Beat Lightly – Word Of God Or The Interpretation Of Men?


Beat Lightly – Word Of God Or The Interpretation Of Men?

Our legislators may be inefficient but they are not brainless. Therefore, everyone has found comfort in the fact that the bill proposed by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) will not be made into law and has resorted to make fun (rightfully so) of the proposed reforms. However, whether made into law or not, it still has various repercussions.

Firstly, an average Pakistani Muslim who has grown up reciting the Quran in a language he/she does not understand and has secondary knowledge of the teachings of Islam, does believe that Surah Al-Nisa permits a husband to beat his wife. This translation and interpretation has been handed down from generations to generations. These hand-me-down teachings come with the strict instruction of not to question. It is not only the word of God we are taught not to question but rather the interpretation of men (and I do not mean this in the gender neutral manner).

CII has proposed to legalize what Muslims in Pakistan already believe to be permissible in Islam. The problem which flows from this is that many Muslim men have found validation of their beliefs and actions in the form of this bill.

The majority of Pakistani Muslims have little or no concept of individual quest for answers because most answers can be asked by calling on a television show and asking the ‘religious scholar’.

Now, these religious scholars are so busy educating others that they have put a full stop to their own learning. Those who actually believe that the Quran and Sunnah need to be interpreted in light of today’s time and age, are threatened and made to leave the country. The discipline of religious studies in Pakistan is a slippery slope, because you never know who you will end up offending when you are just obeying God’s command to “Read!”[1].

As I have discussed in an earlier article as well, religion in Pakistan is the monopoly of a few and our reliance on these individuals for religious direction has turned this into a business. Most unfortunate is the fact that the majority of these individuals are men and thus their interpretations, directions and guidance are predominantly androcentric.

Reza Aslan puts this eloquently in his book ‘No god but God’, in the following words:

“The fact is that for fifteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. And because each one of these exegesis inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation”[2].

The male dominance over Islamic jurisprudence is one of the reasons why Muslim feminists have emphasized the need to interpret the Quran in a gender-neutral manner. Dr Margot Badran, a historian of the Middle East and Islamic societies and a specialist in gender studies defines “Islamic feminism” as:

“Islamic feminism explicates the idea of gender equality as part and parcel of the Quranic notion of equality of all insan (human beings) and calls for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions, and everyday life. It rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy (by the way, absent in early Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh) conceptualizing a holistic umma in which Quranic ideals are operative in all space”[3].

Unfortunately, growth in the domain of progressive Islam is stunted in Pakistan, and we are left with CII to dictate us about what comes under the ambit of ‘lightly beating’.

With a literacy rate of 58% and a majority of the population having a low socioeconomic status, the main source of information for people about worldly affairs is the television and radio and for religious affairs it is the local mosque – both of which these days are repeating over and over again, what CII has proposed. The manner in which headlines are formulated, appears as if they are endorsing the ideas of CII. Meanwhile in the local mosque, the religious leader is commending the CII for proposing to make this law, since it is according to them after all the ‘word of God’.

But is it really the word of God or the interpretation of men?

As mentioned earlier, the Quranic commentary has primarily been the domain of men, therefore many interpretations do have a sexist connotation. However, there are also male scholars who have interpreted the same word completely differently. For example, Ahmed Ali has translated the verse[4] in the following words:

“Men are the support of women [qawwamuna ‘ala an-nisa] as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). . . . As for women you feel are averse, talk to them persuasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing)”[5].

Whereas the same verse has been translated by Fakhry as:

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth. . . . And for those [women] that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them [adribuhunna]”[6].

Ali has interpreted it to mean “have consensual intercourse with them when they are willing”.  Female Quranic scholars have noted that it can also mean, “turn away from them”. Amina Wudud in her book, Quran and Woman[7] emphasizes the need of contextual consideration and puts forward the argument that the verse cannot be used to justify violence:

According to Lisan al-‘Arab and Lanes’s Lexicon, daraba does not necessarily indicate force or violence. It is used in the Qur’an, for example, in the phrase ‘daraba Allah mathalan . . .’ (‘Allah gives or sets as an example. . .’). It is also used when someone leaves, or ‘strikes out’ on a journey.

It is, however, strongly contrasted to the second form, the intensive, of this verb—darraba: to strike repeatedly or intensely. In the light of the excessive violence towards women indicated in the biographies of the Companions and by practices condemned in the Qur’an (like female infanticide), this verse should be taken as prohibiting unchecked violence against females. Thus, this is not permission, but a severe restriction of existing practices.

Finally, the problem of domestic violence among Muslims today is not rooted in this Qur’anic passage. A few men strike their wives after completely following the Qur’anic suggestions for regaining marital harmony. The goal of such men is harm, not harmony. As such, after the fact, they cannot refer to verse 4:34 to justify their action.

Hence in the end, it is all about how one wants to interpret and use the word of God and in the case of this verse, the preconceived notions about the authority of a husband play an important role. Aslan puts across this idea in his book:

If religion is indeed interpretation, then which meaning one chooses to accept and follow depends on what one is trying to extract from the text. If one views the Quran as empowering women, then Ali’s interpretation and if one looks to the Quran to justify violence against women, then Fakhry’s interpretation.[8]

I must admit that one good thing which came out of this whole fiasco is that people are looking for alternative translations and interpretations of the word ‘adribuhunna’.

Maybe this would finally make us reclaim our religion and use ijtihad, that is the process of ‘independent reasoning’ or ‘the utmost effort an individual can put forth in an activity’[9], which was frequently used until the tenth century when the traditionalist ulema outlawed it. The ‘closing of the gates of ijtihad’, as this action has been called, signaled the beginning of the end for those who held the belief that religious truth, as long as it did not explicitly contradict the Revelation, could be discovered through human reason.[10]

If we use independent reasoning and interpret the Quran holistically and intertextually, we would realize this: how can a God, who has directly and indirectly commanded humans in approximately two hundred verses to treat each other with kindness, allow men to beat their wives as much as they prefer, as long as their wives’ ‘bones do not break’? In fact, in the same chapter, God has said:

“And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them – perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good”[11].

Moreover, Muslims are supposed to follow the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, who through his words and actions emphasized the importance of treating people with kindness and protecting the rights of all. He prayed for the people of Taif when they threw stones at him, he forgave all his enemies at the time of conquest of Mecca, and deeply respected women and never hit one. In fact, on many occasions, he directed his followers to be kind to animals. One such example has been narrated like this:

“If someone kills a sparrow for sport, the sparrow will cry out on the Day of Judgment, “O Lord! That person killed me in vain! He did not kill me for any useful purpose”[12].

So how could the messenger of a religion of peace and kindness direct his followers about beating their wives? How could a God who introduces Himself as Most Gracious and Most Merciful command humans to inflict pain and injury of any form on another human?



[1] Quran, 96:1

[2]Aslan, R. (2005). No god but God: The origins, evolution, and future of Islam. New York: Random House.

[3]Badran, M. (2009). Feminism in Islam: Secular and religious convergences. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications.

[4] Quran, 4:34.

[5]Ali, A. (2001). Al-Qurʻān: A contemporary translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[6]Fakhry, M. (2002). An interpretation of the Qurʼan: English translation of the meanings: A bilingual edition. New York: New York University Press.

[7] Wadud, Amina. Qurʼan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

[8]Aslan, R. (2005). No god but God: The origins, evolution, and future of Islam. New York: Random House.

[9]Esposito, John. “Ijtihad”. In the Islamic World: Past and Present. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved April 28, 2013.

[10]Aslan, R. (2005). No god but God: The origins, evolution, and future of Islam. New York: Random House.

[11] Quran, 4:19

[12]Reported by Nasaa’ee (210/2), Ibn Hibban (Murad – 1071), Ahmad (389/4)


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Amnah Mohasin

The writer practises law in Karachi and has a postgraduate degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. She writes about socio-economic issues and blogs on behalf of Qaaf Se Qanoon - SZABIST's legal and research clinic and legal literacy radio show.

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  1. Hedayat Wazir said:

    Very well written, keep shining and guiding us.

  2. Tajammul said:

    Dear Amnah,
    I have gone through your article but you have not been able to address the core issue which is what does this ayat tell us. The two translations presented by you are poles apart and I have done some research my self also and Mr. Ahmed Ali has completely ignored the word ” adribuhunna” in his translation. I am all for more research and quoting ayats in their specific context but I found you article wanting in this regard. Please discuss the issue further with your colleagues and come up with a rejoinder to your article. Nothing would please me more than seeing this issue settled.

    • Agha said:

      I am curious too Tajammul. What would happen if Fakhry’s interpretation is proved to be the correct one? Would you follow it?

  3. Zafar said:

    A very good article. But different translations does not change the essence of the verse 4:34 – the words of Almighty.
    The minimum requirement to interpret holy Quran is complete understanding of Arabic language. One cannot interpret Quran by copying or relying upon translations let alone English translations. The second thing is to know the rules of interpretation of Quran. The problem is that we are interested in criminal, commercial, corporate law etc. but not in Islamic law and thus the mullahs have edge over us as they know Arabic language, rules of interpretation, Islamic jurisprudence etc. What is the meaning of adribuhunna? Please do some research on this word and other hadiths, which will help you understand the verse.
    Start from

  4. Asad Sami Butt said:

    Dear Amnah,

    With regards to the title of your topic, the Arabic word used for “beat (them) lightly” is “Azribuhunna” in verse 34 of Surah 4. This arabic word clearly is not used by men but by God Himself. The real issue is the translation of this word in to English language. Most prominent and renowned translators of the Quran in modern day are Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall and Dr. Mushin Khan, and they all translated “Azribuhunna” as “beat lightly” except Pickthall who translates it as “scourge,” which is a synonym of beating/affliction.

    In my view, the permission of beating wives in dire circumstances is given by God keeping in mind the philosophy of the above-mentioned verse of the Quran to which no reasonable man could object.

    I would like to hear from you in this regard as well.


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