The concept of disciplining one’s wife in Islamic law is very controversial and has led to much discussion in recent times. Unfortunately, most of what is found on the subject by modern writers, especially as it pertains to Qur’an 4:34, falls into one of the following four categories:
- Rejection of the concept – These are those who reject that Islamic law has anything to say on the topic of disciplining one’s wife at all nor should it
- Alteration of the meaning – These are those who manipulate or alter the meaning of the verse in the Qur’an on the topic and numerous hadiths related to it
- Academic dishonesty – These are those who cherry pick statements from the scholars in order to match a preconceived conclusion on the topic
- Fabrication – These are those who lie against our religion and claim Islam allows domestic violence/abuse against women
In order to have a real dialogue on the topic, we must first present accurately what our religious sources factually say on the topic. Conclusions must be drawn based on what our sources actually state and not what we want them to state. We must be honest with our books, our scholars, our traditions, and in our deductions. There is a deep discussion on this topic in the books of fiqh and it is not sufficient to do justice to it from all schools’ perspectives in one small paper. Therefore, I would like to tackle the issue from solely the Hanbali school’s perspective because that is the school that I am currently training in and studying. In this brief paper, I will utilize sources exclusive to the Hanbali school of law and books of tafseer by Hanbali scholars. The views of the other three schools only slightly differ.
What I hope to show in this paper is that what the Hanbali scholars are talking about in their books on this topic has no connection whatsoever to what we witness today in cases of domestic violence and abuse. In fact, they would consider what happens in cases of domestic violence/abuse categorically forbidden and the husband liable for damages. They are very explicit on these points in their books. Therefore, it is irresponsible to conclude from Qur’an 4:34 or the numerous hadiths on the topic that Islam somehow allows domestic violence or physical abuse. The conditions the Hanbalis set before the husband could even get to the point of “gentle hitting” are so strict that it is preposterous to assume what many Muslim husbands do with their wives today could be considered religiously justifiable. Even the rules related to “gentle hitting” itself are very strict in Hanbali law.
The main purpose behind this research is to lay out all the cards so that we may engage the topic with academic honesty.
The main evidence used to justify the permissibility of disciplining one’s wife is the following verse from the Qur’an:
But those [wives] from whom you fear rebellion (nushooz) – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], hit them [gently]. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them (Qur’an 4:34).
Due to the explicit wording of the verse, the Hanbalis viewed the act of disciplining one’s wife a three step gradual process (advising, forsaking, gently hitting).They would not permit going straight to step three without first having completed the previous two steps as will be shown below insha’Allah. It is this last step, gentle hitting, that is controversial and the main focus of this paper.
There are numerous hadiths on the subject of “hitting a wife” for the purpose of discipline and we can divide them into three categories:
Those that discourage it
- The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) never hit any of his servants or wives and he never hit with his hand anything (Ibn Majah).
- Habibah bint Sahl was the wife of Thabit ibn Qays Shimmas. He beat her and broke some part of her. So she came to the Prophet (pbuh) the next morning and complained to him against her husband. The Prophet (pbuh) called on Thabit ibn Qays and said (to him), “Take a part of her property (which he had given her as dowry) and separate yourself from her.” He asked, “Is that right, Messenger of Allah?” He (pbuh) said, “Yes.” He said, “I have given her two gardens of mine as a dowry, and they are already in her possession.” The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Take them and separate yourself from her” (Abu Dawud).
- The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Do not beat the female slaves of Allah.” Then ‘Umar came to the Prophet (pbuh) and said: “O Messenger of Allah, the women have become bold towards their husbands! So order for them to be hit,” so they were hit. Then many women went to the family of Muhammad (pbuh). The following day he (pbuh) said: “Last night seventy women came to the family of Muhammad, each woman complaining about her husband. You will not find that those (who do this) are the best among you” (Ibn Majah).
- Fatima bint Qais was sent proposals for marriage from Muawiyah, Abu Jahm bin Sukhair, and Usamah bin Zaid. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) told her, “As for Muawiyah, he is a poor man who has no money. As for Abu Jahm, he is a man who habitually hits women. But Usamah (is good)” (Ibn Majah).
Those that allow it
- The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said in the farewell pilgrimage, “Treat women kindly, they are like captives in your hands; you do not owe anything else from them. In case they are guilty of open indecency, then do not share their beds and gently hit them but if they return to obedience, do not have recourse to anything else against them. You have rights over your wives and they have their rights over you. Your right is that they shall not permit anyone you dislike to enter your home, and their right is that you should treat them well in the matter of food and clothing” (Tirmidhi).
- The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said, “Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have right over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like. But if they do that, you can hit them but not severely. Their rights upon you are that you should provide them with food and clothing in a fitting manner” (Muslim)
- Mu’awiyah asked, “Messenger of Allah, what is the right of the wife of one of us over him?” He (pbuh) replied, “That you should give her food when you eat, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not hit her on the face, do not revile her or separate yourself from her except in the house” (Abu Dawud).
- I’ve included it under this section because the hadith appears to only discourage from hitting the face and not the rest of the body. Hanbalis use it as evidence to show that it is forbidden to hit the wife on the face.
Those that are neutral
These are those that neither encourage nor discourage it.
- “How does any of you hit his wife as he hits the stallion camel and then he may embrace (sleep with) her?” (Bukhari)
- I’ve included this hadith here because Hanbalis understand it to mean that she can only be hit gently.
- “Do not hit your wife as you hit your slave-girl” (Abu Dawud).
- I’ve included this hadith here because Hanbalis understand it to mean that she can only be hit gently.
- Rifa`a divorced his wife whereupon Abdur Rahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. Aisha said that the lady came, wearing a green veil and complained to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by hitting. It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) came, Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!” When Abdur Rahman heard that his wife had gone to the Prophet, he came with his two sons from another wife. The wife continued, “By Allah! I have done no wrong to him but he is impotent and is as useless to me as this,” holding and showing the fringe of her garment, Abdur Rahman said, “By Allah, O Allah’s Messenger (pbuh)! She has told a lie! I am very strong and can satisfy her but she is rebellious (naashiz) and wants to go back to Rifa`a.” Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said to her, “If that is your intention, then know that it is unlawful for you to remarry Rifa`a unless Abdur Rahman has had sexual intercourse with you.” Then the Prophet (pbuh) saw two boys with Abdur Rahman and asked (him), “Are these your sons?” Abdur Rahman replied, “Yes.” The Prophet (pbuh) said (turning to the wife), “You claim what you claim (i.e.. that he is impotent), but by Allah, these boys resemble him as a crow resembles a crow” (Bukhari).
- Some critics understand this hadith to suggest that the Prophet (pbuh) is sending her back to an abusive home, however, that is far from the truth. The Prophet (pbuh) recognized that there is more than what meets the eye in the case and that she is looking for a way to go back to her previous husband. The Prophet (pbuh) is just letting her know that if that is indeed what she is trying to do, then from the religious legal point of view, she cannot go back to her previous husband because he has already divorced her thrice, which means she could only go back to him once a marriage with another husband is consummated and then resulted in a divorce.
- Ash’ath bin Qais said, “I was a guest (at the home) of ‘Umar one night, and in the middle of the night he went and hit his wife, and I separated them. When he went to bed, he said to me: ‘O Ash’ath, learn from me something that I heard from the Messenger of Allah (pbuh): “A man is not asked why he hit his wife and do not go to sleep until you have prayed Witr.”‘ And I forgot the third thing” (Ibn Majah).
- Hanbalis understand the “hitting” in this report to be in accordance with all the conditions surrounding it as will be shown below insha’Allah. As for why the husband should not be asked, then Ibn Qudama states that the reason could be because the couple are quarreling over a matter that might be related to the bedroom and in order to safeguard himself from any embarrassment, he might lie (Ibn Qudama 262).
What is Nushooz
The books of Hanbali law cover this topic in the Book of Marriage under the chapter related to nushooz (نشوز), a word which seems to have been taken directly from verse 4:34. The verse is followed precisely step-by-step in the application of the law. Since nushooz is the main basis for disciplining the wife, we need to clearly define what it means according to the Hanbalis.
Linguistically, the root word nashaza (نشز) refers to that which rises from the earth (al-Buhuti 161). Ibn Adil gives the example of a man who was sitting and then rose up to stand (Ibn Adil 363). In the context of the wife, it is in reference to when the wife “rises up” against what Allah has obligated on her from the relationship with regards to those things which are commonly recognized to be good (Ibn ‘Awadh 153-154). One of the things that are obligated on her in the relationship is her obedience to him. The depiction is that of a wife’s disobedience towards her husband due to her arrogance (Al-Rass’ani 496). We are not speaking about occasional quarrels between a man and his wife, rather, these are continuous, consistent, and rebellious behavioral patterns on part of the wife. Ibn Jawzi in his tafseer of verse 4:34 states that Ibn Qutaybah opined that nushooz is when the wife hates her husband (Ibn Jawzi 280), which will obviously reflect in her treatment towards him.
Some examples of nushooz mentioned in Hanbali texts include:
- She responds to him in a disgruntled, mumbled, irritated, reluctant, or lazy manner
- She only responds to him with aversion whenever he asks her something
- She leaves the house without his permission
- She is repulsed whenever he calls her to listen
- Her manners swindle him out of his rights
- She [completely] refuses to sleep with him
It should be noted that Ibn Qudama in Al-Mughni considers the first two as just indications of nushooz developing and not actual nushooz at this point (Ibn Qudama 259).
Imam Shafi’ is reported to have said that nushooz could occur through a wife’s statements or actions and then goes on to provide examples for each, the gist of which is that her behavior negatively changes towards him (Ibn Adil 363).
The act of nushooz is considered forbidden for the wife in the Hanbali books.
There is another type of nushooz that occurs on part of the husband. In this context, it is in reference to when he shuns or harms his wife in some way (Ibn Qasim 454). It is mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an:
If a woman fears nushooz or neglect from her husband, there is no blame on either of them if they seek ˹fair˺ settlement, which is best (Qur’an 4:128).
According to al-Zajjaj, the word nushooz here means when the husband harms the wife’s companionship and prevents her from himself and his spending on her, whereas, Abu Sulayman understood it to mean when the husband busies himself with one wife and avoids the other (Ibn Jawzi 332). According to Ibn Qudama, “It is when a husband avoids his wife and detests her due to her disease, her old age, or some other reason. In such a situation, there is no harm if the wife drops some of her rights to appease the husband” (Ibn Qudama 93). Then he mentions the hadith in which Aisha said that this verse “concerns the woman whose husband does not want to keep her with him any longer but wants to divorce her and marry some other lady, so she says to him: ‘Keep me and do not divorce me, then marry another woman, and you are free to neither spend on me nor sleep with me’” (Bukhari).
What is to Be Done When Nushooz Occurs
As soon as signs of nushooz begin to appear in the wife, there are three stages of progression that can be taken from the husband for the disciplinary process according to Hanbalis. Ibn Qudama states in Al-Kaafi that when there are only indications of nushooz, then step one is taken, and when that progresses into clear nushooz, then steps two and three are taken individually in order (Ibn Qudama 92). A group of scholars, including Imam Ahmad, opined that verse 4:34 is indicating sequence: verbal advising only is done when there is just fear of nushooz, forsaking is done when there is appearance of nushooz, and finally gentle hitting is done when she repeats the behavior and does not stop (Al-Rass’ani 497). Here are the details of what the Hanbali books say about each step:
- Advising: At this stage, the husband verbally admonishes her through one or all of the following tactics (Ibn ‘Awadh 154):
- Reminding her to fear Allah
- Reminding her of what Allah has obligated on her of rights and obedience to him
- Reminding her that her behavior could lead him to stop spending on her
- Reminding her that it has been permitted for him to forsake her and gently hit her if she persists in her behavior
- Reminding her of the sin involved in her behavior
- Any type of advice that may soften her heart and return her to right conduct
- Forsaking: If the wife returns to right conduct and leaves nushooz, then it is forbidden to follow through with steps two and three (Ibn Qasim 455). If, however, she persists in her behavior and does not take constant advice into consideration, then the husband can move to this step. It consists of two things with the Hanbalis:
- He forsakes sleeping with her: He leaves off sharing a bed with her and he can do this as long as he wants because verse 4:34 does not restrict it in any way (Ibn al-Munajja 740). Another evidence used by Hanbalis for this practice is when the Prophet (pbuh) left his wives for a month due to being upset with them. He can do this by either turning his back towards her in the bed or sleeping in another location (Ibn Qasim 455).
- He forsakes speaking with her: Hanbalis do not allow doing this beyond three days due to the hadith which forbids not speaking to your fellow Muslim for more than three days.
- Gentle hitting: If the wife returns to right conduct and leaves nushooz, then it is forbidden to follow through with step three (Ibn Qasim 455). If, however, she persists in her actions and the previous two steps have not had any impact on her behavior, only then the husband can move to this step (al-Ba’li 629). It should be noted that the default ruling is always that it is forbidden to hit the wife but only allowed in restricted cases due to an excuse (Ibn Qudama 92), such as, nushooz and its associated three step progression process or when she abandons one of the obligations of Allah (prayer, fasting, etc.) (al-Ba’li 629). Ibn Jawzi in his tafseer cites Abu Ya’la saying that the school of Ahmad did not permit hitting in the beginning of nushooz (Ibn Jawzi 280). The main evidence used to allow it in addition to verse 4:34 is hadith number two quoted above under the evidence used to allow section of this paper. Hanbali books are very explicit about what they mean by “hitting” in order to assure that no type of transgression occurs on part of the husband. Some of these rules for “hitting” include:
- It should never be done hard due to explicit hadiths on the topic mentioned above
- It should never lead to breaking bones, bleeding, injury, leaving bruises or marks
- The objective should always be to discipline and discourage her from nushooz in the future and not to harm or deform her. Imam al-Buhuti in Kashaaf al-Qinaa’ gives this reason as a basis for not hitting her using a whip or wood (al-Buhuti 210)
- It cannot prevent her from one of her rights. It is not allowed to step on someone else’s right to obtain your own
- It should never be in the face, stomach, or a sensitive area that could cause death
- It should never be in an area of beauty due to fear of deforming it
- It should not exceed 10 strikes due to a hadith on the topic of lashing
- It should not be done repeatedly in the same spot
The above conditions are mentioned in Hanbali books and those interested can refer to the bibliography section of this paper for further details. Those husbands who violate the above conditions by hitting her hard or more than 10 strikes which results in harming her, then he can be held responsible for it (Ibn ‘Awadh 155). If we examine the above steps and conditions closely and compare them to what occurs today in situations of domestic violence/abuse, can we honestly claim that the Hanbali scholars would permit it? I think not. In fact, they would consider such a husband as an oppressor and to be held fully responsible for the abuse. Therefore, we should fully support our sisters who are victims of such abuse.
Better to Avoid Hitting
Despite admitting clear indications of permissibility in gently hitting a wife in restricted cases with the above conditions, there were a number of Hanbali scholars who pointed out that it is better to abandon it. The sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to never have done it himself was the main basis for their reasoning. Both Imam al-Buhuti in his Kashaaf al-Qinaa’ (al-Buhuti 210) and Ibn Najjar in his Ma’oonah (Ibn Najjar 303) say it is better to abandon hitting the wife altogether in order to preserve love between them. Ibn Jawzi in his Ahkaam al-Nisaa argues that the person who does not benefit through warnings and threats will also not be deterred through the whip and that perhaps kindness may be more suitable than hitting (Ibn Jawzi 241). He then goes on to say that hitting only increases the heart in repulsion.
The 20th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Qasim had the following to say on the matter in his famous annotated commentary on the Hanbali authoritative text Rawdh al-Murbi’ after discussing its permissibility in the restricted sense discussed above:
“There is no doubt that abandoning hitting and [adopting] forgiveness and generosity is more honorable as was the character of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh)…and perhaps the Prophet (pbuh) disapproved of hitting the one you have intercourse with because sex is only befitting with inclining of the soul and desiring companionship. The one who is lashed usually flees from the one who whipped him unlike the one disciplined through a likable manner. In this latter case, the person will naturally not flee. The person is neither required to hit nor is it a sunnah for him to do so, rather, it is [only] permissible for him to do it. However, if he abandons it, then that is better” (Ibn Qasim 456).
Due to the fact that the past scholars strongly emphasized that the objective of the gentle hitting is discipline and discouraging her from wrong actions in the future, some scholars in the modern era have argued that it could make the situation worse in today’s culture, especially in the West, and therefore it should be abandoned altogether. They reason that it will not obtain the desired objective (i.e. discipline) and that it is the sunnah to not do so anyway. The notion that if the desired objective of discipline will likely not be attained, then the husband cannot resort to hitting is an argument forwarded by some other schools as well. The numerous hadiths on the topic that discourage it seem to suggest that though the Prophet (pbuh) permitted it, he did not like it and preferred husbands abandon it.
The purpose of this paper was to show how the Hanbali scholars viewed rules related to disciplining a wife and that the strict rules that they formulated, based on the hadiths literature, would never give sanction to the types of horrific cases we witness today in domestic violence/abuse situations. This latter type of treatment was categorically forbidden in their eyes and the husband could be held liable for his actions. We must fully support victims of domestic abuse because the perpetrators are doing something forbidden. A number of classical Hanbali scholars opined that it is better to avoid the practice of gently hitting the wife altogether due to the prophetic character of the best thing to ever walk the face of the earth: Muhammad (pbuh).
al-Ba’li, Abdur Rahman. Kashf al-Mukhaddarat. Beirut, Dar al-Bashaair al-Islamiyyah, 2017.
al-Buhuti, Mansoor Ibn Yunus. Al-Rawdh al-Murbi’. vol. 3, Riyadh, Dar al-Samee’y, 2017.
al-Buhuti, Mansoor Ibn Yunus. Kashaaf al-Qinaa’. vol. 5, Beirut, ‘Aalam al-Kutub, 1983.
Al-Rass’ani, Abd al-Razzaq. Rumooz al-Kunooz fee Tafseer al-Kitaab al-‘Azeez. vol. 1, Mecca, Maktabah al-Asadiy, 2008.
Ibn Adil, Umar Ibn Ali. Al-Lubaab