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Linda Bogaert

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Does Qur'anic verse 4:34 "allow a superior husband
to beat his inferior, disobedient wife?"


If ever there has been a controversial verse in the Holy Qur'an, it certainly is verse 4:34. Used by opponents of Islam to label this religion woman-unfriendly (to put it mildly), Muslims themselves are struggling with interpreting it. For yes, let us agree about this: there is no such thing as “the” one and only correct interpretation of the Word of Allah – only Allah knows what He meant. We can only try to understand. And in this particular case, an alternative for the troublesome interpretations of this verse may bring us a bit closer to that objective.

Let us have a look at a (partial) translation of this verse 1:

"Men are the {qawwam} of women, because Allah has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are {qanitat}, and guard in the husband's absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear {nushuz}, admonish them first, then refuse to share their beds, and finally {adriboo} them; but when they {ataa:} to you, then seek not against them means of annoyance: For Allah is Most High, great above you all. "


Disobedient women?

The key word to answer this question is {qanitat}, which is a feminine plural of {qanit}, based on the root {q-n-t}. This word appears on many other occasions in the Holy Qur'an 2, where it is used exclusively in the sense of 'submissive, obedient to Allah'. Verse 4:34 contains no reason at all to depart from this meaning and to change it into 'obedience to a husband'. This verse is about pious women who, just like pious men, are obedient to Allah. And a wife (husband) who is obedient to God, must live up to her (his) marital duties.

Superior husband and inferior wife?

Throughout the Holy Qur'an, Allah emphasizes that men and women are equal for Him – Allah will judge them in exactly the same way 3. So it would be strange indeed if a verse would contradict this equality. But is that really the case here? The Arabic word used is {qawwam}, an intensive form of {qaim}, meaning: 'to take care of, to look after'. Therefore, does this verse say that men are superior to women? Not at all. It says: men must look after women. In Islam, men are obliged to financially provide for their wife and children. They have to pay for their housing, clothing, food, medicines, etc. That is what {qawwamoona} means: men must take care of women.

Misbehaviour?

Is this verse about what a man should do when his wife 'misbehaves'? The exact word used here, {nushuz}, means 'discord, hostiliy, dissonance'. In this context it could be interpreted as 'marital problems'.

Beating his wife?

The verse instructs a husband whose wife causes problems in their marriage to first talk to her about it, then leave the marital bed, then {adriboo} his wife, and all of this in view of pursueing a reconciliation as is evident from the subsequent verse 4:35.

The Arabic word used here, {adriboo}, from the root {d-r-b}, has several dozens of meanings, such as: 'to beat', but also: 'to forsake, to avoid, to leave'.

How do we know which interpretation to choose? One way to find out, is to relate this verse to other verses in the Holy Qur'an and to check if the meanings make sense. In this case, let us look at verse 24:2, which describes what should be done in case of adultery :

"The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication,- flog each of them with a hundred stripes..." (Holy Qur'an 24:2)4

This verse establishes the principle that for men and women, equal actions lead to equal punishment. When for adultery men and women must receive equal punishment, surely there is no reason why they should be treated differently for any lesser marital problem.

Now let us take a look at the consequences of interpreting {adriboo} one way or another.

Suppose {adriboo} means: 'to beat'.

In this case, verse 4:34 says that when a wife causes a problem in the marriage, her husband should first talk to her about it, then leave their bed, then beat her and all of this in view of increasing his chances of a reconciliation. On the emotional level, this certainly does not sound like a very promising course of action. So let us check this meaning against the bigger framework and in particular against the principle of 'equal behaviour leads to equal punishment'. This would imply that when a husband causes a problem in the marriage, his wife can beat him. At which he could invoke verse 4:34 to beat her again, so that the result would be a perpetual physical fight between spouses! Surely, this makes no sense at all. And indeed, it is not what Allah prescribes for the situation where a husband causes a rift, as will be explained in a moment.

Suppose {adriboo} means: 'to forsake, to avoid', possibly, as Mohammed Abdul Malek5 suggests: 'to separate, to part' .

Now what do we get? Verse 4:34 now says that when a wife causes a problem in the marriage, her husband should first talk to her about it, then leave their bed (forsaking his sexual satisfaction), then avoid her even more (not talking to her anymore, leaving the room when she enters it, and possibly even leaving the house for a while), in order to prevent things from getting worse, and on the contrary to let things cool down and create enough space in view of increasing chances of a reconciliation.

This sounds like a very logical chain of events.

Also, application of the general rule of verse 24:2 ('equal actions, equal punishment') now means that when a husband causes a marital problem, his wife should forsake a few of her rights, avoid her husband in increasing ways, and try to work towards a reconciliation. And yes, that is precisely what verse 4:128 says:

"If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves" (Holy Qur'an 4:128)4

Understanding {adriboo} as 'to forsake, to (gradually) avoid (more and more), possibly eventually leave altogether', clearly makes sense when relating several verses to one another.

And there is more. Beating a wife, would contradict hadiths of the Holy Prophet who repeatedly said: “do not beat believing women!”. It would also contradict the Holy Prophet's instructions about anger – which (unless it is caused by injustice) he explained to originate from Satan and which he described as "a living coal on one's heart". One should not act upon ones anger, lest one would do things one would regret later. When you are angry when you are standing, sit down, the Holy Prophet said. And when you are still angry when you are sitting, then lie down. Interpreting this verse as allowing a husband to beat his wife, surely contradicts these rulings on anger.

Furthermore, Allah says in the Holy Qur'an that one must meet bad behaviour with something that is better, not with something that is worse, in order to turn a hostile situation into a friendly one:

"Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!" (Holy Qur'an 41:13)4

Therefore the word {adriboo} cannot really have meant “to beat”, can it. It must mean something that is better than causing problems, and avoiding the problem certainly is exactly that.

Based on the evidence presented here, it would seem that interpreting {adriboo} as 'to beat', causes several internal conflicts with the meaning of other Qur'anic verses and hadiths, while interpreting it as 'gradually forsaking, more and more and possibly leaving altogether', is a much more logical interpretation that is entirely consistent with the interpretation of other rules in the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

What makes much more sense, is that this verse does not allow a 'superior' husband to 'beat' his 'inferior, disobedient' wife. On the contrary, this verse appears to tell us that a husband must look after his wife (an equal partner who, like he, is obedient to God), and that when his wife is causing problems in their marriage, he should first talk to her about it, if that doesn't help, he should begin avoiding her by leaving the marital bed. If that still doesn't resolve the situation, he should forsake her presence even more, avoid conversations, leave a room when she enters it, avoid her company altogether, and possibly leave the house for a while, so that no problems are added to the conflict, and so that things can cool down a bit to maximise chances for a later reconciliation.

Return to obedience?

When the problem is solved, when the wife is committed to the marriage again, then the husband is advised not to keep using the incident against her and to consider the incident closed.

The exact Arabic wording is: "when then they (fem.pl.) {aTa:} (with) you (masc.pl.), then seek not against them (fem.pl) means of annoyance". The verb {aTa:} (alif taa alif ayn) has several meanings, such as: 'obey', but also: 'comply, comply with, accommodate, give in to', or in French 'filer doux'. Consequently, the verse can be understood to mean: "when then they are committed to the marriage again", or: "when then they give in to/comply with the efforts of the husband to save the marriage", or "when they no longer cause marriage problems", ... Linguistically there is no compelling necessity to translate {aTa:} as "obedient to the husband" . Other interpretations are possible and indeed preferable. Earlier in the verse, there was no reason at all to translate {qanitat} as women who are "obedient to their husband" so that here there isn't any reason to imply that this verse is about a temporary disobedience and a subsequent return to obedience to their husbands. It is not a matter of obedience to him, it is a matter of {nushuz} (marriage problems). And the Holy Quran advises that when one of the partners causes a marriage problem, the other should gradually avoid the person who causes the problem, in order to save the marriage - irrespective of who started the strife (4:34, 4:128)


Yet of course, this is only an interpretation. Allah knows best.
 

___________________________

Notes

  1. Derived from Yusuf Ali, Pickthall and Irving; King Fahd (Saudi-Arabia), Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaroo (Grand Mufti of Syria) and original Arabic meaning. 
  2. See Qur'anic verses 2:116,238; 3:17,43; 30:26; 33:31,35 en 39:9.

  3. See Qur'anic verses 3:195, 4:124, 33:35.

  4. "The Meanings Of The Holy Qur'an", Abdullah Yusufali. Provided by Islamicity - http://www.islamicity.com/mosque/SURAI.HTM

  5. "Does The Quran Sanction The Beating of Women?", Mohammed Abdul Malek, - klik hier

© Linda Bogaert, 2004.
PS
De (Nederlandstalige) Korancitaten in alle bijdragen van deze reeks zijn afkomstig uit: "De Koran. Een weergave van de betekenis van de Arabische tekst in het Nederlands", door Fred Leemhuis, isbn 90 269 40785, uitgeverij: Unieboek in Houten, 1989 (regelmatig herdrukt) - met dien verstande dat Arabische namen (vb Ibrahim) omwille van de herkenbaarheid vervangen werden door de Nederlandse naam (vb Abraham).

Contact: < L.Bogaert@telenet.be

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