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Last Updated: 2009/11/25
Summary of question
How do Quranic commentators interpret and explain the word "و اضربوهن" (and hit them)?
How do Quranic commentators interpret and explain the word "و اضربوهن" (and hit them)?
Concise answer

In Islamic teachings women are considered to have a very high status and have been praised in hadiths by the Holy Prophet and his household.  In some hadiths women have been considered a source of blessing and abundance and better than the best and most precious things in the world, and Islam has forbidden the punishment of women and considers men who do so to be the worst of creatures. There is only one exception, and that is for women who violate the rights of their husbands when there is no other choice and no other more peaceful methods don’t work. The Nushuz of women and the permission to punish them has been mentioned in verse 34 of Surah Nisa and is referring to this group of women.

The verse first states the features of righteous women, and then Allah has informed the husbands of women which may be nashizah (rebellious/disobedient) of what they need to do. The first step is the use of advise and admonition, the second is to not sleep with them which is a bit harsher to them than the first and the third is to physically punish them, but we need to pay attention to some points about the third step that are as follows:

1- This step is the last and obviously shouldn’t be practiced if previous steps are effective.

2- Physical punishment according to fiqhi books must be slight and not in a way that causes injury, breakage or fracturing,.

3- Physical punishment consists of different levels and some hadiths even mention using a siwak stick (which is a twig used for brushing the teeth, which if used for hitting, hardly has any pain at all)! Therefore if the first levels work, exceeding them will not be permissible at all.

4- Such a law doesn’t only address women, but nashiz men (rebellious) are punished through different ways (such as physical punishment) in order to make them aware of their duties
Detailed Answer

Before explaining the commentators’ viewpoints regarding the word "و اضربوهن " (hit them) it is necessary to point out the importance and high value of the woman from Islam's point of view. The divine teachings of Islam place great value upon women and wives and it has praised them through different hadiths. In a hadith by Imam Sadiq (as), he says: "The most blessing and abundance has been put in the existence of women".[1] The sixth Imam of the Shias, Imam Sadiq (as) has categorized women into two categories of good and bad and than regarding the good group extends: "The value of this group of women is higher than gold and silver and other jewels and no precious gemstone can be compared to them".[2] The holy Prophet of Islam says: "This world is like a ware, and the best ware one can find in it are women with good conduct".[3]  

These sayings point out only a portion of the preciousness and value of women and that they are more valuable then the most precious things that can be found in this world.

Punishing women is forbidden

Islamic law draws our attention to important and delicate issues because it considers physical and mental punishment of women as family crimes. Just like men, Women have dignity and nobility.  Therefore, hitting isn't something tolerable for people, and these kind hearted and fragile creatures of God don’t have the bodies that can stand hitting like other creatures, thus Islam has prohibited punishing them. In this regard the Holy Prophet of Islam says: "O people! Be very careful with your wives, because they have been brought to you through Godly vows and oaths (that you have taken when contracting marriage with them), and they have become halal to you by God's special words (the marriage contract), is it right to hit and beat these trusts we have been entrusted with and to make their hearts that are the very place of love suffer?!!".[4]

He also says: "One of the traits and features of the worst men is that they beat their wife and servant and are not kind and gentle to them ".[5]

But there are always some women who disregard their husband's rights and have shortcomings in fulfilling their sexual needs and desires and leave the house without the permission of their spouse, cause conflicts because of their inappropriate behavior and inappropriately interfere in issues that only have to do with their husbands. This group of women have been made an exception in Islam's point of view and have been greatly condemned and scolded. The Prophet says: "The worst things in the world are rebellious women".[6] Islamic law, the Quran and hadiths refer to these women as "Nashezah" (rebellious), and their behavior usually stems from their arrogance and pride. This group does not obey their husbands and makes life unpleasant and difficult for them. To get them to act appropriately Islam has chosen a wise method. The Quran has pointed out very detailed and precise points about marriage and family life in the verse of “nushuz” (the verse that speaks of this issue) and fortunately science today has been able to discover some of the secrets that lie in this verse regarding family life; this verse can be considered one of the verses that are a miracle from a scientific perspective, although the miracles of the Quran aren't limited to scientific ones.

Obviously the relationship between men and women and the way they interact as a couple is very complicated and delicate, sometimes love must be shown through anger and sometimes anger must be expressed through love and friendship, distinguishing between these two situations and understanding what separates them is a hard task. Scientists and psychologists have strived for many years to discover and explain these points in the books they write, but the significance of the Quran and the hadiths narrated from the prophet and his household is that they have pointed out the general and critical rules and principles in the most simple, nice and delicate way possible and have put them at the disposal of mankind.

When examining and carefully observing verse 34 of Surah Nisa, there is so much to explain. But what can be said briefly is that after stating that the responsibility of taking care and protecting and providing for the family are all the responsibilities of the man of the house, the verse divides women into two groups regarding the way they do their job in the house:

The first group are the "Delivered and Righteous" ones, those who truly carry out their tasks in the family and act appropriately not only in the presence of their husbands but in their absence; obviously men must show great respect to and honor them.

The second group are those who do not carry out the tasks they have been assigned to and bear signs of rebellion and disobedience; the Quran has instructed their husbands and informed them of a method that must be carried out step by step and in a certain order and they should be careful not to overstep the boundaries of justice, these instructions are as follows:

First: "Advise and admonish those women whom you fear the rebellion of", those who violate the boundaries and rules in the family need to be advised friendly and kindly and they should be informed of the catastrophic results of such.

Second: "If advising them did not succeed do not sleep with them in bed"; Staying away from the wife is a way of showing the husband's dissatisfaction of her and sometimes light punishments like this will affect her behavior.

Third: "اضربوهن : punish them physically"; If she insists on ignoring her responsibilities and is consistent in violating the rules within the family because of her pride and arrogance, and the two previous steps, meaning advising her and avoiding to sleep with her, do not work there is no choice but to use force and it is permissible to get her to do fulfill her responsibilities through physically means.

The question that comes to mind is why has Islam allowed men to physically punish women when they don’t do what they are supposed to? The answer to this question is reachable by examining the points mentioned in hadiths, the Quran and fiqhi texts and sources as well as the opinion of today's psychologists:

1- The verse has called upon physical punishment of those who do not carry out their tasks when all other methods have failed, as a matter of fact such a rule is not only found in Islam, but in all laws around the world the use of force is suggested when all peaceful ways fail to do the job.

2- The type of "Physical Punishment" that is Islam has permitted, as has been pointed to in fiqhi books, is one that does not cause any breakage, wounds and bruises.

3- Today psychologists have revealed that some women suffer from a psychological disorder that causes them to like to be punished and if it develops in them, the only way to bring them peace and tranquility is to slightly punish them physically. This part of the verse might be speaking of this group of women that physical punishment plays the role of medicine for. Islam has tried to prevent the separation of parents by using methods such as advice and light physical punishment in order to keep the family together, for if a family breaks up there will be children raised up without the love and guidance of parents.

Obviously if one of the previous steps succeed and the woman carries out her responsibilities, the man has no right to go any further and bother her, this is why the end of the verse says: "If they obey you do not oppress them".

Even though the limit of physical punishment is to not break, make bruises or wounds but because the whole point is to get the women to do her job and to remove her rebellion it should start from the lightest form as possible if there are chances that it will work, and if it actually does work, going further is a sin. The reason why some hadiths tell us to hit her with a siwak stick, which is in reality a small twig[7] might be because of this very reason (to show that the lightest of form of hitting must be utilized first).

One might ask: "There are also times when men do not carry out their responsibilities and tasks, so do men get punished to?"

The answer is yes, if men do not carry out their responsibilities they will be punished, but we must pay attention that some men suffer from a psychological disorder in which makes them like to bother others and when it develops, getting physically punished by will not help because firstly: the cure of this illness usually doesn’t lie in physical punishment. Secondly: women usually do not have the power of physically punishing their husbands. Thirdly: The Islamic ruler is responsible for making men do their tasks and carry them out which some times includes physically punishing them.

At the end of the verse Allah warns men not to take advantage and oppress women because they are in charge of matters in the family and to keep in mind the power of Allah, "Indeed Allah is all-exalted, all-great".[8]

[1]اکثرالخیر فی النساءMan La Yahduruhul-Faqih, vol. 3, pg. 385.

[2] Al-Kafi, vol. 5, pg. 332.

[3] Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, vol. 14, pg. 150.

[4] Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, vol. 14, pg. 252.

[5] Tahdhibul-Ahkam, vol. 7, pg. 400.

[6] Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, vol. 14, pg. 165.

[7] Tafsir Burhan, vol. 1, pg. 367 (quoted by Tafsire Afzal, vol. 1, pg. 523).

[8] Taken from Tafsir Nemouneh, vol. 3, pp. 411-416.

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