I’m sure most Muslims are familiar with the Qur’anic verse (4:34) that demands obedience from women toward their husbands and allows husband to beat their wives for disobedience. Here’s a typical translation, by Abdullah Yusuf Ali:
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 you 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, do not seek against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all).
When I was first considering converting to Islam, I had a lot of preconceived ideas about how women are treated in Islam, so I spent a good deal of time reading as much as I could about women in the Qur’an and cross-checking things that didn’t sit well with me in different translations. I was pretty disturbed by this verse and it seems that many translators struggle with it as well. I definitely could not belong to a religion in which I’m expected to “obey” my partner, nor one in which my partner has permission to beat me. So how can a feminist make sense of this verse?
The “obedience” issue is pretty easily dismissed. Check out MuhammadAsad’s translation of this verse:
Men shall take care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!
So we’re not meant to be obedient to our husbands, but rather devout, in other words obedient to Allah. The word obedient may be a decent literal translation of the Arabic but in this context it leads to the sense of obedience to one’s husband, an interpretation in which Qur’anictranslators and commentators (who are mostly men) have a vested interest.
Whenever I pick up a new translation of the Qur’an, I check to see how the word wad-ribuhunn(“and beat them” in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation above; the transliteration is from Muhammad Asad) is translated. Almost everyone translates the verb as beat, but it’s often accompanied by hedges through parenthesis or footnotes. These hedges seem to be prompted by the question, How can we reconcile Allah’s sanctioning of spousal abuse with the Prophet’s disdain for it?
Ali’s translation, for example, adds the words first, next, and last in order to emphasize that beating is a last resort. And he adds the adverb lightly in order to minimize the damage a husband might inflict on his wife. Asad adds a footnote instead, citing various scholars who emphasized the “symbolic” function of a beating with a toothbrush or folded handkerchief. He concludes that the greatest Muslim scholars “are of the opinion that it is just barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided: and they justify this opinion with the Prophet’s personal feelings with regard to this problem.” (127n45)
It’s nice to know that the Prophet condemned spousal abuse, but does the verse make any more sense translated this way? Why would a wife have less “ill-will” and more loyalty to her husband because tapped lightly with a handkerchief?
Let’s consider a more radical translation, by Ahmed Ali:
Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). So women who are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it. As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to ed with them (when they are willing). If they open out to you, do not seek an excuse for blaming them. Surely God is sublime and great.
First, Ahmed Ali suggests that men are the support of women rather than their protectors ormaintainers (as Abdullah Yusuf Ali would have it) or even that women need to be taken care of(as the more enlightened Asad would have it). I can get behind that, and I would argue that this could be interpreted that whoever has the higher income should support the other (as I do in my family), without gaining any particular rights over the other.
Second, he agrees with Asad that women should be obedient to God rather than to their husbands. He adds a footnote:
Quanitat only means devoted or obedient to God, as in 2:116, 16:120, 33:35, etc.
Third, on the question of wadribu (as he transliterates it) he has “go to bed with them (when they are willing)”. Wow! That’s a pretty extreme difference from “beat them”. What’s up? He explains in a footnote:
Raghib points out that daraba metaphorically means to have intercourse, and quotes the expression darab al-fahl an-naqah, ‘the stud camel covered the she-camel,’ which is also quoted by Lisan al-‘Arab. It cannot be taken here to mean ‘to strike them (women).’ (78)
And he goes on to justify this, like Asad, with reference to the Prophet’s disdain for beating women.
I have to say, when I first read this translation I was thrilled to find someone who did not interpret the Qur’an as allowing domestic violence. But I had the same questions that I did about the symbolic light beating. If your wife had ill-will toward you, why would you admonish her, then go sleep by yourself, and then have consensual sex with her? Somehow I missed that Ahmed Ali also translates the ill-will parts of this verse differently from others: the verse is not about women who have general ill-will toward their husbands but rather those who don’t want to have sex with their husbands. And he includes this footnote:
See Raghib, Lisan al-‘Arab and Zamakshari. Rahab in his Al-Mufridat fi Gharibal-Qur’an gives the meaning of these words with special reference to this verse. Fa-‘izu, he says, means to ‘talk to them persuasively so as to melt their hearts.’ (See also v. 63 of this Surah where it has been used in a similar sense.) Hajara, he says, means to separate body from body, and points out that the expression wahjaruhunna metaphorically means to refrain from touching or molesting them.Zamakhshari is more explicit in Kshshaf when he says, ‘do not get inside their blankets.’ (78)
It makes a whole lot of sense—on a practical level—that if a woman wasn’t interested in sex, her husband would sweet-talk her and then stop bugging her until she was interested again. And, given the Qur’an’s and the Prophet’s emphasis on healthy sex lives between married couples, it makes sense Islamically as well. Most importantly: it does so without denying women their human rights.