Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Beat your wives?

This came up on Planet Bahai in August 2008. The question is, does the Quran really say that a man may beat a disloyal wife, at Quran 4:34 which in this translation reads:

But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them.

I replied:

It is a bad translation. I think the Arabic does not say “beat them” but
rather “leave them” — as in the Bahai year of patience, a withdrawal and
separation that is not (yet) a divorce.

We have to remember that the first written versions of the Quran had no
vocalisation, in other words, they left out short vowels and other signs
that tell us how to read the letters that are written. Arabic verbs have
many “forms” with different meanings, like the English verbs press –
repress – depress – pressurize.

One of the things that is used to mark
these forms is a letter alif at the beginning, which marks the 4th form of
the verb. You can think of the alif as a standard suffix, like English re-
or de-

But – here’s the crunch – the aleph at the beginning is also the marker
for the imperative (and of the interrogative, but that is not relevant
here), so in a text without the short vowels written, an imperative looks
the same as the 4th form of the verb, and also the same as the imperative
of the 4th form (because the alif is not doubled, one alif does both

The verb in this case is d-r-b. Daraba means “he beat.”  So the meaning of
the first form is “beat,” while one of the meanings of the 4th form is

The form in this verse of the Quran is  | D r b

This could mean, you must beat (imperative of first form). Or it
could mean “you leave” or it could mean “you must leave”

If we take it as an imperative of the 4th form, it would be
pronounced ad.ribuu-hunna and the translation would be you (masculine
plural ‘you’) shall withdraw from them.

Sequentially: he tells them first to admonish their wives, then
refuse to share their beds, then withdraw from them, then (next
verse) appoint arbiters from the families. That is a logical

Beating your wife might not be the best thing to do, if your next step is to seek arbiters from her family to achieve a reconciliation. But separation might be a good thing prior to reconciliation. In terms of progressive revelation, the two Quran verses throw some light on what Baha’u’llah would have expected a couple and their families to be doing during the Bahai year of patience


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14 Responses to “Beat your wives?”

  1. Tim Watts said

    In D. Masson’s French translation we read

    Disloyal ? Does this mean unfaithful? Aren’t adulterers put to death in Islam?

    Is there a translation of the Quran that is more reliable than the one I use as I am totally off reading it now as it is completely wrong as far as the translation is concerned?

  2. Tim Watts said

    the quote is missing

  3. Sen said

    Masson’s 1967 translation was “Admonestez celles dont vous craignez l’infidélité ; reléguez-les dans des chambres à part et frappez-les. Mais ne leur cherchez plus querelle, si elles vous obéissent. ”

    Compare to Si Hamza Boubakeur, 1995
    “Exhortez celles dont vous redoutez l’insubordination. Reléguez-les dans des lits à part et sévissez contre elles. Si elles vous obéissent, ne leur cherchez plus querelle.”

    I have no idea why Masson chose l’infidélité rather than ‘insubordination. Masson’s translation of the Coran is generally praised for accuracy and readability. I cannot suggest a better French translation, since I rarely need to use one. Sorry

  4. Tim Watts said

    Yes that’s what I wrote don’t know why it didn’t appear in the post…

    There is quite a difference in the two isn’t there. Is there a confusion in the Arabic, if the diacritics are missing does the Islamic world have the more accurate translation? I think it’s a mine field of misunderstanding. Shame my Arabic is non existant and I have to rely on translations.

  5. Sen said

    I don’t think infidélité is as good a translation as l’insubordination (the Arabic is نشوزهن ), but bear in mind that French infidélité is broader than just infidelity in English, it can cover all failures to meet one’s obligations, not just sexual infidelities. But it does have the connotation of falling away or falling short, whereas the Arabic has the root meaning of rising up, revolting, perversity in attitude.

    The diacritics for the vocalizations were added later, and there are small variations in the text which seldom change the meaning much. In this verse for example, the received text has al-muDaaje`e, but Ibn Mas’ud and several others had al-maDja`a, for sleeping-places. And as I’ve described in the email I’ve copied above, without diacritics is is sometimes impossible to distinguish between an interrogative followed by a verb, and a form IV verb. I do not have any great trust in the traditional readings passed down in the commentaries and made concrete in the form of vocalisations written in the received text: it seems to me the commentators are more often saying what, by their reasoning, must be there, than referring to a living memory of how the recitation has been passed down. There are in any case enough surviving text variants to show that the recitation was quite varied in the beginning, and was harmonised over time.

  6. Tim Watts said

    This is what I found on the “Quran seach” web site…and stil puzzled as I can’t seem to find a tanslation that I can remotely trust…

    <Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.

    Scourge them….this goes a little further than "frappez-les"

  7. Tim Watts said has the choice of 4 or 5 english translations and other european languages too…they all say, scourge, beat, acost, frappez. schlagt…etc how can they have all got it wrong?

  8. Sen said

    “scourge” is not necessarily more or less severe than “beat”; the translator was probably looking for a word that indicates using an instrument, not striking with the fist. This is traditional interpretation, but it is not supported by the Arabic, which can mean striking with the hand or with an instrument. For example, the same verb is used for drum playing, traditionally done with the fingers and palm.

  9. Sen said

    It’s reverence for the past, and the fear of future chaos if the consensus of the past were to be questioned. They are all following a vocalisation which became the consensus centuries ago. It takes considerable intellectual courage for a Muslim to ask, what if the noble ancestors were wrong? A very large part of accepted Islamic belief rests on the consensus of the central Islamic societies up to about the 11th century. Could they all have been wrong? To me, it’s a question, for most Moslems, it’s a rhetorical question.

  10. Tim Watts said

    Hello Sen. Well what I suppose I am getting at is that I find it quite worrying and upsetting that whole swathes of belief are based of faulty translations and dodgy diacritics, especially in the Baha’i faith. What I am getting from the above is that the Beat your wives interpretation is the current and prevalent one in the modern Muslim community. I suppose if you changed a few vowels int he KJB you would get a whole new religion out of it.

    As a believer sometimes we are exhorted to accept certain things and trust in God in the rightness of them, but to throw away your personal conviction over a “typo” seems to be a step too far.

    I love browsing your blog SEN. I think it should be read out at feasts!

  11. brent Poirier said

    when was the vocalization added to the Qu’ran?

  12. Sen said

    By the 8th century in Iraq, the Kufic mss have the dots to differentiate consonants, but do not have the vowel markings. There’s an example here (page 9). This is a heavy pdf which will take time to load.

  13. Hasan said

    Sen, it seems Imam Ali had a personal Quran with rich commentaries and perhaps with the Arabic diacritics. Do you know about this, if it survived? Thanks in advance.

  14. Sen said

    Yes, Imam Ali had a personal collection of surahs, a Codex or mu]asaahef. There are details about it in Jeffrey’s Materials for the History of the Quran p 182ff. But no, it did not have diacritics, although Jeffery supplies them, based on the comments in commentaries. He arranged the Surahs in chronological order and omitted Surahs 1 , 13 , 34 , 66 , and 96. There’s a problem with the comments in commentaries that refer to the codex of `Ali: they may refer to his own original collection OR to a copy he made or used, of Uthman’s codex. In some cases it is clearly the latter: he had variant readings of Surah 1, but his own codex did not have surah 1, so this must be differences made by accident or intent when copying from Uthman’s codex. There are 90 such variants recorded.

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