To Beat or Not to Beat: Scratching Beyond the Surface

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The Council of Islamic Ideology, based in Pakistan, recently stirred a controversy with a legislation bill proposing that “a husband should be allowed to lightly beat his wife if she defies his commands.” The Bill was followed by a widespread protest by women across the globe on social media trending with the hashtag #TryBeatingMeLightly, wherein women came up with sarcastic remarks on the proposition. Considering that the body that came up with this is apparently a Council of Islamic Ideology, it seems but natural to us; that the rule emanates from the Shariah that anyway oppresses women. What we do not realize, however, is that: a) In Islamic law, Seerah i.e. the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) serves as a backdrop to the injunctions of the Qura’an. It dictates how the Qura’an is practically applied in the life of a human being. b) There are intricacies of the law that are so delicate and nuanced that arriving on a conclusion, merely based a plain reading of the text, does grave injustice to the Qura’an.

Verse 34 of Chapter 4 (Surah Al Nisaa) of the Qura’an that deals with this issue is one of the most misunderstood of all things about Islam, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  It has been made the premise of physical abuse and what not. I feel privileged enough to have learnt the right context and application of the Qura’nic injunction about “hitting women”, from my teacher Mr. Nouman Ali Khan; and therefore also morally obligated to share it. Well, in an authentic Hadith narration, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Do not hit the female slaves of Allah.” Looking from an Islamic perspective, every human being is an ‘Abd-Allah’ which means a slave or servant of God who is here to carry forward the message of the Oneness of God, the Prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH), being kind and dutiful to one’s parents, establishing the ties of the kindred, being nice to one’s neighbors, enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong. So, basically we are all slaves to God and no one is a slave to fellow human being(s) according to Islamic theology. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated the aforementioned Hadith, he basically meant “Do not hit women” but he went out of his way to say “Do not hit the female slaves of Allah” to allude to the fact that when one hits a slave, s/he has to deal directly with the Master. Hence the general rule is established that, according to Islamic law, if a man hits a woman he will have it with the Almighty. Now, a careful reading of the subjects dealt with under Surah Al Nisaa makes it evident that the Surah in fact deals with exceptionally rare circumstances. It, as a whole, covers “the outside periphery of the society.” For instance, the Qura’an talks about the issues of polygamy, laws of inheritance, etc. under the same Surah. With this background in mind, we can study the following verse in a more lucid fashion.

Verse 34 of Surah Al Nisaa states: “Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) maintainers (or care takers) of women based on Allah having preferred some over others and because of what they (men) have to spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear uprising, counsel them (first), (then if they persist) leave them alone in beds (and last) beat them. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great.”

If one studies the verse carefully, the first part talks about women being the beneficiaries of men’s income and hence they have a degree over men in this regard. This, even when a woman earns well herself; and she does not have to spend from her wealth. Immediately afterwards, Allah balances this right to her man’s income with her responsibility to guard her dignity, wealth and the husband’s trusts in his favour, even in his absentia. Now, the expression “fear uprising” are central to the theme of the verse. Practically speaking, when is a man ever fearful? The wife’s disobedience regarding usual, everyday matters does anger a man or might make him sad but it is when he senses that the woman is thinking about or interested in someone else that really scares him. The uprising, here, is actually hinting at infidelity. God Almighty contrasts the quality of decent women who guard their honor even when their husbands are not around, with a woman whose loyalty to her husband starts becoming shadowy. In this factual milieu, when the marriage is starting to fall apart, the Qura’an says first bring up your concern and counsel her. If this doesn’t make any difference, leave the marital bed. Lastly, when things seem to go out of hand, then if the man hits her in this circumstance; Allah sanctions it, but even then if she turns around and mends her ways, the Qura’an states, “then seek nothing against them.” On top of this sanction are the ethics, derived from the life of the Prophet (PBUH), that how he would condemn hitting and in fact, is reported to have said, “The best of you are those who are best to their wives.” Pursuing a case against a woman even when she maintains her dignity would attract other injunctions in the Qura’an that clearly penalize slandering chaste women. Finally, the ending of the verse puts man in his place who, while hitting his wife might think highly of himself, by making it clear that God has been the ultimately high.

We are living in a society that is fraught with “Crimes of Passion.” Such situations often get hideous and the husbands/boyfriends often end up injuring, even killing women if they sense infidelity. What Qura’an sanctions in this situation is, in fact, the very least of what is generally expected of a man on occasion of his wife turning disloyal. The next verse in the same chapter states, “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]”, thereby making the community responsible to help the couple regain the marital harmony. It is rather unfortunate to have this extremely nuanced legal principle in the Qura’an abused by men, and be made a premise to beat up their wives as and when they like. Even the traditional scholars of the Muslim community have failed to address this serious issue, as a result of which there is widespread tension and chaos within and outside the Muslim community. The Council urgently needs to review the minutiae of the Bill it seeks to legalize.


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