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.