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
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    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.
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    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.