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News Letter January 2006 

the Message Continues ... 2/53

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{" With regard to the word daraba in the Qur'an, I copy below a letter I wrote two years ago on this subject to a friend who was troubled by the usual interpretation that it meant "beat" or "strike".} --Jeremy


The meaning and explanaton of " DARABA " in Quran

by Jeremy Henzell

 I remember you speaking of your discomfort about Qur’an 4:34, which is often taken as justification for the “chastisement” (Arabic root verb daraba) of wives by husbands. Yusuf Ali, for example, translates it as “beat them (lightly)”, Pickthall as “scourge them”, and Arberry, Fakhry and Muhammad Asad as “beat them”, although Asad’s note refers to the fact that the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one’s wife and according to one Tradition he forbade the beating of any woman with the words “Never beat God’s handmaidens”. However, authentic traditions supposedly state that in his sermon on the occasion of the Farewell Pilgrimage, shortly before his death, he stipulated that beating should be resorted to only if the wife “has become guilty, in an obvious manner, of immoral conduct” and that it should be done “in such a way as not to cause pain”. On the basis of these traditions, all authorities stress that this “beating”, if resorted to at all, should be more or less symbolic – with a siwak or something similar, such as a “toothbrush” or a “pencil”, as rendered by Ibn ‘Abbas, or even “with a folded handkerchief” (Razi).

 So much is of course well known, and the problem is that in spite of the moderate interpretation of Ibn ‘Abbas, it still provides a loophole for misunderstanding which was manipulated in the past on the basis of the opinions of certain jurists to justify abusive conduct, and can still be exploited to inflict pain on women.

 I remember saying at the time of our conversation that it was my understanding that the root DRB has various connotations in the Qur’an, only one of which can be construed as meaning “to strike”, and your response was that you seemed very sure that there was no doubt that it meant “strike” or “beat”. 

 Since then two events have led me into further exploration of this issue, and I just wanted to share this with you during this especially merciful time of Ramadan.

 I have recently noticed the translation of the verse by Ahmed Ali (in his Contemporary Translation of the Qur’an published by Princeton University Press in 1988):  instead of  “and beat them” he has “and go to bed with them (when they are willing)”, stating in his note to the verse that Raghib points out that “daraba” metaphorically means to have intercourse, and quotes the expression “darab al-fahl an-naqah” (‘the stud camel covered the she-camel’). Ahmed Ali is adamant that the verb “cannot be taken here to mean ‘to strike them (women)’”.  I think he is right in his last point, but wrong in his actual interpretation of the verb as “go to bed with them”, which begins to look increasingly idiosyncratic as the matter is explored in greater depth.

 Yesterday, I received a remarkable paper by Abdulhamid Abusulayman  entitled “Marital Discord: Recapturing the Full Islamic Spirit of Human Dignity” sent to me by the IIIT office in London (the paper is No. 11 in the IIIT Occasional Paper Series).

 I think it is so interesting and important that I’m taking this opportunity to summaries some of its core content for you, even though its alternative interpretation of the Qur’anic text (4: 34-35) –  deeply sensitive to the perspective of women and women’s rights - is undoubtedly controversial. For me, it makes total sense, and, given the fact that the Qur’an speaks of husband and wife living together on a footing of love, kindness, mercy and mutual consideration, it affirms an approach to the Qur’an which is emancipator rather than misogynistic.

 Working within the framework of ijtihad, Abdulhamid compiles the various connotations of “daraba” and its derivatives in the Qur’an, which has seventeen distinct nuances, as follows:

 “God PROPOUNDS the parable…(16:75, 76, 112; 66:11)

 “When Jesus, the son of Mary, is HELD UP AS AN EXAMPLE…(43:57)

 “See what SIMILES THEY STRIKE for thee…(17:48)

 “Do not invent SIMILITUDE'S for God: for God knows , and you know not.” (16:74)

 “When you TRAVEL THROUGH the earth…” (4:101)

 “Then We COVERED their ears, for a number of years, in the Cave, [so that they did not hear].” (18.11)

 “Shall we then TAKE AWAY  the Revelation from you…(43:5)

 “…they should DRAW THEIR VEILS over their bosoms….and that they should not STRIKE THEIR FEET so as to draw attention to their hidden ornaments…” (24:31)

 “Travel by night with My servants, and STRIKE A DRY [SOLID] PATH for them…” (20:77)

 “Then we told Moses: STRIKE THE SEA WITH YOUR STAFF…”(26:63)

 “God does not disdain to USE THE SIMILITUDE of things…” (2:26)


 “…they were COVERED WITH HUMILIATION and misery….” (2:61)

 “Disgrace COVERS them [like a tent]…” (3:112)

 “But how will it be when the angels take their souls at death, and SMITE their faces and their backs?” (47:27)

 “And take in your hand a raceme of soft leaves and STROKE therewith…” (38:44)

 “Therefore, when you encounter the unbelievers [in hostility], SMITE their necks…” (47:4)

 “O you who attain to faith! When you GO ABROAD in the cause of God, investigate carefully…” (4:94)

 “…So a wall SHALL BE ERECTED between them, with a gate therein. Within it will be mercy throughout…” (57:13)

 “Then did he turn upon them [idols] STRIKING them with the right hand.” (37:93)

 As is clear, the root verb “daraba” has several figurative or allegorical connotations.  

In regard to: 

            LAND, it means to travel or depart

            EAR, it means to block or prevent it from hearing

            THE QUR’AN, it means to neglect, ignore or abandon

            TRUTH and FALSEHOOD, it means to make either of them evident and to distinguish one from another

        VEIL, it means the drawing of the covering over the bosoms

        SEAS or RIVERS, it means to strike a path through the water

        WALL, it means to partition or separate

        PEOPLE, it means to be overshadowed by ignominy

        FEET, NECKS, FACES and BACKS, it means to cut, slash or strike

        THE REST OF THE QUOTATIONS, it means to impel, shock, or damage Addulhamid observes that the general connotation of “daraba” in Qur’anic parlance is “to separate, distance, depart, abandon, and so forth”. He points out that the idiom “jalala” (to lash, whip, flog) is used in the Qur’an to indicate corporal punishment, as in 24:2, and not “daraba”. He concludes that the most straightforward interpretation is that of departure, separation or seclusion (logically going on from the previous sanction in the verse, which is refusing to share their beds).  This separation points to the possibility of  permanent separation, i.e. divorce, and gives the wife the opportunity to seek reconciliation, return to the marital state and win back her husband, or decide if she would prefer divorce from her estranged husband. In this the  “darb” of separation is the last resort before seeking the mediation of arbiters from their respective families. If this does not manage to heal the rupture, then both parties should face the eventual choice…[the parties] should either hold together on equitable terms or separate with dignity” (2:229). 

Abdulhamid says that this analysis of the verb “daraba” is in tune with the Prophetic tradition and actual practice of the Prophet, as attested in the narrative which related that the Prophet moved away from his wives when they rebelled after their demands for a better standard of living were denied. The Prophet resorted to seclusion for a month and offered them the choice to accept the standard of living he could afford, and to stay together, or to be released from the marriage contract and separate with dignity. This incident is addressed in the Qur’an (33:28-29): “O Prophet! Declare to your consorts: “if it be that you desire the worldly life and its dazzle, then come! I will provide for your delight and set you free in a handsome manner. But if you seek God and His Messenger, and the above of the hereafter, verily God has set up for the doers of good amongst you a great reward.”  Throughout this experience, the Prophet never inflicted injury, pain or insult on any of them. If there had been a divine ordinance of physical discipline as a remedy, the Prophet would have been the first to take note of it and put it into practice. When the consorts of the Prophet realised the seriousness of the situation and missed his relationship and intimacy, that was enough to inspire them to be content with the lifestyle that the Prophet offered. The interpretation of “daraba” in the actual practice of the Prophet was to seclude, to move away, and to distance himself from his wives.

This does not actually contradict the exegesis of Ibn Abbas that the expression of anger by husbands should not exceed a few taps with a siwak, or the like, because although such a mild action might be adequate to express such discontent and anger, it is nor clear how a few symbolic strokes, in the latter stage of marital discord, could be sufficient to convey the true gravity of the deadlock and its consequences – and, after all, how could such a nominal  action go a decisive step further than refusing to share the wife’s bed in order to reach reconciliation or seek separation?! The obvious next step after leaving the marital bed is to separate for a while, exactly as the Prophet did, before deciding whether to reconcile or divorce.  

The connotations of departure and seclusion are more readily acceptable and more compatible with the Qur'anic voice than the association of physical injury, psychological pain and disgrace, and well supported by the actual practice of the Prophet. It is an effective emotional remedy which accomplishes the purposes of Islam in establishing the family structure on a basis of affection and compassion. 


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