Critics incorrectly allege that Islam commands husbands to beat their wives, often citing the Quran verse 4:34. Unfortunately, like any Muslim man who harms his wife, critics miss the keen wisdom in verse 4:34 that actively pre-empts domestic violence.
In Virginia, I provide pro bono legal support to victims of domestic and sexual violence. Virtually all of our clients are female. Every nine seconds -- nearly 10,000 victims daily -- a woman in the United States is abused. In America, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, more than car accidents, muggings and rape -- combined. Would those who blame Islam for domestic violence also blame Christianity every nine seconds?
Before addressing this question, consider Dr. James Q. Wilson's perspective -- America's pre-eminent social scientist. He cites the medical fact that the part of the brain that stimulates anger and aggression is larger in men than in women. Likewise, the part of the brain that restrains anger is smaller in men than in women. Simply put, men are far more prone to violence and far less capable of self-restraint than women.
But this is not a "cop out" argument. Part of the problem is that our laws only punish men after the violence has already occurred. We implement educational and rehabilitation programs to decrease and diminish other illnesses, allowing the individual to function in society without harm to him or herself or to others. Likewise, stopping domestic violence means acting to eliminate even initial infractions.
Pre-emptive deterrence is the key. And this precisely is the wisdom behind verse 4:34 to decrease and stop violence against women. The verse in its totality describes a process of restraint, anger management and reformation.
The verse begins by defining a family unit, holding the husband accountable as the household's guardian and provider. This obligation gives him certain authority, privileges and a requirement of magnanimity -- but never the right to employ domestic violence. The verse then urges women to also act virtuously, and protect the family unit by cooperating with their husband, listening to him in all good things and to not publicize private family matters.
Next, verse 4:34 employs the process of anger management, reformation and reconciliation. This process may only be employed after a wife has initially and deliberately undermined or attempted to destroy the family, as indicated by the words, "as for those on whose part you fear disobedience." But "disobedience" does not mean any random disagreement a wife may have with her husband. Arabic lexicon provides the correct understanding as that of a wife who has deserted her husband altogether or has unjustly attempted to destroy the family. Once a wife deliberately engages in this form of behavior, then the Quran describes a process to peacefully reconcile the dispute.
The first step, anger management, obliges the husband to merely admonish his wife of his concern, essentially encouraging the parties to admit that a problem exists. This forces a man to strictly control himself in hopes that his wife will also incline to reconciliation. Should this fail, the second step is separating beds for up to four months. This act further diminishes the chances of domestic violence, as a man physically separates himself from the emotionally charged situation for an extended period of time. If the wife engaged in an action to which the husband over reacted, then his extended time apart will help him realize the foolishness of his own behavior. Likewise, if the wife indeed engaged in an improper act, then her husband's separation will encourage her to realize the unreasonableness of her behavior. Either way, this step avoids violence altogether while actively promoting reconciliation.
Employed effectively, these two steps help reconcile the vast majority of domestic disputes. Should the first two steps fail, however, the Quran allows -- never commands -- men to consider the third step, translated as "to chastise them." But to understand "chastise" as sanctioning violence ignores the lengthy process employed in the first two steps to eliminate violence, the proper meaning and scope of "chastise," and the precedent of peaceful reconciliation Prophet Muhammad himself established.
First, it is unmerited to suggest that the Quran requires such extensive lengths to avoid violence, only to ultimately permit it.
Next, Arabic lexicon demonstrates that the word translated "chastise," i.e. daraba, employs definitions like "to heal," having nothing to do with violence. While daraba may also mean, "to strike," the proper scope of "strike" is best understood through Prophet Muhammad's example. Prophet Muhammad explained that for that man incapable of controlling his anger -- the first two required restrictions notwithstanding -- any act, such as a "strike," must heal and "not so much as to leave a mark."
Elaborating on this, Prophet Muhammad explicitly admonished Muslims, "Do not beat your wives." He led by example and never struck his wives, therefore demonstrating in word and in deed that Muslim men cannot harm women for any reason.
As an alternative, Islam also encourages arbitration to actively foster reconciliation while reducing and eliminating the chances for domestic violence.
Thus, verse 4:34 describes a human nature-based process of reducing environmental triggers and curbing biological urges. This verse forces men to control their anger, remove themselves from emotionally charged situations that may lead to domestic violence, while admonishing women to also incline towards reconciliation.
As for women who fear harm from their husbands, Islam gives women an even easier path: demand their husbands stop their egregious behavior, or file for divorce. Islam was the first religion and Prophet Muhammad was the first statesman to ensure women had the right to unilaterally divorce. A Muslim man who violates his duties to protect, provide and care for his wife risks losing his wife altogether, while still being liable to provide for her financially. The Quran ensured these protections to women 1,400 years ago. Thus, Muslim men who abuse women do so in spite of the Quran, ignoring the Quran's required and lengthy pre-emptive methods to peacefully reconcile.
Finally, remember that domestic violence occurs because men let their anger rule their behavior. If the nearly 10,000 American women who are abused daily received the pre-emptive protections that verse 4:34 offers, then how many women would actually be subject to domestic violence at all?