Interpreting the Quran

The Quran and Wife Beating

by Laleh Bakhtiar

As a follower of “the middle community” of Islam (Quran 2:143), I thought the film THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN gave a fair and just picture of what many mosques across America are facing today.  That is, a narrow, exclusive agenda that coerces those who follow the faith to adhere to their one imported view of Islam with rarely an opportunity for dialogue or discussion.  Not only is this the case with those who attend the mosques, but also in regard to the interpretation of the Quran.

While the debate over whether the Quranic Word of God is eternal or created has continued on and off since the 8th century CE, Muslims throughout the centuries have agreed that it is only the Arabic of the Quran that is considered to be the unchanged Word of God.  The English, or any other translation, is only an interpretation to help non-Arabic speakers develop an understanding of the meaning.  If there are verses that one cannot accept on face value, one has to study the Arabic and critique interpretations from the view of the Arabic and not a translation.

Yusuf Estes on Quran 4:34

This brings me to the translation I did entitled The Sublime Quran.  I could not accept that 4:34 allowed husbands to beat their wives (or “give them a crack,” as Yusuf Estes said in the film, “with a yardstick”!).

In the Introduction to the Sublime Quran I give irrefutable arguments from the Quran itself as to why the word idrib has been misinterpreted when it is said to mean “beat them (f),” that is, husbands being commanded to beat wives when the wives are nushuz (the meaning of which I discuss below).  Islam prides itself on promoting marriage and discouraging divorce.  When we reflect on the misinterpretation of 4:34 along with 2:231, we see in that in 2:231 husbands who divorce their wives, must do so honorably.  They cannot harm or commit aggression against their wives.  The conclusion: a Muslim woman who is to be divorced cannot be harmed but a Muslim woman who wants to stay married, does so under the threat of being beaten!!!  Does this promote marriage and discourage divorce?  No.  It creates a contradiction that is not in the Quran but is man made.

In addition, three other words are used in the Quran to mean “to strike” or “to beat” a person.  Therefore, the word idrib does not necessarily mean “to beat, strike, harm, crack or spank.”  One has to look at other meanings that the word may have rather than deciding on a meaning that goes against the legal and moral principles of the Quran.

We Muslims are proud to say that the Prophet never beat anyone, much less his wives.  What we forget is that the word idrib is a command in the Quran, an imperative form of the verb. Therefore, the Prophet did not obey the command of God if the word means “to beat” when some of his wives did exhibit “nushuz” behavior.  However, he did carry out the command of God and did not beat anyone as well.  When there were issues between husband and wife, he “went away.”  It is interesting that the word idrib also means “to go away.”  Therefore, by interpreting the verse to say: “Husbands who fear resistance on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then abandon their sleeping places then go away from them (f) (or leave them (f)),” we follow the behavior of the Prophet as well as the fairest of sayings of the Quran as Muslims are asked to do.  (Sublime Quran 39:17-18)

Jurists say that the word “nushuz” in 4:34 (that I translate as “resistance”) actually means women who disobey their husbands.  What they fail to point out is that in 4:128, the Quran uses the exact same word in regard to husbands.  It says: “Women who fear resistance (nushuz) on the part of their husbands. . .!!!”  If someone wants to interpret nushuz in 4:34 as referring to “disobedient wives” or “wives of ill-conduct” then 4:128 referring to husbands has to be “disobedient husbands” or “husbands of ill-conduct.”

Finally, in 16:126 of the Quran, one is commanded to chastise with the same chastisement that person has been given.  If Muslim husbands persist in beating their wives, they will leave themselves open to being given the same treatment as that which they handed out according to the Quran.  The Prophet knew this and did not want his community to go in this direction so he understood the word idrib to mean: “to go away,” let the anger subside and then return to a consultation with one’s wife.

The misinterpretation of idrib in 4:34 has denied women at least two rights given to them in the Quran.  The first is in 2:231 where a wife who is to be divorced cannot be harmed.  The second right that she is denied is in 24:6-9 where if a husband accuses his wife of anything and he is the only witness, she has a right to defend herself from any kind of chastisement by swearing an oath four times that her husband is the one who lies and a fifth oath that the anger of God be upon her if her husband has been among the ones who are sincere.  In a domestic situation, husbands, acting as judge and jury because of the misinterpretation of 4:34, beat their wives before the wife has an opportunity to take advantage of the right she has been given in 24:6-9 to defend herself.

The issue of 4:34 is just one of the issues faced by the Muslim community. It should be noted that many Muslim men agree that this verse has been misinterpreted.  The tragedy for the Muslim world is that there are also many Muslim women who believe that women should be beaten!!!  Therefore this is not a gender issue, but a human rights issue and as long as our mosques in the United States are run by extremists, there will be continue to be confrontation, not only between Muslim men and women, but between Muslim extremists and those of “the middle community” as well.  It is excellent, fair and unbiased films like THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN that will bring conversations out into the open.  Let us hope that those of us who engage in conversation are able to do so with love and respect for those with views opposing our own view.


Laleh Bakhtiar has a BA in History from Chatham College, Pittsburgh, PA; an MA in Philosophy; an MA in Counseling Psychology; a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology; and is also a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Psychotherapist in the State of Illinois. She is co-author of A Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture (University of Chicago Press) and author of SUFI Expressions of the Mystic Quest (Thames and Hudson), three volumes of God’s Will Be Done on Moral Healing and some 15 other books on various aspects of Islam. Through her works on psychology she has become the leading authority on the Sufi origins of the Enneagram. She has also translated over 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement into English. She is the first American woman to translate the Quran.

She has traveled around the world three times giving lectures on topics on the right of Muslim women. She is an expert in the psychology of spiritual chivalry (futuwwa, javanmardi). She directs her work towards Muslim women and youth who, once they learn of this model of spiritual chivalry become more positive oriented towards their faith and family. She is presently Director of the Institute of Traditional Psychology and In-House Scholar at Kazi Publications. She taught Islam at the University of Chicago. She has a computer based training program on the internet at

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  1. Nadia Ali says:

    It is unfortuante that scholars who have interpreted Quran have been mostly men who have used this privilege to oppress and suppress women. The other issue has been to look at practices 1400 years ago instead of looking at principles underlying the stories or text in the Quran. An example is trying to justify feminism or democracy from the quranic perspective. These terms were coined and evolved very recently. It is not possible to find these new concepts in the Quran or the Bible. What can be found are the principles of equality, justice, compassion etc. It is encouraging to see women like Dr. Bakhtiar providing another interpretation which is inline with the principles of Quran.

    I am a muslim woman who strongly believes in equal rights of all women. I dont have to face the frustrations that a lot of other muslim women face with regards to issues of prayer space because I belong to the Shia Ismaili sect of Islam. Men and women pray side by side in our place of worship. Women lead prayers just like men and have an active role in all activities related to the mosque or the community.

    Nadia Ali

  2. Bill Byrne says:

    Ms Bakhtiar is quite learned in the texts and the historical intrepretations of words that mean different things to different peoples in different times. This is important work in all religions, but it misses two important points from my perspective.
    First, If the Quran, the Bible (New and Old Testatment) or any religious texts are read like newspaper reports by reporters who were there, we are on the road to destructive fundamentalism of the type that has been and is resposible for so much death and hate world wide…from Jews, Christians and Muslims. It just so happens that we are currently most interested in the Islamic iteration of this problem. Travel back to the Inquisition and the Crusades we see Catholicism causing the havoc.
    Second, it seems to me that problems experienced by Asra Nomani in her mosque and the filmaker in her Christian Church were the result of seeing humanity as “fallen” and the guilt associated with some creator out there who is saying “you ought to be this way…or that way”. This is essential to the occidental view of the Divine..the 3 monotheistic tradtions share this perspective. On the other hand th The oriental view of the divine does not have it separated from humanity, and therefore cleanses the heart from this destructive relationship with the Divine. I am not arguing for no morality…just keep it away from the Divine… which by definition is beyond good and evil..right and wrong…

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