Excerpt by Khaled Abou El Fadl: "On the Beating of Wives Revisited"

The truth of God ignites my life. The passion overwhelms me with visions of beauty—of light and enlightenment. The passion chases the shadows from the niches of my mind. Illuminated by the light of the heavens and earth, I am like a brilliant star. In this luminous state I discover true love—a light upon light.

Where does the Conference of Books come from? From the mind unrestricted by bounds? From a substance as diffuse as light? From the blessed tree feeding upon streams of light? From a native urge to follow the glimmers of insight? A Conference of light founded upon visions of light.

She sits with her hands folded upon her lap. She is the sister who visited me before with questions about her matrimonial plight. Her husband had beaten her and claimed that he is empowered by a divine right. After we discussed the permutations of meaning in God’s text, she had been immersed in study and thought. Now, her lips hold back, but her eyes betray the contentions of her mind. My sister, bring your queries out to the light, for suppression leads to a festering darkness in the heart. Do not worry, it is an honor to be remembered after the lucubration of many nights.

“Last time,” she proceeded to say, “we discussed the beating verse in the Qur’an (4:34). You said that 4:34 cannot be understood out of context. You argued that verse 4:15 decreed that women guilty of sexual lewdness, upon the testimony of four witnesses, are to be imprisoned in their homes until repentance or marriage. Men are punished through other means, perhaps by corporal punishment. You then read 4:34 to say that if a woman is married and she commits sexual lewdness, she may be chided, ordered to be separated from her husband for a time, or she may receive corporal punishment. But you insisted that these powers are not delegated to the husband, but to the state. Upon an allegation of lewdness, probably to be proven by four witnesses, the state will choose the remedy. In this context, my brother, you relied on the hadith of the Prophet in arguing that nushuz does not mean disobedience but, effectively, means fahisha (lewdness)." “Yes, my sister, all of that is part of what I said. And, what did I say about the arbitration verse (4:35)?”

“My brother, you said that shiqaq is a breach or rift between husband and wife. You argued that it is illogical for arbitration to follow punishment. It is irrational for us to say, let the husband beat his wife, and then proceed to arbitration. If the husband had beaten his wife, he had already accused, convicted, and punished her. What is the point of arbitration then? My brother, you argued that verse 4:35 is general in scope. It basically says that if there is a fundamental rift, whether the rift arose because of an act of lewdness or otherwise, then a binding arbitration may be ordered. I believe, my brother, this is what you said.”

“Yes, my sister it is what I said.”

“Brother, may God bless your Conference and increase its days, I have been living in an intellectual daze. At times my heart is reconciled and my mind rebels. At times it is exactly the opposite, my mind is content and my heart objects. I doubt if I should question, but I question nonetheless. So, I ask my brother, what do you think of what Ahmed ‘Ali said in his translation of the Qur’an? Ahmed ‘Ali said daraba does not mean to beat, but it means to have conjugal relations. Ahmed ‘Ali argued that 4:34 instructs that if a wife is rebellious advise her, or separate from her, or have conjugal relations with her according to what the circumstances would dictate.”

“Yes, my sister I know of Ahmed ‘Ali's interpretation, and I used to incline towards it, but after study I no longer accept it. Daraba could very well mean something other than to beat, but the usage in 4:34 does not support what Ahmed ‘Ali contends, and God knows best.”

She nodded her head quickly and then rushed to speak. “Can you explain to me again what you said about verse 4:128? I have relied on my memory and my memory has failed. I was always told that 4:34 applies if a husband is not pleased with his wife, and 4:128 applies if a wife is not pleased with her husband. That is what all the imams in mosques say.”

“Sister, what I said is that 4:128 cannot be so read. For 4:128 only speaks of a wife reconciling with her husband. According to what you were taught, the law of God would be truly strange. If a husband is not pleased with his wife, he may chide her, abandon her, and beat her. But if a wife is not pleased with her husband, she may only reconcile with him. This law would be disturbing, if not absurd.

“What I said is that 4:128 is not a general verse, and it sets no normative law. It addresses a specific situation and simply advises that God does not object. What 4:128 says is that if a husband had committed a serious infraction or desertion, but then the couple wishes to reconcile, they may do so and there is no objection. The Qur’an then comments, reconciliation is good, and warns against greed. There is no reason to consider that 4:34 and 4:128 are complementary, or that one verse is for women and one verse is for men. Verse 4:128 assures couples that even after a major infraction, they may forgive and forget. The verse does not address the necessity of punishment and does not involve the state.”

She looked at her hands and then raised her head. “All right, I want to tell you but I don’t want you to be upset. I recounted your views to a scholar who I should not name. He said that what you say is against the consensus of opinions, it is a fearful bid‘a (innovation), and that you are a liberal of questionable fame. I asked others and they said more or less the same.” “Sister, if that is the case, then listen to what I have to say. As to the name of the scholar, I already know his name. As to the consensus, that I will not concede, for I do not accept a consensus that permits an error to prevail. The consensus of one generation does not bind another, and an immoral unanimity is immoral all the same. As to the notion of bid‘a, the real bid‘a is when the ignorant speak and pontificate. Didn’t Qadi Khan (d. 592/1196) say, ‘Know that a man becomes restless and bored, and is overcome by insecurities, ignorance, and a defective brain. This man’s affliction only increases when he becomes surrounded by idiots who sing his praise. Then this man fills his mouth with the words of scholars and spews out phrase after phrase. Neither does he understand nor do his followers understand the implications of what he says. It is better for the rational man to guard his mouth for the ignorant only fall flat on their face.’”

Alarmed she interrupted, “Listen, brother, even if they are wrong, remember that God says, ‘Let not the injustice of others lead you astray.’ You are no longer in the pursuit of knowledge, you are engaged in a tirade.”

I felt embarrassed and ashamed; as much as I dislike ignorance, I should respond instead of condemn and blame. “Yes, I am forgetting my place,” I said. “A reprehensible bid‘a, my sister, is based on whim and habit, not on an equitable interpretation of God’s words. The best I read on the subject of innovations is the book named al-I‘tisam by the Maliki jurist, al-Shatibi (d. 790/1388), who argues that what is based on moral insight is not a reprehensible innovation, but is a new insight on God’s way. Further, do the people you consulted know what the previous generation of scholars have said? Most of the books of law are not even published yet. And, if we find one or two or ten or more scholars who agree with me, does that affect the quality of what I said?

“As to the last point, for me, infamy and fame is all the same. Liberal or not is but a game of names. I find a delegation to beat one’s wife an embarrassing shame. And, if that is liberal, then I sing the praises of this kind of blame.”

The sister intervened as if to re-orient the conversation, “But would you agree that your interpretation is not what jumps out from the sources as the most obvious understanding?”

“My sister, this depends entirely on the moral assumptions upon which you approach the problem. May I ask you, is beating your spouse a part of a superior character? Is it a virtue? Is it something beautiful and good? Notice, my sister, that the vast majority of women or men would find being beaten, at the very least, detestable if not intolerable. Intuitively, we know this—we are sure of this. In fact, by our very nature, we cringe at the idea that God empowers any husband to beat his wife, even if she is rebellious, disobedient, or obnoxious. As evidence of this intuition, we are troubled by the idea that verse 4:34 permits this type of behavior, and so verse 4:34 is not what we normally share with friends or strangers. We are troubled by it, and so we say things like, ‘Yes, but the beating cannot cause injury or pain’ or we say, ‘A husband can strike his wife only on the shoulder with a small twig or feathers or the like.’ We cite the Prophet’s traditions that prohibit striking the face or the traditions that state that men with superior character do not strike their wives. Yet, my sister, we repeat Ibn Majah’s (d. 273/887) report that ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab (d. 23/644) struck his wife all the same. But wasn’t ‘Umar of a superior character?”

“Yes, most certainly, but perhaps he made a mistake,” the sister said. “Sure, perhaps. But the point remains, there is something troubling about the idea of striking a spouse. I am suggesting that much of the material prohibiting corporal punishment that causes injury or pain is a symptom of our intuitive discomfort.”

“But,” the sister cut in, “suppose the wife is truly a reprehensible person?” I said, “Okay, let us assume that she is a truly reprehensible person. Let us assume you chide her and then you abandon her in bed. What do you think hitting her with a small twig on the shoulder will accomplish? If she is an insensitive person, she will laugh at the futility of the procedure, and if she is sensitive, she would not deserve to be beaten in the first place.

“Now, we also repeat traditions from the Prophet, which prohibit beating a camel or any other cattle, which prohibit the striking of a maid, and which state that striking a slave is a legal cause for manumission. Our intuitive discomfort with an authorization to beat one’s spouse is confirmed by the fact that there are numerous traditions which state that the Prophet never struck a wife, maid, or any other member of his household. This fact is often cited as proof of the Prophet’s superior character. Furthermore, we read that ‘Ali, the Companion, prohibited the striking of women even if it is in response to an assault of defamation or cursing. All of this confirms our intuitive moral sense that striking your wife is simply wrong. Add to this that there is no reason to trust the equanimity or entrust the discretion of men, and then, my sister, what do we have?”

Surprised by the question the sister hesitated, “I guess we have a troubled heart.”

Experiencing a rush of excitement, I quickly said, “And, if we have a troubled heart, we take advantage of the facility of the mind. The facility of the mind manifests itself in interpretation. In other words, we resort to interpretation, and search for the intent of the Divine.”

She cut in with a hint of impatience, “But what if the interpretation is unprecedented?”

“Sister, what if it is unprecedented? We do not serve God through a blind obedience to what we think is the law. We serve God through a perceptive examination of our understanding of the presumptions of the law. A precedent is there to guide, not to blind. A precedent points us towards the right direction, but it cannot become an obstruction to God’s way.

“There are precedents that confirm an absolute moral value. For instance, there are precedents that confirm the value of life or protect people’s honor. Life and honor are moral values. When we find a precedent that portends to promote a certain moral value, the only question is whether the precedent, in fact, furthers or promotes such a value. We examine the precedent in such a light. This can be termed a maqasid inquiry. The maqasid are the moral values of the Shari‘a. The ahkam (positive laws) of Shari‘a promote moral values, and it is our duty to ensure that the laws are, in fact, in the service of moral values and not that the moral values are in the service of the law.

“Keep in mind, my sister, that there are absolute moral values. These values are not factually contingent, and they are not historically or contextually dependent either. They do not depend on circumstance or on the level of human understanding or appreciation. For example, the preservation of life or the protection of the mind, which is protected by the prohibition against intoxicants that compromise the mind, or modesty, which is a part of humility and a part of the preservation of dignity, or honor, which is compromised by slander—all of these are absolute moral values. Absolute moral values are established by the divine command through cumulative ways; they are repeatedly affirmed by God and so there can be little doubt that they are in fact necessary and absolute, and that human beings must understand and promote them.

“But there are also derivative moral values. Derivative moral values are subject to historical contingencies and limitations. It is not that these values are contingent in their nature or essence, but they have contingent potentialities. God affirms these values, but affirms them as a higher order of existence. In other words, an order that seeks to establish a superior state of existence would fulfill such values. Put differently, absolute moral values are the minimum required for a moral society. Derivative moral values are necessary for a superior moral order. Perhaps I can explain it this way: A minimally moral society will preserve and protect life or mind. Freedom or dignity are derivative values; they are derived from the necessity of protecting life or mind. Human understanding of what is necessary in order to protect life or mind could be historically contingent. Furthermore, our understanding of what is needed to promote dignity or freedom could develop with our understanding of what is needed for the existence of a superior society.” She looked at me with stern probity and said, “Does this mean that not beating your wife is a derivative moral value?”

Taken somewhat off guard, I responded, “I would not state it that way. I would say preservation of life, honor, and mind are absolute imperatives. Dignity is necessary for the preservation of honor and mind. I then ascend to the understanding that a resort to violence, in this stage of human development, tends to undermine a person’s dignity, and this undermines a person’s integrity of honor and mind. The fact that beating one’s wife was perceived by earlier authorities to be consistent with the absolute moral values of honor and mind does not bind me or you in any way.”

“But,” she protested, “you seem to be saying that not beating your wife is a part of a superior existence and not what is required minimally for a moral life. Brother, I find this objectionable. My husband, who as you recall did beat me, could say, ‘Good enough, I am content with a minimal moral life, I am not a Prophet or saint.’”

“Sister, to this I would say two things: One, a person who is content with the minimal and does not strive to achieve a superior moral existence is not moral at all. Two, and more significant, I am not talking about moral values in the sense of deciding on an individual course of behavior. I am talking about legal interpretation. For instance, take the familiar example of slavery. We ascend to the understanding that slavery is not consistent with a moral life. But why? Because God already told us that a superior person, i.e., a truly moral person, would not own slaves. Because God advised us to manumit slaves in every way possible. As a matter of legal interpretation, we then decide that a moral society which strives to be truly moral will prohibit slavery as a matter of law. This does not mean that an individual may decide that owning slaves is consistent with his own minimal moral standards. In other words, the category of derivative moral values is an evidentiary matter, but it does not affect the imperative nature of the value. As a matter of legal investigation, we suspect that the prohibition of slavery is a moral value necessary for a better society. Does this mean that we can simply decide that we don’t want to be a better society? Certainly not. To the extent that a derivative moral value becomes necessary for the fulfillment of an absolute moral value, as far as its obligatory nature is concerned, it, in turn, becomes imperative and unwavering.”

With her sternness giving way to a slight smile she said, “And, so what would you say to someone who claims that based on your moral analysis, you would feel at liberty to overrule textual laws?”

“I would say, who am I to overturn any law! All I am saying is that this moral analysis would create a duty in our mind to re-investigate our understanding of the law, and to find an interpretation that is consistent with the morality promoted by the fundamentals of the law. What I am saying is that my intuitive sense seems to indicate that the beating of wives is immoral. It is immoral because it is not consistent with basic Shari‘a values, such as protection of honor or mind, or derivative Shari‘a values, such as protection of dignity. This intuitive sense is confirmed by a significant part of the Islamic tradition. As we said, the practice and Sunna of the Prophet is not consistent with the use of beating. There are traditions that describe beating as hateful and detestable. There are traditions that say beating must not cause injury or pain. There are traditions that prohibit the striking of the face because striking the face is humiliating and degrading. And, most importantly, the Qur’an tells us that marriage should be based on mercy, compassion, and friendship, and our experience teaches us that physical violence is not consistent with mercy, compassion, or friendship—because of all of this, I feel obligated to investigate and to interpret the Qur’anic verses. I feel obligated to interpret so as to resolve any conflict, and to reach a higher moral order. Sister, what may I ask is unacceptable about this approach?”

I was relieved when I saw a smile break upon her face. She paused, rubbed her hands, and looked at the clock hanging on the wall above my head. She said as if speaking to herself, “I wonder how far the method of moral inquiry will take us.” But then she raised her head and said, “Like any powerful force, it might take us far, but many dangers lurk ahead. I sense that a moral inquiry does not just limit itself to inspiring us to reinvestigate the law, but it also calls upon us to apply critical moral insights to the traditions as well.” I understood her concerns, and I wanted to address, but not alleviate, her fears, “Sister, I implore you by God’s mercy and enlightened way, what other choice do we have? Either we live as immoral animals and ascribe our immorality to the commands of God. Or, we seek to purify our intellects and hearts to elevate ourselves to God’s beautiful and majestic way. God’s way is high and beautiful (‘ulya) and everything else is lowly and not as beautiful (dunya). Shouldn’t we seek to elevate ourselves to the most exalted way? If we know God through intuition, and if God is exalted and beautiful, don’t we then know what is exalted and beautiful by intuition as well? How could our intuition be trusted to know God, but not be trusted to know what is exalted or beautiful or anything else? And, isn’t our intellect there to fulfill the beautiful aspirations of a pure intuition? And, isn’t the divine text there to aid the intellect in its mission?

“Sister, I implore you, if I read in the sources that the reason verse 4:128 was revealed was that the Prophet wanted to divorce his wife Sawdah, and that, in order to avoid a divorce, Sawdah gave up her marital rights, and so the Prophet kept her, what am I supposed to do? The jurists derived from this that if a wife becomes old and undesirable, and her husband wishes to divorce her, she may pay him money or give him jewelry to avoid such a miserable fate. By a minimal amount of thought you discover that, in effect, what is being asserted is that even if the husband is a scoundrel and an ungrateful greedy buffoon, God has no objection if the poor wife would purchase her husband’s mercy and favor. Does this sound moral or beautiful or part of a decent character to you? Sister, I read that ‘Aisha (d. 58/678), the Prophet’s wife, praised the uprightness and bravery of the women of the Ansar in Medina. These women did not to hesitate to stand up for their rights, and did not hesitate to ask any question without embarrassment or shame. Then, I read that ‘Umar was critical of the independence of the women of the Ansar, and did not approve of their boldness. Upon hearing that the Prophet’s wives argued with him and even raised their voices at times, he confronted the Prophet and protested his tolerance of such behavior, and the Prophet simply smiled. Then, I read that ‘Umar complained about the women’s defiance and insolence, and the Prophet permitted the men to beat them. Reportedly, the beating verse was revealed to vindicate ‘Umar. Afterwards, seventy women protested the beatings to the Prophet, and then he declared that those who beat their women are not among the best of men. In other reports, the Prophet said, ‘Those who struck their women are not the best of you.’ Now, I implore you, sister, how do we reconcile ‘Aisha’s praise of the character of the women of the Ansar with ‘Umar’s protest? Is it believable that our Prophet, who never struck a woman, servant, or slave, would issue a blanket authorization to all men to beat any woman? Is it believable that the Prophet, with his excellence of character, would permit to men what he, himself, considered to be entirely reprehensible? Is it believable that God would side with ‘Umar against His own Prophet on an issue of such moral significance? God describes the Prophet as a person of excellent moral character, and we are told that God rejects the judgments of the Prophet’s morality. With your knowledge of the Prophet’s moral character, is it possible that he would sanction violence against women? Does this sound moral or beautiful or part of a decent character to you?”

“No, no it does not,” she lowered her head and whispered.

“Then if it is not beautiful, I cannot accept the reports concerning Sawdah or ‘Umar without a heavy and demanding burden of proof. The reports must be of impeccable and resounding authenticity in order for me to accept them, and thus, I do not accept them. My sister, these are chauvinistic traditions injected into Islam by people who lacked understanding. I don’t care what the pharmacists of Islam (the scholars of hadith) say about their authenticity, I will apply a more demanding and probing standard because these reports are not consistent with what I know about the Prophet’s character, or the circumstances of his marriage to Sawdah, or the treatment of his wives, or the nature of his mercy and compassion. Even when the Prophet suffered greatly from his wives, he would not accept any suggestion to divorce any one of them or abandon any of them or leave any of them. Perhaps it is true that Sawdah gave up some of her marital rights because of her age, but that does not mean that she feared divorce or that the Prophet intended to divorce her. How is it possible that the Prophet would refuse to even censure his wives and then permit other men to beat their own wives? We have reports that ‘Ali detested and punished physical violence by husbands against their wives. We even have reports that ‘Umar never struck a woman after he became a Muslim. Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (d. 22/634) never struck his wife. The Prophet never struck a servant or wife, and insisted that women be treated with dignity and honor. In fact, it is reported that after the victory over Mecca the Prophet said, ‘Do not strike them [women] and do not insult or degrade them.’

“All of this gives me a long moral pause, and troubles my heart. If my heart is troubled, can’t I resort to my mind to probe the tradition and precedent? Can’t I tell my beloved jurists, I believe you misinterpreted or misunderstood God’s exalted way? Shouldn’t I investigate before ascribing to God something so disturbing and grave? Can’t I tell my esteemed jurists that this is not consistent with the command to perfect our character, and that you, my jurists, misunderstood the superior moral values that are now necessary in order to fulfill God’s absolute and fundamental moral values? Don’t I have the right to question, investigate, and hope and pray? My sister, I have the right—the right I earned through the Conference, the right of light and enlightenment, the right of the beautiful in the service of The Beautiful, and the Right of Light founded on the Love of Light. Sister, the right of light upon light, and God knows best."

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