Obedient women and wife beating by Zuhura

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.


27 thoughts on “Obedient women and wife beating by Zuhura

  1. […] kindly allowed me to re-publish her post that I have given the title “Obedient women and wife beating” in which she offers a very interesting alternate meaning of the verse 4:34 arguing that the word […]

  2. Lat says:

    I’ve read this translation before and thought it was quite interesting but the majority Arabic/Muslims seem to prefer the ‘beat’ meaning instead.Why? Why only a few scholars interpret this differently? If we agree to accept this meaning,how do we put across or convince them this acceptance to others? The old timers will never accept it anytime soon and they are still the ones riding the tide right now.

    People in the East not necessarily Muslim do have the mentality that husbands have a right to discipline a wife to the extent of beating her.Maybe it’s these predominant thoughts had paved the way for earlier scholars to decide they way they had.
    Enjoyed the article,Zuhura!

  3. Zuhura says:

    Thanks for your comment, Lat. I know there are some Muslims who believe it’s okay to beat their wives. But there are also lots of others (including many Qur’an translators) who believe that beating is meant to be symbolic, with a toothbrush or a handkerchief. Although that interpretation sounds ridiculous to me, it suggests that many Muslims are not comfortable with the interpretation of beating. Perhaps some of them would be open to this interpretation instead.

  4. susanne430 says:

    Wow, interesting! I always hated the symbolic toothbrush example as well simply because I am not a child to be disciplined by my husband whether it’s with a ruler, whip or a wet noodle, ya know? It was just the principle of the thing: frankly, my husband is not my parent and he will not discipline me.

    This translation of these verses was not something I’d ever heard and it’s indeed quite radical! I’ve always heard women are cursed by angels all night if they refuse sex with their husbands and they should be willing to fulfill his sexual needs basically at the drop of a hat. So for a woman to refuse and this be a plan to get her to consent seems SO different from anything I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard this explanation about sex on demand from MUSLIM women…not from Islam-bashing sites.

    Very interesting! I may have to read this to my Syrian friend and see if he agrees that this could be the real meaning of these verses. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Hope you are well! 🙂

    • Becky says:

      Wow, interesting! I always hated the symbolic toothbrush example as well simply because I am not a child to be disciplined by my husband whether it’s with a ruler, whip or a wet noodle, ya know? It was just the principle of the thing: frankly, my husband is not my parent and he will not discipline me.

      I LOVE that comment – and that’s exactly how I feel too!

  5. Zuhura says:

    Susanne, I was taught that by Muslim women as well. But I know that they got it from hadith, not from the Qur’an, and since it obviously supports the interests of Muslim men I think it’s easily dismissed.

  6. Metis says:

    Thanks for this post, Zuhura. It is a really interesting and convincing alternate meaning of the word and certainly one for which we can find example in sunnah.

    You wrote, “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)”

    ‘the stud camel covered the she-camel,’ reminded me that regarding sex Quran also calls men and women as *covers* (garments) of each other.

  7. Sara says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! It’s nice to see the various translations (interpretations) in one place.

    “How can we reconcile Allah’s sanctioning of spousal abuse with the Prophet’s disdain for it?”

    Good question! Never thought of this before, but it’s a very valid point.

  8. Coolred38 says:

    The prophets “disdain” was never as forthright as his disdain for other things that he was much more vocal about. He is only recorded as saying those of you who beat your wives are not the best among us. Hardly a dressing down or strong advocating against wife abuse. I believe he could have been so much more vocal about it then the ayat that is interpreted to mean “beat” would not be the norm and the interpretation of “to separate” would.

  9. Zuhura says:

    I agree. But, on the other hand, the word clearly has more than one meaning, so it’s possible that even the prophet understood it to mean ‘beat.’ That doesn’t mean that’s the correct interpretation, and it’s certainly not an ethical one, which I believe is the standard to which we must hold the Qur’an. I also think it’s possible that things the prophet said that favored women were not included in the hadith collections, but we’ll never know.

    • Metis says:

      “it’s possible that even the prophet understood it to mean ‘beat.’”

      This is what I also felt. But then we are told that Quran was known to him perfectly and he understood it completely (although there is a verse instructing the Prophet to clarify from the Jews what he doesn’t understand about the revelations – maybe it was a reference to previous revelations?).

      Also, what about Muslims like Reza Aslan who believe that Quran was created? How would they understand this since if I understand correctly their belief is that Quran is the Prophet’s words albeit inspired. Maybe to them it would mean an inspiration that wasn’t fully understood. Allahu alam!

  10. Zuhura says:

    Can you refer me to that verse, Metis? I don’t believe that the Prophet was perfect, nor that the Qur’an (or any text) can be perfectly understood by anyone. I think I’m leaning towards Reza Aslan’s view. I believe the Qur’an was divinely inspired but that there is some evidence that the Prophet (or others who wrote it down) influenced parts of it. That doesn’t mean he fully understood it. An author can write a text that has meanings he or she did not intend.

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Zuhura for your reply!

      The verse I was referring to is: If you have any doubt regarding what is revealed to you from your Lord, then ask those who read the previous scripture (10:94).

  11. Zuhura says:

    I meant the one that says the Prophet understood the Qur’an completely. Or is that from hadith?

  12. Metis says:

    Oh, sorry I didn’t understand you. That is from hadith and sunnah. There is a short note on it here – http://www.muslimtents.com/aminahsworld/Methods_of_tafseer.html

    • Zuhura says:

      Thanks! That suggest to me that the people around the Prophet assumed he understood it perfectly, but not that they were necessarily correct. Add to that the fact that we only know how he understood it from the stories told by others about him, and the act of interpretation becomes very muddled.

  13. Becky says:

    Thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking alternative to the standard and traditional translation.

    I agree with you what you said in the comment about the Qur’an being divinely inspired, that’s how I see it as well (along with the Bible).

  14. mariam says:

    even with this new translation,( I am sorry but even this new meaning is childish and ridiculous )the main issue about this verse dont change.
    this verse send this signal : women are object( something!!) and men are given guidelines to face these objects(specialy in the bed).like exactly when a person buy a washing machine , he is given a user manual.while reading this verse I feel I am that washing machine.so in my idea what does “Zaraba” mean dont change the whole picture.
    many times I want to fool myself and believe that lower statue of women in Islamic countries or muslim communities is because of culture.I dont mean culture has no impact but if we be honest with ourselves, we come to this point that root of lower statue of muslim women is exactly verses like this.

  15. Zuhura says:

    I agree with you, mariam. But I think that’s exactly why they need to be reinterpreted.

    • Metis says:

      Was it Farid Esack who made a similar argument that whether it is beating or separating the idea is discipling an errant wife and hence there is hierarchy in relationship?

  16. Zuhura says:

    I don’t think that Ahmed Ali’s translation supports that view. This translation is about leaving your wife alone when she’s not interested in sex. No discipline involved.

    • Metis says:

      That’s really positive and we have the example of the Prophet that he never resorted to any disciplining.

      • susanne430 says:

        But I thought Muhammad *did* discipline his wives by denying them sex. Wasn’t that the story of the honey? And I thought someone told me Muhammad did hit one of his wives. Maybe he wasnt’ disciplining her and it was just a heat-of-passion, one-time thing.

        • Metis says:

          Susie, OK until last night I was thinking when the honey episode happened he just removed himself and then went back like Ahmed Ali’s interpretation explains but after reading your comment it occurred to me that it was a form of disciplining his wives during which time he even threatened to divorce them all. He did that not because the wives didn’t want to have sex with them but because they were jealous. He also removed himself from Aisha and she went to live with her parents during Ifk, but I think that was more from hurt and anger than discipline. He hit Aisha once and Ibn Ishaq (?) reports that he raised his hand on another woman but only to silence her when she took refuge from him. But in both cases it was a heat-of-passion one time thing.

  17. […] from women toward their husbands and allows husband to beat their wives for disobedience is here. This illustrates, to me, how wildly interpretation of the Quran can vary; if this is the case, can […]

  18. fusstrated says:

    This interpretation that you speak of seems plausible but unlikely to be adopted as the ‘true’ interpretation. Have you ever wondered though why God would leave room for that much interpretation? If he’s All-Knowing then he had to have known that people would use interpretations of the verse that appealed to them at the time. And that men would use it as justification for beating their wives.

    You can explain it away as much as you like, but the fact remains that either God wanted those nuances in there that people could misuse, or he overlooked it. Neither of which correlates with the benevolent, just god we were brought up believing in.

  19. Sofi says:

    Islamic interpretation in general are biased that is against women, consequently so are the sharia laws and this can be clearly seen in sharia family court system. There is definitely room for re-interpretation of some of the verses however they are unlikely to be seen as the original interpretation of the verses but rather a modern phenomena and will definitely have resistance from male side and even some women as well as religious scholars that adhere to old interpretation. I think there is also a verse in Quran that addresses the “nashiz” husband, but the interpretation of it is much more lenient. This is the fundamental problem the religious scholars are unable to remain neutral but they are biased almost always for the male side.

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