Bismillahi ar-Rahman ar-Rahim

Marriage Dynamics in Islam


"And women shall have rights a mirror of the rights over them ... but their men have a degree over them"


Quran Surah an-Nisa verse 34 is generally taken to be the main verse regulating the relationship between husbands and wives. The Arabic reads:

Ar-rijal qawwamuna ala an-nisa bi maa faddala Allah baada hum ala baadin wa bi maa anfaqu min amwalihim fa as-salihat qanitat hafizat li al-ghayb bi maa hafiza Allah wa allati takhafuna nushuz hunna fa a’izu hunna wa uhjuru hunna fi al-madaja’i wa idribu hunna fa in atana kum fa laa tabghu alay hinna sabil inna Allah kana aliyy kabir

This may be translated as:

Men are the continuous support of women by what Allah bounties some of them over others and by what they spend from their wealth. So righteous women are obedient, guarding what is secret as what Allah guarded. And those whose recalcitrance you fear, so admonish them, then separate from them in bed, then hit them. So if they obey you, then do not seek a way against them. Surely Allah is ever High, Great

The first thing you should know is that there is much debate and difference of opinion among Muslims as to the exact meaning of this passage. Some people read it to give a great deal of power and authority to husbands, others seek to place restrictions on men.

In what follows, I am going to give you a summary of what I have read on this issue and what I think is best.

  1. The reason that men have been given authority over their wives is that they are completely financially responsible for their wives. Even if a woman is wealthy, she is not required to spend any of her money to support the family; the obligation falls completely on her husband. Her own money is hers to use as she chooses and her husband can't take it without her permission (Surah an-Nisa verse 4).
  2. Most scholars are agreed that if a husband is not supporting his family, he does not have any authority over them. If he does not fulfill his responsibility, then he does not get the rights. A wife is permitted to take from her husband's money, even without seeking his permission, if he is not providing enough for her. She may also refrain from sex indefinitely, or seek the termination of the marriage without penalty.
  3. According to a well-known commentary of the Quran by a scholar named Fakhr ad-Din Razi, the "bounty" that God has given men is in the greater share of inheritance that they receive; it is true that many scholars of the past interpreted this clause to refer to a general superiority of men over women, but this is not a universal interpretation.
  4. Many Muslims believe that the "obedience" referred to is not unquestioning obedience to whatever command the husband happens to give, but rather refers to accepting the husband's decision as final. They cite Surah at-Tawba verse 71, which says that women may command men in what is right and away from what is wrong (as well as the other way around), and Surah ash-Shura verse 38 which says that all matters are to be decided by consultation. Thus when an issue comes up, the husband and wife should consult on it and discuss, then if they disagree, the wife should concede to her husband's wishes in the matter.
  5. The husband has been allowed to admonish, boycott, or hit his wife if she is recalcitrant. Nearly all modern scholars, including some of the most conservative, are agreed that these three steps must be taken in sequence (see for example, Shari'i procedures when a wife is recalcitrant). That is, first the husband sets out verbally why he thinks his wife's conduct is wrong. If that doesn't work and she still refuses to agree then he may "boycott" her, that is, separate from her in bed. If that still doesn't work, then finally he may hit her. If at any time she does amend her ways, then he has no further authority over her. It should also be noted that "recalcitrance" is not simply disagreeing with the husband; rather it is a refusal to agree, a rejection of the husband's right to leadership. This may manifest itself in rejecting marital relations or in violating the sacred privacy of the family as well as in verbal rejection.
  6. The Prophet (pbuh) not only conveyed the Quran, he also explained it (Surah an-Nahl verse 44). The Prophet's (pbuh) interpretation of any verse is the first interpretation that Muslims should look at. It is thus essential to see how the Prophet (pbuh) explained Surah an-Nisa ayah 34. Two hadiths deal with this issue in particular. The first reads, "(The rights your wife has on you are) that you feed her when you eat and clothe her when you clothe yourself and that you do not hit her on the face or call her ugly, and that you do not separate from her except in the house."* (reported by Mu'awiya al-Qushayri). The second reads, "Be in awe of God in (the matter of) women, for you have taken them by the trust of God, and made their bodies lawful for you by the word of God. And your right upon them is that they do not allow among your furnishings anybody you do not like, and if they do, you may hit them, as long as it is not injurious. And their right on you is that you provide for them and clothe them in honor."** (from the Farewell Sermon, reported by Jabir). From these we can see several rules that husbands must follow:
    1. The admonishment should not involve insulting her, such as calling her ugly, or other types of psychological abuse
    2. The boycott is done only in private; he does not shun her in public and thus expose her to shame or ridicule from others
    3. The hitting must not be on the face
    4. The hitting cannot be "injurious". This has been explained to mean that it is not repetitive, that it should only be with something about the size of a toothbrush or smaller, and that it does not leave a mark.
    It is obligatory for Muslims to follow the Prophet's (pbuh) explanation of the Quran and to abide by these rules.
  7. The Prophet (pbuh) also forbade men to sleep with their wives in the evening if they did hit them.
  8. It should be noted that the Prohet (pbuh) never hit any of his wives or dependants, and said that men who did "are not the best of you, by God!" The Prophet (pbuh) is set as a beautiful example for Muslims (Surah al-Ahzab verse 21), and all Muslim men should strive to imitate him.
  9. In pre-Islamic Arabia, wife-beating was very common. In this context, there are clearly a lot of restrictions being placed on men, so as to cure them of this behavior. This was also what the Prophet (pbuh) himself worked towards.
  10. In Surah an-Nisa verse 128, wives have been given permission to seek remedy for their husbands' recalcitrance. The same Arabic word, nushuz, is used as for the wife's recalcitrance mentioned above. Surah an-Nisa verse 35 also specifies that if there is a dispute between the married couple, arbitrators should be brought in to resolve it. The point is that women have rights over their husbands which are similar to the rights that the husbands have over them, but men have a degree because they are able to take the actions of admonishing, boycotting, and hitting on their own. Surah al-Baqarat verse 228 says just this, for women are rights over men the image of the rights that are upon them, but their husbands have a degree over them. As explained at the beginning, the husband's degree is due to his financial support of his family.

Yes, there are many Muslims, especially in the past, who have argued that women are innately inferior to men and need to be supervised by men and that is the reason for men's authority.

However, the Quran does not actually state this, but allows for other interpretations. Nearly all Muslims today would agree that the degree that husbands have been given over their wives is simply that this is the most effective way to run a household and to balance the different responsibilities that men and women have. It does not reflect any kind of spiritual or mental inferiority on the part of women. To see that the Quran is absolutely clear and unambiguous on the spiritual equality of men and women, visit Men and Women in the Quran.

Men and women are not the same. In the context of marriage there is one very important difference between them: women are the ones who can bear and nurse children. This is an extremely important responsibility and one that women are uniquely placed to fulfill. In order to prevent women from being oppressed by also being required to work for a living, their husbands have been given the responsibility of financially supporting them. This allows women to concentrate on what is really important, their families. And then men are also given the position of leadership to balance out their greater responsibility of support. The husband and the wife are a complementary pair. Each has their own designated role and responsibilities. Together they complete the family.

This is the basic vision of Islam in regard to the balance of power in a marriage



* The Arabic text of this hadith is An yut'imahaa idha ta'ima wa an yaksuhaa idhaa iktasaa wa laa yadribi al-wajhi wa laa yuqabbih wa laa yahjur illa fi al-bayti

** The Arabic text of this hadith is Fa ittaqu Allaha fi an-nisa fa innakum akhadhtumuhunna bi amaani Allahi wa istahlaltum furujahunna bi kalimati Allahi wa lakum 'alayhinna an laa yuti'na furushakum ahadan takrahunahu fa in fa'alna dhaalika fadribuhunna darban ghaira mubarrihin wa lahunna 'alaykum rizquhunna wa kiswatuhunna bi al-ma'rufi


Further Reading

A Note on Beating Wives

A Question of Violence Against Women: What Does the Quran Really Say?

A Question on Whether Wife-Beating is Allowed in Islam

Rights of the Wife over the Husband (scroll down to "Not to Be Beaten")

Some Misconceptions That Have to Be Corrected...About Beating the Wives

Some Questions About Whether Wife-Beating Is Allowed In Islam

S?al Nisa 4.34: The Most Misunderstood Ayah of the Quran regarding Women

Wife Beating? by Dr. Jamal Badawi