Errors in English Translations of the Quran

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(From the Introduction of Quran: a Reformist Translation, Brainbow Press)

On the following pages, you will find several comparisons between our translation and that of traditional orthodox English renditions of the Quran. By the word “tradition,” we refer to the works that heavily rely on hearsay reports such as hadith, sunna, and sectarian jurisprudence.

We chose to compare our work primarily with the translation of Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, and Shakir, since they reflect most of the common errors and ­distortions, and because they are popular translations among the English-speaking Sunni population.

We use standard reference numbers in referring to specific passages of the Quran: the number preceding the colon is always the chapter number, and the subsequent numbers are always verse numbers.

Should Men Beat Their Wives?

A famous (and controversial) passage in the Quran has brought about a great deal of misunderstanding about Islam. When in 1989, I started translating the Quran to Turkish, verse 4:34 was among a few verses that I noted down on an orange paper for further research. I had problem with my understanding of it and I let its solution to God, in accordance to the instruction of verse 20:114. I shared the story of my discovery of its original meaning with my Turkish readers in “Errors in Turkish Translations of the Quran” (1992). Below are three translations of that verse, reflecting a deformed mindset followed by our translation:

! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering is: you may beat them.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all). (4:34) Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for their support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great. (4:34) Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. (4:34) The men are to support the women by what God has gifted them over one another and for what they spend of their money. The reformed women are devotees and protectors of privacy what God has protected. As for those women from whom you fear disloyalty, then you shall advise them, abandon them in the bedchamber, and separate from them; if they obey you, then do not seek a way over them; God is High, Great. (4:34)

DISCUSSION OF 4:34

“Verse 4:34 of the Quran orders Muslims to beat their wives; therefore, Islam is a male-dominant religion.” Many of us have heard this criticism from Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and others. Though wife-beating is not a Muslim specialty, and domestic violence is an endemic problem in the West as well as the East, the issue nevertheless is whether it is justified by God. Most people reading conventional translations of 4:34 feel that something is deeply wrong. How could God, the Most Wise order us to beat our women? What kind of solution is that? It appears to be in contrast to the verses in which God describes marriage:

“Among His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquility and contentment with each other. He places in your heart love and care towards your spouses. In this, there are signs for people who think.” (30:21)

Obviously, these mixed messages have bothered many contemporary translators of the Quran. To avoid the moral and intellectual problems, they try to soften the word “beat” when they translate the verse 4:34. For instance, Yusuf Ali uses a merciful parenthesis after “beat,” adding the word “(lightly).” This insertion does not appear in the Arabic text; it serves as a kind of apology for his translation of the surrounding material.

Later, Rashad Khalifa, a leading figure in the modern Islamic reform movement, rather than questioning the orthodox translation of the word, demonstrates his discomfort with his own version of orthodox translation by an implausible argument in the footnote and a contradictory subtitle before the verse: “Do not beat your wife.” (However, Rashad Khalifa does not duplicate the orthodox distortion of other key words in the verse).

Many orthodox translators have tried to beat around the bush when it comes to explaining this passage, and perhaps just as many have beaten a hasty retreat from those inquiring after the author’s intention — but all have found themselves, in the end, beaten by 4:34.

Now please reread the sentence above. You will see that the word “beat” has been used three times, conveying totally different meanings each time: a verbal phrase meaning “avoid approaching directly” (“beat around the bush”); a verbal phrase meaning “depart quickly” (“beat a hasty retreat”) and the status of having been defeated (“beaten”). Interestingly, the Arabic verb traditionally translated by male translators as “beat” or “scourge” — iDRiBuhunne – also has numerous different meanings in Arabic, which is reflected by the Quran.

When I finished the Turkish translation (1991), this verse was on the top of my list to study carefully. Whenever I encounter a problem regarding the understanding of a Quranic verse, I remember 20:114 and pray accordingly: “Most Exalted is God, the only true King. Do not rush into (understanding) the Quran before it is revealed to you, and say, ‘My Lord, increase my knowledge.’”

Almost all of the translations have mistranslated the four key words or terms of this particular verse. These are:

  • Qawwamun;
  • Faddallallahu ba’dahum ala ba’d;
  • Nushuzahunna; and
  • Fadribuhunna

In one of my books published in Turkey in 1992, “Errors in Turkish Translations,” I discussed the real meaning of these words and the motivation and reasons for mistranslating them. Let’s first start from the last one.

A Famous Multiple-Meaning Word

The main problem comes from the word iDRiBuhunna, which has traditionally been translated as “beat them.” The root of this word is DaRaBa. If you look at any Arabic dictionary, you will find a long list of meanings ascribed to this word. In fact, you will find that that list is one of the longest lists in your Arabic dictionary. It can be said that DaRaBa is the number-one multiple-meaning word in Arabic. It has so many different meanings; we can find numerous different meanings ascribed to it in the Quran.

  • To travel, to get out: 3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:20; 2:273
  • To strike: 2:60,73; 7:160; 8:12; 20:77; 24:31; 26:63; 37:93; 47:4
  • To beat: 8:50; 47:27
  • To set up: 43:58; 57:13
  • To give (examples): 14:24,45; 16:75,76,112; 18:32,45; 24:35; 30:28,58; 36:78; 39:27,29; 43:17; 59:21; 66:10,11
  • To take away, to ignore: 43:5
  • To condemn: 2:61
  • To seal, to draw over: 18:11
  • To cover: 24:31
  • To explain: 13:17

As you see, in the Quran alone we can attest to the verb DaRaBa having at least ten different meanings. DaRaBa also has other meanings that are not mentioned in the Quran. For example, in modern Arabic, you do not print money–you DaRaBa money. You do not multiply numbers–you DaRaBa numbers. You do not cease doing work–you DaRaBa doing work. In Turkish, we have many verbs similar to the Arabic DaRaBa, such as Çalmak, which means to play, steal, or strike. In English, we have two verbs that are almost equivalent to DaRaBa. These are “strike” and “beat.” Consider, for the sake of comparison, that Webster’s Dictionary gives fourteen different meanings for the verb “to strike,” and eight for the verb “to beat”! (One strikes a match, strikes a deal, strikes an opponent, strikes gold, goes “on strike” against an unfair employer; one beats another team, beats out a rhythm, beats a retreat, and so on.).

Finding the Appropriate Meaning

Whenever we encounter a multiple-meaning word in the Quran we must select the proper meaning (or meanings) given the context, the Arabic forms, the usage of the same word elsewhere in the Quran, and a certain amount of common sense. For instance, if one were to translate DaRaBa in 13:17 as “beat” (as one could conceivably do), the meaning would be ridiculous:

.” . . God thus beats truth and falsehood…” (13:17)

A more sensitive rendering of the context, however, yields a better translation:

“… God thus explains truth and falsehood…” (13:17)

Another example of mistranslation of DaRaBa can be found in the translation of 38:44. Almost all the translations inject a rather silly story to justify their rendering of the passage. Here is how Yusuf Ali translates the first portion of this verse, which is about Job:

“And take in the hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (the oath).” (38:44)

Yusuf Ali, in the footnote, narrates the traditional story: “He (Job) must have said in his haste to the woman that he would beat her: he is asked now to correct her with only a wisp of grass, to show that he was gentle and humble as well as patient and constant”.

However, without assuming the existence of this strange, male-viewpoint story (which has no other reference in the Quran), we can translate the verse as:

Yusuf Ali Reformist
And take in thy hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (thy oath)… (38:44) Take in your hand a bundle and travel with it, and do not break your oath… (38:44)

Another Take on 4:34

In keeping with the translation we have used in 38:44, we translate the controversial “beating” portion of 4:34 as “leave her” (Literally, the phrase might also be rendered “strike them out,” meaning, in essence, “Separate yourselves from such wives.”).

Additionally, the word nushuz, which is generally translated as “opposition” or “rebellion” in 4:34, has another meaning. If we study 4:34 carefully we will find a clue that leads us to translate that word as embracing a range of related ideas, from “flirting” to “engaging in an extramarital affair” – indeed, any word or words that reflects the range of disloyalty in marriage. The clue is the phrase before nushuz, which reads: “… they honor them according to God’s commandments, even when alone in their privacy.” This phrase emphasizes the importance of loyalty in marriage life, and helps us to make better sense of what follows.

Interestingly, the same word, nushuz, is used later in the same chapter, in 4:128 – but it is used to describe the misbehavior of husbands, not wives, as it was in 4:34. In our view, the traditional translation of nushuz, that is, “opposition” will not fit in both contexts. However, the understanding of nushuz as marital disloyalty, in a variety of forms, is clearly appropriate for both 4:34 and 4:128.

The fourth key word is QaNiTat, which means “devoted to God,” and in some verses is used to describe both man and woman (2:116,238; 3:17,43; 16:120; 30:26; 33:31,35; 39:9; 66:5,12). Though this word is mostly translated correctly as “obedient,” when read in the context of the above-mentioned distortion it conveys a false message implying women must be “obedient” to their husbands as their inferiors. The word is mentioned as a general description of Muslim women (66:12), and more interestingly as a description of Mary who, according to the Quran, did not even have a husband! (66:12).

A Coherent Understanding

When we read 4:34, we should not understand iDRiBuhunna as “beat those women.” We should, instead, remember that this word has multiple meanings. God gives us three ways of dealing with marital disloyalty on the part of a wife. In the beginning stage of such misbehavior, the husband should begin to address the problem by giving advice. If this does not work, he should stop sleeping in the same bed and see if this produces a change in behavior. And if there is still no improvement in the situation, the husband has the right to compel a separation.

The Quran gives analogous rights to women who must deal with disloyal husbands (4:128); this is in accordance with the principle that women have “similar” rights to men in such situations, as stated clearly in 2:228. These would hardly be “similar” rights if women had to suffer physical beatings for marital disloyalty, and men did not!

Beating women who are cheating and betraying the marriage contract is not an ultimate solution, and it is not consistent with the promise of equitability and comparable rights that appears in 2:228. (This is an important consideration, because the Quran proclaims, and Muslims believe, that it is utterly free from inconsistencies.) But “striking out” the disloyal wives – that is, separating from them — is consistent, and it is the best solution. It is also fair.

Should Theieve’s Hands be Cut Off ?

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