Two verses?  Yeah, but these are doozies!  I can’t quite slide past these:

Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money.  Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husbands’ absence.  If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them.  If they obey you, you have no right to act against them: God is most high and great.  If you [believers] fear that couple may break up, appoint one arbiter from his family and one from hers.  Then, if the couple want to put things right, God will bring about a reconciliation between them: He is all knowing, all aware. (4:34-35)

Stop!  Did I read that correctly?  “Hit them?”  If your wife gets a superiority complex and gets too big for her britches, slap her around?  The older translations (Dawood, Pickthall, Arberry) all say “beat them.”  Ali softens it by adding a word: “beat them [lightly].”  Submission by abuse?  Really? 

First observation: somehow “take good care of your wives” and “hit them” go together in the flow of these verses.  It is going to be hard to reconcile those two to my mind, but here goes the argument.

The husband is given care of the wife as a “guardian.”  He is responsible for her welfare physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  He is to take great measures against anything that threatens her well-being, including her own arrogance.  If a man fears that his wife is being “high-handed” (nushuz; Pickthall: “ill-will and nasty conduct;” Ali: “disloyalty and ill conduct”) and therefore the integrity of the marriage and the wife’s heart are in jeopardy, he is allowed to take action to correct her and get her back to a place that will bless her once again.  Notice that nushuz is something a man can do to his wife as well (4:128), so we are not talking about a wife who refuses to be submissive, as a Muslim man is not expected to be submissive to his wife and therefore could not be guilty of this.  We are talking about a spouse who callously, disrespectfully treats the other with meanness and spite.  Both men and women can do this.  Marriages, families, virtue and the very fabric of good society are at risk from such behavior that goes unchecked. 

We should note that both the husband and the wife have the right to divorce if one fears ill-will or irreconcilable differences with the other.  Theoretically, this is not a situation where a woman is trapped with a domineering husband (though in reality it is not always that simple, is it?)  This is a couple working out the wrinkles in a marriage they wish to preserve.   

According to this passage, if a wife should choose to conduct herself in such a hateful manner, a man is to deal with her using four steps that ascend in severity.  The hope is that as few steps as possible are necessary. 

  1. Admonish her with stern words.
  2. Separate himself for her sexually so that she feels the deprivation of companionship and rights her ways.
  3. Hit her in such a way that she “wakes up” and assumes her expected role as loving spouse.  Traditions about Muhammad (hadiths) say the Prophet said these beatings could not cause bruising, injury or serious hurt.  One commentator likened this to a single, open-handed slap intended only to bring the wife back to her senses, the kind that “shakes the woman out of her mood and she falls on his shoulders, with both happier than before” (Ahmad Shafaat). 
  4. If none of these work, the couple is to sit down with a trusted member of each extended family and try to work out their differences. 

Do all Muslims understand the admonition to “hit them” in the way described here?  No.  Do all Christians understand the Bible the same way?  Some Muslim men could not imagine laying a finger on their wives.  But are there some Muslim men who use this passage as permission to repeatedly batter their wives out of anger and a desire for control?  Yes.  Just as there are some Christian men who use Ephesians 5:22-24 to do the same.  Still, the verse is there.

So, after understanding this passage in context, what do you think?

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