“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).”Qur’an 4: 34, Yusuf translation. All parentheses by translator
“Beat them (lightly).” Pardon my license here, but beating “lightly” sounds more like foreplay than any sort of punishment for disloyalty and ill-conduct. I asked my wife if I could beat her this month if I suspected her of these crimes.
“Sure,” she said. “If you don’t mind getting your teeth knocked out.”
This is one of the most oft cited verses in the Qur’an by the opponents of Islam, and I can’t blame them. I mean, if this verse is truly the word of Allah, then Muslims have no choice in the matter. The very practice of abusive patriarchal societies is one of the top reasons some Muslim women have left Islam.
But what if Yusuf’s translation is wrong? What if the word used in this verse, idribuhun, is being used incorrectly? The Arabic word comes from daraba, which is a multi-meaning word that means “to put forth” or “beat.” It is similar in usage in English as the word beat or to get. Like their English counterparts, these Arabic terms take meaning depending on their context. Here’s an example with the English word, beat.
“Our team beat their team.”
“My father beat the dog with a stick.”
“Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point!”
Only in one case above do we understand the word “beat” as a physical strike–not because of the word itself, but because of the sentence around it. Many Islamic reformers today are challenging conservative notions about the Qur’an, including how we translate this text. Their argument is to look around, find the same word in different situations and see how it’s used.
Verse 4: 34 offers a step-by-step process for mitigating spousal issues. Step 1) Advise them (one’s wife), Step 2) Abandon them in the bedchamber (guys, how often are we “cut off” when we screw up? Here men are called to do the same), Step 3) Idribuhun, “put forth” them (in other words, separate).
It just makes more sense to place the actually meaning of the word here because there is no context for a physical beating. Take a look at another verse where the same root of the word is used.
“Have you not seen how God puts forth (Daraba) the example that a good word is like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are in the sky.” –Qur’an 14:24
Here the multi-purpose root, daraba, is used again. Now, would it make sense that God beat the example or that he put forth? Of course, the latter is true, again not because of the word itself, but the circumstances around it. Now let’s take a look at the same word only this time, we’ll actually get to hit or beat something.
“And if you could only see as the Angels take those who have rejected, they strike (yadribun) their faces and their backs…” Qur’an 8:50
“Your Lord inspired to the angels: “I am with you so keep firm those who acknowledge. I will cast fear into the hearts of those who have rejected; so strike above the necks, and strike(yadribun) every finger.” Qur’an 8:12
Again, same root word, different context, and therefore different meaning. To say “put forth” or “separate” in these cases would make no sense. The very same is true in English. If your child came home from a soccer game and said “Mom, they beat us” would you try and cheer him/her up, or file a law suit? Of course you wouldn’t press charges because you know the context in which the word is used.
Another reason beating your wife doesn’t add up is because the idea completely contradicts other verses and hadiths (I know, I know. Go ahead guys) about the matter.
“If a woman experiences ill-treatment from her husband or fears that he might turn away from her, there should be no hesitation in taking corrective action and resolving the matter between them amicably. Conciliation is best. Selfishness is ever present in human psyche. And if you take care to benefit each other and be mindful of God, certainly God is ever Aware of all you do.” Qur’an 4: 128
Conciliation is best. This verse is found in the same chapter as the first, more controversial one, and it’s recommending conciliation. If that’s the case, wouldn’t the new translation fit better? How is hitting your wife conciliatory?
Here are some things Muhammad (reportedly) said about women:
“God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts.”
“Women are the twin halves of men.”
“Muhammad said, “Beat not your wives.” Then Omar came to the Rasul (Muhammad) and said, “Wives have got the upper hand from hearing this.”
Beat. Not. Your. Wives. If Muslim men are to follow the example of the Prophet, and here the man is telling you not to beat your wife (even lightly!), then we have the double edged sword of grammatical proof AND the directive of the prophet himself.
I know there are traditionalists out there who disagree. “This guy is just a pretend Muslim. What does he know?” It’s not what I know, it’s an ability to kill my ego and willingness to change my perspective in the face of evidence. What’s your take? Does Allah want men to beat their wives? What does this re-examination mean for other verses in the Qur’an?