There is a lot of debate around the meaning of 4:34 in the Quran. The proponents against the Quran will claim that this verse advocates to beat one’s wife, while some other individuals will claim that the verse is improperly translated. So let’s first take a look at the verse and determine if the verse is properly translated.
[4:34] The men are made responsible for the women, and GOD has endowed them with certain qualities, and made them the bread earners. The righteous women will cheerfully accept this arrangement, since it is GOD’s commandment, and honor their husbands during their absence. If you experience rebellion from the women, you shall first talk to them, then (you may use negative incentives like) deserting them in bed, then you may (as a last alternative) beat them. If they obey you, you are not permitted to transgress against them. GOD is Most High, Supreme.
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ وَالّٰتِیۡۤ تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا
The word that is translated above as “beat them” is وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ. Let’s start by breaking down the meaning of this word in Arabic before we get to the proper meaning of this word. God willing I will try to color code the text for clarity.
The وَ at the beginning of the word means “and”
The next three letters following the alif ضْرِبُ constitute the root of the word which we will look at later:
The second و shows that this is the plural “you” as in “you all” making this a command to the reader of the Quran
the last two letters هُنَّ means “them” and is feminine.
So this word وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ so far is translated as “and ضْرِبُ them (women) [you all]”
So now let’s look at the at the root of the word. The Arabic word وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ used in 4:34 comes from the root ﺽ ر ب which like many Arabic roots has multiple meanings, but in the Quran consistently takes one of three meanings. It can mean to strike (see 2:60, 2:73, 4:94, 7:160, 8:12…), or to travel (because when we walk our feet strike the ground) (see 2:173, 3:156, 4:101, 5:106…), and lastly to set forth or cite an example (see 14:24, 39:29, 66:10). That being said how do we know which would be the proper meaning for 4:34?
When the Quran uses the root ضَرَبَ as setting an example it consistently follows with the word مَثَلًا which means example or at a minimum actually sets an example (see 16:112, 18:45, 47:3, 66:10) . This is not the case with 4:34, so therefore وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ can not mean “to cite” or “to set forth” in the context of an example.
Now, what if we apply the definition of travel. Then this would be translated as “and travel them (women) you all”. Again, this does not make any linguistic sense.
Therefore, the proper translation of وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ is “and strike them [you all].”
So now the question is God being Most Gracious, Most Merciful how does it make sense that God would allow a husband to strike their wife who He has designated him as her protector?
Before jumping into that, it is worth going just ten verses ahead for a valuable lesson:
[4:44] Have you noted those who received a portion of the scripture, and how they choose to stray, and wish that you stray from the path?
The purpose of the Quran is to bring out our true convictions. God places many items in the Quran that can be abused by people whose hearts are polluted and He will lead them on.
[3:176] Do not be saddened by those who hasten to disbelieve. They never hurt GOD in the least. Instead, GOD has willed that they will have no share in the Hereafter. They have incurred a terrible retribution. [3:177] Those who choose disbelief, instead of belief, do not hurt GOD in the least; they have incurred a painful retribution. [3:178] Let not the disbelievers think that we lead them on for their own good. We only lead them on to confirm their sinfulness. They have incurred a humiliating retribution. [3:179] GOD is not to leave the believers as you are, without distinguishing the bad from the good.
Even if we look at 4:43, we find another verse that people abuse when trying to find a loophole in the Quran to justify their sinful behavior.
[4:43] O you who believe, do not observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) while intoxicated, so that you know what you are saying.
Many people read this verse an assume that as long as they are not doing Salat therefore they are allowed to be intoxicated, and by doing so they neglect other verses in the Quran, most notably:
[5:90] O you who believe, intoxicants, and gambling, and the altars of idols, and the games of chance are abominations of the devil; you shall avoid them, that you may succeed. [5:91] The devil wants to provoke animosity and hatred among you through intoxicants and gambling, and to distract you from remembering GOD, and from observing the Contact Prayers (Salat). Will you then refrain?
Notice that God uses some of the strongest injunctions against intoxicants in the above verses. It doesn’t say to just not use them, but to avoid them. This is similar to the commandment God gave Adam when he told him not to approach the one tree in Paradise.
The reality is that the Quran is not a single verse it is 6346 verses that all have to be taken into consideration for anyone who truly wants to follow the word of God.
Similarly, we see that as a follower of the Quran that we are forbidden from being an aggressor and that oppression is worse than murder. So a person should never get to a point that they would ever resort to beating their wife, because if they did they would be a transgressor.
[2:190] You may fight in the cause of GOD against those who attack you, but do not aggress. GOD does not love the aggressors. [2:191] You may kill those who wage war against you, and you may evict them whence they evicted you. Oppression is worse than murder. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque (Masjid), unless they attack you therein. If they attack you, you may kill them. This is the just retribution for those disbelievers. [2:192] If they refrain, then GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful. [2:193] You may also fight them to eliminate oppression, and to worship GOD freely. If they refrain, you shall not aggress; aggression is permitted only against the aggressors.
So why would God do this? Is it only to trick people? No, God does this because He is the best psychologist and is giving people a path to redemption. There are many sins that people who come to the path are probably already committing, God is creating a mechanism for the alcoholic, the wife-beater, the slave owner, the ill-tempered, the impatient, the gossiper to find their path back to the right way.
[19:75] Say, “Those who choose to go astray, the Most Gracious will lead them on, until they see what is promised for them—either the retribution or the Hour. That is when they find out who really is worse off, and weaker in power.” [19:76] GOD augments the guidance of those who choose to be guided. For the good deeds are eternally rewarded by your Lord, and bring far better returns.
If you want to learn more about this topic here are two episodes entitled The Best Psychology Part I and Part II which goes into more detail about this subject.