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Customs and Culture >
What does Islam have to say about domestic violence?

Domestic violence is a serious social problem in the West and globally, and the Muslim world is no exception. Many grass-roots movements and women's organizations who work to eradicate it through education for both men and women emphasize Quranic teachings about the rights and responsibilities of men and women and about marital relations.

In some Muslim societies, men use the Quran to justify domestic violence. However, many verses in the Quran teach that men and women are to be kind to and supportive of each other. Love and justice in family relationships are emphasized, and cruelty is forbidden. Quran 30:21 states, “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your [hearts]: behold, verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” Quran 4:19 further commands, “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness. On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing through which God brings about a great deal of good.”

Chronologically, the last Quranic verse to be revealed that addressed relations between husband and wife was 9:71, in which women and men are described as being each other's protecting friends and guardians, emphasizing their cooperation in living together as partners, rather than adversaries or superiors and subordinates. Likewise, the hadith (Prophetic traditions) note Muhammad's respect for and protection of women. Muhammad said, “The best of you is he who is best to his wife.” Muhammad's wife Aisha narrated that Muhammad never hit any servant or woman and never physically struck anyone with his own hand. Neither the Quran nor the hadith record Muhammad as ever mistreating or losing his temper with any of his wives, even when he was unhappy or dissatisfied.

Those who use the Quran to justify wife-beating point to 4:34, which says, “Good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, then banish them to beds apart and strike them. But if they obey you, do not seek a way against them.” In recent years scholars have argued that “obedience” refers to the woman's attitude toward God, not toward her husband. Furthermore, obedience in this verse is tied to the woman's guarding of her chastity, so that an obedient woman is one who does not commit sexual immorality. The word typically translated as “disobedience” (nushuz) refers to a disruption of marital harmony in which one spouse fails to fulfill the required duties of marriage. It is applied elsewhere in the Quran to both men and women. The end of the verse admonishes men not to mistreat women who obey them. Rather than granting men the right to strike their wives, reformers argue, this verse reminds men of their responsibility to treat women fairly.

Quran 4:34 lists three methods to be used in resolving marital disputes. First comes admonition or discussion between the husband and wife alone or with the assistance of arbiters. This practice, also recommended by 4:35 and 4:128, is also to be used for couples considering divorce. If this fails, the second option is physical separation, sleeping in separate beds, which gives the couple space for cooling off and thinking about the future of their marital relationship. The third and final method is to strike or hit. This striking takes the singular form grammatically, so that only a single strike is permissible. Quran 4:34 was revealed early in the Medinan period of Muhammad's ministry, a time and place in which cruelty and violence against women remained rampant. Thus some Muslim scholars today argue that the single strike permitted in this verse was intended as a restriction on an existing practice, not as a recommended method for dealing with one's wife.

In the major hadith collections—Muslim, Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Daud, Nasai, and Ibn Majah—hadith about striking all emphasize that striking should be done in such a way as not to cause pain or harm. These sources stress that in cases where a single strike is used, it should be merely symbolic. The founder of the Shafii law school maintained that it is preferable to avoid striking altogether. Despite the fact that domestic violence continued to exist in male-dominated cultures and to be legitimated in the name of religion, neither the majority of Quranic verses nor the hadith support or permit it.

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