2016-06-30

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.

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, author of more than 20 books on Sufism, psychology, and other topics, has also translated more than 25 books on Islamic beliefs into English. "The Sublime Quran"--the first translation of the Qur'an by an American Muslim woman--was published in April 2007 by Kazi Publications.

  • Listen: Crisis of Faith


    Bonita McGee is co-founder of Muslim Family Services, a social service organization serving the Muslim community in the greater Columbus, Ohio, area. She has worked with domestic violence survivors for many years and has advised the Islamic Society of North America on the issue.
  • Listen: Dynamics of Domestic Violence
  • Listen: Women Need an Imam's Help


    Hadia Mubarak, currently a senior researcher for Georgetown University's Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, served as the first female president of the Muslim Student Association (national) and published an academic paper in 2004 on the historical interpretations of verse 4:34.
  • Listen: Growing Up Muslim
  • Listen: Three Traditions from the Prophet


    Laleh, how did you arrive at your new translation of verse 4:34?

    Bakhtiar: While I was working on the translation, it came to me strongly that the Prophet never hit anyone, and so there must be another meaning to that verse. Then I found Edward Lane’s 1863 Arabic-English dictionary, which is still authoritative, and he said that word also means "to go away." That moment was important for me, because that's exactly what the Prophet did when he was upset with his wives--he went away from them. Since then, I have found other scholars who also use the translation "to go away from" rather than "to beat."

    So this translation of 4:34 isn't new in the world of Islamic scholarship?

    Mubarak: In my own research, I found discussion of that verse has gone on for a very long time, as far back as the scholar Ibn Abbas (who was 13 when the Prophet Muhammad died), who was a successor to the companions of the Prophet. He said in his tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an) that his fellow scholars misunderstood the verse. He understood that phrase wadribuhunna (daraba in root form) to be in an imperative form that actually means God is saying, "Don’t beat them."

    Growing Up Muslim
    I thank Laleh for putting this interpretation in an English translation, because I don't think it's been done before. Growing up, it was a personal dilemma for me to reconcile that verse, "to beat them," with my own notions of Islam's egalitarianism. I believe the Qur’an ordains mercy and compassion between men and women--we see that especially in verse 9:71, where God describes men and women as "partners of one another." God never gives one gender any level of moral superiority or authority over the other.

    When working with domestic violence survivors in the Muslim community, does this verse actually result in abuse?

    Dynamics of Domestic Violence
    McGee: No, the verse does not cause domestic violence. Abusers abuse because it works for them. If you had a perfect translation of the Qur'an, guess what? Abusers would still abuse and find justification for it. It’s a behavior choice.

    On another level, though, this translation opens up the conversation on tauwid, or the larger idea of the oneness of God, and how that affects our relationships with our spouses and our families. In some circles, this translation may force people to revisit this issue.

    Bakhtiar: The problem comes when beating is done in the name of God. In the eyes of many people, it's sanctioned by the interpretation this verse has had over the centuries. People say, "You are only supposed to beat lightly, with a small stick or a handkerchief." But there’s no way to limit that at the moment of anger.

    McGee: I tell imams that I work with: "You say domestic violence is never allowed in Islam, but you then go through a 15-minute description on how to properly hit someone--that’s contradictory; 'never' and 'but' don't go together." I remind them there’s always a survivor in the audience, whether they know it or not. That verse can create a serious crisis of faith for women who are hurting and don’t know how to accept it into their hearts.
  • This verse caused inner turmoil for some of you. Do you think that’s true for other Muslim women?

    Mubarak: I know a lot of other educated young women struggle with it. You read the Qu'ran and see the basic gender paradigm that ordains mercy and justice between men and women. Then you come to this one verse that seems to contradict everything you believe Islam stands for, and it just doesn’t fit. I never accepted that this verse actually instructed men to beat their wives. That to me is an absolute contradiction to the way God describes Himself, as absolutely just.

    How did you resolve that conflict?

    Mubarak: You have to consider several things when you read that verse. The first one we've already talked about: interpreting a specific verse in the context of the Qur'an's general message. The second principle is looking at the example of the Prophet. You'll find the four authentic prophetic traditions that prohibit beating.

    Three Traditions from the Prophet
    In one tradition, the Prophet said, "Never beat God's handmaidens." And in another one: "Could any of you beat your wife as he would a slave and then lie with her in the evening, or sleep with her?" In a third one, some people complained to him that others were beating their wives, and he said, "Those are not the best among you." Finally, his wife, Ayesha, said the Prophet never beat anyone--not a wife, not a servant, or anyone--except if he was in a war.

    You also have to look at the verse's purpose. It's clear God intends to reconcile two people who are having problems. Now if God is telling men to beat their women, then the woman is going to want out of that marriage. She could exercise her Islamic right to divorce if he resorted to physical abuse. All of that would contradict the objective of reconciliation.

    Then there's grammar. According to one scholar, the word itself (daraba) has 17 different meanings in the Qur'an, and most of the time, it's used to mean "to separate." That fits exactly with the practice of the Prophet.

    In American-Muslim marriages, when a couple faces a problem, do they open up the Qur’an? Do these interpretations matter in a practical way?

    Women Need an Imam's Help
    McGee: They can. In my experience, religion gets involved whenever people disagree. Even if you have two people who only attend one Eid prayer a year, when they disagree, the Qur'an will come out. Many younger couples, who may not even be mosque-going, will at some point reach out to their imam. That's why in our work as domestic violence advocates, imams are such a crucial ally: They can make or break the effort to stop domestic violence in their community.

    I also see Muslim women who say, "I want the abuse to stop but I don't want the marriage to end." But when she seeks help outside the Muslim community, she constantly gets the message, "Leave, leave, leave." She may be less apt to take advantage of those safe--but secular--services, because that message contradicts what she wants and expects from the marriage.

    Mubarak: The problem is people's understanding of men and women's relationship in Islam as a whole. I liked how Laleh translated another word, nushuz, in 4:34, which is often translated as "disobedience" [of wives to husbands]. There's absolutely no Islamic basis for proving a woman has to obey her husband, beyond fulfilling his legal rights in Islam. Laleh translated that word as "resistance," which I think is better.

    Same with the phrase as the beginning of 4:34--qawwamuna. People use this to prove that Islam establishes men's superiority over women, which it absolutely doesn't. Laleh is correct to translate this word to mean men are "supporters" of women, meaning in a financial sense.

    But when you speak to a lot of Muslims, even Muslims who are literate, they will point to 4:34 and say it establishes a man’s right to be in charge of women. That's where the danger comes in: Once you say men have a level of moral authority above women in Islam, that begins to allow people to justify other things, like beating.

    Bakhtiar: I have counseled Muslim couples in America where Qur'anic interpretation has been a real issue. The husband thinks he is superior to his wife. In many cases, he was staying at home, and the wife was working, and doing all the housework, and everything else--and he still thought he had the right to beat her.

    Crisis of Faith
    Women have a crisis of faith when they are beaten in the name of God. Other American women are beaten, and Muslim women meet them in the shelter, and the law looks at those beatings as being wrong. But, then the Muslim woman is trying to understand, "How come in my tradition it's not wrong?" The psychological effect can stay with you all of your life.

    Different interpretations of the Qur'an have gained sway over time. Is this one going to catch on?

    Mubarak: A lot of Muslims have their guard up against what they feel is external pressure to reform Islam, especially when it comes to gender reform, democracy, and other things that are inherent in Islam and do not contradict it. You have traditionalists and Islamists fighting them because they perceive them as an attempt from outside to change Islamic values.

    We're in a politicized climate. I went to Uganda in March, where there was a domestic violence bill that would protect women. Muslim women were protesting against it, and the bill didn't pass. In Jordan there was a bill to stop honor crimes, and it didn't pass either. We need women to group together to prove how [support for women] is within the Islamic tradition and not a departure.

    Do you all imagine using this translation in your work?

    McGee: I have concerns that this translation will be viewed--as with all new things--with a little bit of skepticism, like, "Is this a Trojan Horse of feminists?" But over time I think the discourse will eventually open. My concern is this translation may take off a lot faster in other faiths and secular circles, which may or may not hurt it over the long term within the Muslim community.

    As for using this translation in my work--when I do presentations on domestic violence, I usually mention there are alternate understandings of the verse. Now I can point to this and say, "This is a translation you can look at and make your own decisions by." It’s not just about the one verse. It's easy to quibble about one verse, but if someone can read the [whole] translation and feel comfortable with it, then I can say, "You're saying this verse is solid, that verse is solid--why not this one?" It gives us a basis for discussion.

    Some Muslims might feel settled with one translation, and why do they need another one? Then there will be some who are not sure what to think, and they may be the ones to pick this up and at least give it a chance. I always emphasize: Compare. I have four different translations in my home, though I grew up with Yusuf Ali. But for women in crisis, this translation might be a means of opening up some doors.

    Bakhtiar: We do feel the onslaught of the West against Islam, and as a result, we need to look within ourselves and see where can we improve. I'm very careful never to say I have come up with a "new interpretation" because the Qur’an itself says that you shouldn't come up with new interpretations.

    I believe we can improve by following the behavior of the Prophet. You might quarrel with some of the things he is reputed to have said, but you can’t quarrel with what he did. When he was unhappy with his wives, he separated from them or went away from them. That’s the strongest argument to use with imams and others.

    The fact is, the Prophet never beat anyone, so it’s our own Muslim behavior we have to change. And that’s the most difficult thing--trying to change. It’s the real jihad al-akbar, the greater struggle.