Among the most contentious verses of the Qur’an is 34, of the fourth surah, which concerns women, their rights, obligations, justice,and marriage laws. Common and popular translations of Surah 4:34 are as follows:
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).
- (Abdullah Yusuf Ali)
Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fearrebellion*, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them**. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.
- (Mohammed 'Marmaduke' Pickthall)
Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion*, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them**; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.
- (Muhammad Habib Shakir)
Husbands should take good care of their wives, with (the bounties) God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husbands' absence. If you fearhigh-handedness* from your wives, remind them (of the teachings of God), then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them*. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them.
- Muhammad A. S. Abdel-Haleem
Now, in order to comprehend holistically my position, let us look more closely at the semantics of the emboldened words above, which in Arabic are نُشُوز (nushuz) and أضربوهن (idribuhunna), from the root verb ضرب (daraba):
Nushuz is widely accepted to mean “rebellion” and can be used in reference to the actions of a husband, as in surah 128, or a wife, as in surah 4, so "it cannot therefore be understood in terms of a ruler-ruled relationship", according to Sunni scholar Ahmad Shafaat; this, thus, does not imply that the husband holds authority and power over the wife. In surah 4, however, nushuz is translated as “ill-treatment” in reference to a husband's behaviour towards his wife, which is probably a better-fitting translation as it covers a whole range of meanings: “animosity”; “hostility”; “ill-will”; “discord” - acts that are perceived today as mental cruelty. My dictionary (The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic by Hans Wehr; edited by J. M. Cohen) translates it as: “animosity”; ”hostility”; “antipathy”; “dissonance”; “discord”; “disobedience”; “violation of marital duties on part of husband or wife”; “[and specifically] recalcitrance of a woman towards her husband or brutal treatment of the wife by the husband” and The Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage (by El-Said M. Badawi and M. A. Abdel-Haleem) lists: “discordant behaviour towards a spouse”, “being contrary or antagonistic in dealing with a spouse”. Nashaza, the verb from which nushuz comes, is translated as: “to be elevated”; “to be located high above”; “to rise” and “high ground”; “elevation”; “protrusion”; “to stand out”; “to be discordant”; “to be rebellious”; “to be perverted” respectively in the aforementioned dictionaries. A footnote at the bottom of the page of the Abdel-Haleem translation of the Qur’an gives an explanation as to why “high-handedness” is the preferred translation - "It applies to a situation where one partner assumes superiority to the other and behaves accordingly”.
I emphasize how nushuz is a reprehensible action or behaviour committed either by a woman or a man. This is subtly significant as it suggests equality within marriage and an equal responsibility of both marital parties to fulfil their godly and spousal obligations in marriage.
In the context of the verse in question, nushuz can be interpreted as a deeply offensive act committed by a wife, transgressing her marital duties. She behaves in a superior manner, rebelling against the spousal responsibilities Allah has allocated to her and acting hostile towards her husband. Marriage is a profoundly sacred union in Islam, so one can imagine the abhorrent nature of the misdemeanour or disloyalty committed that merits first admonition (reminding the wife of her marital responsibilities and Islamic duty to honour them),then - should she continue to transgress her marital duties - refuse to share her bed, and then - should she still refuse to stop dishonouring her responsibility as a wife – daraba must be inflicted upon her, which brings us to the next word to be explored.
Daraba - the root verb of idribuhunna in the said surah - can be translated into more than 100 meanings and is used throughout the Qur'an to describe very widely varying actions: “to separate”; “to set out on the road [i.e. to travel]”; “to mint (a coin) “to shroud (in darkness)”; “to cover”; “to dispatch”; “to throw”; “to raise”; and, of course, “to smite/strike/hit”, among many others.
The Hans Wehr Dictionary has an impressively long list of translations: “to beat/strike/hit”; “to shoot/fire”; “to shell/bombard”; “to play (an instrument)”; “to sting [of a scorpion]”; “to make music”; “to type [on a typewriter]”; “to separate”; “to impose”; “to turn away from/leave/forsake/abandon/avoid”; “to pulsate/palpitate/throb/beat [of a vein or heart]”; “to ache (violently)”; “to hurt (a wound or tooth)”; “to move/stir”; “to rove/roam about/travel”; “to loiter/stroll”; “to cruise (ship)”; “to migrate [of a bird]”; “to incline (to a colour)/shade (into a colour)”; “to cover/mount (a camel)”, plus many more in combination with other words as verbal phrases (the translations cover almost two full pages, just to get the picture).
Is it not rather arbitrary, therefore, to handpick “beat” or “hit” as the intended meaning of 4:34? Given the magnitude of possible translations, it is incumbent upon us to refer to other areas of the Qur’an to analyze the permissibility of violence and the nature of how Muslims should behave towards their marital partners. Here is a list of its varying meanings in different surah:
“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
Domestic violence and marital obligations
Muslim husbands are expected to take care of, protect, and support their wives according to surah 4:34 itself:
Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God had given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money…
- M. A. S. Abdel-Haleem
The man is supposed to be the breadwinner and head of the household and, hence, Islam says, should provide for his wife, who is also his companion, friend, helper, and confidante. This does not suggest a superiority-inferiority relationship based on dominance and oppression, but rather that the husband’s and wife’s respective conjugal roles are complementary (and the woman can – but is not compelled – to work).
These points are adumbrated clearly in surah 9:71, 3:133-6, 4:128, and 30:21 which interestingly reject violence as an acceptable approach to fellow human beings:
The believers, both men and women, support each other; they order what is right and forbid what is wrong; they keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; they obey God and His Messenger. God will give His mercy to such people: God is almighty and wise. (9:71)
Hurry towards your Lord’s forgiveness and a Garden as wide as the heavens and earth prepared for the righteous, who give, both in prosperity and adversity, who restrain their anger and pardon people – who forgives sins but God? – and who never knowingly persist in doing wrong. The reward for such people is forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will remain. How excellent is the reward for those who labour! (3:133-36)
If a wife fears high-handedness or alienation from her husband, neither of them will be blamed if they come to a peaceful settlement, for peace is best. Although human souls are prone to selfishness, if you do good and are mindful of God, He is well aware of all that you do. (4:128)
Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect. (30:21) - M. A. S. Abdel-Haleem
Not only is violence condemned and repudiated, those who refrain from it are rewarded by Allah with entry into Paradise – restraint from aggression is urged and praised in the name of peace. Those who are abusive and get away with it in this life face torment in the Hereafter. Physical violence transgresses God’s commandment to act in a manner that is peaceful; He abhors belligerence, except in self-defence (where it is still not advisable, if only permissible):
There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice - they will have an agonizing torment - though if a person is patient and forgives, this is one of the greatest things.
- M. A. S. Abdel-Haleem
Allah commands Muslims to refrain from aggression; all that is wajib [obligatory] and haram [forbidden] is stated lucidly in the Qur'an. If we are to accept the accuracy of the orthodox translation of idribuhunna as “beat them”, must Muslims then concede that the Qur’an contradicts itself (ergo, cancelling its own authenticity)? Of course not. Scripture interprets scripture, and seeking answers in other verses and surah of the Qur’an shows unambiguously that violent behaviour is an affront to Islam and the principles of Islamic marriage and interpersonal relations. Indeed, as Allah will permit fighting in self-defence, surely He wouldn’t condemn a wife who is being beaten according to the popular translation of 4:34 from responding to that attack by dishing out similar strikes to her enraged husband? This is ludicrous, as is the orthodox rendering of that verse. I propose that the most appropriate and befitting translation is ofidribuhunna is “leave them” or “separate from them” (or even another suitable word with undertones to the effect of walking out on the marriage), which are listed among the (abundant) meanings of daraba and used in other verses of the Qur’an where daraba is present in the original Arabic. Interestingly, this interpretation is in harmony with surah 2:231 and 65:6, which command the husband who is splitting up with his wife either to let her live in the marital home in peace or to house her elsewhere according to his means. Expressly, he must not put her in a position with intent to commit aggression or burden her unnecessarily! My re-interpretation of surah 4:34 is, thus, in coherent, consistent accord with God’s revilement of oppression towards the estranged wife in the same context (i.e. marital break-down).
The message of surah 4, tellingly entitled An-Nisa [The Woman], is women’s rights and obligations and justice for the vulnerable (children and orphans). It is focused on how the woman can be defended against oppression, not how she can be subjugated violently by the dear person who God has enjoined to trust, support, protect, and care for her. It simply makes no sense contextually, logically, consistently, or – more importantly, islamically for us to understand this is the Lord ordaining battery.
Surah 4:34 delineates a situation where the wife disrespects, is disloyal to, or deliberately ignores marital duties – the very flexible, multi-meaning nufuz – and how she should get on the right path and restore peace between the couple. Given that cruelty is grounds for divorce if the victim first, the husband should reason with her, have it out – point out the error of her ways and urge her not to transgress Allah; if she doesn’t take heed and continues to be so offensively rebellious, the husband should cease sexual relations with her, which is an integral, fundamental part of the Islamic marriage; should she still insist on violating her Lord’s will and duties of the sacred union He has created for her, the husband may separate from her if she expresses no wish to repent. This is feasible and logical in terms of consistency, i.e. the order of punishments for the wife’s nufuz make sense: admonition, cessation of intimacy, break-up. Would God really sanction domestic violence when setting the framework of a peaceful, non-aggressive rapprochement for the husband and wife? Just take a look at the following ayah [verse]:
If you [believers] fear that a couple may break up, appoint one arbiter from his family and one from hers. Then, if the couple want to put things right, God will bring about a reconciliation between them: God is all knowing, all aware.
Interestingly, some translators add in parentheses the adverb “lightly” after “beat them”, with an explanation in the footnote that any smiting that is done to the face or is hard enough to leave a visible mark is a transgression of God’s law worthy of punishment itself, but this does not exist in the original Arabic! It appears that the scholars realize how brutal the translation sounds and feel a need to ‘explain themselves’ or assuage the perceived severity of the act by playing God and adding something of their imagination, rather than questioning the patriarchal culture that may have influenced the mistranslation or even challenging their reliance on orthodox scholarly commentary itself.
The Reformist Qur'an translates it thus:
The men are to support the women by what God has gifted them over one another and for what they spend of their money. The reformed women are devotees and protectors of privacy what God has protected. As for those women from whom you fear disloyalty, then you shall advise them, abandon them in the bedchamber, and separate from them; if they obey you, then do not seek a way over them; God is High.
It is clear that this verse is actually a guideline for reconciliation, forgiveness, and love, by gentle reproof and reasonable incentives; this, above all, is promoted here. The Qur’an, however, has the foresight and sagacity to know that not every wife, unfortunately, will be persuaded by her husband’s pleas and offers a peaceful settlement and way out of this confrontational, hostile, and unhappy environment by separation, which corresponds harmoniously with surah 4:128, where Allah proclaims that “peace is best”. A common feature of Qur’anic punishment of ungodly transgressions, not excluding the nushuz of surah 4:34, is the use of social pressure to push the offending Muslim back on the moral, Islamic path and into Allah’s forgiveness through proper conduct, acceptance of wrong-doing, and genuine regret. God always keeps goodness and repentance open to transgressors before life-threatening punishments, such as Hell in the Hereafter.
Finally, I would like to add that, in review of my conclusion, surah 4:34-5 provides a tolerant, benign, peaceful, fair, rational, sensible, and clement guideline that not only Muslims, but non-Muslims and even atheists could follow to apply to their own troubled marriages.
I wonder what he has to say about that.