Islam is a complete way of life and provides guidance for humanity in all places, times and indeed states. As this guidance leads towards the path pleasing to God, it necessarily upholds the highest ideals, which are witnessed in the life of the Beloved Messenger. At the same time, in order to be of practical benefit to people at all levels of spiritual and moral development, the rulings of Islam must deal with the interpersonal problems that always have the potential to occur within society. One of these issues is that of marital discord, and with it, the threat of violence, particularly against women. As we shall see in the following investigation, this was a social problem that the Prophet fought against in his mission to educate and guide the Arabs of the 7th century – just as it remains endemic in modern societies – and faced social turmoil in Madinah due to his zeal in this regard. Furthermore, the Qur’anic verse in regard to this subject that is used by both some Muslims to defend the indefensible, as well as by critics of Islam to attack the faith, when read alongside the Prophet’s Sunnah, actually gives clear and peaceful steps that can be taken to attempt to resolve marital discord.
The Qur’an mentions the institution of marriage as a blessing from God, and speaks about it in the loftiest of spiritual terms:
‘Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquillity: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect.’
At the same time, there is no shame in the physical nature of the relationship between husband and wife, such that:
‘You [believers] are permitted to lie with your wives during the night of the fast: they are [close] as garments to you, as you are to them.’
It is an undeniable fact that one of the distinguishing aspects of the marital relationship is its collapsing of barriers of personal space between the spouses, such that close physical contact becomes the norm. However, with this comes a danger of oppression from the stronger party, typically the husband towards his wife. In many cultures, such as the Arabs of the 7th century to whom the Prophet was sent, the use of violence can become endemic within marriage. The Messenger of God, as a perfect model of human character, was beyond such signs of weakness. It is thus dispassionately recorded about him – in a time in which this quality was not culturally seen as praiseworthy:
“The Messenger of God never hit anything with his hand, except when fighting in the path of God. Nor did he ever hit a servant or a woman.”
When engaged in teaching his fellow countrymen the essentials of faith and pious behaviour, the Prophet openly showed his astonishment of the violation of the trust of marriage with violence:
“Not one of you is to strike his wife as if striking a servant, and then to sleep with her at the end of the day.”
The correct interpretation of this hadith is neither that wife beating is permitted as long as it is not too hard, nor that it is acceptable as long as the husband stays away from his wife until the following day. Rather, the Prophet is expressing astonishment at how a man in a relationship based on love and mutual kindness, is able to treat his wife with such disrespect, yet continues to expect closeness and intimacy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people of his time found it hard to at first implement the high standards of the Prophet, and he therefore became caught in the midst of a power struggle between the men and women of Madinah. The men felt that without recourse to this sanction to which they had become accustomed, their wives would gain the upper hand, whilst the women were not keen to relinquish their newly granted rights. This situation is narrated after the prophetic statement, which most clearly shows the prohibition of wife beating:
‘The Messenger of God said, “Do not hit the female servants of God,” so ʿUmar came to him and said, “The women have overpowered their husbands”, so the Messenger of God made an allowance for their hitting. Later, a great many women went around among the household of the Messenger of God complaining about their husbands. The Prophet said, “A great many women have gone around the household of Muhammad, complaining about their husbands – they [the husbands] are not the best of you.”’
This hadith is very instructive, as far from the stereotypical image of women within the model Islamic community as cowed, it shows they were engaged and dynamic, not happy at the suspension of their protection, even if it was a temporary concession made in order to stabilise the rapidly transforming society. Furthermore, the justice of the Prophet was such that when thereafter a woman came to him personally complaining of having been hit, he ruled that her husband was to be given an equal injury in kind.
The Divine Wisdom envelops all, however, and this incident was the causative event for the revelation of a verse, which when taken with the one that follows it, provides universal guidance for both a sound relationship between spouses, and a step by step method for resolving the problem of high-handedness without resulting to divorce:
‘Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husbands’ absence. If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then leave them to their beds, then [lightly] tap them [to make clear the severity of the situation]. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them: God is most high and great. If you [believers] fear that a couple may break up, appoint one arbiter from his family and one from hers. Then, if the couple want to put things right, God will bring about a reconciliation between them: He is all knowing, all aware.’
The beginning of these verses indicates that just as husbands have duties in terms of provision, their wives must remain chaste and responsible with the family’s wealth and property, when the husband is not there. The crucial point then follows, which presents a remedy to be applied in four increasingly severe stages if the marriage begins to seriously falter, for instance if there is a complete lack of due respect or openly indecent behaviour.
Thus the first step is admonition about the correct Islamic behaviour; second is ignoring one’s spouse within the bed, or sleeping apart for up to a month; then as a final action before seriously considering divorce – and bringing in family arbitration – is ‘lightly tapping’. This is the most suitable translation of the Arabic verb ‘ḍaraba’ in this context considering the many narrations from early Muslims about the extreme lightness of the contact meant. A light tap at this stage is not a reprimand or act of violence to ensure obedience, but an act of communication within the usually physical relationship of marriage after a month of non-contact. It is a last resort intervention meant to wake up the erring spouse to the severity of the situation, and no doubt accompanied with an urgent repeat of the earlier admonition that the pattern of behaviour, if continued, will end with divorce. The verse also makes clear that separation and the threat of divorce are not justified when conduct is good, and that the community at large have a duty to try to reconcile matters if possible through recourse to both families.
This process is exemplified in the life of the Prophet at the time of the incident in which he stayed away from his wives for an entire month, because of their repeated difficult behaviour with him, so that even his companions began to think he had divorced them all. He was, however, demonstrating the guidance of God, such that when the month was completed, the verses were revealed:
‘Prophet, say to your wives, “If your desire is for the present life and its finery, then come, I will make provision for you and release you with kindness, but if you desire God, His Messenger, and the Final Home, then remember that God has prepared great rewards for those of you who do good.”’
The Prophet returned to his wives and with the best of manners, recited this revelation to each of them in turn. As they all chose to remain with him and thus accepted the divine conditions mentioned in the verses that follow them in the Qur’an, the issue was resolved at that. Here we can see that the Prophet was honoured by his Lord and shielded by means of His love and concern from even having to take the step of even lightly tapping his wives, in order to convey to them the choice that they faced.
 Al-Rūm (30), 21.
 Al-Baqarah (2), 187.
 Ibn Majah.
 Al-Bukhari, v. 3, Kitab al-Nikah, Ch. 94, hadith 5259.
 Abu Dawūd, v. 1, Kitab al-Nikah, Ch. 43, hadith 2148.
 Al-Suyuti, Lubab al-Nuqul fi Asbab al-Nuzul, p. 78.
 Al-Nisā (4), 34-5.
 Al-Aḥzāb (33), 28-29.
 Al-Aḥzāb (33), 30-34.