WHEN the Indian parliament recently passed a law prescribing punishment for men beating up their women, the secretary of the Muslim Personal Law Board objected, saying parliament cannot take away a man’s right to beat up his wife when the Quran allows him to do so. It was a shocking statement, indeed.
Verse 4:34 is often quoted by traditional jurists to say that the Quran allows the beating of one’s wife as a last resort. The verse has been variously interpreted and those sensitive to women’s dignity interpret it very differently. But before we discuss the verse and its different interpretations we should know the context in which it was revealed.
The earliest commentators have discussed the occasion of the revelation of every verse. Both Tabari and Kasshaf tell us that a woman complained to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) that her husband slapped her without any fault. “What should I do?” she asked. The Prophet said “Go and retaliate”. The woman was happy but it cast a gloom over the men. They came to the Prophet, asking him how could they exercise control over their families if their wives were allowed to retaliate against them. The Prophet said the ruling he gave was his opinion but that he would wait for Allah’s revelation regarding the matter.
Thus the verse 4:34 was revealed which reads as follows (usual translation): ‘Men are the maintainers of women, with that Allah has made some of them to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth. So the good women are obedient (to Allah), guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the beds and chastise them. So if they obey you do not seek a way against them.’
The word qawwam also has been variously translated: authority, ruler, etc. But it means one who maintains or looks after. It’s a functional term, not a term of superiority as usually made out by orthodox ulema.
Thus a wife who maintains her husband or runs the household can also be called qawwam. If both spouses earn and run the household together both will be qawwam. Nushuz (rebellion, desertion, misconduct) is also used in the Quran for men and women alike. Here it refers to women.
The word daraba has several meanings. It can mean to beat, chastise, strike off (remove) and, according to Imam Raghib in Mufradat al-Quran, ‘daraba ‘ala’ means when a camel goes near the she camel. But what exactly does it mean in this verse is the real question. If we interpret wadribuhunna in the light of hadith it means striking lightly.
Tabari maintains that when the Prophet was asked how much to beat one’s wife (if one must), he struck lightly with his kerchief and said no more than this, or that he was brushing his teeth and struck with the brush and said like this and no more. But if we try to understand this verse in the light of other verses about treatment of women, it is certainly not for beating them.
The Quran repeatedly tells men to treat wives with ma’ruf or ihsan (kindly or in a good manner). ‘Even when retaining her or divorcing her, treat her kindly’ (2:229). A woman enjoys equal rights and dignity with men and hence she cannot be treated in a manner which will hurt her self-esteem. Striking her, howsoever lightly, will also hurt her dignity and imply authority of men over women. It is un-Quranic in spirit.
The Quran frequently uses the word zawj for both husband and wife, implying one of the couple and clearly indicating that the husband is just one of the couple, not an authority figure. The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) never physically or mentally harmed his wives, let alone beat them.
We find this in the verses 33:28-29 and 66:3, that when his wives made demands on him he simply remained aloof, yet he always allowed them to argue with him. Thus we come to know how the Prophet treated his wives with dignity and never even implied that they should not argue with him.
One must reflect on the meaning of ‘wadribuhunna’ and accept it in the sense of ‘separating’ or ‘removing’ or in the sense in which Imam Raghib tells us. In that case it would mean that if a woman rebels, deserts or misbehaves then first persuade her; after that leave her alone; even then if she is not persuaded strike her off (divorce her). Or go near her (if we accept Imam Raghib’s meaning) after she has been persuaded to change her behaviour.
There is a great need today to read the Quranic verses from women’s standpoint if we have to restore to them the rights the Quran has given them.
The writer is an Islamic scholar and heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.