A Look at the Meaning of ‘Dharaba’' in the Qur'an

The following ayat has is the source of much debate and controversy:

... 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) ... (Surah an-Nisa’:34)

To put it mildly, the translation is problematic.  This verse concerns the issue of desertion, nushuz, of women.  A closer examination of the word in question, ‘yadhribuhunnah’, ‘strike them’, in the verse, infers two distinct meanings.  The first meaning is derived by considering the apparent meaning of ‘dharaba’’, which is to hit; and the majority of exegetes and jurists lean towards this interpretation.

Dharaba’’ itself has several meanings.  The second meaning, which is consistent with the context of the sunnah is ‘parting and separation.’  The entry for ‘dharaba’’ in al-Munjid, stated, “Thus, it is said, ‘Dharaba adh-dhahru baynanah’, meaning that, ‘The passage of time caused us to part.’”  Another meaning of ‘dharaba’’ is to ‘turn away from’ or ‘to dispense with’; when referring to the speech of someone who speaks baseless nonsense, or to any form of writing, or article which is without merit or foundation.  In this, the Arabs says, “fadhribuhu ‘ala al-jidar”, “throw it at the wall,” which means to ignore it.

In the case of this verse, we incline towards a sudden parting of ways or curtailment of affection or interaction, particularly with the spouse.  The Prophet (s.a.w.), who ‘Aishah (r.a.) said was the Qur’an personified, never beat his wife.  In the case where ‘Aishah (r.a.) was wrongly accused of infidelity, he stayed away from her, the latter meaning of ‘dharaba’.  He certainly did not beat her.

Therefore, as per this verse of the Qur’an, the husband who has unsuccessfully tried to address his rebellious wife by two milder means, is to finally separate, ‘dharaba’’, from her.  This legal separation is an opportunity for both to reflect on whether they can continue with the marriage, or to proceed for thalaq, divorce.  As per the example of the Prophet (s.a.w.), the husband should avoid any harshness towards her and be patient.  ‘Dharaba’’ also means leaving the marital bed as a final resort.  This does not absolve the husband of his responsibility to provide for the household.

In contrast, if we consider ‘dharaba’’ here to mean, ‘striking’, it becomes problematic.  This contradicts the spirit of the Qur’an and the sunnah.  There should not be any incongruency in Revelation.  As recorded in Mustadrak al-Wasa’il and Bihar al-Anwar, the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “I am amazed at the one who strikes his wife, while he is more deserving to be struck himself; do not strike your wives with canes, because there is a qiswasw for that.  Rather, chastise them with a curtailment in their maintenance; thus, you shall gain felicity in this world and the next.”  Qiswasw is legislative retaliation.  This hadits is reliable, mu’atstsaq, or swahih, depending on the chain.

When we consider the oft-cited haditsadh-dharb bi as-siwak,” “striking with the siwak,” the chain is mursal, incomplete.  Other than a mention in Majma’ al-Bayan, it does not appear in any source book of ahadits.  Furthermore, many jurists justify this ahadits where the usage of ‘dharaba’’ is other than its apparent meaning.  Imam Shahid ats-Tsani (r.a.), in al-Masalik, on the chapter on nikah, defined “adh-dharb bi as-siwak” as, “It is intended to mean playfully, otherwise such an act is unlikely to chastise or encourage reform.”

In the books of fiqh, jurisprudence, the slightest physical violence towards one’s wife, anything that causes even a bruise, incurs diyyat, a legal penalty.  How do you hit your wife without causing even a bruise, a reddening of the sin, even playfully?  Rather that considering that ‘dharaba’’ would not likely mean beating the wife, many of our books of jurisprudence engage in tautological and mental gymnastics to legislate secondary details such as how to hit her, the severity of the blow, the number of hits and providing reasons why this does not incur diyyat.  When we consider the Divine Intent of the Qur’an, and the aspect of justice, how are we certain that the man is automatically justified in beating his wife?  This is legislating an opportunity for spousal abuse when there is no basis in the example of the Prophet (s.a.w.), and contradicts the parts of the Qur’an that emphasise that men and women are equal but different.

From another perspective, this is itself a form of zhulm, oppression.  Hitting an adult will not compel them to change for the better.  Rather, it breeds resentment and causes a further breakdown in the relationship.  More egregiously, it institutionalises spousal abuse and grants a veneer of religious respectability.  This is not my Islam.


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