When you can hit your wife

Yusuf Ali translates an infamous verse in the Qur’an – 4:34  – in part as

…As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance):

This license for husbands to “beat their wives” has caused much consternation and attempts have been made by various people to soften its meaning through careful interpretation. However, IMHO much of this is misdirected towards the potential meaning of “daraba” the verb translated as “beat” above. The word beat was perhaps used in this translation wrongly. The word best translates as “hit” rather than beat, because beat implies repetition, but this is not in the word “daraba”. While hit can mean many things the clear meaning here is as a way to seek the ending of some kind of disobedient behaviour and so hit in its most obvious sense is indeed implied.

Here is my attempt to translate this crucial verse:

… and those women threatening to move out, warn them, keep away from them in bed and hit them. If they obey you, then do not seek to do anything against them.

The first thing to note here is that a wife may blamelessly seek safety from an abusive husband including potentially moving out and into a refuge. A woman seeking to uphold the law and defend her rights is not what is meant here. What is meant here is the total opposite: a woman threatening to break the law and to violate the rights of her husband by abandoning the marriage without seeking a proper legal divorce settlement.

In Islamic marriage the basic exchange is that the man provides a “mahr”, an often large sum of money in exchange for a woman’s commitment to stay with him. Should she move out, deserting her husband without due process of reaching a settlement where she may have to return some or all of the mahr, she would be committing a grievous crime against her husband at least and potentially against others such as any children. It would be a breach of law, contract and a theft. The husband has the right and obligation to take actions to stop such threats. He must first warn her of the punishment she would face for desertion. If this does not work, he should not sleep with her. If she still threatens desertion then, and only then , he can try to bring her to her senses by hitting her.

If none of these measures works then the couple should appoint arbitrators and reach a suitable settlement of reconciliation or divorce.

Key to this understanding is a close examination of the phrase ” تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ”  which is translated by Yusuf Ali above as “fear disloyalty”.  The word translated as fear is “khafa”, however “fear” does not capture the meaning of this adequately. You can fear something which you have no evidence for, but this is not the case with “khafa”. The Arabic word implies clear evidence which leads to the fear and so it sometimes is translated as “know of” rather than “fear”.

An interesting example is quoted in Lane’s dictionary. Here Lane provides a translation of a complementary verse to 4:34, where a woman may “fear” the actions of her husband (4:128):

“…and if a woman know that there is on the part of her husband injurious treatment or unkindness or estrangement…”

The full verse in Yusuf Ali’s translation is

“If a wife fears cruelty or desertion, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best; even though men’s souls are swayed by greed. But if ye do good and practise self-restraint, God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”

This verse captures the meaning of the word “nushuz” and is translated as desertion, but it still translates “khafa” as fear unlike Lane.

A better way to capture the overlap of knowing something is about to happen and being afraid of it is to be “made to fear”, or simply “threatened”.

One verse which has similarities in many ways is 8:58 (Yusuf Ali translation):

“If thou fearest treachery from any group, throw back (their covenant) to them, (so as to be) on equal terms: for God loveth not the treacherous.”

Again this translation as “fear” is problematic here. Throwing back – i.e. breaking –  a peace treaty with someone just because you fear their treachery would be wrong and would not be “equal terms”. Throwing back would be an explicit threat or announcement. If that is equal terms then the “fear of betrayal” has to be something equal to an explicit threat or action implying an imminent threat.

“If you are threatened with treachery from any group threaten them back to be on equal terms. …”

“Nushuz” has a few uses in the Qur’an, all of which can be captured by the linguistic meaning of it as to “move out”: In 2:259 a donkey is resurrected as its bones move out (of their resting places) and are then clothed in flesh, in 58:11 people are told that they should make space when told to do so and to (get up and) move out when told to do so. Lastly we have the verses mentioned above where it concerns either a husband or a wife threatening to moving out; Moving out in the context of marriage is desertion or abandonment.

The licence to hit a wife is severely limited by verse 4:34. It is  limited to wives who threaten to move out and do not respond to warnings of the consequences nor to seeing what it means in part by their husbands refusing to sleep with them.

It is justified because it may prevent a situation worse than the couple separating though having a settled divorce. Either party might make a threat to move out, but only the husband can try to prevent it by an act of enforcement so that the more severe consequences of law enforcement are not needed. Divorce is preferable to the act that is threatened and should be arranged if the threat is not withdrawn.

A wife must obey her husband to stop threatening to move out by actions or by words. If either party wants a divorce they should ask for one and reach a legal settlement. Desertion is to steal the the rights of your spouse, to steal property and maybe to kidnap children. The relevant authorities would be responsible to enforce the law against the deserter who may end up a convicted and imprisoned criminal.

This is a serious crime, so if nothing else can prevent it, a husband may try to bring his wife to a realisation of how serious it is with a hit.