Spousal Abuse


Written by Mohamed Rida Beshir


In his wonderful book Letters to My Elders in Islam, Dr. J F Dirks, under the title of “On Spousal Abuse” says, “a couple of years ago, a social worker at a community mental health center in a distant American city contacted me about an urgent problem a member of her staff was encountering. It seems that one of our Muslim sisters had sought help at their clinic because she had been physically abused by her husband on several occasions. While the husband had agreed to meet with the mental health staff, he had adamantly insisted that it was his religious right to beat his wife and had apparently proceeded to quote from the Qur’an in support of his claim.

ٱلرِّجَالُ قَوَّٲمُونَ عَلَى ٱلنِّسَآءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعۡضَهُمۡ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضٍ۬ وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُواْ مِنۡ أَمۡوَٲلِهِمۡ‌ۚ فَٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتُ قَـٰنِتَـٰتٌ حَـٰفِظَـٰتٌ۬ لِّلۡغَيۡبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ ٱللَّهُ‌ۚ وَٱلَّـٰتِى تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَٱهۡجُرُوهُنَّ فِى ٱلۡمَضَاجِعِ وَٱضۡرِبُوهُنَّ‌ۖ فَإِنۡ أَطَعۡنَڪُمۡ فَلَا تَبۡغُواْ عَلَيۡہِنَّ سَبِيلاً‌ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّ۬ا ڪَبِيرً۬ا

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and their husbands) and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g., her chastity, property, etc.) As to those women on whose part you see ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly if it is useful), but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.”[1]

The social worker informed me that this is not the first such occurrence of spousal abuse by a Muslim husband. She went on ahead to tell me that community health clinics and battered women’s shelters around the country were ever more frequently encountering cases where Muslim husbands were claiming that it was their religious right to strike their wives, often leaving them horribly beaten”[2] 

The Soundvision web page on Domestic Violence is full of horror stories on Muslim husbands physically abusing and mistreating their wives. In some cases, this abuse even resulted in death[3].

Having counselled many Muslim families, we know that this ill and unacceptable behavior exists among some Muslim husbands. The irony of the situation is that, as we have seen in Dr. Dirk’s story, most of those who practice this crime justify their actions using the Qur’an. They always quote verse 34 of Surah Al-Nesaa’ (Chapter 4) which is known among Muslims as the verse of Qawamah.

Does Islam Promote Spousal Abuse?

There is no place in Islam for spousal abuse. There is no doubt that Islam liberated women and contributed positively toward the restoration of women’s dignity and rights. Any fair-minded people who study the original sources of Islam, i.e., the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad SAAW, would undoubtedly and easily reach this obvious and clear conclusion. However, many cultural practices of some Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds are completely contrary to Islam’s teachings regarding women. These practices have certainly contributed in a negative way to the status of women in Islam. Islam holds women in a very high and noble position as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as daughters, as aunts, and as grandmothers. Needless to say, if we compare the situation of women before the advent of Islam in various corners of the globe, including the Arabian Peninsula itself, with what Islam did for women, we can see the huge difference in women’s status and rights in favor of Islam.

However, this is not the image and impression that non-Muslims have about Islam and Muslim women. In fact, it is not even the understanding among many Muslims, due to so many cultural distortions. Realizing this, in the recent century particularly, many scholars have elaborated in various works in many languages on the true status of women in Islam. Among these works are, Status of Women in Islam and Polygamy in Islamic Law by Dr. Jamal Badawi, Women in Islam and Muslim Society by Dr. Hasan Turabi, Feminism and Muslim Women by Sajda Nazlee, The Place of Women in Islamic Life by Dr. Yusuf al Qaradawi, and Women Between Islam and Western Society by Maulana Wahududdin Khan[4]. These books have enriched the Islamic library and provided much needed material for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to understand the true position of Muslim women in Islam.

On the other hand, many unfair writers, orientalists, secular Muslims, and supporters of the feminist movement, have tried to condemn Islam and label it as demeaning, humiliating, and unjust toward women. They have accused Islam unjustifiably by saying that its teachings encourage the mistreatment of women and favor the male gender over the female, which is far from the truth. In recent years, with the increase in domestic violence, particularly in North America and among Muslim families, these writers have also incorrectly tried to link this increase to the concept of Qawamah. Let me say it loudly and clearly, our faith has no room for domestic violence, but unfortunately some Muslims are committing it, sometimes in a fit of rage or as a way to resolve marital conflicts. This is completely unacceptable from an Islamic point of view and is strongly condemned by Muslim scholars, leaders, and community activists alike. Islam should not be held hostage by the behaviour of certain ignorant and disobedient Muslims.

Facts about Family life in Islam

To shed more light on this issue, we would like the reader to consider the following facts:

  • The two most important foundations of the spousal relationship in Islam are Mawadah[5] and Rahmah,[6] as stated in the Qur’an.[7]
  • In many places in the Qur’an, Allah SWT advises husbands to treat their wives in a very kind and dignified way, even during the most difficult times of a relationship, such as times of separation and divorce.[8]
  • Numerous teachings of the Prophet Muhammad SAAW emphasized being gentle and kind in all dealings, and particularly in the marital relationship. Here are some examples:
    • “Kindness and gentleness are not found in anything, but they add beauty to it, and if they are withdrawn from anything, it is defected.”[9]
    • “Those who are deprived of leniency are deprived of all good.”[10]
    • “Allah is kind and He loves kindness in all affairs.”[11]
    • “Allah is kind, and He loves kindness and confers upon kindness that which He does not confer upon severity and does not confer upon anything else besides it (kindness).”[12]
    • “A believing man (husband) must not dislike a believing woman (his wife). If he dislikes one of her traits, he should remember that there are other traits that he likes.”[13]
    • “The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best character, and the best of you are those who are best to their wives.”[14]
    • “The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I’m the best among you to my family.”[15]
  • The Prophet Muhammad SAAW used to be in the process of serving his family, but when prayer was called, he would go out for prayer.[16]

The above is obvious testimony that Islam promotes a kind, positive, and healthy relationship between husband and wife. The spirit of the spousal relationship in Islam is that of compassion and cooperation, for the good and wellbeing of the family in particular and of society in general. Islam doesn’t promote a spirit of ill treatment, hatred, and violence – far from it. However, to achieve the positive spirit of kindness that is sought, both husband and wife have to work together in properly understanding the concept of Qawamah and in purifying and cleansing their souls.[17]

Some may argue these points, asking how this fits with the Qur’an’s use of the word Daraba[18] as one of the means to deal with the wife in the case of Nushooz,[19], as stated in the Qawamah verse.[20]

To respond to this argument, one has to look and examine the verse at hand on a deeper level. This work was detailed in my book on Family Leadership.[21] Here is the main conclusion of this research after surveying various books of Qur’an interpretation:

General interpretation of the verse

In general, verse 34 of Surah Al-Nesaa’ speaks about four main ideas. These are:

  1. Men are entrusted by Allah and given the responsibility to be the leaders of the family institution. They have to provide for the family and take full care of its needs.
  2. The main two reasons Allah appointed men to be the leaders of the family institution have to do with the attributes He SWT endowed them with, as well as the responsibility of men to do their best to financially support and provide for the family.
  3. Women are divided into two camps with regards to the issue of men’s leadership of the family. The first camp is represented by women who are righteous and obedient to Allah and to their husbands, as long as the husbands don’t ask or instruct their wives to do something contradicting Allah’s orders. The second camp is represented by rebellious and persistently disobedient women.
  4. A three stage approach should be followed in dealing with persistently disobedient and rebellious women. First to admonish them, second to forsake them in bed, and finally to Udhdhribuuhon.

Key Arabic words

After reviewing various available translations of the verse in the literature, we find that the two key Arabic words most relevant to this topic are Qawwamoon and Udhdhribuuhon. My research on the word Qawwamoon in various dictionaries as well as the use of the word in the Qur’an shows that it is a comprehensive word that means family leadership or guardianship. It covers and encompasses a wide spectrum of qualities and meanings that can contain at least the following elements:

  • Carrying responsibility and trust
  • Taking care of or caring for
  • Protecting and safeguarding
  • Maintaining
  • Supporting
  • Providing
  • Offering family leadership
  • Helping and assisting
  • Cooperating
  • Coaching, mentoring, and guiding
  • Consulting and counselling
  • Providing security and safety
  • Managing the affairs of
  • Administrating and supervising
  • Bringing good values to the relationship

As for the second word, a review of the use of the word in the Qur’an and various literature and translations, and keeping in mind the context of the verse at hand, show that there are three groups of meanings for the word. These are:

  1. Beat or hit them in a gentle manner or lightly. Some scholars prefer to use the word strike instead of beat or hit
  2. Distance yourself from them
  3. Have sexual intercourse with them

Upfront, we refuse to believe that the meaning of the word Udhdhribuuhon is an order from Allah SWT and a licence for men to beat, hit, or strike their wives even lightly. Our rejection of this meaning is based on the Prophet’s practice. As reported in Sahih Muslim, he SAAW never laid a hand on a lady or a child. Had this been an order from Allah SWT to use, the Prophet SAAW would have been the first one to comply.  

The Qur’an does not promote spousal abuse

After doing a detailed study of this verse, we can declare with certainty that Islam and the Qur’an do not promote spousal abuse. Here is some of the evidence and witness to that fact:

  • In the verse of Qawamah, Allah SWT appoints men to be the protectors, maintainers, and supporters of their womenfolk. They have to be kind, and do their best to provide for them and bring every good value to the relationship. It is illogical to think that Allah SWT would ask men to do this and in the same verse would allow them to physically abuse women.
  • The word Daraba was used in the Qur’an to indicate many meanings, as the analysis of Dr. Abusulayman showed in his book Marital Discord, Recapturing the Islamic Spirit of Human Dignity.[22] The meaning he selected is for the husband to distance himself from his wife if the first and the second stage suggested in the verse of resolving the conflict doesn’t work out. The next stage after this would be for family arbitration, as suggested in verse 35 of Surah al-Nisa’. This is a very legitimate understanding, and it fully agrees with the spirit of human dignity promoted by Islam in all areas of life, and particularly in family relationships as we indicated above.
  • Another meaning of the word Daraba in the Arabic language is to have the very close intimate relations that take place between married couples.[23] A husband would first use the two stages described in the verse. He would admonish his wife (the stage of Mawe’zah) first, then he would refuse to share her bed (Hajr fi al Madaje’) for a certain period of time with the purpose of making the wife realize the gravity of the situation and the seriousness of its consequences. After this, he would be able to return to having intimate relations with his wife. This intimate act, particularly after a period of abstinence due to an existing conflict, is known to bring spouses very close to each other and could open the door for gentle discussion, which may help in easing the tension and resolving the disagreement.
  • As for those who insist that the meaning of the verb Daraba in this context is to hit or inflict physical pain, before using the verse as permission to do this, we remind them of the following:
    • The Prophet Muhammad SAAW never hit with his hand either a servant or a woman, but, of course, fought in the cause of Allah. He never took revenge on anyone for torture inflicted on him, but, of course, exacted retribution for the sake of Allah when the injunctions of Allah were violated.[24]
    • The Prophet Muhammad SAAW, on many occasions, advised the believers to be kind to their womenfolk and not to hit them.
    • According to the majority of scholars, the three stages described in the verse should only be used if the Nushooz is certain.
    • The husband cannot use the third stage of the process before exhausting the first two stages. This means that he should not use his hand to hit or inflict physical pain on his wife before admonishing her first and staying away from her in bed for a period that could range from one month to four months. If the first two stages are to be followed properly, then certainly, by the time the third stage is to be applied, the husband will be completely calm and may not at all hit his wife.
    • As Sh. Muhammad Al Ghazaly said, “looking closely at the Sunnah of the Prophet SAAW, however, I cannot find a justification for this last measure (darb) except when the wife refuses vehemently and persistently to engage in intimate relations with her husband, or when she brings male outsiders into their home in the absence of her husband, both of which represent, as we can see, very serious problems indeed.”[25]
    • Even if a husband decided to apply the third stage after a month or four months, it is symbolic at this time, and he must observe certain etiquettes in administering this disciplinary measure, such as:
      • Using a very soft object such as a tooth brush or a Miswak;
      • Avoiding the face; and
      • Not yelling, shouting, humiliating, or calling her bad names in the process.

Considering all of the above, it is clear that the process recommended by the verse of Qawamah is very gentle and has nothing to do with domestic violence. It is completely different and can’t be compared to domestic violence in any way. Domestic violence is usually resorted to as the first option to resolve the conflict by those who practice it. It is done in a fit of rage and has nothing to do with Qawamah[26]Qawamah cannot and should not ever be used as an excuse to practice the heinous act of domestic violence, which clearly falls outside the realm of the beautiful religion of Islam. 

[1]              Q4, V34

[2]              Dr. Jerald F. Dirks, Letters to My Elders in Islam, Amana publications, Beltsville, Maryland, USA, First Edition, 2008, pp 93-94

[3]              See Soundvision web page on Domestic violence at http://www.soundvision.com/Info/domesticviolence/

[4]              Please refer to the reference section of my book “Family Leadership (Qawamah) An Obligation to Fulfill, Not an Excuse to Abuse” Amana Publications, First Edition 2009 for a more exhaustive list on works about women in Islam

[5]              Mawadah emphasizes a deeper sense of love with gentle and kind treatment, which brings the best behaviour out of the person and the relationship and contributes to the righteousness of both spouses.

[6]              Rahamah means compassion, leniency, and kindness.

[7]              (Q30, V21)

[8]              (Q2, V228, V231, V233), (Q4, V19)

[9]              Muslim.

[10]            Muslim.

[11]            Agreed upon.

[12]            Muslim.

[13]            Muslim.

[14]            At-Termezi.

[15]            At-Termezi.

[16]            Al-Bukhari.

[17]            See chapter 7 of our book Blissful Marriage; new edition, published by Amana Publications, Beltsville, Maryland, USA, 2005.

[18]         Daraba as an Arabic word has many meanings such as travel, depart, block, prevent, distinguish, draw, strike, part and separate, etc. See Dr. Abdulhamid A. Abusulayman’s, Marital Discord, Recapturing the Islamic Spirit of Human Dignity. The International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, VA, USA, 2003.

[19]         Comes from the word nashaza, meaning (“It became raised” or “it rose”). The technical or legal meaning of the term nushooz is when each spouse transgresses, treats the other in an improper way, and is hostile towards the other. See the detailed meaning of the word Nushooz in Dr. Saalih ibn Ghaanim Al-Sadlaan’s, Marital Discord (al-Nushooz). Translated by Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo. Al-Basheer Publications and Translations,  1996.  

[20]            (Q4, V34)

[21]            Dr. Mohamed Rida Beshir, “Family Leadership (Qawamah) An Obligation to Fulfill, Not an Excuse to Abuse” Amana Publications, First Edition 2009

[22]            Same as number 18.

[23]            Aby Alqasem Al-Husain Muhammad known as Raghib Al-Asfahany, Al Mufradat fi Ghareeb Al-Qur’an. Dar Alma’refah lel- Tebaa’h wal Nashr, Beirut, Lebanon.

[24]            Muslim.

[25]            Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ghazaly, A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an” Volume I, page 63, translated by Ashur A. Shamis. International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, Virginia, USA, 1420AH/1999AC

[26]            Check the Soundvision web page on Domestic Violence for more details on the reasons for such ill and unacceptable behaviour