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When the Wife is unhappy with her Husband
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When the Wife is unhappy with her Husband

by Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (1984)

Qur'an 4:34 (Surah Nisa, aya't 4) gives some guidance as to how to
deal with marriage difficulties when husbands feel that their wives
are being deliberately nasty to them. The Holy Qur'an also gives
guidance for cases when it is the wife who thinks that she is being
mistreated and feels unhappy about it.
In this connection it must, first of all, be clearly understood by
all Muslims that the Holy Qur'an unequivocally prohibits keeping
women in wedlock against their will. In Surah al-Baqarah, verse 231,
it is said:

"And do not retain them (i.e. women) in wedlock against their will in
order to hurt them. He who does such a thing indeed sins against
himself. And do not take the signs of God lightly..."
And in Surah an-Nisa verse 19 we read:
"O YOU who have attained to faith! It is not lawful for you to [try
to] become heirs of your wives [by holding onto them] against their
These verses appear in some particular contexts but they clearly
contain the principle (also found in Hadith) that women can be
brought into the marriage relationship and kept in that relationship
only if they want to do so.
In some cultures, including parts of the Muslim world, women are
sometimes beaten by their relatives into marrying men of the
relatives' own choice or beaten to stay in the marriage bond. Those
who do that commit a sin and unless forgiven by the women concerned
will be punished by hell-fire in the hereafter.

It is true, as we have seen in another article, that husbands can
lightly beat their wives when they show prolonged and deliberately
nasty behaviour but such beating can be done only when the intention
to stay in the marriage bond is intact on the part of both the
husband and the wife. The moment the wife makes up her mind that she
does not wish to remain in the marriage bond and she clearly
expresses this decision on her part, the husband ceases to have any
justification in the sight of God to beat her.

It is not only by physical force that women are sometimes kept in
marriage against their will. More often it is social or economic
pressures that are used, consciously or unconsciously, to keep them
tied in the unwanted relationship. In Surah an-Nisa' the Book of God
combats such social and economic pressures:

"If a woman fears ill-treatment (mushuz) or indifference (i'radh)
from her husband, it is not wrong if (at her initiative) the two set
things peacefully to right between themselves; for, peace is best,
and selfishness is ever present in human souls. But if you do good
and are conscious of Him, behold, God is aware of all that you do...
If the two break up, God provides everyone out of His abundance, for
God is resourceful, wise." (4:128-130)
In many cultures, including the Muslim culture, it is considered
taboo on the part of a woman, especially if she is of "noble"
(sharif) descent, to express unhappiness with marriage and to try to
do something about it (except in cases of extreme cruelty on the part
of the husband). This type of attitude is part of the social pressure
which is used to keep women suppressed. The Qur'an says that if a
woman feels that her husband is too indifferent to her, i.e. does not
give enough love to her or mistreats her and she is therefore
unhappy, there is nothing wrong if she initiates steps to change the
It should be noted that whenever the Qur'an says "there is nothing
wrong" or "it is not wrong" (la junaha), it means to fight certain
social taboos and established psychological attitudes. In the above
passage it is fighting the attitude which expects women to continue
in the marriage bond as the husbands keep them regardless of whether
the wife is reasonably happy or not.

The first step that a woman should take to change her marriage
situation, if she is unhappy with it, is, of course, to "talk it out"
with her husband. This may lead to one of two things: a greater
understanding between the two resulting in a satisfactory change in
the husband's attitude or a mutual decision to dissolve the marriage
bond (with the wife possibly returning par of the dowry (2:229)).
Such peaceful settling of matters is beautifully encouraged in the

"peace is best, and selfishness is ever present in human soul. But if
you do good and are conscious of God, behold, God is aware of all
that you do."
Selfishness is accepted here as an inevitable condition of the human
soul, so we are not expected to altogether get rid of it. What we are
expected to do is to balance our selfishness with God consciousness
and consideration for others. This means that we should pursue our
self-interests within the limits set by God for our own good and also
do something for others instead of being all the time concerned with
It is in such a spirit that the husband and wife should discuss their
marriage difficulties. Both have the right to expect happiness from
the marriage relationship but each of them should seek happiness with
consciousness of God and some concern for the happiness of the other
partner in marriage. If the husband is not inclined to discuss things
in this spirit and continues to mistreat the wife, then the wife can
go to an Islamic court which must then impose a settlement on the
husband on just terms. This is because it is the duty of Islamic
courts to enforce the law of God and deal with all forms of zulm

The Holy Qur'an wishes to make it socially acceptable for a wife to
seek a change in her marriage situation if she feels that her husband
mistreats her or is indifferent to her. But social acceptability
alone is not enough; for, as noted earlier, tied with social taboos
are economic considerations that often pressure the woman to accept
her unhappy marriage situation. The Qur'an says that this should not
be the case. It reminds all the concerned persons - the wife, the
husband and relatives that:

"God provides everyone out of His abundance, for God is resourceful,
wise" (4:130)
If all attempts on the part of the wife to establish a reasonably
happy and dignified relationship with her husband fail and breakup of
the marriage is the only option, then this option should not be
rejected only for economic reasons. Let the wife and her relatives
trust in God who is the real provider of all. Marriage should be
viewed primarily as a love relationship (30:21) and not as an
economic relationship.
The reminder that God is the provider of all is also meant for the
husband. It tells him that he should not be too stingily and try to
get back every penny that he might have spent on the wife but rather
settle on equitable, if not generous, terms. God, who provided him
all that he spent on his wife, may provide him yet more out of His
infinite abundance.

It is instructive to note a couple of differences between the passage
considered above and verse 34 of the same Surah an-Nisa' dealing with
the case when it is the husband who is unhappy with the wife. In the
latter case it is simply said: "If you (i.e. husbands) part" whereas
in the above passage it is said "If a woman fears nushuz or i'radh on
her husbands part." The addition of i'radh meaning turning away or
becoming indifferent in case of a husband and its omission in the
case of a wife is significant. This is a recognition that in love and
sex relationship man's role is a more active one in the sense that he
is the one who makes most of the first moves [Anjum Jaleel's
Comments: Is it also true in case of the Western women?] and
therefore as a rule he alone can do i'radh: she can, as a rule, only
refuse to respond (which if done willfully and too often would come
under nushuz and would be dealt with as such).

Another difference between the two cases is that when the husband
fears nushuz on the part of the wife he can, after due admonition and
talking, separate the wife in bed and then lightly beat her while
such measures are not suggested to the wife if she is the one who
fears nushuz or i'drah from the husband. This is, of course, not
because the Qur'an sees anything wrong in principle with the wife
separating herself in bed from the ill-treating husband or even
beating him. The reason rather is that the Qur'an recognizes the well-
observed fact that as a rule women are physically weaker than men and
therefore it would be difficult for her to implement such measures
against the husband. Unlike the sentimental feminists, the Qur'an is
wise enough and realistic enough to first admit that in general women
are indeed physically weaker than men and then to realize that it
would be totally unhelpful to ask a weaker partner to use forceful
methods against a stronger one, especially if that stronger partner
is already mistreating her.

But this does not mean that Islam leaves women at the mercy of their
husbands. If despite being a Muslim a husband fails to respect the
principles outlined in the Qur'an and instead of peacefully settling
matters with the wife shows neither the inclination to treat her as a
husband should treat a wife nor lets her go in a maruf (just and
public) way, then it is the collective duty of the Muslim society to
step in and, through a suitable legal system, enforce the law of God
by imposing a settlement on the husband on terms judged equitable by
an impartial court. It is regrettable that Muslim societies have not
yet evolved such a suitable legal system to give women adequate
protection against their stronger marriage partners should these
stronger partners abandon love and tenderness and turn nasty.