The mistranslated word is *wazribu hunna *which is derived from the root *zaraba*. Renowned commentators of the Quran including Ibn Kaseer, Pickthall, and Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, have rendered this word as “beat them,” albeit “lightly,” ignoring the fact that the word *zaraba *has various other shades of meaning. The verse 4:34 (please refer to *talaq*) actually talks about the various means at the disposal of a husband to bring about reconciliation with his wife and, obviously, beating the wife cannot be an option to sort out differences.
Out of the 50 times it occurs in the Quran, *zaraba* has been used 31 times in the meaning of “to explain by giving an example.” Only 10 times has it been used to mean “to strike” but mostly in the context of Moses “striking the rock” or the sea, and angels “striking the faces” of the sinners. Let’s summarise the five different meanings of *zaraba* in the Quran.
*Meaning No.1 - “to explain through an example”– used 31 times *
(2:26), (4:34), (13:17), (14:24, 25, 45), (16: 74, 75, 76, 112), (17:48), (18:32, 45), (22:73), (24:35), (25:9, 39), (29:43), (30:28, 58), (36:13, 78), (39:27, 29), (43:17, 57, 58), (47:3), (59:21) and (66:10, 11).
*Meaning No.2 – “to strike” or “to hit something” – used 10 times *
(2:60, 73), (7:160), (8:12, 50), (20:77), (24:31), (26:63), (38:44) and (47:27).
*Meaning No.3 – “to travel through the earth” or “to go” – used 5 times*
(3:156), (4:94, 101), (5:106) and (73:20).
*Meaning No. 4 - “to draw a veil over something” or “to cover” – used twice
(18:11) and (24:31).
*Meaning no.5 – “to take away” or “to withdraw a favour” – used once*
Given the different connotations in which *zaraba* has been used it would be logical to conclude that only the context will define the meaning of the word. A look at 24:31would prove this. In this verse, *zaraba* is used twice but in different meanings. The first usage occurs in the beginning in the clause *walyazribna **bi khumoori hinna alajuyoobi hinna *(*let them draw *their coverings over their bosoms), and the second one is found at the end of the verse in *walaayazribna** bi arjuli hinna liyu’lamamaayuqfeena min zeenati hinna* (*let them not strike *their feet
so that the adornment that they hide may be known). The words highlighted in bold italics denote the two different connotations of *yazribna*, a derivative of *zaraba*, which are context-specific and not inter-changeable. For instance, it would make no sense if the first clause is read as “let them strike their coverings over their bosoms.” The same would hold true for the second clause when the meaning of *yazribna* is changed to “let them draw.”
Let’s apply this rationale to 4:34 where the entire discussion is about marital discord and how to resolve it. In other words, the context of verse 4:34 is spousal rapprochement and therefore, *wazribu hunna* would take the meaning “explain to them” and not “beat them.” If by *wazribu hunna* the Quran had meant the beating of wives, then it strikes at the very purpose of the verse which is to end the marital discord. For, how could the husband expect his wife to be amenable to reconciliation after beating her up no matter how “lightly”? It should be kept in mind that it is not a question of beating lightly or heavily. It is about self-esteem. The humiliation that results from a physical assault is far greater than the assault itself. And the dehumanising effect it has on the dignity and self-respect of a person cannot be empathised. And to think that the Quran authorises men to subject their wives this affront is nothing short of an insult to divine wisdom.
It is surprising that most exegetes of the Quran seem to have not only ignored this truth but sought to support their misogynist translations with help of some selectively quoted *ahaadees*. For instance, they bring as evidence *ahaadees* in which the Prophet is supposed have instructed men not to beat their wives brutally as to leave any mark on their bodies. This contradicts a well known *hadees *found in *Kitab al adab *of Sahih Bukhari in which the Prophet asked: "How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her"? Muslim jurists have also conveniently ignored Prophetic pronouncements such as those that praise men who are “good to their wives” as “the most perfect of believers, or the famous *hadees* in Sahih Bukhari that quotes the Prophet as saying that a true Muslim is he who does not harm people with his tongue or hands.
Nevertheless, the saying that is often cited along with verse 4:34 in support of wife-beating is part of a *hadees *found in *Kitabul Hajj* of Sahih Muslim. The relevant directive, which is mentioned in the context of a wife acting against the interests of her husband, says *fazribu hunna zarban ghaira mubarrahin *that is, “beat them but not severely” or “give them a beating that is not severe.” The phrase “not severe” (*mubarrahin*) here is taken in the sense of a light beating that does not leave a mark.
Such a translation is not possible if *fazribu hunna* is rendered as “explain to them” as discussed above. Moreover, why would a Prophet, who had fought for gender justice throughout his life, instruct husbands to strike their wives as first resort to stop them from wrongful actions particularly when his own behaviour towards his wives had been exemplary? And what happens when a man acts against the interests of the wife? Should he be spanked by his wife? The ridiculousness is obvious. The correct translation of the above clause would therefore be; ‘explain to them in a
manner that does not hurt them.” This is supported by a Quranic verse which advises Muslims saying “Invite to the way of God with wisdom and in a manner that is soft and agreeable; and debate with them in ways that are
best and most gracious” (16:125). Raising one’s hand to correct somebody is not an option in Islam.