By T.O. Shanavas, who is a native of Kerala, India and is now based in the USA. He is the author of “Islamic Theory of evolution of Evolution the Missing Link between Darwin and The Origin of Species.” Co-author of the book, And God Said, “Let There Be Evolution!” Reconciling the Book of Genesis, The Qur’an, And the Theory of Evolution. Edited by Prof. Charles M. Wynn and Prof. Arthur W. Wiggins.
Many Islam-haters use the Quranic verse:
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ ۚ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ ۚ وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ۖ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا
to depreciate Qur’an into a misogynistic religious text. One of the Qur’an translations authorized by Al Azhar university of Egypt reads: “And for those women of whom you fear their dissent (نُشُوزَهُنَّ), exhort them, abandon them in their beds, and beat them. But if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely God is Sublime, Great” (Qur’an 4: 34)
So, the Islam-critics argue that the Qur’an permits spousal abuse and so, Islam is misogynic. Their pretention appears reasonable if the verse is read in a vacuum disconnected with rest of the Qur’an. We, Muslims, must ask “Does anyone know a woman who spot ‘beauty and dignity’ in spousal brutality?” Probably, Women suffering from the abnormal mental condition called masochism may find “beauty and dignity” in it. There is no way to unmask the “beauty or dignity” in the jurists’ license of spousal abuse hinging on the verse. There is not one incident in the life of Prophet (s) when he beat or treated disrespectfully any of his wives. And if the Muslim’s claim of Islam being a liberator of women aught to be valid, Muslims must reject the jurists’ sanction of shameful act of wife beating by husbands.
To understand the verse 4:34 we must focus on the context and what is being addressed to know its meaning. With respect to context, there is no unanimity among the exegetes of the Qur’an.
Some commentators say this verse was revealed when Saudah (d. 54/674) Prophet’s (s) wife feared that the Prophet (s) would divorce her and so she relinquished some of her rights so that he would not divorce her. But this report is incorrect, for how can these commentators know what was in her heart? Further, Allah gave the Prophet’s (s) wives the right to choose him. Other commentators say that this verse was revealed when a husband and wife constantly fought over the husband’s second marriage. Therefore, due to lack of unanimity among exegetes, we cannot get the true meaning of the verse from the reported context of revelation. Only thing that the jurists agree upon is that this verse means that a form of reconciliation between husband and wife is better than a separation. [Ref: Conference of the Books by Khalid M.Abou El Fadl].
The jurists have stated that Arabic word “NUSHUZ (نُشُوزَ )” in the Qur’an means “arrogance and defiance,” and a NASHIZ is an “arrogant and disobedient person.” Some jurists such as Ibn Rush (d. 520/1126) said that a NASHIZ is a deviant woman who refuses to pray, fast, or cleanse herself from impurities. But the word NUSHUZ is also used to describe men, Allah says:
وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِنْ بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا أَنْ يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحًا ۚ وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ ۗ وَأُحْضِرَتِ الْأَنْفُسُ الشُّحَّ ۚ وَإِنْ تُحْسِنُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
“And if a woman fears abstention or aversion [NUSHUZ] on the part of her husband, then it is no sin on both that they amend things between them, for right settlement is better…” (Qur’an 4:128). Bearing in mind of the jurists’ definition of NASHIZ into “arrogant and disobedient person, we need to ask, “Does NASHUZ in the verse mean the disobedience of a husband to his wife? Does it also mean that a husband owes a duty of obedience to his wife?” The jurists troubled by this tension said that NUSHUZ ( نُشُوزَ _) in the case of a wife means disobedience, and in the case of a husband means a grave and known sin (فَاحِشَةٍ مُبَيِّنَةٍ). Why are they giving different meanings to the same word in similar situations? Does this mean that NUSHUZ in the case of a wife means a grave sin as well? These are very valid questions to ask.
It is reported that the Prophet (s) in his final pilgrimage said, “O people, I command you to treat women with kindness for they are your support. You have no other rights over them unless they are committing a grave and known sin (فَاحِشَةٍ مُبَيِّنَةٍ ). If they do abandon them in beds, and beat them lightly, but if they comply, do not transgress against them” Professor Khalid M.Abou El Fadl of Stanford University states: “It seems to me that the Prophet (s) uses the expression فَاحِشَةٍ مُبَيِّنَةٍ as the equivalent of NUSHUZ ( نُشُوزَ _), and that NUSHUZ ( نُشُوزَ _) means فَاحِشَةٍ مُبَيِّنَةٍ (a grave and known sin).” [Ref: Conference of the Books by Khalid M.Abou El Fadl]. If that is so, NUSHUZ cannot mean “disobedience or a case of simple disagreement,” but means lewd acts.
There are many reasons to reject the jurists’ authorization to beat their wives by husbands at will. These are some of them. An ideal God-conscious Muslim husband must know the Qur’anic description of human nature (Qur’an 2:128): “…But men keeps self-interest utmost. Yet if you do good fear God, God is cognizant of all that you do.”) that could potentially steer him away from justice. God demands: “O you who believe! Be you maintainers of your pact with Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is nearer to Duty: and fear Allah. For Allah is well acquainted with what you do.” [Qur’an 5:9]. “Oh you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor; for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, let you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that that you do…” (4:135). Therefore, men in a state of resentment cannot be a judge and be fair and just especially over perceived NUSHUZ (lewd act) by their wives. Moreover, Prophet (s) said: “The judge should not judge between two people while he is angry.” (Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1334); “You will not find the men who beat their wives as good one among you.’ (Abu Daus: Sunan Vol 1, page 292); “The best of you is he who is best to his wife.” (Ibn Majah: Sunan Bab Husn Ma’ashrat al-Nisa, page 142). Therefore, The All-knowing and the Most Compassionate would not have decreed the right to punish his wife for Nushuz (lewd act) in the hands of an angry husbands. Therefore, the trial, conviction, and nature of punishment for Nushuz ( نُشُوزَ _) rest with a jury or judge, not with the husband.
While the matter is in the court of law, both spouses are expected to lay out evidences and bring witnesses to support their side of defense: “And those who accuse the women in wedlock and do not bring four witnesses, flog them, therefore, eighty stripes, and never accept any testimony from them, for those, they are miscreants; …And those who accuse their wives, but have no witnesses except themselves, let each of these [accusers] call God four times to witness that he is indeed telling the truth, and the fifth time, that God’s curse be upon him if he is telling a lie. But [as for the wife, all] chastisement shall be averted from her by her calling God four times to witness that he is indeed telling lie and the fifth [time], that God’s curse be upon her if he is telling the truth.” [24:4-9]. According to these verses, accusing NUSHUZ (lewd act) is a grave matter and the accuser is bound by the law to present four eyewitnesses to prove his/her case. A circumstantial evidence alone is not enough. If there are no eyewitnesses, four solemn affirmations calling the name of God by the husband is accepted if the wife refuses to take an oath to the contrary. And the husband’s testimony is not accepted if the wife denies the accusation of her husband after taking the oath calling the name of God. In other words, she disproves him if she solemnly set her word against his. In this legal procedure, which is called li’an (“oath of condemnation”), leave the question of guilt legally undecided; both parties are absolved of all the legal consequences.
Following the conviction for Nushuz ( نُشُوزَ _), whether committed by husband (Qur’an 4:128) or wife (Qur’an 4: 34), the punishment is same for both sexes. From the God’s perspective, sexes do not matter but only deeds are crucial and counted. The justice, reward, and retribution are equitably served on male and female: “Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do. (Qur’an 16:97); “And their Lord has responded them thus: Verily! I waste not the deeds of any worker, male or female, to be lost. You are all on the same footing.” (Qur’an 3:195).” … (such is) the artistry of Allah, who disposes of all things in perfect order…” (Quran 27;88). God’s ways are perfect and so human is expected to emulate Him in administering justice without favoring one sex over the other.
Finally, Judge may rule for a graded punishment of “advising her/him” at first for self-correction, and then if that does not work “leave her/him in bed.” The Qur’anic wisdom aims at harmonious reconciliation: “It is no sin for two of them if they make peaceful settlement; and peace is an excellent thing…” [Qur’an 4:128]. If these methods do not work in the case of a refractory wife or husband, the judge may impose corporeal punishment as the last resort. Even in that case, the beating of wife/husband for lewdness is symbolic or nominal type. It should be “striking without injury or pain” [Ref: Ibn Majah: Sunan, page 133. Muslim: Sahih, Vol. I, page 291.]. If such symbolic striking does not correct and the husband/wife cannot fulfill the Qur’anic teaching: “…And (O Believers) live with them (i.e., wives) on a footing of kindness and equality…,” the husband cannot remain legally wedded. The Qur’an recommends: “Either take back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms, do not take back to injure them or take unfair advantage…” [Qur’an 2:231].
In summary, husbands cannot be the accuser, judge, and executioner in the matter of NUSHUZ of the wives. A Jury or judge determines the matter of the truth. If admonition, leaving in bed alone, symbolic striking, or reconciliation in equitable term does not work, the righteous action of the husband and wife is to divorce on equitable terms. Unlike the Jurists’ misogynic interpretation of the verse 4:34, I witness the “beauty and dignity” in my reading the Divine Revelation. Moreover, it is internally consistent without contradicting the meaning of any verses of the Qur’an.