Oh, my. Apparently this post has garnered several thousand pageviews and has been discussed on multiple progressive forums. I did not expect this much attention. I’m grateful. It appears that Muslims might finally be making some progress.
- 4:32 And do not covet (the bounty) we have bestowed on some people over others. For men is a share of what they earned, and for women is a share of what they earned. And ask Allah of His bounty. Indeed, Allah is the All-Knower of everything.
- 4:33 And for all We have made heirs of what is left by parents and close relatives. And those to whom your contracts are pledged (lit. “your right hands are pledged”)–give them their share. Indeed, Allah is over everything a Witness.
- 4:34 Men are the supporters/maintainers of women with what God has given some of them over others and with what they have spent of their wealth. So the righteous women are devout, guarding in the Unseen that which God has guarded. So those from whom you fear their ill-conduct/disloyalty, then advise them, and leave them alone in bed, and refer them/bring them out/separate from them. So if they cooperated with you, then do not seek a way upon them. Indeed, Allah is High, Great.
- 4.35 And if you (authority) feared a breach between the couple, then appoint arbitrators, one from his people/family and one from hers. If they desire a settlement, Allah will bring about a settlement between them. Indeed, Allah is Knowledgeable, Expert.
- 4:36 Worship Allah and associate nothing with him, and do good, and treat with kindness your parents, your relatives/kin, orphans, the needy, the neighbor near to you and the neighbor far away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those to whom your contracts are pledged (lit. “those whom your right hands possess”). Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding, arrogant, boastful.
- 4:37 (Those) who are stingy and enjoin stinginess upon others and hide what Allah has bestowed upon them of His bounty–and We have prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating punishment.
- This is a continuation from the previous verses of Surah Nisa, which discuss inheritance and marriage. Men are given more inheritance than women in some cases, so this verse instructs people (logically, women) not to covet the extra bounty God has given some over others, since there is a reason for this division of wealth. The word for “bounty/bestowed” here is fadl. It always refers to material wealth in the Quran, nothing else.
- This sentence establishes the principle that both men and women have the right to earn and to maintain their own form of income, through trade or otherwise. The division of inheritance in the Quran has no bearing on one’s right to work or lack thereof.
- This verse explains that we are required to devote a portion of our wealth to “those with whom we have a contract.” Within context, this likely refers to a marriage contract, in which most of the financial responsibility rests with men. Thus, 4:32-33 teach us that we shouldn’t covet other people’s wealth, and that those with extra wealth must spend it on the family members who need it.
- The word for “supporters/maintainers” is qawwamoon, root QWM. The same form is used in verses 4:135 and 5:8 to denote standing up for justice. This word and its derivatives occur no less than 660 times in the Quran, and each time it is used, QWM consistently means to stand, to stand up for, to establish, to support, to sustain, or to maintain. It is often used in the sense of maintaining one’s prayers (i.e. 20:14). Within the context of wealth from 4:32-34, QWM denotes men’s responsibility to spend a portion of their inherited wealth on their wives. The flow from 4:32-34 is contextually logical as it explains, first, which wealth is being spoken of, and second, how it must be used. Unfortunately, translators have twisted the meaning of QWM to claim that men are “in charge of” women, despite the fact that this makes no contextual sense, conflicts with standard Quranic usage of the word, and contradicts many Quranic verses.
- “What Allah has bestowed some of them over others” mirrors the wording in 4:32 almost perfectly. The word used here is fadl, again, describing material wealth. The wording is in the masculine plural (which can include both genders) and is reciprocal between men and women. Essentially, this phrase serves as a logical continuation from the preceding verses, describing that men are the supporters/maintainers of women through the division of fadl (wealth/bounty) that God has given some people over others. Translators have frequently messed with this phrase by rendering it as “God has given more “superiority” to men above women.” This is grammatically incorrect and reflects either total incompetence or the deliberate promotion of a hypocritical agenda.
- The word spent is in the perfect tense, denoting wealth already dispensed.
- The word for “devout” is qanitat, from qunut, root QNT. It is used in 33:35 to describe men and women who are obedient to God. In fact, every single occurrence of this word describes people who are obedient to God alone, never to a human being. Laughably, translators have rendered this word as “obedient to their husbands,” despite the fact that the word husband does not exist in the text. Translators have conflated obedience to God with obedience to husbands, which is rampant throughout traditionalist discourse and is blatant shirk, or polytheism. The fact remains that qanitat is exclusively used to mean devotion to God, and this word is employed to describe Mary in 66:12. (In Islam, Mary did not have a husband.)
- I have translated this phrase as literally as possible. The word for “the righteous/honorable women” is as-salihat. “Guarding” is from the HFZ root. In the Quran, the word hafiz consistently refers to someone who preserves, or guards, their honesty and character without needing to be supervised, whether in public or in private. The word for “Unseen” in this verse is Al Ghayb, and in every usage, it refers to the unseen realm of which God is the primary guardian. Taking into account Quranic usage and tafsir, this sentence says that righteous women are to guard their morality in the Unseen/hidden sphere, as symbolic of their devotion to God. It should be noted that the word “Unseen” occurs in the Qur’an across dozens of verses and consistently refers to a sacred realm that is hidden from most of humanity. Thus, the reciprocal duties of both men and women are explained, particularly within a marriage contract: Men are given financial responsibility with the material privileges that they have, and are told to maintain justice towards women in the context of the QWM root; their responsibility for providing provision is described in relation to women, whereas women’s responsibility is only a moral one, and is described in relation to God instead of men. The Qur’an only prescribes a role for men here: They are given specific financial roles for women, whereas women are not given any similar role in relation to men, and are simply required to guard the realm of morality that is hidden to others.
- The word for “fear” is khafa. It is subjective and refers to something that is not proven. This can be contrasted against verses such as 4:15-16 and 24:2, in which men and women are found guilty of public/open sexual misconduct by a court with 4 reliable witnesses to prove the charge. 4:34 speaks about the opposite of a provable wrongdoing: Here, the wrongdoing is only feared, thus punishment cannot be undertaken. It is in fact conceivable that a husband could “fear” nushuz on the part of his wife while actually committing nushuz himself.
- Nushuz, root N-SH-Z. This word is also used in 4:128 to describe a husband’s suspected lewd conduct or wrongdoing. Amusingly, translators have frequently rendered nushuz as “disobedience to the husband.” This is almost comedic, since if we apply this definition to 4:128-130, it means a woman can seek redress/divorce for her husband’s “disobedience” to her. Needless to say, translating nushuz as disobedience to the demands of one’s spouse is quite unwarranted, and here the word simply denotes some type of suspected marital discord or questionable conduct. Note that nushuz is subjective (there is no fixed definition) and either spouse can “fear” it.
- Wa’iz, advice or instruction. The same word is used to describe Prophet Luqman’s advice to his son in Surah 31, verses 12-19. Advice (i.e. enjoining good and forbidding wrong) is something that all believers can deliver to each other depending on the situation. In 4:34, it is a preventative measure and cannot be rendered as punishment, since wrongdoing on the wife’s part has never been proven.
- The word for “leave alone in bed” is hajara, from hijr, meaning “migration.” It is a neutral word and simply denotes moving away from someone or something. The grammar proves that the husband is ordered to leave the marital bed here rather than the wife, but somehow translators such as Pickthall have rendered this part of the verse as “banish them to beds apart,” falsely indicating punishment and hostility. This is provably incorrect; 4:34 is instructing husbands to leave the marital bed to reduce the threat of physical/sexual coercion and to give both spouses a period of cooling off. Notice that in the Quran, men are required to stop sexual relations when marital breakdown or disputes occur. This is quite different from traditional Islam, which advocates that men have the unconditional right to sex. The cessation of sexual relations is meant to be a cooling-off period rather than a way to indicate estrangement; it is temporary, and is limited to four months according to verses 2:226-227, after which the couple must either arbitrate and reconcile or divorce.
- The word is daraba, from root DRB, which has many different meanings, and has evolved to a great extent etymologically. By concordance analysis, its primary meaning in the Quran is to bring out, set apart, set forth, separate, or to bring forth. Here, it could denote referring the spouse in question for arbitration, as is described in verse 4:35, and it could also denote initiating a temporary separation to signal to others that the marriage is in conflict. This provides a link to 4:35 and explains how a third party got involved in the conflict. For more linguistic information, see here. Another translation that espouses this interpretation is here.
- The word here is ‘ata’nakum. It is generally translated as “obey,” but this makes little sense, since a spouse cannot “obey” being left alone in bed or referred to arbitrators. The word primarily means to comply, to agree, to cooperate, or to heed advice. It denotes a conforming response to a request rather than forced obedience. This is demonstrated by its usage in verses such as 41:11, in which the word ‘ata is used as the antonym of compulsion. This “cooperation” is not a general term but a context-specific one; here, it denotes the woman’s cooperation with her husband’s attempts at reconciliation.
- The word for a “way” or “path” is sabilaa. Here, 4:34 says that if a woman cooperates with her husband’s attempts at reconciliation, he should not seek a way against her; this is likely referring to a divorce. The main objective of 4:34-35 is to foster reconciliation between spouses and to avoid talaq, which can be achieved if the spouses make sincere attempts at reconciliation and are responsive to each other. This part of the verse also reflects the Quran’s instructions to men throughout the divorce process: “Either retain them in kindness or release them with kindness.” If a wife cooperates, then she should be retained within the marriage and her path to reconciliation should not be made difficult. If she does not cooperate, then arbitration can be appointed as the next verse explains–and if this fails, divorce can be pronounced. There is never recourse to physical harm.
- This is a warning to everyone to misinterprets the Quran as a means of oppression.
- This verse clearly addresses a third party outside of the spouses, likely a court or authority figure. If a split/breach–shiqaqa–is feared between the spouses, then this third party should appoint arbiters from both families. Divorce is implied only if arbitration and peer counseling fail. Note the difference between “cooperation” (‘ata) and a “breach” (shiqaq); i.e. if the woman cooperates then arbitration is not necessary, but if she does not cooperate and a breach between the couple is feared, then arbitrators should be appointed by the authority. If this, too, fails, then divorce may be sought against the wife in question.
- The objective here is peace and settlement, or sulh in Arabic, because neither spouse is provably at fault. A “fear” of nushuz is not a proven thing, and the Quran clearly distinguishes between proven wrongdoing and suspected wrongdoing. God advises arbitration and due judicial process. If a husband suspects his wife of adultery, he must get a court involved according to 24:6-9. If he suspects some lesser wrongdoing, he must refer her to the authorities for arbitration according to 4:34-35. He may never take it upon himself to administer “punishment” without due consideration for the law. This is clearly emphasized throughout the Quran. Those who misinterpret God’s word have tragically and demonstrably deluded themselves.
Note that when this verse says “God will bring about a settlement between them,” the word settlement can refer to either reconciliation OR an amicable arrangement for permanent separation/divorce. The word is versatile and is used to mean a peaceful arrangement of any kind; it is the same word used in 4:128: “There is no blame if the couple effects a settlement between themselves.” Here, a settlement can indicate either reconciliation or a proper amicable divorce arrangement in which all parties are given their dues. Note that in 4:128, a woman need not call arbitrators, and can initiate a divorce or settlement on her own; she also has no need to go through the temporary separation or referral process discussed in 4:34. She can leave the marriage on whichever terms she chooses, which may or may not include giving up part of her dowry if she has reason to do so (2:229). A divorced woman is entitled to spousal support after divorce regardless of who initiated the separation (2:241).
- 4:36 emphasizes being kind to family and relatives, which further humiliates translators who use 4:34 as an excuse to permit domestic violence.
- This part of the verse explains that God dislikes those who are arrogant and self-deluded. The condemnation here is severe and telling; it is a clear warning to those who fail the test of Quranic interpretation.
- “Bounty” or fadl is again alluded to here. Those who possess it are warned against hiding it. The theme of worldly bounty and inheritance runs throughout this set of verses, which emphasize people’s obligations and mutual rights, within the theme of Surah Nisa.
- Here is another warning for those who fail to interpret and concoct lies against God. Enough said.
I will leave you with a quote from Khaled Abou El-Fadl, a contemporary scholar of Islam:
“It is clear that the authors of the translation and their supporters do not like women, and that they projected their inadequacies and deformities upon God’s text and the whole Islamic intellectual tradition. Truly, the agony of the Muslim plight in the modern world cannot be expressed either in words or tears. What can one say about those people who seem to have declared an unmitigated war against women and who brandish the weapons of grotesque misogyny? What can one say about those people who, in their utter ignorance and maniacal arrogance, subjugate even the word of God to their ugliness and deformities? “Who is more unjust than those who suppress the testimony they received from God, and God is not oblivious as to what they do” (2:140). Truly, “These folks, the cult they are in, is destined to ruin, and false is what they practice” (7:139).” [Source: Scholar of the House]
It has been suggested that 4:34 commands men to separate from women upon marital breakdown; this translation is within the range of reasonable interpretation, and I feel it is acceptable as well. The Quran is polysemic for a reason: There may be multiple viable interpretations for any given verse, to fit situations that may arise. However, it is essential to tell which interpretations are not viable, and these must be exposed and debunked.
The following are some resources that expose the dishonesty and deliberate manipulation Surah Nisa has undergone. I urge you to read.
This document has a full concordance analysis, looking at all occurrences of the DRB root word. It also explains the manipulation of other root words within 4:34. This author also explains how hadith literature conflates verse 4:34 with verses 4:15-16, mixing up the Quranic punishment for adultery/prostitution with the reconciliation process detailed in 4:34. It’s a good study into the historical origins of Surah Nisa’s misinterpretation.
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?
What translators of the Qur’an have done is nothing less than Satanic and Pharaonic. It is violence against the text itself. The Quran warns us against interpretations that are decontextualized, arrogant, and selective, yet traditional translators have ignored all the warnings. It is up to us to debunk religious justifications for oppression. Anything less is slander against God. We cannot be complicit.
A central theme of the Quran is respect for creation and for humanity itself. This was completely disregarded by traditional interpreters, who were so absorbed in proving their own “superiority” that they projected their deformities upon Scripture itself. Remember that it was Iblis, Satan, who first claimed superiority based on physiological attributes: “Did you create Adam from clay, and me, from fire?” Satan’s arrogance blinded him to Truth. This is the situation of the interpreters who have destroyed our understanding of Islam, and of God. They do not worship Allah; they worship their egos, the lowest and most pathetic form of shirk. It is our job to hold them to account, and to rescue those forced into slavery by their wrongdoing.
“And Allah does not intend injustice for the worlds.” 3:108