran, Q. 4:34, has been at the center of much controversy in modern debates on gender in the Quran and specifically, the problem of domestic violence.

The second half of this verse, the portion of relevant concern, reads: As for those (women) on whose part you fear nushūz, admonish them, abandon them in beds, and then, wadribuhunna. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great.” (2)

The terms nushūz and wadribuhunna cannot be translated without adopting a specific opinion among a spectrum of interpretations, which demonstrates the difficulty of translating a scripture like the Quran into another language. For the most part, medieval exegetes generally understood the term nushūz to mean a wife’s recalcitrance or disobedience. (3) The three other most commonly cited opinions for nushūz among medieval exegetes were to rise above the husband, sexual disobedience, or hatred towards the husbands.

Modern exegetes, in contrast, departed from understanding nushuz as disobedience and viewed it more so as a wife’s serious transgression or sexual deviation. Interestingly, the Quran uses the identical term in verse 4:128 to describe a husband’s nushuz. Nonetheless, most pre-modern exegetes interpreted the term differently as it applied to men.

They interpreted men’s nushūz instead as hatred, cruelty, or the sexual abandonment of women. (4) The notion of men’s defiance or disobedience makes no appearance in the exegesis on Q. 4:128.

Why does this matter? How one defines this term is of critical importance because it determines whether a husband can then apply the set of three disciplinary measures described in verse 4:34. Is a wife’s nushuz simply her disobedience to her husband? Could it possibly be something as trivial as refusing her husband’s request to cook when she prefers to eat out?

Or, is nushuz a wife’s sexual transgression? Is it the possibility that she might be bringing men to her bed other than her own husband? One can easily recognize why this term lends itself to much contention in the scholarly debate on gender in the Quran.

Pre-modern exegetes who interpreted nushuz as a wife’s disobedience often grounded their understanding of disobedience in a discourse of legal rights and responsibilities. Therefore, a wife’s nushuz, or disobedience, meant her refusal to fulfill what jurists deemed to be a husband’s marital right. For some pre-modern exegetes, it specifically referred to a wife’s refusal to have sex with her husband.

For wives who are found guilty of nushuz, the Quran prescribes three disciplinary measures: According to a face-value interpretation, husbands are first advised to counsel their wives, second, to abandon them sexually and third, wadribuhunna, often translated as “hit them.”

How have Muslims understood this passage, both in the modern period and throughout Muslim history? Has it been interpreted as a license to hit women?

First, most importantly, it is anachronistic to read a text that was revealed in the seventh century based on modern realities. The first lesson students of scriptural interpretation learn is that one must read a text within its historical context. This is true of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as much as it is for the Quran.

By examining the historical context of this passage, one can deduce its restrictive rather than prescriptive nature. As Asma Barlas, author of Believing Women: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, eloquently argues, “At a time when men did not need permission to abuse women, this Ayah [verse] simply could not have functioned as a license; in such a context, it could have only been a restriction insofar as the Quran made daraba the measure of last, not the first, or even the second, resort.” (5)

Historicizing the passage is not the only way Muslims have reconciled this verse with their sensibilities that a man should never hit his wife, no matter the reason or the method. Muslim jurists and exegetes, from the 7th century to the 21st, have restricted the application of this verse by counterbalancing it against another body of tradition: the Prophet’s words known as hadith.

The Prophet’s life, words and precedents have long functioned as a primary source through which Muslims sought to understand the Quran’s meaning. In a number of hadith, the Prophet explicitly forbade men from hitting their wives or strongly rebuked them for doing so.  Below are just a few examples:

  • “Never beat God’s handmaidens.” (6)
  • On the authority of ‘Abdallah bin Zam’a, the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Could any of you beat your wife as he would a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (7)
  • On the authority of Iyas ibn Abdullah ibn Abi Dhi’b, it was reported to the Prophet (pbuh) that some of his Companions beat their wives, whereupon he said, “Certainly those are not the best among you.” (8)
  • On the authority of Aisha (ra), “The Prophet never beat any of his wives or servants; in fact he did not strike anything with his hand except if he were to struggle in the cause of God…” (9)

In fact, for a few exegetes, these prophetic traditions were regarded as compelling evidence that this verse in no way allows men to hit their wives. The earliest such opinion originates with ʿAṭāʾ ibn Abī Rabāḥ (d. 115 AH/733 CE), a jurist who was regarded as Mecca’s “mufti” just a century after Prophet Muhammad’s death. He argued that disciplining wives, even when they are guilty of nushūz, is reprehensible (makrūh). (10)

While Muslim exegetes in the medieval period generally interpreted wadribuhunna to mean “hit them,” most reflected a general discomfort with the notion that a man could hit his wife and therefore, imposed procedural limitations, such as:1) Ascertaining that the wife is in fact guilty of nushuz,

2) hitting could only be the last resort after exhausting the first two options,

3) it could not inflict harm, and

4) it should be symbolic in nature, such as with a handkerchief or siwak.

It was this last prevalent medieval interpretation, transmitted over the ages to the modern day, which the two Australian women were describing in the viral video in April. Still, at least two medieval exegetes, the 12th century Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148) and the 13th century Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d.1209), argued that it was reprehensible for a man to ever hit his wife.

The first exegete based this on the above-mentioned legal opinion of ibn Abī Rabāḥ. (11) The second exegete arrived at a similar interpretation, but employed as evidence the legal opinion Al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), a founder of one of Sunni Islam’s four legal schools.

In the modern period, the term wadribuhunna has been interpreted with a broader range of meaning. A number of modern scholars have challenged whether this term refers to “hitting” at all. One such work, Marital Discord, has received much publicity. In this work, Abdulhamid Abusulayman analyzes all the connotations of the verb daraba in the Quran and produces seventeen distinct nuances of this verb.

After a careful analysis of the purpose that daraba serves in each verse, he deduces that the general connotations of the root verb daraba in the Quran mean to separate, to distance, to depart, to abandon and so forth.(12) Thus, in consideration of the verse’s aim to reconcile the spouses and save the marriage, Abusulayman construes daraba in verse 4:34 to mean ‘to leave’ the marital home, ‘to move away’ or ‘to separate” from her. (13) Abusulayman supports this meaning with the Prophet’s own conduct with his wives.

Laleh Bakhtiar, the first female to translate the Quran into English, has adopted Abusulayman’s interpretation as the preferred meaning of wadribuhunna in verse 4:34. Accordingly, in The Sublime Quran, she translates wadribuhunna as “to separate from.”

Another modern English translator of the Quran, Ahmed Ali, translates the term as “to have intercourse with,” a meaning he adopts from the classical lexicon, Al-Mufridat fi Gharib al-Quran. (14) Mohamed Rida Beshir, an expert on Muslim family relations and author of Family Leadership: An Obligation to Fulfill, Not an Excuse to Abuse, also adopts this meaning as one of three possible meanings of wadribuhunna. (15)

Admittedly, this makes the last measure a reversal of the preceding step to sexually abandon wives who are in a state of nushuz. 

Still, other modern scholars have arrived at distinct meanings of this term. For example, Abdullah Adhami, a contemporary scholar of Quranic exegesis, argues that the term assumes a figurative meaning in verse 4:34, which would mean, “to rescue or to move away from demise or danger,” demonstrating to her the gravity of her transgression. (16)

Scholars such as Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan and Rafi Ullah Shahab offer other possibilities. For Wadud, the meaning of wadribuhunna could mean “to set an example,” based on other uses of this term in the Quran. Hassan and Shahab both interpret daraba as “to confine’ women or ‘to prevent’ them from leaving their homes in the context of this verse. (17)

Do modern or even medieval interpretations of Q. 4:34 that reject its interpretation as condoning spousal violence reflect a departure from the Quran’s ‘true’ meaning, as extremists on both ends of the spectrum might charge?

First, authorial intent is beyond the conclusive, definitive grasp of any human being, other than the Prophet himself, according to Muslims. Second, throughout Quranic exegetical history, not a single interpretation has condoned domestic violence based on this verse. Rather, exegetes, if they accepted the face-value meaning of the term wadribuhunna, applied restrictions on its application. They based this on the words and conduct of the Prophet himself, whose traditions were regarded as the most authoritative source of Quranic interpretation.

Finally, it is reductionist to attempt to explain the behavior of a human being based on what a single Quranic verse of 6,236 verses states. The motives that drive human beings, for better or for worse, are much more complex than to be reduced to reading, or in this case, misreading a single passage of the Quran.

As psychologists and therapists confirm, domestic violence is not a religious problem, but a socio-psychological one. ISPU’s findings show that not only are Muslim communities not disproportionately prone to domestic violence, but that a significant number of Muslims report crimes of domestic abuse to their religious leaders, which suggests that Muslims see religion as providing solutions to cases of domestic violence, not entrenching them.

Hadia Mubarak is a lecturer on Religion at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) and a scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).  She received her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Georgetown University 2014. Her dissertation, “Intersections: Modernity, Gender and Qurʾanic Exegesis,” explores the strains of change and continuity between pre-modern and modern exegesis on gender in the Quran.

This article was published by Patheos on July 19, 2017.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.  

  1. Salma Abugideiri, “Talking Points – Domestic Violence (Sample Khutbahs),” Peaceful Families Project, September 24, 2011, accessed May 18, 2017.
  2. Quran, 4:34. Author’s translation.
  3. Karen Bauer, Room for Interpretation, 155-156; Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, 180. Chaudhry writes, “Some exegetes used “disobedience” as a general synonym for ‘nushūz’, without specifying particular acts of disobedience that could qualify as nushūz. Such exegetes simply replaced ‘nushūzahunna’ with ‘ʻiṣyānahunna’” (188-9).
  4. Mubarak, Hadia. “Intersections: Modernity, Gender and Quranic Exegesis.” (PhD Diss. Georgetown University, 2014), 183.
  5. Asma Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qurʾan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 188.
  6. Narrated by Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Ibn Hibban and Hakim.
  7. Narrated by Bukhari (vol. 6, p. 153), Muslim and other authorities.
  8. Classified as Sahih. Narrated by Ahmad, Abu Dawud, Al-Nasai, Ibn Hibban and al-Hakim. See Mausu‘at al-Sunnah, “Abu Dawud,” Vol. 8, no. 2146. (Tunis: Dar al-Sahnun and Dar al-Dawah, 1992), 608.
  9. Fath al-Bari Vol. 9, p. 249.
  10. Ayesha Chaudhry, “Wife-Beating in the Pre-Modern Islamic Tradition: An Inter-Disciplinary Study of Ḥadīth, Qurʼanic Exegesis and Islamic” (PhD diss., University of New York, 2009), 287-289.
  11. Ibid., 287-289. He determined that disciplining wives, even when they are guilty of nushūz, is reprehensible (makrūh).
  12. Abdul-Hamid Abusulayman, Marital Discord: Recapturing the Full Islamic Spirit of Human Dignity (London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2003), 19.
  13. Ibid., 22.
  14. Raghib al-Isfahani points out in his Mufridat fi Gharib al-Quran that daraba metaphorically means, “to have intercourse.”  He quotes the expression “daraba al-fahl an-naqah,” meaning “the stud camel covered the she-camel,” which is also quoted by Lisan al-‘Arab.
  15. Mohamed Rida Beshir, Family Leadership: An Obligation to Fulfill, Not an Excuse to Abuse (Amana Publications, 2009), 28, 44.
  16. Abdullah Adhami, email to author, April 16, 2004.
  17. Barlas, 188-189.

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