Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misconstrued verses in the Qur’an by Muslims and non-Muslims alike is verse 4:34, the so-called ‘chastisement verse’. Those who claim that the verse allows husbands to hit their wives argue that the verse suggests a three step solution in the event of a family dispute where ill-conduct has been committed on part of the wife. The verse instructs first that the husband may exhort his wife and appeal to her reason (wa’ẓ).
If the problem continues, the husband may then express his displeasure by sleeping in a separate bed. If the wife persists in the deliberate mistreatment of her husband, expression of contempt, and disregards her marital obligations, the husband, they argue, as a third step, may resort to ḍarb as a means to ‘save the marriage’.
The verse prescribes these three conflict resolution measures in the case of a dispute between husband and wife. The most contentious segment of the verse is the imperative waḍhribūhunna (hit them). The word, coming from the trilateral root ḍ-r-b, in this verse has commonly appeared in modern English translations of the Qur’ān as “hit” or “beat lightly”.
The addition of “lightly” reflects a dependence on traditional commentary (tafsīr) of the verse. Other translators have instead used words such as “tap” and “pat” to represent a physical type of admonishment that is not at the level of hitting or beating. All of these translations, I would argue, do not take into account the context of the verse vis a vis the passage following it. Others have posited seemingly far-fetched translations, wherein, they argue; ḍarb implies sexual intercourse, or the temporary separation of husband and wife. Although the Prophet did separate from his wives when a dispute arose, I argue that this is not the primary purport of the verse.
Insofar as a translation must maintain a ‘literal’ expressive framework, the most adequate one-word translation of the word ḍaraba would be “to percuss” or, “to strike” or tap lightly as a doctor would examine a patient”. In this study, however, I will show that the real meaning of waḍribuhunna is not literal, but that the imperative is a stand in for a metonymic expression of anger and display of displeasure.
This interpretation, I argue, has basis in the works of the Muftī (judge) of Mecca and the student of Ibn Abbās (interpreter of the Qur’ān), ‘Aṭā’Ibn Abī Rabāḥ (d. 114 AH), and is, in fact, suggested by the writings of a large number of scholars.
In this brief study I will provide a comprehensive overview of the phrase waḍribūhunna from it’s linguistic (lugha/philology), rhetorical (balāghīyya), jurisprudential (fiqhiyya), exegetical (tafsīriyya) framework, and include some supporting traditions (ḥadīṭh) of the Prophet. I will not be able to delve into similar discussions surrounding the terms qawwāmūn, wahjurūhunna, nushūẓ (in detail) and other such controversial terms in this particular verse will not be the focus of this article. They will be addressed in a much more extensive study “Spousal Reprimand in Islam”, God willing. The following remarks on the phrase wadhribūhunna are only summarized from it.