Lost in Translation: "Violence" Against Wives

When I meet someone who is a total misogynistic douchebag pulling out verses he doesn’t understand to “prove” Islamophobia is justified with his fake concern about Muslim women or women in general, it’s always amusing to see his reaction when Muslim women tell this undercover rape-apologist to shut up. It’s funny how, when it comes to Islam, suddenly everyone is a feminist!

Will the real feminists please step up?

No one cared about the state of Muslim women before 9/11. And after, suddenly, there was a surge of men known for their sexism using these women as political pawns in their sick agenda by feigning concern for them.

Remember the (anti-feminist) “news” anchors who were astonished that feminists weren’t outraged about “Sharia law coming to the US”? (That’s because it’s not.) You know, the ones who didn’t give a damn about the state of women before? Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t be outraged about, thanks.

But it shouldn’t be surprising. It’s happened countless times before in countless different settings and conditions, even in smaller every-day-life sort of ways. It’s built into this patriarchal system.

The smaller things affect the larger gestures of sexism. It’s probably what led this verse to be mistranslated:

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 show remorse, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For God is Most Forgiving, Great (above you all). (Qur’an 4:34)

The verb used for “to beat” in the above translation (which doesn’t mean “to beat” but is translated as such) is idribuhunna which was derived from daraba, the word that actually means “to beat.” Most translators seem to magically forget when rewriting these verses that just because a word comes from another word does not mean they have the exact same meaning.

And I do mean magically, because the exact same word is used here:

14:24 “Seest thou not how God sets (daraba) forth a parable? — A goodly Word Like a goodly tree, Whose root is firmly fixed, And its branches (reach) To the heavens.”

…But this time translated properly. Amazing! How did they miss that?

As you can see, the same word is used to mean “set” examples. This time it was miraculously translated correctly.

And it was also translated correctly here:

4:94 “O ye who believe! When ye leave / go abroad (darabtum) In the cause of God, investigate carefully…”

Here darabtum still does not mean “to beat” but “to scourge” or “to leave.”

This is not a “different” translation. (Though none of these are.) It is the real translation.

The Prophet never hurt his wife.

23 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: "Violence" Against Wives

  1. "No one cared about the state of Muslim women before 9/11. "Well, I am trying to remember back. Certainly there were Muslims in America before 9-11 but I would think that such behavior would repulse me back then.Actually I do remember back. I remember several articles from India about how Taliban inspired men were throwing acid in the face of women they didn't approve of. And I also remember stories of how the Taliban broke the fingers of women who had painted their fingers.What I don't remember is any stories about abuses in the United States. Certainly if I had heard of them back then I would be against it.So, yeah I cared about the state of Muslim women before 9-11. I am an American so I cared about US interests more, but to the extent one does care about such stuff I did.

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  2. It can also be translated as "to admonish," a variety of the way it's used in verse 14:24, which Nahida's provided. (I was looking for it until I realized it was there.) In that verse it basically means "to explain." And it would work the same way for the verse in question.

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  3. Salams sister,Prior to Islam I escaped an abusive 10 year marriage and this ayah grates my last nerve, as I only read English. I came to except that perhaps it meant "to spank" but honestly I just can't accept thats what it means either. I just don't believe that any physical retaliation on someone was ever warranted accept in specific wars.I think "leave" them would be an obvious choice as its the only thing that falls inline as a progressively more harsh measure. It would make so sense to admonish, leave the marital bed, and then …. give them a hug? Nope, it has to be harsh but inline with what the Qur'an states and evidenced by Muhammed's behavior (peace on him and his family). Of all the authentic and supposedly authentic hadiths I can't see one instance where beating, spanking, or tapping lightly (which how is that worse for a woman than admonishment or leaving the marital bed?) is practiced by the Prophet or his close followers. As a woman I know that I am an emotional creature and that words and being left would hurt me way more than a spank/slap. I would think a light spank would 1) tick me off and make me rebel more or 2) make me laugh at the absurdity of it.I am only 6 months old in my faith, and I find it a struggle sometimes to be alone in my "outside the box" views separating me from the cultural Islam and from my native culture.You are an interesting read. :)

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  4. Salaam sister,I'm so glad you got away! I hope you are safe and happy now. There is a consensus among scholars that this verse, whatever it is translated to, in this case we'll say "leave" [because that is correct ;) ] means to leave your spouse when she actively refuses to submit to God–not just for any arguments with her husband. In other words, divorce him/her when there is a loss of faith. This makes the most sense of course, because Islam is about submitting to God, not any person, and history shows definitely not husbands. The wives of powerful men are recorded in Islamic history to have argued with them frequently. So of course, as you said, hadith confirm this–that is was supposed to translated as to leave, and only if you go as far as losing faith so you needn't worry about being left. =)Especially if it hurts you so much. Make sure you're with someone who understands that the Compassion Principle in the religion–in any religion–is most important, and essentially we don't do things that hurt people because that is also against Islam.

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  5. hi Nahida :-)I found your blog recently and it is a really interesting read! Will be definitely coming back for more opinions on different matters as you offer an alternative viewpoint, so thanks for that :-)I gotta ask though and please don't take it as trolling. I spoke to some Arabic speakers (one happens to be educated to PhD level in Classic Arabic – not trying to appeal to authority here) and I was told that for it to mean 'and leave them' that bit would have to read 'Wadriboo 'anhunna' and would make the entire verse grammatically and structurally poor in quality. Since I don't speak Arabic, I tend to ask the same question to different people to try arrive at some bounding conclusions.Also, I have another question. Since you say that your interpretation is correct, why do commonly accepted/mainstream translation translate it as 'beat'? As far as I remember 'to leave them' was met with quite a backlash from Islamic scholars all over the world…I hope you won't take it the wrong way, thanks for your answer :-)

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  6. Hi Almost a Muslimah,Not at all. =) Even despite certain interpretations being correct, the incorrect interpretations are often the ones that become mainstream. (See post about verse 33:33, currently second to last.) And what is often grammatically correct is said to be otherwise and abandoned. It doesn't surprise me at all that "to leave them" was met with backlash. The word itself, something more fluid in between to harshly set examples and to leave them entirely is difficult to translate into English. But if "to leave" is a narrow translation, "to beat" is even narrower, and is extraordinarily limiting considering the fluidity of the Arabic language.

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  7. Kathryn

    Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the living example of the Quran… this was his Sunnah

    When the Prophet experienced conflict with his wives (especially during the strained period when they requested a higher living standard, which he could not afford), he simply left his marital home and stayed away from them. If he had understood 4:34 to demand physical discipline, he would have done so. Instead, based on his actions, the Prophet interpreted 4:34 to mean “go away from,” not “beat.”

    http://www.wisemuslimwomen.org/images/uploads/WISE_Shura_Council_2-page_Digest_Against_Domestic_Violence.pdf

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  8. Hina

    The term “beat them” is not the only thing wrong with this verse. Whether it means to actually physically beat them or to leave them is irrelevant because the entire verse is misogynist. Why doesn’t the Quran have anything about a wife who may fear disloyalty and ill-conduct on their husband’s part?
    Also the advice given to men on how to deal with their wife seems like what people would do with little children because you can’t reason with them due to their inability to think and act rationally. Better advice would be to talk to your wife and figure out why she is behaving the way she is, get to the root of the problem and then discuss the changes they can make to fix the problem. Women aren’t irrational creatures who need to be threatened by sanctions to get them back in line and follow man’s rule who somehow always knows better.

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      1. Hina

        What does it say? I can’t find anything about how a woman should deal with her husband as clear as Surat Nisa is on what the husband should do about a wife who he fears disloyalty or ill-conduct.

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  9. Pingback: Rise4Justice Blog: Justice for Muslim Women by N. Jerin Arifa - One Billion Rising For Justice

  10. Tanina

    it doesn’t have any rules for the disloyalty of men, because they’re basically allowed to have multiple wives. Being an ex muslim woman (of course I was born into it so never chose willingly the religion), I find it pathetic and fascinating at the same time how some muslim women now, who find themselves tore apart between their will to feel full human and their fear to disobey to an entire culture they’ve been brought up in for ages. this phase of interpreting the verses in a “feminist” way, or trying at least, because one can never hide the amount of misogyny and verses putting pressure on women in the whole coran, is irrelevant. Whether you ,miss Nahida, interprete it well , right or not, be sure that the situation of women in deeply muslim countries, (in the middle east) will never ever get better than it is, as long as islam dominates in them., (also do not bring up North african countries, as I am from Tunisia, the reason why we’re not that deeply misogynistic is because of our history before islam and our origins). the islam is deeply patriarchal. and for some reason, you as a muslim woman interpreting it, will never be taken into consideration, by the muslim scholars who truly can influence a whole sick community. Just take a look at the hate you’re receiving from a bunch of muslims, mostly men, for being a muslim “on your own way”.

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    1. I feel no desire to address the inaccuracies of this comment, but I’m curious about you, about women like you, who, despite leaving Islam, cannot leave the rest of us alone and feel the need to lecture us about how we will never accomplish anything. Isn’t that “pathetic”? Why are you here? What is your purpose? Have you ever accomplished anything employing this method? If you are truly of the opinion that Islam is deeply misogynistic, shouldn’t you address those misogynists directly than coming to a place like this? If you are not with us, then leave us alone with our faith. I haven’t bothered you.

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      1. Tanina

        you do address a muslim and non-muslim community about islam. Claiming just like any “scholar” to have the “right” interpretation of it. I do have the right to criticize that if I want to.
        You do share inaccuracies trying to brush off the evident by romanticizing some verses and powerful female figures in a time where islam prevailed, but with no consideration to the factors (non religious) that made these women strong in their times. It’s like reading the pseudo-scientific articles some muslims write after reknown scientists discover something, and then pretending that it was mentioned in the Qur’an. Sure your intention is good and honorable, but it’s misleading, and it sure only works in the opposite direction of your intentions. I am a feminist myself, and I do live in a society where islam is the main religion, sure there is misogyny but not like in the middle east (I also noticed that you consider morocco part of the middle east, it’s not) but it’s purely for custom reasons that are particular to this land. you haven’t bothered me, I’m not here to insult you, I apologize for sounding pretentious in my previous comment. I aim to make a constructive critique.
        if the muslim women have been oppressed this long in the middle east, it’s because the Qur’an allowed it to a certain extent. (I haven’t found where you discuss the value of a woman’s testimony against a man’s in islam), it’s one of those misogynistic verses, that are crystal clear in the Qur’an.
        the way you’re interpreting things, which is rational to some extent sometimes, doesn’t go along with other things in the religion. It’s a package, cherry-picking is irrelevant.

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        1. My posts are addressed to Islamic feminists and their allies. If I discuss anyone else, I am not speaking to them. No one is contesting your rights (that is a different matter); I’m asking you why you’re wasting your time here, when–despite what you’ve gathered from being around for 5 minutes–this clearly isn’t a “phase,” when you have no idea who I am, or how stubborn. I have discussed women’s testimony multiple times on this website, but I feel no desire to direct you to them. Religion isn’t the only thing that’s a package. So are women. People. Individuals. Unless you can offer a scientifically proven method, that will, without fail, dissect a woman into the parts of “culture” “religion” “character” “life history” or whatever other categories you choose to invent, without any parts infringing on other parts, each of these things informs one another. You’re not seriously coming to my blog trying to tell me I’ve incorrectly attributed a woman’s personality or character to her religion and that it really belongs to her culture or to other facets of her life, as though you would know. I don’t appreciate anyone telling me that my condition as a Muslim woman will always be dominated by misogyny as long as it is dominated by Islam; it is incredibly arrogant to believe that your case is universally applicable to others–to me. I also don’t appreciate the implication that Islamic feminists won’t accomplish anything… if nothing else, it’s rude. I welcome constructive criticism, but if that’s what you believe you’re offering instead of just looking for a place to vent your Islamophobia (which I refuse to provide), you’re wrong. It isn’t valuable to me to hear a list of things that you seem to believe I’ve never heard before.

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          1. Tanina

            if your posts are addressed to your allies, then how do you expect to make a change?
            don’t you think they should be addressed to muslim misogynists and non muslims who according to you; don’t know what real islam is?

            when I pointed out that the fact you’re appropriating a female figure success as a correlation of islam or vice versa, it IS to remind you that how islam is perceived in the world is not the same in all regions, and that if you want to change the situation, I think you need to look at other factors (such as different customs, in different places). not all muslim women deal with the same type of misogyny, some are considered sacred that they’re deprived from very basic rights because it’s not what a “sacred” being should do, and some are just basically seen as dirty and impure. Both lead to misogynistic behaviours but not the same type. for the example of Fatima al Fihri, being a North African, I can say that the correlation between her good deeds and islam is weak. Why is it only islam that you focus on when talking about feminist figures? the misleading part here, is that anyone who reads it is confused into thinking:”does Islam empower women ?” or “Is islam an obstacle but women can still overcome it and be strong?” (like your case). these are two different questions and cannot have one same answer. It’s something you fail to explain and establish a clear distinction between them in your articles.
            History on the other hand, made sure to prove that the “consequences” of islam, perhaps not islam itself, have always been an obstacle.

            oh it is just a phase. If I’m here, it’s probably because I want to see if I have gone through all the questions you asked yourself, before I chose my current path. Some yes and some no.
            I do hope you change the situation while staying muslim. I can’t change it in my country because I’m not muslim and I can’t pretend to be one so it’s unexpected to “lead” people to feminism, because I’m alienated from them. but if someone like you can convince, even slowly, with your own interpretation, it can take the muslim populations into a whole new level of women’s emancipation.
            Good luck.

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  11. B McCarthy

    I enjoyed this article greatly but I would also be very interested in hearing about the verse(s) in the Quran that address how a woman should deal with her husband if he is causing trouble?

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  12. lulu

    Actually, “daraba” in this verse does most likely mean to beat (lightly). It does not mean to “set” or to “leave,” because there are words arounds the other verses which indicate the different meaning that is not in this verse.
    One possibility that I heard is that “daraba” in this context means “to tax,” which is another way that this word can be translated. I’m not sure how a husband could “tax” his wife but that’s one plausible interpretation that makes more sense than “to beat.”
    I read Amina Wadud’s interpretation, and I believe that it’s much more plausible than claiming the word “daraba” means something other than “beat.” She says that the verse came down in that context of seventh century Arabia to severely limit the violence against women that had already existed. So it’s purpose was not to allow beating, rather to restrict it (as husbands use to do so much more than beat lightly during Jahilliyya).
    There’s a quote by some companion which said something along the lines of: “before the Quran, we never cared about women and their rights. But the Quran made us aware of them…” something like that. So clearly, the Quran was something extraordinary for women in the time of its revelation, and its important to understand that when reading the Quran.

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