Is corporal punishment allowed and applicable according to Sharī`ah?
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
As-salāmu ‘alaykum wa-rahmatullāhi wa-barakātuh.
Corporal punishment refers to physical punishment inflicted on a child by an adult in authority.The concept of corporal punishment has been (and still remains) a topic of debate amongst many people worldwide. In order to understand the Islamic stance on corporal punishment, we shall commence by quoting a hadīth of the Holy Prophet ﷺ:
قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: «مُرُوا أَوْلَادَكُمْ بِالصَّلَاةِ وَهُمْ أَبْنَاءُ سَبْعِ سِنِينَ، وَاضْرِبُوهُمْ عَلَيْهَا، وَهُمْ أَبْنَاءُ عَشْرٍ وَفَرِّقُوا بَيْنَهُمْ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ»
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Command your children to pray when they become seven years old, and beat them for it (prayer) when they become ten years old; and arrange their beds (to sleep) separately.
In relation to this hadīth and the ruling derived therefrom, `Allāmah al-Haskafī states in Al-Durr Al-Mukhtār:
(Tumurtāshī says:) “It (Prayer) is obligatory on every mukallaf person (i.e. one who is liable in Sharī`ah to adhere to its dictates) even though it is necessary to hit a ten year old (child) for it with a hand, not with a stick” because of the hadīth “command your children to pray…” I say that fasting is similar to prayer as well as related in the chapter of Fasting of Quhustānī…it is (also) related in (the chapter of) Hazr (wa’l-Ibāhah) of al-Ikhtiyār: He (the child) will be commanded to fast and pray and he will (also) be forbidden from drinking alcohol so he becomes accustomed to good and leaves evil.”
`Allāmah Ibn Ābidīn comments on the last portion of `Allāmah Haskafī’s statement as follows: “The reason for narrating these two statements (from Quhustānī and Al-Ikhtiyār) is to show that a child may be commanded to do all things we are commanded to do and forbidden from all things we are prohibited to do.”
Commenting on the nature of the hitting itself, `Allāmah al-`Alqamī states in his al-Kawkab al-Munīr (as quoted by Mubārakpūrī in his Tuhfat al-Ahwadhī): “The beating (in the hadīth) refers to a beating that does not inflict severe pain where the person avoids hitting the face as well.”
From this, we can see that the hadīth above may be a direct indication towards the general permission of applying a nominal amount of physical force against a child for disciplinary reasons. Although the addressees of this hadīth are the parents, the general ruling may include teachers as well if permitted by the parents to do so as mentioned by `Allāmah Ibn Ābidīn (quoting fromal-Qunyah), Al-Usrūshnī (in his Jāmi` Ahkām al-Sighār), and `Allāmah Ibn Nujaym (in hisAl-Bahr al-Rāiq).
It goes without saying that simply because Sharī`ah has allowed corporal punishment to be inflicted, one may not use it to infer that every sort of beating to any extent is permissible. Thefuqahā’ and senior scholars of our times have laid down certain guidelines and rules that must be adhered to in this regard. We shall reiterate a few of those guidelines below:
1) There should be a genuine need to discipline the child
2) It should not lead to causing severe physical harm to the child
3) It should not result in the child holding ill feelings
4) It should not lead to the child running away
5) For a teacher, he should have permission from the child’s guardian
6) The hitting should be limited to the extent needed to discipline the child and nothing more
7) The hitting should not be such that the child is unable to endure it
8) The use of sticks is prohibited (i.e. one may only use one’s hands)
9) The face and head must be avoided
10) One may not hit out of anger or to take revenge for something the child did
Although corporal punishment is permitted in Sharī`ah, it is incumbent on us to remember that this is not the ideal way of dealing with children, especially when the general attitude of the Holy Messenger of Allāh ﷺ was that of mercy and compassion towards all age groups. It is reported in Jāmi` al-Tirmidhī and Sunan Abī Dawūd (with a slight variance in wording) that the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ said:
لَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ لَمْ يَرْحَمْ صَغِيرَنَا وَيَعْرِفْ شَرَفَ كَبِيرِنَا
He is not one of us who does not have mercy upon our young, nor recognizes the honor of our elders.
The above discussion summarizes the general view on corporal punishment in the light of Sharī`ah; however, there are a few more technicalities that we need to consider before we conclude, namely the legal aspect behind the application of such an act in accordance to local, federal, and international law.
In terms of international law, there is no such treaty or agreement that sanctions or prohibits corporal punishment at a global scale. Countries such as the US (and its individual states) also differ on the issue, especially in terms of application of corporal punishment in schools. The latest bill (H.R. 5005) for ending corporal punishment in the US is yet to be received by the House or Senate, while 19 states still permit corporal punishment in schools. On the other hand, corporal punishment has been outlawed in South Africa for quite some time even though individual schools still resort to hitting children for disciplinary purposes. Chapter 2, section 10 of the South African Schools Act (no. 84) states:
1) No person may administer corporal punishment at a school to a learner.
2) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a sentence, which could be imposed for assault.
As residents of our individual countries, it is incumbent on us to follow the laws of such countries as long as they do not directly conflict with Sharī’ah.  This is apparent from the following command of the Holy Prophet ﷺ:
عَلَى الْمَرْءِ الْمُسْلِمِ السَّمْعُ وَالطَّاعَةُ فِيمَا أَحَبَّ وَكَرِهَ، إِلَّا أَنْ يُؤْمَرَ بِمَعْصِيَةٍ، فَإِنْ أُمِرَ بِمَعْصِيَةٍ، فَلَا سَمْعَ وَلَا طَاعَةَ
A Muslim must listen to and obey (the order of his leader) in things that he likes or dislikes, as long as he is not ordered to commit a sin. If he is ordered to disobey Allah, then there is no listening and no obedience. 
Before we continue, it is important to highlight a few points regarding our current Madāris andDārul `Ulūms. In the context of teachers in these institutions, it is important for us to tread carefully when dealing with situations requiring punitive action. In the past, some teachers were charged and successfully prosecuted for assaulting children. This not only involved intervention from child protection agencies, but it also defamed the name of Islamic institutions by causing attention from the media. It is for these reasons that certain institutions have introduced employment contracts that bar the teacher from practicing corporal punishment. In some places such as the UK, many have lobbied cases to introduce nation-wide codes of conduct for Madāris.
It is important to take note that if a teacher is made to sign a contract outlining the terms of employment whereby the teacher is prohibited to exercise corporal punishment against a student, then the teacher will be contractually bound to fulfill such terms from the standpoint of Sharī`ah. More importantly, since we are living in an era fueled by secularism where traditionalist ideas are slowly fading away, it is the job of Muslim teachers to keep the masses close to Islam and avoid anything that will avert them from it. In our modern times, many parents are looking for teachers who show kindness and love to their students and further help them reach their goals through mercy and compassion. Often a teacher has to resort to corporal punishment because he did not employ more practical ways to keep the student focused on his studies. As such, resorting to such methods may also be a sign of weakness on the part of the teacher himself.
To sum it all up, the crux of our discussion boils down to the following points:
1) According to Sharī`ah, corporal punishment is allowed to a certain extent provided it is backed by legitimate reasons and restricted to the guidelines stated before.
2) The purpose of corporal punishment is simply to discipline the child and not to infringe on his or her rights. Furthermore, the ideal way to conduct ourselves with children is to show mercy by emulating the characteristics of the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ.
3) As residents living under the protection of our individual countries, it is our duty to respect the laws of such countries and further ourselves from anything that may bring harm to ourselves and make it more difficult for us to practice our religion. As such, if the laws of one’s country permits one to apply corporal punishment, then one may do so in accordance to said laws of such a country and the guidelines stipulated by Sharī`ah. On the other hand, if one’s country (or state) does not permit such an act, then one should abide by the laws of the locality, lest one ends up in a situation that will force him to sacrifice other religious obligations due to one’s own inability to practice self-control.
In conclusion, while the legality of corporal punishment is established in Sharī`ah, we are still bound to adhere to the general guidelines and rules set out by Islamic law and avoid any situation that may have a negative impact on us or other Muslims within our communities. All in all, one must deal with such delicate issues with wisdom and sound judgment while taking one’s individual environment into account as well.
And Allah Ta’āla Knows Best
Student Darul Iftaa
New Jersey, USA
Checked and Approved by,
Mufti Ebrahim Desai.