Disciplining an equal

In 2002 an Arab woman and her children were ‘disciplined’ by her husband. She was humiliated and hurt so decided that she had enough – she was going to seek justice. She filed a case against him and took him to court. The judge deliberated on her case and then announced that the man was her husband and the head of the household. As the one in charge of the family he had the right to discipline the wife and the children. However, he must ensure he doesn’t leave any physical marks on the bodies. The wife was told to return home. (1)

There was no discussion on the psychological effects of such disciplining. A sociologist wasn’t present to point out that whether the husband physically beats the wife or not, you just do not discipline another adult. How can you lecture/tell off/deny love to someone who is supposed to be your equal?! It simply means the two people are not equal. But what was more troubling was thinking about the aftereffects of this judgment. A woman who takes a man to court after being humiliated by him expects some justice otherwise she wouldn’t take him to court. She expected the judge to tell the man to treat her like his equal and to solve issues through mutual dialogue. On the other hand, if this man already assumed that he was the head of the household and in charge of disciplining the wife and children then he acted from a position of power, not responsibility. And what happens when the ones you have power over retaliate by taking you to court? You wouldn’t go back home and give them a cuddle and apologize for what you did; you’d put them in their place so they never retaliate again.

I was discussing this with a friend who matter-of-factly pointed out that the judge’s verdict was faithfully in line with what the Prophet had done. While I have read numerous articles and essays, even a book (2), on what adrubhunna in verse 4:34 may mean, I have not read much on why we need to question the hadith that is used in asbab al nuzool (reasons for revelation) to justify beating an errant wife (3). I have not read any feminist (or liberal) Muslim try to understand the effects of disciplining a wife whether it is by beating or abandoning a grown woman after first lecturing her and then denying her sex. All efforts to reinterpret verse 4:34 focus on the single word adrubhunna when the entire verse is about wife discipline.

I would love to hear what others think. Have you ever questioned the hadith or thought about the practical implications of verse 4:34 even if you don’t believe that adrubhunna means ‘beat them’?


(1) Husband has right to beat wife rules court of cassation published in Gulf News on March 31, 2002

(2) Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition by Ayesha S. Chaudhry

(3) Said Muqatil: “This verse (Men are in charge of women…) was revealed about Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘, who was one of the leaders of the Helpers (nuqaba’), and his wife Habibah bint Zayd ibn Abi Zuhayr, both of whom from the Helpers. It happened Sa‘d hit his wife on the face because she rebelled against him. Then her father went with her to see the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. He said to him: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her’. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘Let her have retaliation against her husband’. As she was leaving with her father to execute retaliation, the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, called them and said: ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’, and Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We wanted something while Allah wanted something else, and that which Allah wants is good’. Retaliation was then suspended”. Sa‘id ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Zahid informed us> Zahir ibn Ahmad> Ahmad ibn al-Husayn ibn Junayd> Ziyad ibn Ayyub> Hushaym> Yunus ibn al-Hasan who reported that a man slapped his wife and she complained about him to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Her family who went with her said: “O Messenger of Allah! So-and-so has slapped our girl”. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, kept saying: “Retaliation! Retaliation! And there is no other judgement to be held”. But then this verse (Men are in charge of women…) was revealed and the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “We wanted something and Allah wanted something else”. Abu Bakr al-Harithi informed us> Abu’l-Shaykh al-Hafiz> Abu Yahya al-Razi> Sahl al-‘Askari> ‘Ali ibn Hashim> Isma‘il> al-Hasan who said: “Around the time when the verse on retaliation was revealed amongst the Muslims, a man had slapped his wife. She went to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace and said: ‘My husband has slapped me and I want retaliation’. So he said: ‘Let there be retaliation’. As he was still dealing with her, Allah, exalted is He, revealed (Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other…). Upon which the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We wanted something and my Lord wanted something different. O man, take your wife by the hand’ ”.