There is a lot of debate between Muslims and non-Muslims about wife-beating. Something I’ve noticed a lot is that people are often talking passed each other on the issues, making it difficult to figure out what the truth is. So I wanted to bring some clarity.
One issue that non-Muslims, and especially ex-Muslims, bring up is the verse in the Quran 4:34. Now, there are a few different interpretations of this verse, and what you’ll find is that some of them are worse than others. But also, you’ll notice that the Muslims that are siding with the least bad ones, are actually claiming that they are good, in other words not evil. So what I’m going to do is present two translations, one from each end of the spectrum of badness.
On one end of the spectrum we have the translation by Sahih International :
“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”
Notice the part that says “Men are in charge of women…” and “…righteous women are devoutly obedient [to their husbands]…” This means that husbands have authority over their wives. In other words, wives are supposed to be obey their husbands’ commands. Notice also that it tells husbands how to deal with their wives when they disobey – if she continues to disobey, the husband is allowed to strike his wife, and that he is supposed to stop as soon as obedience is restored (“But if obey you [once more], seek no means against them.”).
On the other end of the spectrum we have the translation by Mir Ahmed Ali :
“Men have authority over women on account of the qualities with which God hath caused one of them to excel the other and for what they spend of their property. And as to those whose perverseness ye fear, admonish them and avoid them in beds and beat them (lightly) and if they comply then seek not a way against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”
Let’s talk about how the translations are consistent, and how they contradict. As for the consistencies, they both say: (1) that men have authority over their wives, in other words, wives are supposed to obey their husbands commands, and (2) that one of the ways that a husband is allowed to deal with his wife in the case of disobeying him is to beat her, and that he should stop beating her as soon as obedience is restored.
Now before I get into the inconsistencies, I’d like to talk about how some Muslims understand this verse. They say that the part about the husband having authority over his wife is actually about the man being responsible for the wife’s care, and in return for that responsibility, the wife should respect her husband. But this is the same meaning. It means the wife should do as her husband asks. It’s the same as how lots of parents treat their children. They tell their children to respect them, and when children don’t do what their parents tell them to do, the parents say ‘you don’t respect me.’ So it’s the same concept. They want obedience, and they expect it because the husband is responsible for the wife’s care. Never mind the fact that more and more families have both spouses working, while the wife still does all of the traditional work of the wife, which means that in these families, the wife is actually taking on more responsibility than the husband. So in these families, if authority should be given to the one that is most responsible for family matters, then should the husband respect and obey the wife? No! They should be a team. They should work together. They should discuss their disagreements rationally as a means of coming to agreement. No authority. No submission. And about respect, it should be mutual, not one way!
Now for the inconsistencies. The second translation involves a qualifier on how to do the beating. It says to beat ‘lightly,’ while the first translation doesn’t have this ‘lightly’ qualifier. First I’d like to say that reading the Arabic, there is no ‘lightly’ qualifier. Second, it’s in the Hadith, not the Quran, where Mohamed said that the beating should be ‘light’. Third, and this is the really interesting part, for the Muslims who think that ‘beat lightly’ is the correct interpretation, I’ve noticed that they think that this solves the problem — that if ‘beat lightly’ is the correct interpretation, then everything is fine, nothing is wrong. This is so utterly ridiculous. It’s ignoring reality. It’s basically saying, “you guys who claim that the ‘lightly’ interpretation is wrong, are wrong. And since you are wrong about that, you are wrong about everything else about that verse too. The Quran is perfect.” Um, but what about the part about authority/obedience and the part that allows initiating violence (lightly or not) as a means of resolving disputes?
Let’s be very clear about this. The Quran is advocating the following: There will be no violence between you and your husband as long as you obey him, and if you disobey him, your husband has the right to initiate violence on you in order to restore your obedience, and as soon as you obey again, he is commanded to immediately stop the violence on you. To clarify the issue, let’s look at this from another perspective. Do you think it’s right to say: There will be peace as long as you obey my commands, and if you disobey, I have the right to initiate war on you in order to restore obedience, and as soon as obedience is restored, I will make peace again. This is pure evil. This is saying that the one in the authority position is the master of the slave – the slave being the one in the submissive position. The slave is supposed to obey his master, or suffer beatings at the hands of the master. How can this be defended? Saying that the beating should be ‘light’ is not a defense. Initiating violence on a person in response to a dispute is evil. Doing it lightly, is still evil!
A second inconsistency between the two translations is where the first translation says, and if you fear your wife’s “arrogance,” and the second translation says, and if you fear your wife’s “perverseness.” I think that these are pretty much saying the same thing, but some Muslims have interpreted the “perverseness” part to mean adultery. Now I’d rather not argue why that’s wrong because it doesn’t matter to my point, meaning that my point stands whether that part is wrong or not. So the second translation, and I mean the less aggressive interpretation, is saying that husbands have authority over their wives, in other words, women are supposed to obey them, and that in cases where the wife commits adultery, then her husband has the right to beat her to make her obey again (to stop committing adultery). Notice how this less aggressive interpretation doesn’t say what men are allowed to do in cases where their wives disobey in general. So this doesn’t make any sense. But again, even if this interpretation is correct, it’s still evil to initiate violence on someone for adultery. The right thing to do in a case like this is to “agree to disagree.” That means that the people in the dispute still disagree about the main issue, but they at least agree to not resort to violence, and so they leave each other alone. In other words, in cases of the woman committing adultery, the husband should divorce her, not beat her. So why didn’t the Quran outlaw initiating violence in cases of adultery and instruct husbands to seek divorce instead?
Another problem with this verse, and I mean even the least aggressive interpretation, is that it doesn’t say that wives have the right to beat their husbands if the husband commits adultery. Why the inequality? Well, it’s because the Quran sees the husband as the master, and the wife as the slave. In this framework, why would the slave have the right to beat the master? That would uproot the whole dynamic of the relationship between the authoritarian husband and his wife who is supposed to submit to his will.
Other excuses related to wife-beating
Now there are a few other things that some Muslims say in defense against these criticisms. One common thing is to say that other cultures also have lots of wife-beating, including the US and Europe. But this is not a defense of Islam. It’s like saying: Since non-Muslims are also wrong, that means we’re right. This is moral relativism. It defies logic. All people who beat their wives are committing evil, whether their religion sanctions it or not. Analogously, all people who initiate violence on dissenters are committing evil, whether their religion sanctions it or not. So saying that non-Muslims also beat their wives does not neutralize this criticism of Islam.
Another common excuse by Muslims is to defend against these criticisms of Islam by saying that most Muslims don’t beat their wives. But this, again, is not a defense of Islam. Those non-wife-beating Muslims are acting that way because they have better morals than compared to Islam’s morals. They are acting as moral beings, using their own judgement, instead of deferring to the authority of Muslim clerics or defunct holy books. So the idea that most Muslims don’t beat their wives doesn’t neutralize the criticism that the Muslims that do beat their wives are justifying their actions by their religion. And it doesn’t neutralize the criticism that Islam, as it exists today, is helping preserve the traditions of wife-beating and wife-obedience.
This raises an important question: What’s the point of making excuses for Islam? Well, I’ve heard so many times from Muslims that these criticisms are dishonoring Islam. So this means that what they care about is the status of Islam, rather than the truth. They don’t care to condemn the evil parts, and instead, they care to defend Islam no matter what evil parts it has. Where is their sense of morality? Well, the simple answer is, their sense of morality is heavily entrenched in the traditions that spread with Islam from the deserts of today’s Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world. The Arabs before Islam, in the 7th century, were a tribal society where the culture was, and still is, very much honor-based, rather than truth-based. So if a person with this mindset is presented with a situation where he has the option of siding with the truth versus defending his honor, he chooses to defend his honor, rejecting the truth. Often, they fool themselves in such a way where they evade the truth by blocking it out of their minds. And they do this so much that it becomes second nature for them to block things out of their mind .
So these Muslims that make excuses to defend against criticisms of Islam, even if they don’t commit the evils themselves, are helping the worst Muslims who are committing the evils as described by the most aggressive interpretations of the Quran. Let me be clear about this. When you make excuses for something, that means you’re not condemning it. Why should you spend your effort making excuses for Islam instead of spending your effort condemning the evil parts in it? By not condemning the evil parts, and making excuses instead, you are misleading lots of people by letting them believe that your excuses work. So you are giving the worst Muslims a platform to commit more evil, by misleading lots of people into thinking that these criticisms of these evil parts of Islam are not valid.
 Quran 4:34, translated by Sahih International. http://quran.com/4/34
 Quran 4:34, translated by Mir Ahmad Ali. http://www.amazon.com/The-Holy-Quran-Mir-Ahmed/dp/0940368846
 It is the Hadith, not the Quran where the qualifier “lightly” is used in conjunction with the word “beat.” Kathir, Ibn, “Tafsir of Ibn Kathir”, Al-Firdous Ltd., London, 2000 http://answering-islam.org/Silas/wife-beating.htm#_Toc160373810
 For more on the relationship between honor-based thinking and truth-based thinking, see _Honor Violence: And why nobody should demand respect_, by me. http://ramirustom.blogspot.com/2014/02/honor-violence.html