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May a husband beat his wife/wives?
No religion causes so much confusion as Islam. The volume of controversial topics it presents causes the man in the street, whether he be Muslim or not, to completely lose his bearings.

In 2004, an Imam was sentenced in Spain for publishing a book wherein he advocated how a husband ought to beat his disobedient wife. See this link:

MADRID – A court in Barcelona has sentenced an Imam of Egyptian origin to fifteen months imprisonment for publishing a book with guidelines for husbands who feel in the mood to beat their wives. When a 'rebellious wife' after 'serene dialogue' and light punishment still refuses to listen (to reason), beating her with a light rod is permitted. The Imam argued that most of what he wrote in his book stood literally proclaimed in the Koran. The judge, nevertheless, decided that Spain is not 'the Arabian desert of fourteen centuries ago'.

How can this be? Is this attitude for real? How can a man who spends his life in the study and the preaching of the Islamic faith contend that Islam approves of violence against women? Doesn’t everybody know that Islam preaches peace and professes great respect for women!
The “rumours” that Islam approves of husbands that are beating their wives are stubborn and persistent and regularly raise their ugly heads. It is to be noted that these rumours originate with both Muslim scholars and critical non-Muslims or ex-Muslims. The Muslim leaders are generally labelled extremists that are followers of an “extreme interpretation” of Islam. Non-Muslims who contend that Islam allows violence within the family are steadfastly denounced as Islamophobes; they are “sowing the seeds of hatred or incite discrimination versus Muslims”.

In this article, we intend to clarify a few of these issues.

The origin for the “rumour” that Islam permits, or even orders, a husband to beat his disobedient wife if nothing else works comes from Koran verse 4.34:

4.34 Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. 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]: For Allah is Most High, great [above you all].

In this passage, the Arabic word “Idrabuhunna” is generally translated as “beat her”. Actually, the original Arabic denotes the feminine plural, thus meaning “beat them”. In the Western world, this causes embarrassment for Muslims; hence they contort themselves to come up with a new translation. These novel translations are steadfastly provided by converts to Islam who are not altogether proficient in Arabic. Every Arab native speaker will translate “idrabuhunna” as “beat them”.

Allah proposes in this verse to proceed in three stages. First, the husband of the rebellious, recalcitrant wife should talk to her to convince her to change her errant ways. Secondly, he ought to abstain from sharing his bed with her. And if this fails to correct her deviant behaviour, then he can take recourse to beating her.

Linda Bogaert of the in-the-meantime folded Centre for Islam in Europe that was associated with the University of Ghent makes a commendable attempt at the art of contortionism to try to prove that “beating” is not meant to be taken as “beating” but really ought to be interpreted as “leaving”.

We have dissected her article with surgical precision. The result can be found in Part 8 and Part 9 of our commentary on a lengthy article about the woman in Islam. You can read her complete text on the following link.

It really does turn wholly absurd when a newspaper article triumphantly states that verse 4.34 is incorrectly translated. In support, the article refers to a website with a translation of the Koran that commits the same error and hence also maintains that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Check here for more details.

But how then do scholars interpret this verse 4.34? For an explanation, we return to our Shariah handbook of the Shafi’i School. Read along with us in §m10.12 on pages 540 to 542.   

In note (4) we read the following:

If a wife does not satisfy one of the above-mentioned obligations, she shall be deemed rebellious and her husband shall take the following measures to put her straight:

(a) admonition and advice, by explaining to her the unlawfulness of her rebellion and its nefarious consequences for the marriage, and by listening to her own point of view;

(b) in case admonition is ineffective,  he shall no longer share one bed with her, by which both shall learn to what extent they have need of one another;

(c) if keeping aloof from her does not help, he shall be allowed to beat her if he is of the opinion that this will put her again on the righteous path, but otherwise it is not permitted. Beating her must not leave her with injuries and is the ultimate step in trying to save the family;

(d) if the difference of opinion cannot be resolved thereafter, each partner shall choose an arbiter to help solve the conflict or to dissolve the marriage into divorce.

A truly remarkable procedure!! The scholars have reached the conclusion that the three-step plan from the Koran can likewise be effectively applied in this our 21st century!! As they put it to the world, the Koran is not just a dusty stuffy book of precepts and tenets that are relevant only “within their own particular context”. No, not at all! The Koran is the guiding principle for all people for all times and all places.

But, isn’t it true that Mohammed has never beaten his wives and is his example not the conduct to follow? See the following Hadith of Muslim, 30.5756:

A'isha reported that Allah's Messenger (may Peace be upon him) never beat anyone with his hand, neither a woman nor a servant, but only, in the case when he had been fighting in the cause of Allah and he never took revenge for anything unless the things made inviolable by Allah were made violable; he then took revenge for Allah, the Exalted and Glorious.

In consequence, “moderate” Muslims state that a husband may not beat his wife, following Mohammed’s example. In contrast, religious leaders state correctly that the Koran takes precedence over this Hadith and that it is not because Mohammed did not beat his own wives that beating wives is prohibited.

When she recounted the above Hadith, Aisha had ostensible forgotten what happened to her, namely the little tale she told and that is recorded in a lengthy Hadith from the Muslim collection. In this tale, she recounts that Mohammed once beat her so severely that she suffered pain. Her “crime” was to have followed Mohammed, curious about what he was up to when he suddenly left the home at night. See the following link: Sahih Muslim 4.2127:

...  He beat me on my breasts, which was painful, and then said to me: were you under the impression that Allah and His Apostle would ever behave unjustly? ...

The coup de grace to the contention that Mohammed was opposed to the beating of wives is written in the following Hadith van Abu Dawood (11.2141):

“Abdullah ibn Abu Dhubab has handed down to us: “Iyas ibn Abdullah ibn AbuDhubab yas ibn Abdullah ibn AbuDhubab reported the Apostle of Allah (Peace _be_upon_him) as saying: Do not beat Allah's handmaidens, but when Umar came to the Apostle of Allah (Peace_be_upon_him) and said: Women have become emboldened towards their husbands, he (the Prophet) gave permission to beat them. Then many women came round the family of the Apostle of Allah (Peace_be_upon_him) complaining against their husbands. So the Apostle of Allah (Peace _be_upon_him) said: Many women have gone round Muhammad’s family complaining against their husbands. They are not the best among you.”

It appears from this Hadith that Mohammed first forbade men to beat their wives but, later on, pressured by Umar who felt men were losing control over their wives, he gave them permission. The background for this idea of losing control over the wives may be found in the fact that the first Muslims that had emigrated from Mecca and were of a very patriarchical mindset came into contact with the society in Medina where women were certainly influential in social affairs.  This appears from the following Hadith of Bukhari 3.43.648:

‘We, the people of Quraish, used to have authority over women, but when we came to live with the Ansar [in Medina], we noticed that the Ansari women had the upper hand over their men, so our women started acquiring the habits of the Ansari women. Once I shouted at my wife and she paid me back in my coin and I disliked that she should answer me back. 

The fact that the beating of wives was a topic during Mohammed’s lifetime is evidenced by a number of pronouncements, amongst which:
Bukhari 7.62.132 wherein Mohammed discusses the beating of women and slaves.
Muslim 9.3506: wherein Mohammed’s wives Hafsa and Aisha are in his presence beaten by their respective fathers.

Based on the above reasoning, Islamic scholars have concluded that a husband is entitled to beat his wife. The only question left then is in which way he is allowed to do this. Again a subject of many opinions. However, one point of consent amongst all of the parties studying this question is that the wife must not be hit in the face. This rule is also valid for pets and slaves ; see the pronouncement of
Muslim 24.5281
Jabir has handed down to us that Allah’s Messenger forbade (that animals be beaten) across the face or be branded on the face.