Beating one’s wife for disobedience

Surah 4 (Al-Nisa/Women): 34

Men have charge of women because Allah has preferred the one above the other and because they spend their wealth on them. Right-acting women are obedient, safeguarding their husbands´ interests in their absence as Allah has guarded them.

If there are women whose disobedience you fear, you may admonish them, refuse to sleep with them, and then beat them.

But if they obey you, do not look for a way to punish them.

Allah is All-High, Most Great.

[‘The Nobel Qur’an’ Abdalhaqq and Aisha Bewley, 1999 (husband and wife)]


Notwithstanding the Qur’an’s hope that parties to a marriage will live together in amity, {4.34} establishes that domestic peace is founded upon a man’s right of authority over his wife and a wife’s duty of obedience to her husband. {4.34} proposes two justifications for this.

The first is that this is in accordance with the natural order as fixed by God: ‘Because Allah has made one of them to excel the other’, see also {2.228}And men have a degree over (women)’. For more on Quranic view of the pre-eminence of men over women see 〈76.〉


The second justification that is offered is the wife’s presumed financial dependence on her husband – ‘because (men) spend their wealth on (women)’. This statement, which could never, even in the most patriarchal society have been true for all marriages, seems particularly incongruous, given Muhammad’s own reputed early financial dependence upon his first wife, the successful businesswoman and his former employer, Khadija.


Where a man’s wife fails to demonstrate the requisite level of obedience to her husband, which one must conclude is to be determined by the latter, {4.34} provides him with three sanctions: first admonishment, then alienation (deriving from ‘h-j-r‘, the same word as is used for Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Yathrib 〈37.〉, in practise ‘sulking’) and finally physical chastisement.


Many translations qualify ‘strike’ or ‘beat‘ with some mitigating qualifier such as ‘(lightly)’, ‘(as a last resort)’ or ‘(without harshness)’ based upon several hadith in which Muhammad is said to have instructed that a man should not beat his wife either with a weapon, or upon her face, or in the same manner in which he would beat a slave or camel, immediately before lying with her . However, such limitations are tempered by another hadith according to which {4.34} was sent down to Muhammad for the purpose of requiring him to revoke a punishment he had ordered against a follower for having beaten his wife, so severely that ‘her skin was as green as her cloak‘ . It is certainly utterly fanciful that this verse, the final resort in an escalating regime of sanctions for enforcing obedience, was ever intended, as some claim, to permit only a symbolic tap.


See also Job being apparently instructed to fulfil his pledge to strike someone (his wife?) with a bundle of rushes 〈24.〉