Is Beating Someone Permissible When Defending One’s Honor or as a Religious Admonishment?

Hanafi Fiqh

Answered by Ustadh Anik Abdullah Misra
Question: Salamu alaikum,
It is narrated that sometimes Umar used to beat other Sahaba (e.g. Abu Hurairah), because of their wrongdoings. And there are also other similar incidents where other Sahaba used to do this. What is the understanding of these incidents? Is it allowed for the Muslim to beat his fellow brother under the pretext of giving him a nasiha? Is it allowed to beat him if he is attacking your honor, for example if he is insulting you or your family?
The following story is narrated in Hayatu Sahaba Vol.2 p.463 : “Hadhrat Abdullah bin Abbas narrates that when someone spoke about of Hadhrat Abbas and insulted him, Hadhrat Abbas slapped the man. Some people gathered around and swore, “By Allah! We shall slap Abbas just as he slapped this man.” When this news reached Rasulallah (s.), he stood to address the people. “Which person is the most honored by Allah?” Rasulallah asked. “You, O Rasulallah!” the people replied. Rasulallah continued, “Abbas is from me and I am from him. Never insult the dead, thereby hurting the living.”
Actually there are quite a few incidents about beating other Muslims because of their wrong actions. How do I have to understand these narrations? Is beating allowed under certain circumstances?
If the answer is yes, to which extent is it allowed?
Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate,
Wa alaikum as salam,
As a general rule, it is sinful and strictly prohibited for a Muslim to harm or hurt another human being, Muslim or not, on the pretext of giving “religious admonishment” or defending one’s honor and similar excuses.
The Prophet of Mercy, our master Muhammad [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] said in a rigorously authenticated hadith, “The [true] Muslim is one whom the generality of Muslims [including non-Muslim citizens as well] are safe from his tongue and his hand.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Hence, one cannot be a complete Muslim, true to their religion [though they would still be sinful believers], until others are safe from their harm, whether by the tongue, through insults, lies, backbiting and the such, or by the hand, such as by pushing or striking and the like. The tongue and hand are not the only things meant, but they are mentioned since the harm that people do to others is most often by those two parts of the body, representing all types of word and deed. [Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim]
In fact, in another version, this concept is half the definition of Islam itself: “A man asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, what is Islam?’ [The Messenger, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] replied, ‘That you submit your heart to Allah, and that the Muslims are safe from your tongue and hand.’” [Ahmad] It is significant to note that in the Arabic wording, the words for “submission” and “safety” being used here come from the same tri-lateral root word [S-L-M], from which the word “Islam” itself is derived.

Harming Someone in Retaliation

Harming someone in retaliation by any means – let alone using force to hurt them – is also strictly prohibited [unless in self-defense or the like], as attested to by the authentic hadith in which the Prophet [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] said, “There is no harming [another], nor reciprocating harm…” [Ahmad]
Defending honor is no reason to strike someone; in fact, Imam al-Suyuti mentions that the “complete” Muslim being referred to from whom others are safe from their harmful words and deeds is complete in the sense of “the perfection of manliness”. It is misplaced manhood [or dignity, etc] to feel that one needs to lose control and strike someone when insulted. [al-Suyuti, al-Dibaj ‘ala Sahih Muslim]
There are many hadiths which attest the inviolability of the person, honor and property of a Muslim and the Divine punishments for harming someone unjustly.

Forbidding the Wrong Through Physical Means

The use of force may be necessary in the case of self-defense or stopping harm done to someone else by way of protecting the weak, but even here, this is always as a last resort, to the minimal extent needed, and not due to an angry reaction.
In matters of public safety and upholding moral and civil law, the use of force is the sole prerogative of the authority of one’s country, and those delegated to the task of upholding the law, such as the police or a security guard, according to the laws and customs of that land in a given time and place.
It is not the right of laymen to act as vigilantes and use force to uphold moral laws and forbid the wrong in the extra-judicial sense, except in certain cases where the sacred law allows them to do so [such as defending against a thief, etc].

The Use of Physical Discipline by the Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab

We do read that the illustrious Companion and second Caliph of Islam, Omar ibn al Khattab [Allah be pleased with him], used to whack some of the people with a thin stick or whip for doing certain prohibited acts [I say “whack” because the term “to beat” in Arabic can mean anything from a light spank to a sword-strike, and it is clear that it was more as a scolding and that serious harm was not delivered in these cases, as he himself decreed legal punishments to those who did harm others physically].
This was done based on the understanding that he had the legal authority as the caliph to do so to his subjects, and that he had the requisite knowledge of sacred-law to be able to understand when and to what extent this was permissible and when not. For example, he ordered retribution against the son of an aristocratic Companion who was the then-governor of Egypt for unjustly striking a man of lower social standing.
His personality was very strong and strict in matters of correcting wrongs, and thus he leaned towards using physical discipline as a chastisement, however, it is important to note that other caliphs were not known to use physical discipline except in extreme circumstances. Hence, this example is not something that we can use in our daily lives, as it is tied to his particular style of rulership, as well as the customs of physical discipline commonly accepted in that culture and time, which is different than today.

We Cannot Follow Non-Prophetic Incidents in Using Physical Force

In the occasional historical reports where we hear about one of the Companions slapping another or the like, we must keep in mind that in those brief narrations, we don’t always see the full picture and context of what really happened. Nor were they mentioned to extract a ruling of sacred law intended to be followed. We also must remember that while being the best generation of humanity, the Companions and their Followers still lived in a normal functioning society in which everyday disputes took place between people and were settled in courts, even while they knew far more about justice and the dignity of a human being than we do today.
In the incident you quoted regarding al-Abbas [Allah be pleased with him], you must keep in mind that the man who insulted his father Abdul Muttalib [with the horrible statement of wishing he was in Hellfire] was also in fact saying that about the very grandfather of the Messenger of Allah [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him], the man who named him “Muhammad” and raised him after his parents passed away. When the slap was issued in response by al-Abbas, the Prophet quickly stopped an impending escalation and issued his own response to teach us: “Do not curse our dead, thereby harming the living.”
Thus, the hadith does not condone hitting someone at all, rather it shows us how to stop a fight, and exemplifies the higher road of behavior when responding to insults. It also warns people about harming others with the tongue, which is what leads to harm with the hand in many cases.
We cannot take narrations and incidents about the early Muslims and suddenly use our limited reasoning to apply them as legal maxims in our lives, as this can lead to harm and violating the very spirit of Islam.
Rather, as Muslims, we are called on to follow the perfect example of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, regarding whom his wife Aisha said, “The Messenger of Allah [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] never hit anything with his hand – not a woman, nor a servant [ie. to clarify that not just another man is meant, rather no living creature, not even an animal] – except in his fighting in Allah’s way [ie. just war that was fought for protection]. And he never, ever took revenge on a person who had done something personally wrong to him, unless something of what Allah made inviolable was violated [ie. like the abuse of slave], in which case he reacted solely for the sake of Allah, Might and Majestic.” [Muslim]
May Allah Most High guide us to be paragons of righteous and chivalrous behavior, according to the pristine example of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him.
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani