Why are Muslims so touchy about the word “Beat”?
Nothing embarrasses Muslims more than the command in the Quran to beat their women. Here is what the Quran says:
As for those [women] whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, send them to beds apart, and beat them. (Surah 4:34, N. J. Dawood translation)
The Arabic word for “beat” used in Surah 4:34 is iḍribūhunna, which comes from the root ḍaraba (Arabic: ضرب). The various meanings of this word include to hit, to travel the earth, to set up, to condemn and to give examples. The word also has a crude meaning referring to sexual intercourse. So in the context of a rebellious wife who has been admonished and then forced to sleep apart from the man, which of those alternate meanings of the word would constitute the next escalation of punishment? Of those choices, only “to hit” seems logical in the context.
Sharia Law supports this interpretation. In Reliance of the Traveler, section m10.12, it states that husbands should tell their wives, “Your obeying me is religiously obligatory.” Then, if the wife commits rebelliousness, he may ultimately “hit her, but not in a way that injures her, meaning he may not break bones, wound her, or cause blood to flow.”
Since this command to beat wives makes half of the Muslim population subject to beating by the other half, it is a matter of grave concern. The California penal code, section 243(e)(1) for example, makes spousal beating an intimate partner a misdemeanor crime. A husband commits domestic battery under this section if he willfully inflicts force or violence upon his intimate partner. Intimate partners include his fiancée, his current or former spouse, someone with whom he lives, the parent of his child, or anyone he is or were dating. A man can be arrested for spousal battery under Penal Code 243 (e) (1) even if he only uses the slightest force... any unwanted physical touching will suffice. This is often referred to as simple domestic battery. This means that one doesn't actually have to injure his intimate partner to be convicted of this particular domestic violence crime. The misdemeanor becomes a felony crime of the victim is actually injured. Other state laws are similar. The husband is likewise protected from battery by his wife by this law.
Wife-beating was not a crime when Surah 4:34 was handed down in Medina in the 7th century. According to the hadith of Sahih Muslim, Book 4, Number 2127, Muhammad had hit his young wife Aisha on the chest for spying on him, and it caused her much pain. Muhammad was also quoted as saying, “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.” (Sunaan Abu Dawud, Book 11, Number 42). But in the 21st Century, wife-beating is a serious problem, and Muslims know this.
Most early English versions of the Quran used “beat” or “scourge” without qualification. In the mid-Twentieth Century, two major English translations appeared – A. J. Arberry (1955) and N. J. Dawood (1956). Both of these translations used the word “beat” in Surah 4:34. Since then, however, many translations have shied away from the word “beat.” It is interesting to see how the translation of that surah has evolved. Here are a few of the different post-1956 versions:
Muhammad Asad (1980): beat them [With a long footnote disputing that interpretation.]
Ahmed Ali (1984): go to bed with them (when they are willing)
Muhammad Muhsin Khan (1985): beat them (lightly, if it is useful)
Rashad Khalifa (1992): then you may (as a last resort) beat them
Taqiud Dun Hilali and Muhsin Khan (1996): beat them (lightly, if it is useful)
Syed Vickar Ahamed (2007): percuss them
Edip Yuksel (2007): separate them
Mohamed K. Jasser (2008): some you may have to get going on their way (sic)
Tarif Khalidi (2008): smack them
Laleh Bakhtiar (2009): go away from them
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (2009): hit them [lightly]
Nazeer Ahmed (2011): bring them out (before the judicial process)
Obviously, Muslims are touchy about this verse because it implies that Allah authorized violence against half the Muslim population. How can Muslims ever convince others that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance if this verse is translated literally? Hence, the creative renderings shown above. Nobody will be fooled by this deception – at least for long.