Part 1: The misinterpretation of “idribu” in 4:34 of the Qur’an

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. I have often been asked if the translation in the Sublime Qur’an is a feminist translation. My response: My Muslim sisters and I are forever grateful to the men in our lives: fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons. There are many men who agree that 4:34 has to revert back to the way the Prophet understood it and, I might add, there are many women, particularly in the Islamic world today, who believe that wives should be beaten by their husbands! Therefore this is not a feminist issue. It is a human rights issue.

Now we come to the point from which the translation became controversial. Yet you will notice that it is the use of intellectual endeavor that is relevant, not my gender. If a Muslim jurist had come up with the same arguments and logical reasoning, the 1400+ year mistake would be more readily admitted and changed. Not only is the language of the Sublime Qur’an translation inclusive rather than exclusive, this translation also reverts the translation of 4:34 back to the way the Prophet understood it as shown to us through his behavior.

The part of Chapter 4, Verse 34 in question is more or less read in all present English translations: “Those husbands who fear disobedience on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then abandon their sleeping places, then beat them.” My position is that the understanding of this verse must revert back to the interpretation given it by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and the mercy of God be upon him, through his actions. He never beat anyone much less any of his wives. When there was any marital discord, he went away.

Anyone who claims to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet must do the same thing because the Sunnah of the Prophet is not to beat, hit, hurt, spank, or chastise any woman. The word idribu is a command, an imperative form of the verb, yet a command the Prophet did not carry out if it means “beat” but he did carry it out when it means “go away.” Therefore the Sunnah of the Prophet is “not to beat.”

The word daraba or its imperative form in verb form I, idribu, has 25 meanings. Why take a meaning that goes against the legal and moral principles of the Qur’an that harms someone when the Prophet did not do it? The most conclusive arguments in Islamic tradition to prove or disprove something is using the Qur’an to prove another point in the Qur’an. The present erroneous interpretation of idribu creates a contradiction not in the Qur’an itself.

There are two premises here: First of all, marriage is encouraged in Islam as a moral act. The blessed Prophet said, “Marriage is half of faith.” Secondly, divorce is discouraged as an immoral act but if necessary, allowed. The blessed Prophet said, “Divorce is deplorable.”

Now we get to the heart of the main reason why the word “beat” is a misinterpretation. We read in Chapter 2, Verse 231: “When you divorce wives, and they are about to reach their term, then hold them back honorably or set them free honorably; but hold them not back by injuring them so that you commit aggression.” In other words, the Quran is telling husbands not to harm their wives who want to be set free, not to hold them back by injuring them. The word “injuring” (dirar) also means hurt, harm, use force or commit aggression.

Let’s take an example. A Muslim wife, after many attempts to help her husband’s manage his inappropriate anger, anger that most often is taken out against her, tells her husband that she wants a divorce. He, in his anger, does not at that moment remember that according to 2:231 he is not to hold back by injuring a wife who wants to be set free, and instead, being both judge and jury, beats her as allowed in 4:34. The battered wife, becoming the victim of his anger, is then afraid to speak out again as this last instance has caused her to seek refuge in a shelter for battered women.

Therefore, we see a disconnect between 4:34 and 2:231. Jurists have created a contradiction that is not in the Qur’an by encouraging divorce and discouraging marriage so that we can conclude, a Muslim woman who wants a divorce must be set free without injuring, hurting, or using force against her, but a Muslim woman who wants to remain married does so under the threat of being beaten!

If Muslim wives knew their rights, which one would want to stay married under such circumstances? 4:34 as presently interpreted contradicts 2:231. How can we eliminate this contradiction? There is a very simple solution: Revert the interpretation back to how the blessed Prophet understood it through his behavior.

(Continued in Part II)

Laleh Bakhtiar, Ph. D., educated in classical Arabic, lecturer on Islam at the University of Chicago (Lutheran School of Theology), is the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English. It is called the Sublime Qur’an.


Photo Credit: Mohd Althani


1 Comment

  • Benyamin says:

    With Allah swt beautiful names of mercies, and favors…….as a Muslim American bro since 1984 in my experiences I have notice Muslims seem to care more for this world, bro & sisters come to America for dunya than deen……and Allah swt says man gets what he strive for. Perhaps we’re striving for this world more than the good of the hereafter…….let us seek 1st to please Allah swt & be content with what He gives us as it is written in surah 18.

    My experiences say the only education is Allah swt education, because it is what raised me up from the dead, making one self sufficient of the very system that oppresses mankind worldwide. As Allah swt says did “we not find you without and gave unto you”.

    Islam saved the world & from where I sit born & reared here in America is that Muslims seem to think that the so-call knowledge that we learn in colleges superior info….in my view it is only designed to make one depend on others, than Allah swt…….The Qur’an has all the science & medicine in it but yet Muslims turn to those who wear 2 faces for their hopes.

    Allah swt said the last days would be this way, when the Muslims would trust those who reject Allah swt..seeking to be friends……Allah swt says they say they believe, but they do not really believe…so I say to the sisters TRUST IN ALLAH SWT “MORE” AS THE beautiful sister who says she was over 40 when ALLAH SWT blessed her.and may He continue to bless her IMMENSELY. Ameen……

    Let us 1st seek to please ALLAH swt, not our lust for this world & just maybe before ALLAH SWT call all of us to the grave for which we all have an appointment He will be Al Karim “the most generous” & grant us what would please us in the life with the awareness of His all encompassing mercies & favors. Ameen

    Let us also remember ALLAH swt say “that which one does not receive in this world, should they be of the companions of the right hand, that they will have all that they desire & some in the beautiful paradise for which none can imagine it beauties………..Alhamdulillah

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