Verse 4:34 of the Quran orders Muslims to beat their wives; therefore, Islam is a male dominant religion.” Many of us have heard this criticism from Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and others. Though wife-beating is not a Muslim specialty, and domestic violence is an endemic problem in the West as well as the East, the issue nevertheless is whether it is justified by God. Most people reading conventional translations of 4:34 feel that something is deeply wrong. How could God, the Most Wise order us to beat our women? What kind of solution is that? It appears to be in contrast to the verses in which God describes marriage: “Among His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquility and contentment with each other. He places in your heart love and care towards your spouses. In this, there are signs for people who think.” (30:21) Obviously, these mixed messages have bothered many contemporary translators of the Quran. To avoid the moral and intellectual problems, they try to soften the word “beat” when they translate the verse 4:34… Many orthodox translators have tried to beat around the bush when it comes to explaining this passage, and perhaps just as many have beaten a hasty retreat from those inquiring after the author’s intention — but all have found themselves, in the end, beaten by 4:34.
The main problem comes from the word iDRiBuhunna, which has traditionally been translated as “beat them.” The root of this word is DaRaBa. If you look at any Arabic dictionary, you will find a long list of meanings ascribed to this word. In fact, you will find that that list is one of the longest lists in your Arabic dictionary. It can be said that DaRaBa is the number-one multiple-meaning word in Arabic. It has so many different meanings; we can find numerous different meanings ascribed to it in the Quran.
To travel, to get out: 3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:20; 2:273
To strike: 2:60,73; 7:160; 8:12; 20:77; 24:31; 26:63; 37:93; 47:4
To beat: 8:50; 47:27
To set up: 43:58; 57:13
To give (examples): 14:24,45; 16:75,76,112; 18:32,45; 24:35; 30:28,58; 36:78; 39:27,29; 43:17; 59:21; 66:10,11
To take away, to ignore: 43:5
To condemn: 2:61
To seal, to draw over: 18:11
To cover: 24:31
To explain: 13:17
As you see, in the Quran alone we can attest to the verb DaRaBa having at least ten different meanings. DaRaBa also has other meanings that are not mentioned in the Quran. For example, in modern Arabic, you do not print money—you DaRaBa money. You do not multiply numbers—you DaRaBa numbers. You do not cease doing work—you DaRaBa doing work. In Turkish, we have many verbs similar to the Arabic DaRaBa, such as Çalmak, which means to play, steal, or strike. In English, we have two verbs that are almost equivalent to DaRaBa. These are “strike” and “beat.” Consider, for the sake of comparison, that Webster’s Dictionary gives fourteen different meanings for the verb “to strike,” and eight for the verb “to beat”! (One strikes a match, strikes a deal, strikes an opponent, strikes gold, goes “on strike” against an unfair employer; one beats another team, beats out a rhythm, beats a retreat, and so on.).
Whenever we encounter a multiple-meaning word in the Quran we must select the proper meaning (or meanings) given the context, the Arabic forms, the usage of the same word elsewhere in the Quran, and a certain amount of common sense… When we read 4:34, we should not understand iDRiBuhunna as “beat those women.” We should, instead, remember that this word has multiple meanings. God gives us three ways of dealing with marital disloyalty on the part of a wife. In the beginning stage of such misbehavior, the husband should begin to address the problem by giving advice. If this does not work, he should stop sleeping in the same bed and see if this produces a change in behavior. And if there is still no improvement in the situation, the husband has the right to compel a separation. The Quran gives analogous rights to women who must deal with disloyal husbands (4:128); this is in accordance with the principle that women have “similar” rights to men in such situations, as stated clearly in 2:228. These would hardly be “similar” rights if women had to suffer physical beatings for marital disloyalty, and men did not! Beating women who are cheating and betraying the marriage contract is not an ultimate solution, and it is not consistent with the promise of equitability and comparable rights that appears in 2:228. (This is an important consideration, because the Quran proclaims, and Muslims believe, that it is utterly free from inconsistencies.) But “striking out” the disloyal wives – that is, separating from them — is consistent, and it is the best solution. It is also fair.