It is widely circulated that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) permitted wife beating and Islam in general encourages violence against women. Some people go farther claiming that Islam has a violent nature not only when it comes to women but also in all respects.
However, the following are statistics which are sufficient as practical evidence that it is the wives of those criticizing Islam who experience intense suffering and need Islam to alleviate such suffering.To tell the truth, criticism should be directed to the critics of Islam when talking about domestic violence. This is what the following statistics say not me. The following is a section of a report about the United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign to End Violence against Women “UNiTE”. We notice from the following title that this section deals with violence against women by intimate partners, including, of course, husbands.
Violence by an Intimate Partner
• In Australia, Canada, and Israel 40 to 70 per cent of female murder victims were killed by their partners, according to the World Health Organization. • In the United States, one-third of women murdered each year are killed by intimate partners. • In South Africa, a woman is killed every six hours by an intimate partner. • In India, 22 women were killed each day in dowry-related murders in 2007. • In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.
We observe that when reviewing any international statistics about domestic violence against women prepared by such an unquestionably neutral, credible organization, like the UN, including the above statistics, we do not come across any Muslim state which follows Prophet Muhammad who allegedly permits wife-beating. We remark that the countries where domestic violence rates are the highest ever worldwide are non-Muslim countries. If Prophet Muhammad had really permitted wife-beating, we would have found out that the Muslim countries record the highest domestic violence rates in the world. The relevant UN reports per se serve as evidence that Prophet Muhammad did not permit wife-beating and that Islam does not encourage violence against women. Before discussing the Islamic attitude towards wife-beating, let’s first have a look at the biblical attitude to have a full picture of what the divine messages really say in this regard.
The Biblical Attitude
The Bible delineated the marriage relationship by calling the husband ba`al which implies both ownership as well as lordship (Ex. 21:28). The woman is property, whose ownership is transferred to the husband upon marriage. In the case of a divorce, the husband renounces his right to his (sexual) use of the property. If the husband’s property is damaged, compensation is paid to him. He is not only the owner of his wife, he is also the owner of her pregnancy (Ex. 21:22). All of this may have contributed to an attitude that there was nothing wrong with physically abusing women. Immodest behavior deemed worthy of punishment includes “going out with uncovered head, spinning wool with uncovered arms in the street, conversing with every man.” The list of women deemed worthy of being divorced without receiving their ketubbah, (“divorce compensation”), includes the following case as well: “Abba Saul said: Also that of a wife who curses her husband’s parents in his presence [and in his children’s presence]. R. Tarfon said: also one who screams. And who is regarded a screamer? A woman whose voice can be heard by her neighbors when she speaks inside her house” (B. Ketubbot 72a). Although beating is not allowed or even suggested in the case of the screamer, the woman who curses is in later texts repeatedly used as an example where beating is seen as a justified means to an end. A bad wife is one who does not perform the duties required of her by Jewish law, who behaves immodestly, or who curses her parents, husband, or in-laws. Rabbis regularly advise men to restrict their wives to the home and be responsible for educating them. Thus the husband, who “owns” his wife, is given a great amount of latitude in educating her. In this view it is permissible and acceptable to beat one’s wife in order to keep her in line. The rabbis who justify beating see it is a part of the overall “duties” of a husband to chastise his wife for educational purposes. In Babylon, during the post-Talmudic Geonic period, Zemah ben Paltoi, Gaon of Pumbedita (872–890), “calls upon a man to flog his wife if she is guilty of assault.” Rabbi Yehudai b. Nahman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–761) writes that: “…when her husband enters the house, she must rise and cannot sit down until he sits, and she should never raise her voice against her husband. Even if he hits her she has to remain silent, because that is how chaste women behave” (Ozar ha-Ge’onim, Ketubbot 169–170).
The Islamic Attitude
Prophet Muhammad said: “Let none of you lash his wife in the same way as he lashes a slave and then come to sleep with her at the end of the day.” (Al-Bukhari) Prophet Muhammad was such a gentleman who was so kind, polite, and friendly. He disliked violence and the use of force in General. It is narrated on the authority of ‘A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) that she said: “The Messenger of Allah never beat a servant nor a woman (of his wives).” (Declared authentic by Al-Albani) Prophet Muhammad used to urge husbands to give their wives kind treatment. For example, he said: “The one who is the most perfect in faith among the believers is he who has the best moral character among them; and the best among you are those who are the best of you (in treatment) to their wives.” (At-Tirmizi and authenticated by Al-Albani)
He also said: “No believing man should hate a believing woman (his wife): if he dislikes one characteristic of her, of a surety, he would be pleased with another.” (Muslim) Prophet Muhammad wished that all Muslims are given good treatment. However, to err is human. This important fact is duly taken into consideration. Each human being has a sort of deviation which needs to be corrected. Islam has designed a disciplinary system where believers correct one another according to rank and the authority wielded. The ruler is given the right to correct the errors of his subjects. There is a mechanism thereby the errors of the ruler himself are corrected. Each unit of the Muslim community has a head, who is entitled to correct the errors of his unit members. There is also a mechanism thereby this very head has his very errors corrected. Family may be the smallest unit of any given society. Its natural head is the father and, at the same time, the husband. He is spontaneously authorized to discipline the members of the unit he heads. Hence, the husband has an instinctive right to reform his wife and children. Islam does not allow a husband to wrong his wife, but if she does something wrong, her husband is entitled to educate and discipline her. Under Islam, the wife disciplinary scheme is multi-tiered, graded, and progressive. Such a disciplinary scheme takes into account the human nature and the steps by which it is more likely to be disciplined. Such steps are prescribed by the Qur’an. Allah says:
Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], hit them (gently). But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. And if you fear dissension between the two, send an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both desire reconciliation, Allah will cause it between them. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Acquainted [with all things]. (An-Nisaa’ 4:34-35)
The above verses prescribe the measures to be taken to tame a rebellious wife. Such measures are ordered by effectiveness. According to the above verses, the first measure is an oral one, which is represented in admonition, advice and warning. The second measure is an emotional one as represented in turning one’s back to one’s wife in the same bed or sleeping in another bed. The third measure is a physical one where a wife is physically disciplined by such a light hitting which is not intended to harm her but to let her feel escalation and to pressurize her into changing mind and taking heed. If all of those measures do not help, the last and final measure is having arbitrators sent by each side. If such arbitrators manage to agree on a positive result, the marriage will be allowed to continue. If they fail to reach a settlement, then marriage can be terminated peacefully.
Considering such measures, they are, I think, quite reasonable, practical and effective. As a matter of fact, successful discipline is initiated by an oral action which is, failing that, followed by an emotional action which is, failing that, concluded by a physical action. If all such actions do not work, separation can then take place to put an end to an unsuccessful marriage. Such a disciplinary scheme was dictated by the human nature. Islam had to adopt it for it is a practical way of life which should bear the human nature of its followers in mind. Prophet Muhammad did not like such hitting, albeit symbolic and light, given that he himself did not have recourse to it. Prophet Muhammad initially forbade any form of physical discipline of women, but this was unviable.
Reality imposed itself on Islam. There are some women who cannot be disciplined except by hitting. There are certain environments, contexts and milieus where physical discipline is the most effective method of correction. Islam has to deal with such atmospheres. The ignorance of the nature of the environment and the insistence on the adoption of utopian ideals are more likely to spoil rather than reform societies. Prophet Muhammad’s prohibition of beating wives is historically established. `Abdullah ibn Abi Dhubab reported that the Messenger of Allah said, “Do not beat the female slaves of Allah.” Then `Umar came to the Prophet and said, “The women have become bold towards their husbands,” and so he made an allowance to hit them. Then many women surrounded the family of the Messenger of Allah to complain about their husbands. The Messenger of Allah then said, “The household of Muhammad has been surrounded by many women who were complaining about their husbands. Those men are not among the best of you.”
From this time on, Prophet Muhammad permitted hitting (rather than beating) women. There is a big difference between hitting and beating. Islam permits hitting which is just a physical expression of disapproval which is not intended for causing injury, wound or any form of harm, unlike beating, battering or similar synonyms which stand for the intention to cause harm deliberately as a sort of revenge or retaliation. Describing the method of hitting permitted by Islam, Ataa remarked that it is light hitting by a Siwak (a tooth stick which used to be used as a toothbrush). However, Prophet Muhammad did not prescribe a certain method of hitting because he himself did not hit anybody before as a form of discipline outside battles. Nevertheless, Prophet Muhammad used to stress that the hitting permitted by Islam is a light one.
For example, he once said: “Fear Allah regarding your wives, for you have taken them by Allah’s covenant and were allowed to sexually enjoy with them by Allah’s Words. You have a right from them that they do not allow anyone you dislike to sit on your mat. If they do that, then hit them gently. They have the right to be spent on and to be clothed according to what is reasonable.” In reply to a question about the wife’s right, he also said: “To feed her whenever you feed yourself, to dress her whenever you dress yourself, and not to slap the face, nor to ascribe her to ugliness (i.e. to say ‘may Allah deface you’), nor to leave the house in case you are to forsake her.” (Abu Dawud and authenticated by Al-Albani)
Finally, it is ironical that the critics of Prophet Muhammad blame him for something they are heavily engaged therein. It is sarcastic enough that they blame him for permitting light hitting of wives, while they harshly batter their wives as established by the statistics provided above.
1- The Glorious Qur’an (Sahih International Translation)
2- Sahih Al-Bukhari
3- The Holy Bible (Visit biblegateway.com)
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