8.3 Does the Qur’an sanction the beating of women?

8.3 Does the Qur’an sanction the beating of women?

Even in the best of marriages there are bound to be occasional discord or ill-will. In extreme and unjust circumstances this can sometimes result in the wife being beaten by the husband. This is beyond question a lamentable fact. However, the seemingly justification for this outrage which is attributed to a particular Qur’anic verse stems from the misinterpretation of the verse in question – 4:34 – which, construed through a particular prism is made to seem to allow this. Let me quote the traditional translation of the verse and then explain why it is wrong.

(4:34) […]as for those women on whose part ye fear rebellion (nushuz), admonish them and banish them to beds apart, (and last) beat (adriboo) them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them.

The key to the problem is the mistranslation of the two key words nushuz and adriboo. Some of the possible meanings for both the words, according to the lexicon,3 are given below. Again, the appropriate meaning will depend on the context of the verse.

Nushuz: Animosity, hostility, rebellion, ill-treatment, discord; violation of marital duties on the part of either husband or wife.

Adriboo (root: daraba): to beat, to strike, to hit, to separate, to part.

In the context of the above verse the most appropriate meaning for nushuz is ‘marital discord’ (ill-will, animosity etc), and for adriboo is ‘to separate’ or ‘to part’. Otherwise, it is inviting the likelihood of a divorce without any reconciliation procedure. Such a step would blatently contravene the Qur’anic guidance shown in verse 4:35 below. Therefore, a more accurate and consistent translation of the above verse would be:

(4:34) […]as for those women whose animosity or ill-will you have reason to fear, then leave them alone in bed, and then separate; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek a way against them.

The separation could be temporary or permanent depending on the reconciliation procedure. Such as construction is legitimate within the terms of the language and fits in very well with the divorce procedure outlined in the Qur’an (see 8.5).

The verse following the above verse gives further weight to the above translation.

(4:35) And if ye fear a breach between them twain (the man and the wife), appoint an arbiter from his folk and an arbiter from her folk. If they desire amendment Allah will make them of one mind. Lo! Allah is ever Knower, Aware.

Added weight to the meanings outlined above is given by verse 4:128 quoted below. Here, in the case of a man, the same word nushuz is used, but it is rendered as ‘ill-treatment’ as against ‘rebellion’ in the case of a woman as shown earlier in the traditional translation of verse 4:34. One find oneself asking whether since the ill-treatment is on the part of the husband, a process of reconciliation is here to be encouraged!

(4:128) If a wife fears ill-treatment (nushuz) or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best[…]

This, obviously, is a double standard and the only way to reconcile the meanings of the two verses, in the contexts they are being used, is to accept the meaning of adriboo as: ‘to separate’ or to ‘part’. In this connection I would like to refer the reader to an excellent article by Rachael Tibbet from which I quote:

(a) Qur’anic commentators and translators experience problems with the term Adribu in the Qur’an not just in this verse but in others, as it is used in different contexts in ways which appear ambiguous and open to widely different translations into English. ‘Daraba‘ can be translated in more than a hundred different ways.

(b) The translation of adribu as ‘to strike’ in this particular verse (4:34) is founded upon nothing more than:

(i) The authority of hadiths (Abu Daud 2141 and Mishkat Al-Masabih 0276) that this is what Adribu means in this context.

(ii) The prejudices and environment of the early commentators of the Qur’an which led them to assume that ‘to strike’, given the overall context of  the verse, was the most likely interpretation of the many possible interpretations of adribu.4