Friday, September 2, 2011

The Challenges of Verse 4:34

The post below is on verse 4:34, the challenges it's posed, its different translations and meanings, and how, in 4:34, the term nushooz magically means "disloyalty/ill-conduct" (because it relates to women!) but in verse 4:128, the exact same word means "desertion" (because it relates to men!) -- in verse 58:11, it means "desertion" as well. "Desertion" is the actual meaning of the Arabic nushooz, too, you see... well, that's what appears to make the most sense. I may discover many years later that I'm wrong, but I know for sure I'm right for now.


I have been studying it for the past 5 years, and I still haven't made a solid conclusion about it. I want us to look at different interpretations and different translations of the verse, since it actually implies that man is the head of the woman. I want us to see how we justify the beating/hitting of women, oftentimes saying, "Oh, the man is allowed to beat his wife but only lightly! it's not like you can abuse her just like that!" etc.

Here are some of the translations of verse 4:34 (NOTE: Anything in parenthesis is the translator's explanation, understanding and is not necessarily a part of the original Arabic text.)

- 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. Source

(Note that in the above version, the original Arabic terms have been kept to show that it's these words that have been mistranslated, misinterprets, or are still open to interpretation -- or are used to justify violence against women or the inferiority of women.)

- Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) separate them in beds (and last) beat them. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great. Source

- Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great.” (Translator: Laleh Bakhtiar - female.)

- Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all). (Translator: Yusuf Ali)

- 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. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great. (Translator: Pickthal)

- Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. (Translator: Shakir)

Source for the above three translations.

- Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). So women who are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it. As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing). If they open out to you, do not seek an excuse for blaming them. Surely God is sublime and great. (Translator: Ahmed Ali)

More available at this link.

So, note how the term "nushooz" has been translated when it comes to women (disobedience, disloyalty, ill-conduct, etc.) ... EVEN though it literally means "to rise, to go above, to desert, give up" (see, for example, verse 58:11 of the Quran: "O you who believe! When you are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room: (ample) room will Allah provide for you. And when you are told "inshuzoo" (to rise up), Allah will raise up to suitable ranks and degrees those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge. Allah is well-acquainted with what you do.")

Annnnd guess what "nushooz" means when it comes to men, though. Somehow, it means "desertion" or "oppression"... as in, if the husband is being oppressive to his wife, or if he deserts her, etc. (I must say, beating your wife is oppressive. In which case verse :128 has a great suggestion for women who are being treated like that by their husbands.)

4:128 reads: "If a wife fears cruelty or nushooz on her husband's part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best, even though men's souls are swayed by greed. But if you do good and practice self-restraint, God is well-acquainted with what you do."

One must ask ... why the translation of the Arabic word "nushooz" when it comes to men and when it comes to the command/suggestion of giving up or yielding a position, but when it comes to women, it somehow magically means ill-conduct or disloyalty?

Yet, nothing in the Quran makes it obvious that the woman has to obey her husband. She's told, just like men are told, that she must be obedient to God, just as men are to be obedient to God. "Qaanit" doesn't necessarily mean obedience to man/husband: It's the same term used when God is saying that "obedient men and obedient women ... for them is reward promised by God."

Earlier scholars of Islam interpreter it to mean obedience of woman to her husband, clearly because women in most, if not all, societies are told to obey their husbands. It made sense to them, and we can't condemn them for having written volumes on the concept of obedience in Islam (of a woman to her husband).

But today, thankfully, scholars are re-evaluating the implications of verse 4:34 and are trying to figure out what exactly it means.

This link gives explanations of classical scholars, their commentary, on the same verse. It's really interesting how the author writes at the end, "Therefore, due to all of the statements and interpretations of the word “nushooz”, one can objectively state that nushooz includes the refusal of a woman to answer the husband’s call to her bed."

I'm like, ummm... okay, but this isn't from God; it's from men, humans. Why should their views be binding?

Anyway, just a little wonder. While the Quran doesn't make it obvious that man is the head of the woman, humans' translations and interpretations do;we see what the woman is viewed as when we read commentaries of every Quranic verse that pertains to women. In most cases, it's disturbing. Woman meaning wife, of course, since mothers are always giving a sublime position.


  1. I really liked this post Serenity. Thanks for this!

    I understand from this post that the verse does *not* say that:

    1. men are stronger and hence better
    2. men are in charge of women
    3. nushooz means disobedience to men

    I liked Ahmed Ali's translation the best. The only place where I disagree with him is that he translates فعظوهن as " talk to them suasively." That is not what فعظوهن means; the word is used 24 times in the Quran in various forms and it always means to 'teach a lesson' or 'remind of the consequences' and that one word turns the verse into one that instructs men to discipline women even if we read the other two imperatives like Ahmed Ali translates (leave them alone; go in bed). Certainly this translation is still better than Pickthal's for example.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Metis! Very insightful!

    Yeah, I definitely prefer Ahmed Ali's to Pickthal's (and most others') as well. Laleh Bakhtiar's one was very disappointing, by the way! She, too, translates "dharaba" to mean "beat"! Shocking and sad.

  3. Nushooz isn't the more urgent point to be discussed for me. It's the whole part about "beating them lightly". Has anyone explained that? Or said that it is translated wrongly?

    1. Dear Honey Bee,
      Thank you for visiting us!

      I guess there are different problems in the traditional translation of this verse for different people. I'm interested in both "nushooz" and "dharaba" (the beating part).

      Yes, there has been a strong effort by Muslim female and male scholars to understand whether the "beat them lightly" is actually in the Qur'an itself. Many reject the traditional interpretation (that a man can hit his wife "lightly"-- in fact, "lightly" isn't even implied in the origin text if "dharaba" is to be translated as "beating"!), arguing that "dharaba" has been used in other Qur'anic verses and there, it means other things, such as "to part" or "to leave" (or something like this). This is a great question to ask; I'll post some sources on this issue in an upcoming post.

      In the meantime, I'd recommend the following:
      - Amina Wadud's "Gender Jihad" (not "The Qur'an and Woman," since she later recants her former interpretation of 4:34, the "beating" verse)
      - Julianne Hammer's "Religious Authority, American Muslim Women, and Activism"
      - go to and type in "Quranic verse 4:34 and re-interpretations" or google search this or Amazon search it :)

      I'll comment here when I prepare a list of literature on the issue, okay?

      Thanks again for dropping by!


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