We are told that the word “beat” in this verse (4:34) is a transitive verb. That means it can only take a direct object. As this verb is transitive it can only mean “beat.” When it is in its intransitive form, it means “go away from them,” making “them” an indirect object.
There are two arguments against this rationalization of an immoral act. First of all we have to ask: When this verse was revealed to the blessed Prophet and he heard the word idribu, that jurists and commentators have said for over 1400 years means “beat,” did he sit back and discuss within himself whether the verb that God was revealing was a transitive or an intransitive one? No. By his behavior, we know that he understood it to mean “go away from them.” Otherwise we would have to conclude, God forbid, that the Prophet did not understand the Qur’an as well as the later legal jurists do who make this distinction.
Secondly, we are talking about translation, not about the original Arabic which is the eternal Word of God. When you translate from an original text into a target language, you have to go with the rules of the target language. There are many times when an English word requires an indirect object whereas the Arabic word does not.
Since the word “them” is in the verse, in order to use “go away” in English, you have to say: “Go away from them,” adding the word “from” which then makes the object indirect. This is why the jurists say it has to mean “beat them” or “hit them.” However, in English we could say: “leave them” and we would be following the grammar of the jurists but perhaps implying more than what the Prophet understood.
We have to ask ourselves, why did the Prophet not beat his wives even though it was a command in the Qur’an? It appears from his behavior in the same type of situation that he did not consider it to mean “beat them”. It may be because the Qur’an uses three other words for “strike” or “beat” in 28:15, 38:41 and 51:29.
In 28:15, Moses struck a young man with his fist. The root letters are not d r b, which we know also means “to strike,” but w k z. In the case of 38:44, the command to Job to stomp his foot, the root letters used are r k d and not d r b which can also mean “to stamp” or “to stomp.” In 51:29, when Sarah, the wife of Abraham was told she would have a child, she struck or smote her face on purpose, the root letters being s k k and not d r b which also means “to strike” or “to smite.” Therefore, just as other Arabic words may mean “to strike,” so the root letters d r b may mean other than “to strike,” i.e., “to go away.”
Based on his character, a model for all of humanity, he knew innately that it was wrong to harm another human being. He knew that according to 16:126 one is commanded to chastise with the same chastisement that that person has been given. “And if you chastise (aqaba) then chastise with the like of that with which you were chastised. . . .” (16:126). Or, “And whoever chastises for injustice with the like of what he was chastised and after that again was to be wronged, God will certainly help him, truly God is Pardoning, Forgiving” (22:60).
Therefore, conceivably if a husband harms his wife by beating her, according to 16:126, his wife would be allowed to chastise her husband in return. The Prophet would have intuitively known that if a husband were to beat his wife, she would have recourse to her husband. He clearly believed that it was not within his Sunnah to do such a thing. As such, he demonstrated through his behavior that 4:34 and the use of the word daraba means “go away from them” or “leave them” and let the emotions subside.
Secondly, the Prophet’s respect for the female gender was legendary. This included not only his wives, the mothers of the believers, but his daughters as well. He had a very special relationship with his daughter, Fatima, the only one of his daughters to survive him. How could he beat his wives and not consider that someone might beat one of his beloved daughters?
Thirdly, the Prophet knew that marriage was based on mutual respect and love. The Qur’an often tells husbands and wives to consult on issues with each other. It would be unfair and unjust to think that God would have revealed a verse that allowed husbands to beat their wives instead of separating for a short period of time and allowing the anger to subside. Then they would be able to once again consult with one another.
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 idrib is a command, an imperative form of the verb, yet a command the Prophet did not carry out if it means “beat them.” However he did carry it out when it means “go away from them.”
(Continued in Part III)
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