Daraba, from triliteral root ض ر ب (daad-raa-ba), occurs about 58 times in the Qur’an. Its most common usage in the Qur’an is to “set forth/put forward/cite/point out an example/parable, a case in point.”
In Lane’s Lexicon, its definitions span 7 full pages of text. In Taj Al-Arus, its definitions span 18 pages.
In verse 4:34, daraba is used in its first or fourth form. The first form of daraba, when used with a direct object and if taken to mean a literal hit/strike, normally signifies striking someone/something only once. The second and third verb forms of daraba signify hitting something multiple times, fighting, or exchanging blows. This is specified by a doubled medial letter with a shaddah: darraba. Despite the fact that the first or fourth form of the verb is used in 4:34, translators have rendered it as “beating,” indicating multiple hits/strikes. This is incongruent with the original Arabic, and is an ‘interpretation’ rather than a literal understanding.
If taken to mean something other than a physical hit or strike, daraba in the first form with a direct object can mean “putting forth, pointing out, shunning, striking a parting, setting forth an example,” etc. Its usage is extremely wide and varies across context.
A study of early classical Arabic lexicons, as well as of daraba‘s usage throughout the Qur’an, shows that the word’s primary (core) meaning is to ‘put forth’ an object/person. In this sense, it can be taken to mean “putting forth” one’s hand to strike someone. This is likely where the meaning of ‘physical hitting’ originates from. Daraba can also be used to denote hitting someone with an instrument; i.e. a cane, a whip, or a stick. In addition, it can be used as a metaphor for killing someone: “He was struck with a sword and died in battle.” See here for references.
Throughout the Quran, daraba is used to denote making something conspicuous/known, putting something into motion, being in transit, leaving one’s home, striking out on a journey, etc.
Original copies of the Qur’an did not contain vocalization signs or diacritical marks. These were added in later, and were standardized by the Egyptian government in 1924. To this day, minor variances in Qur’anic recitation and vowel expression exist.
The following manuscript, containing verse 4:34, was discovered in Yemen in 1972. Notice that only the basic consonants are outlined, with daraba formed as adriboo/idriboo in the imperative form (those familiar with Arabic will note the alif in front):
The Qur’an was originally revealed as a ‘recitation/reminder’ (zhikr). The written text only served as a visual aid for recitation and memorization.
The text has since been standardized to contain a specific set of diacritical marks. It has then been translated and mistranslated, worked and reworked, and formulated by assigning ‘circumstances of revelation’ to each verse. This has obscured the intended meanings of its verses.
In order to ascertain the correct definition of daraba as used in this verse, the Qur’an must be examined within its own context. The only external materials used are classical Arabic lexicons such as Edward Lanes. One modern dictionary of Arabic (Hans Wehr) has also been used, but classical lexicons are given preference if variation exists.
Many modern translators of the Quran have projected a very politically evolved meaning of daraba onto the text. This is known as an etymological fallacy. Definitions of the word across Arabic dictionaries, both classical and contemporary, span many pages, but within modern dictionaries the meaning of ‘physical striking’ is generally given more prominence. For example, Hans Wehr (modern) states that daraba‘s primary meaning is to “beat or strike.” In modern Arabic parlance without any understanding of wider classical usage, idribuhunna reads as “strike them.”
However, this is quite different from what the earliest classical dictionaries suggested. In chronological order, Kitab Al Ayn is the first classical Arabic dictionary, written closest to the time of the Quran’s revelation. In this lexicon, not a single meaning given for DRB signifies a physical strike, except for an isolated metaphorical usage: “Striking” someone with a sword to kill them in battle (see here and here for reference).
Thus, it appears that the meaning of DRB has changed throughout history. While the term used to signify a wide variety of actions–traveling, typing, setting forth, coining, separating, avoiding, shunning, citing, setting apart–in modern Arabic dialects, it most commonly means a literal hit/strike. Modern usage of the word should not be conflated with classical usage. Where the Quran is concerned, the differences are of incredible importance.
A textual concordance analysis of the Quran suggests that not a single instance of DRB necessarily denotes a physical strike. DRB most often means to cite an example or to coin a parable. It is also used to set apart/separate truth and falsehood, to separate/split the sea with one’s staff (see the story of Moses), and to sever/decapitate enemies’ heads in battle. (This will be further discussed below.)
Which meaning fits?
Within verse 4:34, the most likely meaning of daraba is probably to turn away, leave, separate, or even to cite/bring forth the wife in question (for arbitration, as mentioned in 4:35).
Regarding the definition “separate from them/leave them,” it is often mentioned that the preposition ‘an–from–should supposedly be used. However, this is a false linguistic equivocation. In English, we would say “separate from them,” but in Hindi we would say unko choro, without an intermediary preposition. Similarly, in Arabic, classical dictionaries such as Lane’s Lexicon and Taj Al-Arus explain that daraba in the imperative form can mean to “separate/leave” in Arabic without any preposition.
In 4:34, daraba is in the imperative form–idriboo. An alif exists at the beginning of the word. This alif exists in both the imperative of the 1st form of the verb (“strike”) and the imperative of the 4th form (“leave”). Thus, either one of these definitions is theoretically applicable. When multiple possible definitions exist, one must be chosen that is in line with the Quran’s principles. Any other choice is an exemplification of hypocrisy.
Separation makes perfect sense in 4:34, as mediators/arbitrators are supposed to be appointed according to 4:35, thus implying a preexisting separation. There would be no need for communication via arbitrators if a temporary separation/cooling-off period wasn’t already in place.
It is sometimes mentioned that different Arabic words, from root FLQ, root TLQ, and root FRQ, are used to mean separation in the Quran, thus DRB would not be used for this purpose. However, FRQ and FLQ normally signify a permanent separation. TLQ (talaq) signifies a full pronouncement of divorce. DRB is different from all of these roots, and instead posits a temporary separation, primarily emotional rather than physical.
In the following verse, three different roots, all implying different degrees of separation, are used:
“Then We told Moses by inspiration: “Separate/split* (DRB) the sea with thy staff.” So it divided (FLQ), and each separate part (FRQ) became like the huge, firm mass of a mountain.” 26:63
DRB implies the initial split: The sea is in the process of separating itself into two parts. FLQ signifies that the split is complete: The sea has separated. FRQ indicates that preexisting, already separate parts of the sea have turned into mountain-like structures. Three different degrees of separation take place, and daraba is the first degree.
The following paper gives a very detailed, thorough analysis of daraba‘s usage through a textual concordance approach. It goes through all 58 occurrences of the term and translates them as necessary. A few translations are weak, such as the analyses of 8:12 and 47:4, but they are being edited as required.
This paper also discusses relevant hadith. Often, the Prophet’s Farewell Sermon is invoked to “prove” that 4:34 favors a physical usage of DRB; however, the evidence shows that the Farewell Sermon has been tampered with. Within the Sermon, fahisha, nushuz, and zina–three completely different Quranic offenses–have been conflated, resulting in an incoherent and contradictory understanding of 4:34.
The ChameleonX analysis is extraordinarily detailed, and explains in full how scholarly tradition has twisted 4:34 to mean something it obviously cannot mean. The Quran clearly prohibits all acts of violence against women; this is evident even through a cursory reading of the text. The only ‘possible’ exception is 4:34, and this ‘exception’ has come about by aggressively misrendering a single word–a word that has the most complex and widely used root in the entire Arabic language!
This analysis also explains how the term qawwam has been misused to give men the authority to “discipline” their wives. Within the context of Surah Nisa’s explicit inheritance verses, qawwam denotes a responsibility towards financial maintenance. This is not at all difficult to discern given the wording of 4:32-33 and the discussion of “portions of wealth” delegated to “heirs.” It is also fairly obvious given that 4:34 speaks of men “spending from their wealth.” However, QWM has been used to the opposite effect: Translators have appointed men as dictators rather than financial providers.
Other root words, noted by ChameleonX, have also been mutilated. QNT, denoting piety before God, has been converted into “obedience to husbands.” N-SH-Z, denoting uprising or disloyalty, has miraculously transformed into “disobedience to husbands.” T-W-‘ayn, denoting a willing pledge or compromise, has devolved into “forced obedience/compulsion” despite the fact that the Quran repeatedly defines this root as the antonym of compulsion!
Translators have not just twisted the definition of DRB; they have effectively changed the meaning of every other key word used in 4:34 just to accommodate this mistranslation. 4:34 speaks of a feared wrongdoing on the part of a wife, which obviously cannot warrant punishment (all crimes must be proven according to the Quran, and slandering women in particular invokes severe retribution; see Q. Ch. 24 for reference). This proves that DRB simply cannot denote a literal strike, unless we wish to assert that the Quran contradicts itself within 4:34. Unfortunately, feared wrongdoing has been conflated with proven wrongdoing by translators, lending false legitimacy to their misinterpretation.
The interpretive acrobatics, sheer dishonesty and linguistic manipulation necessary to justify “strike” in 4:34 are almost comedic. One would ask how and why individuals who concoct such nonsensical claims are considered “Islamic scholars.”
Another paper (below) also exists, which posits that 4:34 commands men to cite their wives to the authority for arbitration according to 4:35. It also examines every usage of daraba in the Quran. The evidence shows that DRB can almost never mean a physical strike in the Quran, and wherever it possibly denotes literal hitting, alternative translations can be espoused, many of which are far more conceptually/linguistically accurate.
For further additional reading, please see:
But can’t women be disciplined?
As a last (or sometimes first) resort, commentators and jurists invoke the Principle of Superiority. They claim that 4:34 says men are bestowed/preferred by God above women. This, firstly, is grammatically inaccurate: The Arabic says some are bestowed/preferred over others, and both terms are in the masculine plural. But this doesn’t matter to translators. Where women are concerned, Quranic verses are twisted into utter oblivion with no regard whatsoever for grammar.
So, where the Principle of Superiority fails, the Principle of Men’s Right to Discipline Women is invoked! According to translators, men have the authority to discipline their wives. Again, this is Quranically disproved. According to Surah Noor (24:6-9), men cannot take action against a wife’s suspected infidelity, but must instead bring their wives to court and testify against them. If the wife testifies back, the allegation is automatically dropped. Thus, a husband cannot take it upon himself to ‘discipline’ or ‘punish’ his wife. Only a court, after due legal process, may do so. The Quran’s clear prohibitions on punishing people–especially women–without evidence shows that any violent understanding of 4:34 is conceptually nonsensical and extremely hypocritical.
Again, however, this doesn’t matter to translators, who almost unanimously posit that God has gifted men with inherent superiority and moral authority over women. The Quran disproves this (see 49:13, 9:71)–but translators simply don’t care.
At best, the misinterpretation of 4:34 throughout history was caused by mere ignorance and lack of reason. At worst, it was deliberate dishonesty–a heinous perversion of Scripture, a grievous crime against God. Hypocrisy exemplified. The verse is now understood to mean the opposite of what it was intended for. Instead of peaceful reconciliation and physical restraint, we are left with coercion and violent force.
But if they “obey you…”
The last part of 4:34 is generally translated as, “But if they obey you, seek not a means against them” (Arabic: fa in ‘ata’nakum, laa tabghu ‘alayhinna sabilaa).
In English, the word ‘obey’ (translated from Arabic root TW3) denotes forced or coerced obedience. However, in the Quran, this word is actually used to mean the opposite of compulsion! A simple concordance search makes this blatantly obvious. The word denotes a pledge given freely, under no threat of physical force.
“Then He directed Himself to the heaven and it is a vapor, so He said to it and to the earth: Come both, willingly (Arabic: ta’waan) or unwillingly (Arabic: karhan). They both said: We come willingly (Arabic: ta’waan).” 41:11
The Quran explicitly defines ‘ata multiple times as the opposite of compulsion!
*DRB here is often translated as “Strike the sea with your staff.” However, it makes much more sense to translate it as split, since this is exactly what happened in the Red Sea narration: The sea parted to accommodate Moses and his followers.