to beat or not to beat, that is the question

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Recently, a friend of mine posted a photo of the front page of the Toronto Sun on her Facebook page.  The entire front page was filled with big block letters stating, “How to Beat Your Wife.”  The article inside discussed an Islamic book sold in Toronto, in which the author justified use of force by a man to subdue his wife.  The story was obviously a part of the usual anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim fodder, because the book’s author had passed away in the 1940s, which means that it was written well before the civil rights and women’s liberation movements in the West.

However, this matter cannot be simple brushed away as irrelevant.  This is because there are many people in our community who are still very much accepting of such attitudes and beliefs.

I remember a couple of years ago, my dad told me how he had a Muslim client at his bank who expressed great distaste at living in Canada, and that he preferred to live in a “Muslim” country.  My dad wasn’t sure why he felt that way so probed further.  The client explained how he didn’t like the fact that nobody could beat their wife here, because according to him, it was his right as a Muslim to have the freedom to use physical force with her if he deemed necessary.  Frustrated, he related to my father how several of his Muslim friends were currently in jail because their wives had called the police on them for physical abuse.  Shocked, my dad listened on as the man told him how the majority of Muslim men in Canada’s jails were there on domestic abuse charges, and that he felt like it was totally absurd for a society to punish men for simply “excercising their right” to physically discipline their wives.

This issue of men being allowed to hit their wives keeps surfacing in our community, but unfortunately, it is not dealt with effectively.  The problem lies in the interpretation of the Quran, and further, when people confuse human interpretation with divine discourse. This is the current translation circulating online through the free Quran Explorer website for chapter 4, verse 34: …As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.

I looked up the definition of the word “scourge” and the first one on google says the following: whip (someone) as a punishment.  The online Merriam Webster dictionary gives the following definitions for scourge (verb): flog, whip, to punish severely, afflict, to drive as if by blows of a whip, chastise.

All of these definitions give a pretty inhumane impression of God’s words.  The word being translated as “scourge” is the Arabic word “darraba”.  When such translations are freely circulated and elicit outrage from non-Muslims and sometimes even Muslims, many from our community come out and condemn violence against women, stating how the word darraba doesn’t at all imply to hurt, but to hit lightly, that it should not be on their face, and it should not leave marks, and some even go as far as saying that the hitting is meant as a “snap her back to her senses” and that it is symbolic and that no force should be used when hitting.  But all of these explanations are actually contradictory to not only human rights, but also to the message of the Quran, an insult to logic, and to the example of the Prophet pbuh.

To understand the Quran, one must free oneself from tunnel vision, and most importantly, one must read the Quran as a whole instead of isolating verses.  Another point everyone must understand is that although Arabic is still spoken today, it has gone through the usual metamorphosis of any language, and so it is possible that in modern times, we may not always be able to accurately pinpoint the precise meaning that was assigned to a word in times the Quran was first revealed.

One of my sisters sent me a link a couple weeks ago to a website for “The Sublime Quran.”  This translation is by a woman, who through her studies discovered that the word “darraba” has over twenty five meanings, one of which is “to go away”.  This means, that using this interpretation, we could read the verse as telling men to seperate or move away from their wives to use space as a means of possibly leading to clarity of mind and change of heart.  If you’re not convinced, then there is further proof.

Saying that beating the wife is permissible under certain circumstances actually contradicts the Quran.  There are two main pieces of evidence against allowing any physical force in a marriage.  The first proof is evident from the very next verse that follows the controversially interpreted one:

And if ye fear a breach between them twain (the man and wife), appoint an arbiter from his folk and an arbiter from her folk. If they desire amendment Allah will make them of one mind. Lo! Allah is ever Knower, Aware. (4: 35)

I found a link to another imam on youtube who also interpreted “darraba” as seperate and not hit, because he stated that what sense does it make to hit your wife and then call both your families to try and work out your marriage?  It obviously makes more sense that the word with the multiple meanings is referring in this case to simply seperate to allow for cooling of minds.   I remember when I told my youngest sister about this, she agreed and then we joked about how a man who beat his wife would offer her an ice pack for her bruise and then tell her to call her family for marriage counselling.

Still not convinced?  The author of the Sublime Quran has several sensible aruguments, and the best one is from the Quran itself.  Read surah Baqarah, verse 231 (The Sublime Quran translation):

“When you divorce wives, and they are about to reach their term, then hold them back honorably or set them free honorably; and hold them not back by injuring them so that you commit aggression, and whoever commits that, then indeed he does wrong to himself; and take not the Signs of God to yourselves in mockery…”

The author points out that if God is telling men to be kind and to not in any way hurt or harm women during a divorce, so how could God allow men to hit their wives, no matter how lightly, when the women are still in a marriage?

Plus, if you read the whole Quran, all you find is talk of kindness, mercy, forgiveness, taking the “steep” road, and compassion.  Any talk of agression or violence is clearly in the context of self-defence, or if absolutely necessary to free a group of innocent civilians from cruel tyranny.  So if you read the Quran as a whole, your reason tells you that hitting your wife, no matter how lightly or harshly has no place with those who submit themselves to God.  Interpretations can only remain valid if they are done so in line with the entire Quran and in keeping with the example of the Prophet pbuh.

And perhaps the biggest evidence against any kind of hitting of wives comes from the life of our beloved Prophet pbuh, who, along with all other messengers of God, is a beacon of light for all of humanity.  He never hit or even verbally insulted any of his wives, but rather treated them with the utmost respect and love.  For those who argue that the Prophet pbuh did not hit any of his wives because he was exceptionally soft hearted, their words contradict history, because despite being compassionate, he was known to carry out justice and Quranic commands, such as punishments for stealing and other injunctions.

So if all historical records point to the complete absense of the Prophet pbuh ever hitting any of his wives, and the whole of Quran pushes mankind to embrace compassion and kindness in treatment of all peoples in their family and society, then why do so many Muslim men keep interpreting this word as permission to hit their wives, sometimes even at the slightest hint of annoyance? The answer: tradition.  How, when and why this tradition formed despite being completely against the Prophet’s example and the Quran’s teachings is a whole another area that needs to be properly researched.

Before you get too happy about this new interpretation, it’s best you know that the woman who published the Sublime Quran, Laleh Bakhtiar, is quite despised by many orthodox and mainstream scholars and religious institutions.  It seems that many Muslim leaders are having a difficult time accepting this new interpretation.  I don’t know why.  But many have tried to discredit her translation through smear campaigns that accuse her of not having proper authority to translate the Quran. Their reasons range from her not being a native Arabic speaker to spending too few years in the study of Arabic, to not being accredited from well known Islamic scholarship centres such as those in Medina.  The author commented how other mainstream translations have been conducted by non-Arabic speakers, such as Yusuf Ali.  Despite of this truth, those against her interpretation of the word “darraba” still lash out against her, discrediting her work all together.

My sincere advice to everyone is that you must seek out your truth and that you must use reason and logic to reach your conclusion.  Do not cloud your judgement by paying all your attention to who is talking, but rather, you must focus on what is being said.  People’s titles and public image can wreak havoc on our minds.

Marriage is a difficult bond to secure, and always remains as delicate and fragile as a spider’s web.  It is built on love and compassion between the husband and wife, and even if one or both parties no longer feel love for the other, they must always hold on to the rope of compassion, because it is what connects us to Allah, the Most Merciful Most Compassionate.

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7 responses »

  1. Fantastic article sammy. I love the nuances within the Arabic language and the openness to interpretation it facilitates. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  2. I remember the first time I read the Qur’an (before I reverted to Islam), I stopped cold at verse 4:34. I asked my Muslim friend about it. He had never read that before and was quite shocked to see it. He asked a local scholar about it, who explained that the “beating” should only be symbolic and should be performed by something like a feather.

    That explanation never satisfied me because the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of men, cultures, and governments who interpret that verse to mean that a husband has the right to brutally beat his wife in any manner he sees fit.

    I have heard Laleh Bakhtiar explaining her own interpretation, and it makes sense given the fact that this is exactly what Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did when he had a problem with his wives. On the other hand, there seems to be other hadith that suggests Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, took the commonly held understanding of the verse.

    Regardless, the fact that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, never beat any of his wives should be enough proof for anybody that violence against one’s wife is not acceptable. 1

    Allah knows best.

  3. remember that there are many weak hadiths included in the historical records and i highly doubt that the Prophet pbuh would understand that verse to mean beat. i don’t understand the point of using a feather to hit someone. what’s the point? that’s not going to make anyone change if you tap them. however, if you separate from the person it is more likely they would at least think about their choices. i was pretty horrified to find the word “scourge” on the Quran explorer website. it completely changes the meaning.

  4. Some hadiths do mention mo hitting aisha. islam does kill for apostacy. If you are unislamic you are at least whipped. Violence is a major port in islam. All sura 8 – 9 . 5;33 amputation… 9:111 slay & be sayed in the way of jihad. Mo did saction cutting the clit. he said it was prefered to do a little not much cutting. lets not forget war booty women sex slaves.

  5. salaam/hello eric,
    thank you for reading my post. I am aware of the many violent hadiths. i am also aware that there are many hadiths that conflict with reason, science, and even the Quran. unfortunately the muslim community is under the religious leadership of people who basically use our faith to control and scare people. the history of the hadiths is complicated and controversial and in many cases people believe in them to point where they will accept something in the hadith that contradicts the Quran. We also have major issues with our religious scholars being too literal and rigid in their interpretations, because the Quran was revealed 1500 years ago and many people forget that it came to a pre-existing peoples and culture and that we should be able to extract the essense from culture. the punnishments in the Quran are basically listed as the limits not to be exceeded, so if someone steals and they are convicted, the maximum penalty allowed would be to amputate the hands, but that doesn’t mean you must do it. those punnishments are there to serve as limits. you could fine the person, jail them, or what ever else according to the crime and circumstances. unfortunately this is the problem with many religious elite who take them as is and scare people if someone suggests to use lighter penalties. the only way anyone should even begin to accept a hadith is if it is directly in line with the Quran’s messages, and anything else can be seen as either a fabrication or an error in transmission. we’re going through right now, what the Christians went through in the medieval times. we’re going through a period of darkness and narrow mindedness.

  6. Thanks so much for bringing about further awareness of the “scourge” the misinterpretation has brought to so many of our Muslim sisters. May God continue to bless your efforts and the efforts of all those who talk the talk and walk the walk of Islam by following the Quran and the Sunnah.

  7. Salaam Ms. Bakhtiar,

    I feel honoured to have you visit and comment on my blog post. It is because of fearless leaders like you that people like me have any chance of defending common sense and human rights, which are universally upheld by God and constantly mentioned in the blessed Quran. I pray you are well and keep working for the betterment of the ummah and humanity.

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