Is Wife-beating in the Koran?

This week I address several issues related to women and Islam. My purpose is to state facts not interpret them; to clarify, not defend or attack anyone. Today I want to answer this question: is wife-beating present in the Koran?

The answer to this question is an unmistakable YES. Just like parts of the Old Testament are embarrassing to some Christians, this admission also troubles some Muslims. The responses, as expected, usually fall into four categories: a) ignore that it is there; b) explain it away by attributing a different meaning to the text; c) acknowledge that it is there but soften its blow; d) admit it and try to defend it in today’s world (a not so enviable task).

Now to the text in question: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.” (Dawood’s translation of Sura (chapter) 4:34).

In this text Muhammad gives two reasons why men are “superior” to women: because God made them so and because money made them so! He goes on to say that the signs of a virtuous woman are her obedience to her husband and her adherence to modest dressing. Finally, he gives a three-step approach to dealing with a wife suspected of “disobedience”: a) verbal rebuke; b) sexual deprivation (which for some women might be no punishment at all!) and c) physical punishment (“beating”).

For those who try to make “disobedience” only refer to adultery or other immoral acts, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that the best translation is “disobedience.” Also, the whole context deals with obedience vs. disobedience. For those who want to say that “beating” means something other than beating, like making a verbal pronouncement, for example, this does not explain the three-step process, each step being a little “harsher” than the previous one. A verbal pronouncement would be the same as a verbal rebuke. Again, most scholars translate the word as “beating” and that is how that word is translated the vast majority of times it appears in the Koran.

Later, silly notions such as “beating” them with a big toothpick or a folded handkerchief arose, no doubt to try to make the whole idea more palatable to westerners. No matter, the fact remains that even though Muhammad in other occasions admonished husbands not to treat their wives too harshly, even though he defended the rights of women to divorce and own property, even though he went to great pains himself to please his multiple wives, by letting that slip into the Koran, he gave comfort to the men who were already up to no good when it came to their views of women. The rest is history and it is not a pretty one.

I am giving you the facts. Pure and simple. Tomorrow: Was Muhammad a wife-beater?

Ivanildo C. Trindade