This post represents my previous understanding of 4:34, which has since evolved. When I first put up this article, I did not expect the response that I received. This article currently has several thousand pageviews and has been the subject of much discussion on social media, both from traditionalist and Quranist groups. Despite the fact that my current understanding of 4:34 is slightly different, I have decided to retain this post in its original form because of its popularity. The entirety of my original post is below. It contains multiple pertinent points; however, for a more cohesive view of the verse, please see this link.
When traditional reports and secondary source biases are projected onto the Quran, much of its meaning becomes tragically lost in translation. This is what has happened with verse 4:34.
What amazed me when I studied this verse was that it’s really not that difficult to understand. It doesn’t warrant an exegesis of the length that I have compiled. It is a fairly understandable and straightforward verse, discussing household maintenance and division of labor. It’s applicable to everyday life.
When the meanings of the words in 4:34 are cross-referenced, their definitions become readily apparent, and a coherent picture forms. The verse is no longer difficult to understand. It all makes sense.
Why the confusion?
The reason I had to write such a long exegesis was that verse 4:34 is shrouded in layers of religious apologetics, biased confusion, and complicated attempted explanations. Its original meaning has been obfuscated to such a degree that it took me nearly 3 years to arrive at an understanding of the verse. However, when I look at the verse now, it seems plain to me. It is strange indeed that such a relatively mundane verse has caused so much confusion throughout history.
The Quran is a book fully clarified and fully detailed. It contains everything we need to understand verse 4:34. God is just, and the Quran’s directives are in line with justice. When one’s mind is cleared of prejudices and complex apologetics, 4:34’s meaning becomes manifest. And it’s seriously not that complicated.
Verse 4:34 is also incredibly mind-blowing to me, because it is so adept at distinguishing hypocrites from sincere students of the Quran. The verse is very easy to twist and misuse. When people misinterpret it, their uncertainty and ignorance are clear for all to see.
Some of the words used in 4:34 are ambiguous, and for good reason. The verse was revealed for a purpose. It’s a test of mankind’s ability to distinguish Truth from falsehood. When the verse is scrutinized with sincerity, the words’ meanings become clear.
A “Crisis of Scripture”
In Misquoting Muhammad, Professor Jonathan Brown says that verse 4:34 symbolizes a “crisis of scripture in the modern world.” He’s right. 4:34 is a turning point where human morality, fitrah, Qur’anic directives, and tradition all clash. This verse isn’t just a paragraph about household management; it’s a study of the evolution of Islam over 1,400 years.
Jonathan Brown correctly notes that “unless we divorce ourselves completely from tradition, it is impossible to assert that verse 4:34 does not condone striking one’s wife” (paraphrased). Again, he’s right. If 4:34 is understood as condoning striking one’s wife, it causes dozens of internal contradictions throughout the Quran. Yet we can’t find another meaning for daraba without overturning hundreds of years of classical scholarship.
A crisis of scripture, indeed.
Unless we divorce ourselves from extra-Quranic traditions, we must accept that verse 4:34 condones unjust violence, and conflicts with the rest of the Quran. This means we must accept that the Quran is not infallible. It means we must accept that God’s Word is contradictory and inconsistent.
This is unacceptable.
Thus, Dr. Jonathan Brown (accidentally) proves that it is absolutely necessary for Muslims to interpret the Quran without secondary source influence. We must overturn years of classical scholarship, unless we want the Quran to conflict with itself. We must admit that our own scholars have made fundamental mistakes in their understanding of the Quran. Because they have.
It’s a choice. Which will we uphold–the divinity and perfection of God’s Word, or the words of scholars?
Verse 4:34 presents a test for mankind and for Muslims in particular, placing them at a fork in the road. It’s also an invitation to further inquiry, a way of imploring us to examine God’s Word, unmired by secondary influences.
God wants us to think for ourselves. He wants us to ponder upon His Word. He wants us to understand it. We have been gifted with the ability to reason. It would behoove us to use it.
We can’t demand that other people do all the work for us.
But that’s what Muslims have been doing. Scholars interpret the Quran so we don’t have to.
Thomas Edison was right when he said, “There is no expedient to which man will not resort to avoid the labor of thinking.”
Muslims are now suffering the consequences of their actions. When we desert God’s guidance and instead rely on scholars to relay it to us, we sentence ourselves to Jahannam. It’s a trickle-down effect–misinterpretations of the Quran become mainstream. Religious minorities, women, and children are primarily affected.
The misinterpretation of verse 4:34 is not the issue in itself. It’s symptomatic of everything wrong with our ummah. It’s the effect, not the cause, of our fall from power. Women are disproportionately affected by twisted understandings of the Quran, but it’s not just them. Other verses of the Quran, in conjunction with secondary sources, have been misused to justify slavery, the murder of apostates, and the oppression of Shias/Ahmadis. Women are just one affected group, and 4:34 is just one misunderstood verse.
The following is a summary/overview of my findings on verse 4:34, and of the deceptive methods translators often use.
Verse 4:34 lays out household responsibilities regarding maintenance, management and finances. The beginning of the verse states that men are the Q-W-M (Arabic root) of women with what (Arabic: bimaa) God has bestowed some over others, and with what they spend of their wealth. The root Q-W-M literally means to stand. When used with a preposition and an object, it gives the sense of protecting/securing someone or something, or being responsible for the maintenance/management of an individual. It also gives the sense of continuously or repeatedly looking after one’s affairs and sustaining them/ensuring that they are working correctly.
The Quran makes it abundantly clear that men are responsible for the financial upkeep of their households, and confirms this through the usage of “with what they spend from their wealth.” The linkage with wealth indicates that men are Q-W-M of women through their financial expenditure, or with it (Arabic: bi). The meaning of this terminology is fairly straightforward unless one wishes to change it because it conflicts with their worldview.
Unfortunately, a few traditional translators have projected a dominance-obedience monopoly onto verse 4:34 by rendering it to mean, “Men are in charge of women by right of what they spend from their wealth” (see Sahih International). According to them, women owe men (i.e. husbands) obedience because said men maintain them financially. This interpolation is unwarranted by the original Quranic Arabic. It also conflicts with a number of other Quranic verses.
Verse 4:34 goes on to say that righteous women are Q-N-T, or display qunut (devotion/obedience). Qunut is further defined by the clause, “guarding in the Unseen with what God has guarded.” This clause confirms that honorable women are those who are devoted/obedient or even cooperate with God, guarding what He wishes them to guard, in secret or in private. This could refer to guarding one’s morals when nobody is watching.
Most traditional translators instead render qunut as denoting obedience to husbands, even inserting the word “husband” into the text within parentheses (see Sahih International, Yusuf Ali, Hilali & Khan). This interpolation, again, conflicts with the original Arabic. However, if one is unfamiliar with the Quran’s untranslated language, these mistranslations may not be immediately obvious.
Multiple translators also limit “guarding in the Unseen/secret…with what God has guarded” to guarding the property of one’s husband, or guarding one’s chastity (see Mohsin Khan). This may be part of the verse’s intended meaning. However, the Unseen or secret (Arabic: Al-Ghayb) is used throughout the Quran in a variety of contexts. It refers mainly to the secret aspects of the heavens and the earth, and to the parts of one’s soul that are hidden to all but God. Al-Ghayb is a word of “extraordinary philosophical weight” [Nahida S. Nisa]. Restricting it unnecessarily, as many translators have done, makes a mockery of God’s Word.
“Guarding in the Unseen/secret…with what God has guarded” refers to a wide duty of guarding one’s morals in private. It seems to denote a duty of guarding whatever God has ordered to be guarded via Scripture.
Verse 4:34 goes on to discuss women from whom N-SH-Z is feared. N-SH-Z refers to rebellion or ill-conduct, and it is also used in relation to men (4:128). Traditional commentators have rendered it as disobedience, which reinforces the un-Quranic dominance-obedience marriage construct. Amusingly, defining nushuz as “disobedience” also insinuates that men must be obedient to their wives as per its usage in verse 4:128. Traditional translators’ biases backfire sometimes!
When men fear nushuz from their wives, they are instructed to advise them, leave them alone in bed, and D-R-B them. An analysis of daraba‘s usage throughout the rest of the Quran confirms that its primary meaning is to cite/indicate someone/something as a case in point or as an example. In verse 4:34, daraba is used to mean citing/referring these women to the authorities, who will then appoint arbitrators according to verse 4:35.
This is the only understanding that provides a link to verse 4:35. It is also the only understanding that is consistent with the Quran’s general usage of D-R-B, and with classical Arabic dictionaries’ usage of the term.
Other interpretations, such as “beat them,” “strike them” (Sahih International), “shun/turn away from them” (Joseph Islam), “go away from them” (Laleh Bakhtiar), and even “go to bed with them” (Ahmed Ali) are thoroughly inconsistent with D-R-B’s standard Quranic usage and with other explicit Quranic verses that clearly negate such understandings.
Traditional commentators engage in a great deal of interpretive acrobatics when it comes to verse 4:34. Many state that women can be struck, but not harshly (dharban ghayran mubarrih). Others state that the “beating” should be done while avoiding her face and should not cause bruising or scarring. Still others insist that the “beating” should be done “lightly,” with a miswak or a “rolled-up handkerchief.”
Not one traditional commentator or tafsir writer uses the Quran itself to justify their view.
Traditional translators are clearly confused when it comes to verse 4:34. They desperately attempt to reconcile “beating one’s wife” with the directive to “live with them [women] in kindness/honor even if you [men] dislike them” (4:19). They end up performing elaborate apologetics rather than putting together an honest assessment of the verse.
Multiple panels and lawmakers throughout the Muslim world have attracted controversy by bringing the proposed “beat them lightly” injunction into actual legal practice (see Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Muslim women have reacted by pointing out the paradoxical and harmful absurdity of such ordinances.
The Quran makes it abundantly clear that violence against women is a criminal act and an act of fitnah (oppression). Even when divorce is taking place, the Quran explicitly forbids men from straitening/harming/oppressing their wives in any way:
“When ye divorce women, and they fulfil the term of their (‘Iddat), either take them back on equitable/kind terms or set them free on equitable/kind terms; but do not take them back to injure them, (or) to take undue advantage; if any one does that; He wrongs his own soul. Do not treat Allah’s Signs as a jest, but solemnly rehearse Allah’s favours on you, and the fact that He sent down to you the Book and Wisdom, for your instruction. And fear Allah, and know that Allah is well acquainted with all things.” 2:231
“Ye who believe! It is forbidden for you to inherit women against their will. Nor should you make difficulties for them, that ye may take away part of what you have given them. And live with them in kindness. It may be that you dislike a thing and God makes therein much good.” 4:19
It is clear from these verses that oppressing a woman by inflicting harm on her is fully haram. The Quran states in several places that oppression is worse than murder (Surah Baqarah/2:191), and that murdering just one innocent soul is equivalent to slaying all of mankind (5:32). Thus, perpetrating fitnah/oppression is a sin of greater magnitude than murdering the entire human race.
I beseech Muslims to think about this.
Oppressing another human being, particularly one’s wife, is not a matter of minor misconduct. It is equivalent to a major sin in the eyes of Allah, one that can potentially be met with eternal damnation in Hell.
Mistranslating verse 4:34 to justify violence against women constitutes enjoining wrong actions and prohibiting good actions, which is the antithesis of what God commands believing men and women to do (9:71). Such a misinterpretation overturns fundamental Quranic principles and embodies hypocrisy.
So how do traditional translators justify this clear contradiction?
Many translators indicate that open lewdness or wrongdoing/fahisha mubayyinah has been committed by the women in question, thus allegedly justifying physical punishment. However, the Quran says that wrongdoing/N-SH-Z is merely “feared,” thus it is unproven. How can one be physically “disciplined” for an unproven wrongdoing? This is a blatantly unjust and unIslamic concept.
Wakas Muhammad writes [emphasis mine]:
I would like to end with reflecting on the concept inherent in the traditional/common understanding of 4:34, and that is to punish another based on a fear/suspicion because one is in a position of power to do so. An act inherently unjust to the ordinary person, but when it comes to practices in the name of a religion, people will commit the most heinous of acts, no matter how irrational. But how wicked is such an act? Let us all turn to The Quran for an answer.
This same word “fear” (Arabic root: Kha-Waw-Fa) occurs 120 times in The Quran and there are other examples in which believers fear something (e.g. fear injustice/sin from one making a statement [2:182], fear not maintaining God’s bounds [2:229], fear not acting justly to the orphans or their mother in marriage [4:3], fear betrayal from those with a treaty [8:58], fear unexpected visitors [38:22]) and in ALL cases there is not a mention of resorting to physical violence. To my utmost surprise there was only one example showing punishment or threat of physical punishment based on a fear/suspicion, and the figure threatening to do such a thing was the undisputed greatest tyrannical archetype in The Quran: Pharaoh.
And Pharaoh said: “Leave me to kill Moses, and let him call upon his Lord. I fear that he may change your system, or that he will cause evil to spread throughout the land.” (40:26)
Would God sanction believers to act in a manner that in any way could be likened to the greatest of all tyrants?
Please reflect upon this story of Pharaoh, and the justification he gives, the next time someone advocates physical punishment based on a fear in 4:34.
Indeed. How and why would God command believers to act in the same manner as the greatest tyrant in the history of mankind?
Verse 4:34 goes on to tell men, “then if they obeyed/heeded/complied with you (Arabic: ata’nakum), then do not seek a way against/over them.” Unlike Q-N-T, ata’ (root taa-waw-‘ayn) implies obedience/compliance with another human being; i.e. one’s husband.
The resumption particle fa (then/so) is used at the beginning of the sentence, indicating that this “obedience” refers to something in context. In 4:34, it denotes compliance with the husband’s attempts at reconciliation.
Notice that the Quran never says women must comply with the steps taken by a husband in verse 4:34; instead, the command is directed solely at men. If women comply with their reconciliatory attempts, men are commanded not to seek a path/pursue a case against them.
This is consistent with the Quran’s usual method of address. Women are not addressed directly; rather, men are warned about their interactions with women and told to maintain decency.
Some translators render “if they heeded/obeyed you” as “if they return to obedience” (see Sahih International, Yusuf Ali, Hilali & Khan). This is an erroneous and faulty translation.
The verse ends with, “And Allah is High, Great.” A warning. And a warranted one, it seems.
Verse 4:35 begins by commanding a third party to appoint arbitrators if they fear a breach (Arabic: shiqaqa) between the couple. One would ask, how does this third party come to fear a breach? The Quran repeatedly commands believers not to spy, backbite or slander each other. Thus it is highly unlikely that an authority/third party would fear a “breach” between a couple without having been explicitly informed that either the husband or the wife was causing marital problems.
Traditional tafsir writers fail to explain the sequence of events in verse 4:35. According to them, arbitrators are to be miraculously appointed after physical violence has allegedly been permitted. How does this work?
Clearly, the only way arbitrators can be appointed is if the authorities are informed that there is a problem, thus leading them to fear that the problem is bad enough to warrant societal intervention. When 4:34 is read in conjunction with 4:35, it becomes obvious that the women in question must be brought forth/cited to the authorities before arbitration takes place. There is no other viable option.
When 4:34 is interpreted correctly, the confusion regarding verse 4:35 is easily eliminated, as is the contradiction with other verses of the Quran.
Most traditional translators have summarized verse 4:34 to mean that women are required to obey their husbands, their alleged superiors. Therefore, if a woman disobeys her husband, he has the “right” to “discipline” her physically, by “beating her lightly.”
This understanding contradicts the Arabic wording of verse 4:34, and conflicts with the rest of the Quran.
In actuality, verse 4:34 clearly says nothing of the sort. It simply states that men are responsible for the upkeep of their households, so (Arabic: fa) women have a parallel responsibility to maintain their morals and guard what God guards (being qanitat). If bad behavior (nushuz)/failure to obey God’s commands is apprehended from a woman, reconciliatory steps must be taken, and authorities should potentially get involved. If the woman cooperates, the issue should be dropped and a way against her should not be sought.
This understanding becomes readily apparent when verse 4:34 is cross-referenced and prejudices are left behind. If I should dare say so, it’s really not that difficult.
4:34 has nothing to do with intimidation, domestic violence, cruelty or monopolies on marital authority. It has to do with maintenance, management and reconciliation. This is obvious when the verse is looked at with impartial eyes.
“And Allah does not intend injustice for the worlds.” 3:108
I ask, again, that Muslims reflect.
If the traditional understanding is adopted, verse 4:34 becomes impossible to reconcile with other Quranic verses. It becomes far too convoluted to follow in real life.
But 4:34 is clearly meant for real life. It’s not supposed to be impossible to understand. It’s supposed to be applicable to daily life. It contains clear instructions about marital discord, arbitration, and divorce processes. These are legal and civic matters, not allegorical pontifications about jinn and angels.
If we pay attention to the Quran and follow its directives, 4:34 becomes easy to comprehend. It is just, reasonable, and consistent with Islamic teachings.
I know women (and men!) who have lost their faith over this one mistranslated verse of the Quran. There are other women whose lives have been ruined through twisted misinterpretations of it. The consequences are too great to ignore.
We cannot assume that others will do all the work and interpret the Quran for us. We cannot ignore this verse or assign apologetic explanations to it simply because it makes us uncomfortable to confront it.
We have to investigate it. We have to think. And then we will be rewarded. The Quran is fully clarified, and God guides sincere seekers of the Truth.
No verse of the Quran is written haphazardly. Everything is deliberate. If we examine verse 4:34 instead of shrinking away from it, everything becomes clear.