Can Husbands hit their wives? What are your thoughts on ‘Submission’ by Theo Van Gogh?

Can Husbands hit their wives? What are your thoughts on ‘Submission’ by Theo Van Gogh?


Many translations I have come across suggest that husbands can hit their wives (4:34) if they are not obedient or conduct themselves in a bad way. Even as a last resort it sounds absurd. I must be honest that I cannot come to terms with this. Have you seen a film called ‘Submission’, directed by Theo van Gogh, about a beaten Muslim woman with her naked body painted with this verse on her back? What is your view on that please? Thank you in advance for your answer.

Thank you for your question, it raises an interesting issue that, many times, is ignored from Muslims, mostly because they do not rationalize beating their wives, and many times, it is the mothers and wives that do the beating in the household (my mother, for instance, is an artist par excellence with inflicting pain, her weapon of choice? High heeled shoes used as boomerangs).

Seriously though, many times Muslims are not taught about this issue in their Islamic schools, and as a result, when asked about it they do not have good answers. Insha Allah, I hope to be able to shine some light on this verse and to explain the tremendous debate that has occurred within scholarly circles because this verse is troubling, to both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and again, without context it will make no sense, like most things in this world.

Now, the best way to address this issue is to have the actual verse in front of us:

“And as for those women whose ill-will [Note: this word is important] you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed’ then beat them’ and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!” [4:34] Muhammad Asad

Alternate translation:

“But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance [Note: same word translated, differently] – [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.” [4:34] Sahih International

So, there you have it. You first tell them not to do it. Then you do not go to bed with them. And then you hit them. Case-closed, right?

Er. Not so much.

Remember the word that I put the note by? Let’s get to that word, because in Arabic the word is nushuz, which actually means “rebellion,” but many times is rendered as “ill-will” by Muhammad Asad (more on him later) or “arrogance” by Sahih International. No joke, I have no idea how they got “arrogance” from nushuz, no idea.

So, you’re probably thinking, “okay Osama, great, what is the point of all this?”

According to the tafseer (Qur’anic exegesis) of several scholars, we have to understand the word nushuzdifferently. We can only understand this word differently when we look at the context of the particular Surah in question: Surah An-Nisa.

Surah An-Nisa is a Surah from the period in Medina, meaning when Muslims had to leave Mecca, and were creating their own community, and were constantly defending themselves from the Meccans who wanted to kill them, because these Muslims were threatening their (Meccans) way of life, with their (Muslims’) ideas of equality, dignity, and social justice. Totally makes sense, right?

So, there would be tough times, and people would waiver. Sometimes, when people would be more afraid of being killed by the Meccans than by the next life, which shouldn’t be looked upon as some massivecharacter flaw, I don’t think many of us have ever had to fear for our lives over our religion, so let us have some humility here. Regardless, there were times when these people (naturally) would waver, get scared, and think of leaving the community and return to their life in Mecca. Indeed, it is through this lens in which “apostasy” is actually understood through.

So, the point is that, there was a potential for people to leave, and this wasn’t just men who were in the battles, but the women at home who would contemplate their lives. The Surah is not just about women’s rights, but it actually describes the issues of peace and war, thus, the context of the ayah in question becomes even more important.

Thus, it becomes clear that this term, nushuz, which literally means “rebellion” is not really “ill-will” and most certainly not “arrogance,” rather, we are discussing the possibility that your wife will be doing two things: first, she’ll be denying The Message of The Qur’an and The Prophet and second, she’ll be rebelling against your community, committing treason against the society she is apart of. This is not an issue of someone saying: “Oohhh yahhhh I’m like, not mazlam any moreeee, just not feelin’ it anymore, lolz, let’s watch Twilight.”

This is about the issue of breaking up the entire fabric of a society that is in a real state of war, in which there is a real threat. So, in my opinion, this entire verse is referring to your wife potentially leaving her faith, and through that (in this context) betraying her community.

So, great, but the issue is still that she can be hit for this betrayal, right? So from this perspective, let’s take a look at the society we are dealing with to understand what this injunction really means:

I’m not a fan of romanticizing the Bedouin Arabs of The Prophet’s time. I’m not just talking about the pagans who were hell-bent on killing everybody who threatened their injustice, I’m talking about everybody. I’ve said this before, but I really feel like this holds true, but my mother always says this: “The Arabs got Islam first, because they needed it the most.”

I would have to agree with this statement. We have to understand the fact that these people were not so great. Let’s put this into perspective: these guys, when they had a baby daughter that they did not feel like keeping, they would go out in to the middle of the desert and bury her alive. They just didn’t kill the poor baby (astaghfurlilah), they actually buried it alive. Thus, from this example, you can see that this was a society that did not see hitting a woman as anything out of the ordinary, it was just what you did.

You would imagine then, that this Qur’anic injunction would simply reinforce that, right?

Again, not so much.

The argument structure of this verse underlines a method to eliminating the possibility that you hit a woman. For the Bedouin Arab man, hitting a woman was completely normal, and to say otherwise would be nonsensical. Thus, The Qur’an approaches it from this context (life-threatening period of war-time emotions):

Essentially what is being said here, is that, The Qur’an is “accepting” the premise that you can hit your wife. However, it creates a nearly impossible standard in which to make hitting your wife possible, by saying, in my words: “Can you hit your wife? Uh. Sure. Under what circumstances? If she’s about to commit treason against her family, her children, you (as her husband), and everyone she loves and depends upon, by betraying them. Oh, do you get to hit her then? Uh, no. What can you do? Well, you can talk to her, a lot. Oh, she won’t listen to you? Then separate yourself from her. Yeah, don’t sleep with her. Nope, both meanings, leave her bed. Oh, she is still talking about betraying everyone and joining the side of people who wish to kill everyone, including you, her husband? Sure, then, you can ‘hit’ her.”

It must be underlined, that this ‘hit’ is really just like, when you see in the movies, someone is about to do something crazy, and the other guy hits him across the face and is like “GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF MAN!” That’s what this is supposed to be. This is when your wife is about to go crazy, and is about to betray the very foundations of her social obligations, not just to her family, but to her entire society by committing an act of treason.

So, the idea that The Qur’an allows a husband to hit his wife because she is being disobedient or whatever seem particularly flimsy, and frankly, are interpretations from people who have a vested interest in keeping this idea around: those people being those who profit from such an idea (more on that later) and those who simply wish to justify their personal preferences and stupidity over their moral obligations.

With all that being said, there are differing views on this verse, because at the end of the day, many of the scholars had to deal with stupid husbands, who still felt like they were meeting the “standard” for being allowed to hit their wives. This is an unfortunate reality, but one that exists, and I will address that.

Let us begin with a strong Hadith (traditions of The Prophet) in which he illustrated that he intensely detested the idea of beating one’s wife, he said many times the following: “Could any of you beat his wife as a he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (Bukhari and Muslim)

However, it was not just that, but The Prophet also said: “Never beat God’s handmaidens.” This Hadith is found in: Abu Da’ud, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hibban and Hakim, on the authority of Iyas ibn Abd Allah; ibn Hibban, on the authority of Abd Allah ibn Abbas; and Bayhaqi, on the authority of Umm Kulthum. So please, don’t even try to dispute this one with me.

When this verse was revealed, The Prophet reportedly said: “I wanted one thing, but God has willed another thing – and what God has willed must be best.” However, he mentioned a very important caveat, saying that, and reinforcing the stipulations I mentioned earlier that, hitting a woman could only be done within those strict  confines and that she must be “guilty, in an obvious manner,” and that if done could only be done “in such a way as not to cause pain.” Authentic traditions of this are found in Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Da’ud, Nasa’i, and Ibn Majah.

Therefore, if this “beating” must be done, if at all, it could only be done in symbolic fashion. Tabari, a classical scholar said that it should only be done with “a toothbrush, or some such thing,” while Razi, another classical scholar, said that it should be done “with a folded handkerchief.”

However, one of the greatest Muslim scholars, Imam Shafi’i (founder of the Shafi’i school of law) argued that, agreeing with my argument, that this act is just barely permissible, and should be avoided, utilizing the justification of The Prophet’s personal feelings as his strongest evidence.

So even those who would argue against my point, the overwhelming evidence illustrates, that not just me (“nice Muslim guy”), but that classic scholars, agreed with this perspective and that they clearly saw that this injunction is just so overwhelmingly narrow as to be rendered essentially meaningless.

As far as the film, Submission, and its director Theo van Gogh, I’d like to start out by saying this: I do not think that he should have been killed. Regardless of how overwhelmingly offensive and reprehensible his work was, and how clear that it (the film) was designed simply to instigate a reaction from a group in Holland, who are systematically pushed apart from society, unless, of course, they (the Muslims) are helping Holland win soccer games. Even dismissing those issues, again, no one deserves to be killed over their opinions alone, no matter how reprehensible or repugnant they may be.

That being said, as a person who is particularly interested in film, from what I saw, it’s stated objective was to “bring awareness of Muslim women who were victims of domestic violence,” ostensibly to “help” these women. If he and his contributor, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, actually cared about women, why didn’t they interview real Muslim women? Why did they have to create fictional characters in order to portray this story? If Muslim women were just being beaten on the daily, then, surely, they could have found some Muslim women to speak out, to underline this issue.

Let me be abundantly clear, I’m not denying the existence of domestic violence in the Muslim community. However, I think it is beyond naive to think that domestic violence is somehow unique to Muslims, and realize that it exists in every society, and that it is a horrendous and disgusting issue and one that must beeliminated. This can only be done by creating a safe space for all women to come forward, to seek protection, and other protections under the law and from their community and families.

However, in order to address the issue, I’m not sure how the film Submission contributed to do anything to actually help Muslim women who have experienced this horrible abuse. How did writing verses of The Qur’an on the woman’s body, a fictional woman, with fictional stories, do anything to help Muslim women? Why couldn’t the film even use real stories, honestly, why not?

Furthermore, besides the verse that I discussed, they used verses that are literally so tame, that I laughed when I read them. Look at them:

“And they will ask thee about [woman’s] monthly courses. Say: “It is a vulnerable condition. Keep, therefore, aloof from women during their monthly courses, and do not draw near unto them until they are cleansed; and when they are cleansed, go in unto them as God has bidden you to do.” Verily, God loves those who turn unto Him in repentance, and He loves those who keep themselves pure.“ [2:222] Muhammad Asad


“And they ask you about menstruation. Say, “It is harm, so keep away from wives during menstruation. And do not approach them until they are pure. And when they have purified themselves, then come to them from where Allah has ordained for you. Indeed, Allah loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who purify themselves.” [2:222] Sahih International.

So, this phrase is just saying, when your wife is menstruating, that you do not have sex with her, and that when she is no longer menstruating, feel free to have sex with her. So, The Qur’an is talking about sex as a good thing, something to enjoy  with your wife, when she is comfortable, and yet, this is violence? Really? According to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, this is evidence of The Qur’an allowing men to rape women. Wait, what? Tell me, where is the rape? Honestly.

Oh, and let’s not forget the other verse:

“As for the adulteress and the adulterer – flog each of them with a hundred stripes, and let not compassion with them keep you from [carrying out] this law of God, if you [truly] believe in God and the Last Day; and let a group of the believers witness their chastisement.” [24:2] Muhammad Asad


“The [unmarried] woman or [unmarried] man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah , if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment.” [24:2] Sahih International

So, again, according to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, this verse also shows The Qur’an’s love of beating women. I don’t even have the patience to deal with how this is just the maximum punishment and that it in not the obligation, rather, just the most severe sentence possible. However, even more importantly, did she forget that the punishment is for men and women?

How am I supposed to take this work seriously when it seems like that the filmmakers themselves did not bother to do the research, and seemingly, to even read what they were talking about? Furthermore, if my concern was the plight of female victims of domestic violence, how am I going to provide them a space to get the help that they need with this sort of work? Honestly, even if the larger society was made “aware” of this issue, the problem isn’t the society, the problem would be in helping the victims, how did this work do that, in any way?

It is from this perspective that I evaluate the work, and thus, the fact that verses were painted on her back are a secondary offense, because the reason I am actually offended is that I feel that the film actuallyprevented women who need help from having the space to get that help. To me, that is a greater evil than any so-called attempt at art, which this film purported to be.

There is a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali has no credibility among academics, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Read Stephen Sheehi’s work “Islamophobia,” who is an Arab Christian, and he describes her place perfectly. She has no education in Islamic studies, and purports herself as some sort of “native informer,” and provided the “Islamic perspective” that, unfortunately, Theo van Gogh was killed for. I believe that if he had listened to someone who simply read The Qur’an, he would have taken a different stance, and had he made a documentary about the plight of Muslim women who had been subjected to domestic violence (omitting his offensive imagery), I would have respected that work.

The problem, again, is that for whatever the intentions that motivated the work, the reality is that, the victims of domestic violence, have not benefited from this work, and thus, it cannot be said to have any benefit, and has simply caused greater discord and misunderstanding between different groups of people, which is actually tragic.

Insha Allah, I hope I answered your question and that if you, or anyone else has questions on this or any other topic, please do not hesitate to ask me.

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