Don’t beat your wife!

Wahit Tuna Turkey shoes to remember domestic violence
Artist Wahit Tuna installed 440 pairs of black women’s shoes on the wall of a house in one of Istanbul’s busiest streets, Meclis-i Mebusan Street. This is done in memory of the number of women killed by men in Turkey in 2018

This article is part of a series on dispelling misconceptions about Islam and was originally published in my blog.

Wife beating in traditional understanding

Recently, someone shared a meme about men raising a hand to their wife. As usual, there were Muslims who were quick to qualify their understanding of verse 4:34 with some amazing verbal callisthenics.

Here are some examples:

“It’s when the wife is really rebellious and is doing things that can harm her or affect her in bad ways.”

“Or if she’s fighting and attacking her husband he can surely fight back in self-defence.”

“For clarification, he isn’t supposed to torture her. The Qur’an asks the husband to beat her lightly to intimidate her and not to harm her any further.”

“If he beats her to scare her and to assert dominance he is not a true Muslim because he doesn’t follow the Qur’an and its teachings”

And here is the traditional translation that necessitated these “explanations”:

4:34 (part) "As for those females from whom you fear desertion, then you shall advise them, and abandon them in the bedchamber, and then beat them."

This causes all manner of attempts to justify the beating (as seen above) and/or mitigate the amount of force applied.

It results in numerous conjectures and assumptions as to how strong the beating can be (some say “lightly”, some say “spank”[!]), with what instrument (cane? cloth? some even suggested a miswak) should be used.

It’s unnecessarily overly complicated and open to abuse. VERY open to abuse, especially in patriarchal societies.

Surely this isn’t what Allah intended, because He says Ummiyi (people who do not know the scripture) depend on conjecture (2:78). Furthermore, punishments mentioned in the Qur’an come with their quantum so there is no guesswork.

Furthermore, whenever marital relations and divorce is described in the Qur’an, God says “be together in fairness (bi-ma’aruf), or separate with kindness (bi-ihsani)” (2:229, 2:231, 4:19, 65;6). Surely this already precludes any kind of physical harm, and translations that say “beat her” are clearly contradictory.

So let us check out a different translation

In the word-for-word translation of وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ the root letters can have two meanings.

  • set forth (separate)
  • strike

In the Qur’an, both meanings are used in different contexts, and you’ll find them all in the Quranic corpus.

Now consider the application of the first meaning in the translation of the verse, because God says we are supposed to take the best meaning from speech (39:18).

4:34 (part) "As for those females from whom you fear desertion, then you shall advise them, and abandon them in the bedchamber, then separate from them."

In the translation using this meaning of وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ ,

  • Avoid the aforementioned conjectures and subsequent verbal callisthenics.
  • Is consistent with exhortations to live in harmony (2:229, 2:231, 65:6).
  • This flow of events is also more logical, acknowledging the growing separation between husband and wife.
  • To me, this is the clarity and simplicity that God speaks of regarding the Qur’an in 22:16. It’s also consistent with the Qur’an’s assertion that it is sufficient guidance.
  • There is no need to make excuses or make assumptions about how hard or often the beating can be. This translation is CLEAR and not open to interpretation and/or abuse.

Advise them, if that fails, sleep on the couch, then if even THAT fails, leave them.


Note: for a more in-depth discussion of this verse, please visit

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Understanding scripture in the 21st century and beyond

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