Beating Women, or Beating around the Bush, or .....

By : Edip Yuksel

"Verse
4:34 of the Quran orders believers to beat their wives; so, Islam is a male dominant religion." Many of us have heard this criticism from Christians, atheists, agnostics, etc. Personally, every time I read 4:34, I felt that something was wrong. How does God, the Most Wise order us to beat our women? What kind of solution is that? It is in contrast to the verses in which God describes marriage:

"Among His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquillity and contentment with each other. He places in your heart love and care towards your spouses. In this, there are signs for people who think."
(30:21)

Obviously, this mixed messages have bothered many contemporary translators of the Quran. To avoid the moral and intellectual problems, they tried to soften the word "beat" when they translate the verse 4:34. For instance, Yusuf Ali uses a merciful parentheses after "beat" to save women:

". . . As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly). . ."
(4:34)

Many tried to 'beat' around the bush to 'beat' the problem generated by the 'beat' of
4:34.
When I finished the Turkish translation (1991), this verse was on the top of my orange list to study carefully. Whenever I encounter a problem regarding the understanding of a Quranic verse, I remember 20:114 and pray accordingly:

"Most Exalted is God, the only true King. Do not rush into (understanding) the Quran before it is revealed to you, and say, "My Lord, increase my knowledge"

Almost all of the translations have mistranslated the four key words or terms of this particular verse. These are: "Qawwamune," "Faddallallahu ba"dahum ala ba"d," "Nushuzehunne," and "Fadribuhunne." In our late book, "Errors in Turkish Translations" (
Istanbul, 1992) we have discussed the real meaning of these words and the motivation and reasons for mistranslating them. Here, we will focus on the last word, "Fadribuhunne."

A Famous Multi-Meaning Word

The problem comes from the word "Idribuhunne" which we used to translate as "beat them". The root of this word is "DaRaBa". If you look at any Arabic dictionary you will find a long list of meanings ascribed to this word. That list is one of the longest lists in all the Arabic dictionary. It can be said that "DaRaBa" is the number-one multi-meaning word in Arabic. It has so many different meanings, we can find numerous different meanings ascribed to it in the Quran.
  • To travel, to get out: 3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:20; 2:273
  • To strike: 2:60,73; 7:160; 8:12; 20:77; 24:31; 26:63; 37:93; 47:4
  • To beat: 8:50; 47:27
  • To set up: 43:58; 57:13
  • To give (examples): 14:24,45; 16:75,76,112; 18:32,45; 24:35; 30:28,58; 36:78; 39:27,29; 43:17; 59:21; 66:10,11
  • To take away, to ignore: 43:5
  • To condemn: 2:61
  • To seal, to draw over: 18:11
  • To cover: 24:31
  • To explain: 13:17
As you see, in the Quran alone we can witness the verb "DaRaBa" having at least ten different meanings. "DaRaBa" has also other meanings which are not mentioned in the Quran. For example, in the Arabic language, you do not print money--you "DaRaBa" money, you do not multiply numbers--you "DaRaBa" numbers, you do not cease the work--you "DaRaBa" the work. In Turkish we have many verbs similar to DaRaBa, such as "tutmak", "calmak", "vurmak" etc. In English we have two verbs which are almost equivalent to "DaRaBa". These are "strike" and "beat".
Webster"s Dictionary gives fourteen meanings to the verb "strike": hit (against); ignite; (of snake) bite; (of plants) (cause to) take root; attack; hook (fish); sound (time) as bell in clock etc.; affect; arrive at, come upon; enter mind of; discover (gold, oil etc.); dismantle, remove; make (coin); cease work as protest or to make demands. The same dictionary gives eight meanings to the verb "beat": strike repeatedly; overcome; surpass; stir vigorously with striking action; flap (wings); make, wear (path); throb; sail against wind.
In the beginning of this article (underlined) I deliberately used "beat" in three different meanings in a single statement just to show the variety of meanings in a single word. In English, when we order someone to "beat it" we mean "get out". Similarly in Arabic, when we order someone with the commend form of "DaRaBa", that is "iDRiB", we mean "get out".

How Can We Find The Appropriate Meaning

When we encounter a multi-meaning word, we select the proper meaning according to the context, forms, and common sense. For instance, if we had have translated "DaRaBa" in
13:17 as "beat" instead of "explain", the meaning would be ridiculous:

". . . God thus beats the truth and falsehood"
(13:17)

Another example of mistranslation of 'DaRaBa' can be found in the translation of 38:44. All the translations (except Dr. Khalifa"s translation) inject a male-made story to justify their silly translation. Here is how Yusuf Ali translates the verse about Job:

"And take in the hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (the oath)."

Yusuf Ali, in the footnote narrates the traditional story: "He (Job) must have said in his haste to the woman that he would beat her: he is asked now to correct her with only a wisp of grass, to show that he was gentle and humble as well as patient and constant."
However, without injecting this story, we can translate it as the following:

"Now, you shall travel the land to fulfil your pledge (that is to deliver the message). We found him steadfast. What a good servant! He was a submitter"
(38:44)

Let's turn back to
4:34
Additionally, the word "Nushuz" which is generally translated as "opposition" has another meaning which can be translated as degrees of disloyalty ranging from flirtation to sexual liaison. If we study 4:34 carefully we will find a clue that leads us to translate that word as "flirting or cheating" or "extramarital affair" (Any word or words that reflect the range of disloyalty in marriage). The clue is the phrase before "Nushuz" as reads:

". . . and observe God's commandments, even when alone in their privacy."

This phrase emphasises the importance of loyalty in marriage life.
Furthermore, the same word "Nushuz" is used in 4:128, but it is used to describe the misbehaviour of husbands not wives as was in 4:34. So, the traditional translation of "Nushuz", that is, "opposition" will not fit here. In vertical relations, "opposition" cannot be a double-edged behaviour. So, translators try to avoid this contradiction by ascribing just the opposite meaning of "opposition", i.e., "oppression" in verse 4:128. However, the meaning of "Nushuz" as "disloyalty" is appropriate for both cases described in 4:34 and 4:128.

A Coherent Understanding

When we read
4:34 we should not understand "idribuhunne" as "beat those women". We must remember that this word has many meanings. God gives us three ways of dealing with extra-marital-affair. In the beginning stage of such misbehavior husband should start from giving advice. If it does not work and she goes further and commit a proven adultery, that time husband has the right to strike them out (4:34 & 65:1).
Let's present our suggestion for the translation of verse 4:34

"Men traditionally take care of women, since God has endowed each of them with certain qualities and men spend from their financial resources. The righteous women are obedient (to God) and during the absence (of their husband) they honour them according to God's commandment. As for those women whom you are experiencing a fear of disloyalty from, you shall first advice them, then (if they continue) you may desert them in bed, then you may strike them out. If they obey you then don't transgress against them. God is Most High, Supreme"
(4:34).

Beating women who are cheating is not an ultimate solution; but 'striking them out' from your house is the best solution. And it is fair too.

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Editor’s Note:

In addition to all the well written information from Mr. Yuksel (above), it must also be added that those who interpret the word “iddribuhhunna” in
4:34 to mean "physically beat" are in fact violating three Quranic principles, and they are:

1- God prohibits all aggression. To physically beat another person is an act of aggression no matter what justification anyone may have:

“do not transgress, God does not like the aggressors” 2:190

2- God commands husbands and wives to treat each other with love and mercy, once again beating up the wife is not a merciful act:
“And from His signs is that He created for you mates from yourselves that you may reside with them, and He placed between you affection and mercy. In that are signs for a people who reflect.” 30:21

3- In Sura 4 which is given the title "Women" and in verse 19 men are told specifically to treat their wives "bil-ma'ruf" which means with kindness. Needless to say, physically beating women does not exactly qualify for anyone's definition of kindness.

4- To soften the issue, some scholars have claimed that a husband may only beat his wife if she commits adultery.
But when we examine this interpretation, once again we find that it contradicts Quranic law. In the case of adultery, God has already prescribed a fixed punishment of 100 lashes (24:2). The important issue here is that the same crime or sin should not entitle two separate punishments. If a wife commits adultery and is given 100 lashes, then her husband beats her as well, she would have received two separate punishments for the same sin.