Does the Qur'an Tolerate Domestic Abuse?

In Islam, does God permit husbands to beat disloyal wives? A new translation of the Qur'an says no--but will this take hold?

While many Muslims say that Islam liberates women, one verse in the Qur'an has sparked debate on this idea for years. According to many popular English translations, verse 4:34 instructs Muslim men who "fear disloyalty and ill-conduct" from their wives to first admonish them, then refuse to sleep with them, and then "beat them (lightly)." Does that verse mean that in Islam, God permits husbands to beat their wives?

Non-Muslims often wonder if this verse justifies domestic violence. At the least, doesn’t it reinforce the idea that women are inferior to men? A new English translation of the Qur'an, published by Iranian-American scholar Laleh Bakhtiar this spring, aims to strike down these ideas. Instead of translating the root verb daraba as "beat them lightly," Bakhtiar translates this key verse to mean "go away from them." She bases her word choice on, among other things, the example of Prophet Muhammad, who, according to prophetic tradition, never hit anyone in his family, not even lightly, and always treated his wives (there were 12 over the course of his lifetime) with respect.

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Critics, like "Koran for Dummies" author Sohaib Sultan, argue that Bakhtiar's translation is a "modern-day revisionist report," saying other well-read translations of the Qur'an have always taken the word daraba to mean something physical. But Bakhtiar says the word has 17 different meanings, the most popular being "to separate."

Linguistics aside, will Bakhtiar's translation be accepted by Islamic scholars? Will this new interpretation become the standard reference for Muslims? Beliefnet asked Bakhtiar as well two experts on the subject, Bonita McGee and Hadia Mubarak about the new translation and its possible implications for husband and wife relationships.

Laleh Bakhtiar
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