Interview with Laleh Bakhtiar on The First English Translation of the Qur’an by an American Woman
A brief announcement about this Qur’an translation was made at the WISE Conference: Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity held in New York in November of 2006. There was a great deal of interest shown by the participants. The translator, Laleh Bakhtiar, Ph.D. who has been referred to as a bridge between two cultures was swamped with participants wanting to speak with her about the project.
There has been much discussion of this verse over the years. Back in 1995 the print edition of TAM published an article The Dynamics of Male-Female Relationships: A Contemporary Analysis (Qur’an 4:34) by Amina Wadud-Muhsin and numerous other commentaries have been published , , , , 
That there needs to be serious discussion is clear from the recent court case where a German Judge Based a Controversial Ruling on Qur’an 4:34 Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa responded to this case in an article ““Leave the Qur’an Out of This, Please!” and the judges use of this passage of the Qur’an was condemned by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Now that the translation is actually close to being released (April) we are seeing much discussion in the press. On March 24, 2007, Neil MacFarquhar published an article in the New York Times New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse, and since then his article has been republished all over the world, and others are already weighing in on the subject:
- Feminist translation of Quran verse termed misleading, Daily India
- New Qur’an translation draws criticism
- Woman re-interprets Koran with feminist view
- U.S. woman re-interprets Qur’an
Laleh Bakhtiar has previously published 21 books, but this translation will probably provoke the most discussion.
Here is what Laleh Bakhtiar has to say about her translation The Sublime Quran.Question: How does this translation of the Sublime Quran differ from other English translations?
It is an universal, inclusive translation with no parenthetical expressions. The translation has internal consistency and reliability. There is a different English equivalent for each Arabic grammatical form. Words not appearing in the Arabic but necessary for English are in italics. The translation is presented line by line and not verse by verse. Symbols for how a line is recited in Arabic are placed at the end of a line. The translation reverts 4:34 and “to beat” back to its original interpretation meaning “to go away”
This translation reverts 4:34 and “to beat” back to its original interpretation meaning “to go away”
With the blessings of God, this is the first complete English translation of the Quran that uses the original meaning of “to beat” in 4:34 which was “to go away.” Three arguments are given for why this is so:
1. The words “beat them” in 4:34 are a command, an imperative form of the verb. Yet the Prophet, peace and the mercy of God be upon him, never carried out this command. Even if one were to say that just because a word in the Quran is grammatically a command does not mean that the Prophet had to carry it out; it means it is permissible for him to do or not to do. The retort: He chose not to do it. Therefore, whoever follows the Sunnah of the Prophet should also choose not to do it.
2. The word interpreted as “to beat” for over 1400 years in the Islamic world has over 25 meanings. Why chose a meaning that goes against both the legal and moral principles of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet?
3. The strongest argument for why the Arabic word does not mean “to beat” but rather means “to go away” is because interpreting the Arabic word as “to beat” contradicts another verse in the Quran. We start with a premise: Islam encourages marriage and while divorce is allowed, it is discouraged. The Prophet said: Marriage is half of faith. He also said: Divorce is deplorable.
In 2:231 the Quran says as translated in the Sublime Quran: “When you divorce wives, and they (f) are about to reach their (f) term, then hold them (f) back honorably or set them (f) free honorably; and hold them (f) not back by injuring them so that you commit aggression, and whoever commits that, then indeed he does wrong to himself; and take not the Signs of God to yourselves in mockery; remember the divine blessing of God on you and what He sent forth to you of the Book and wisdom; He admonishes you with it; and be Godfearing of God and know that God is knowing of everything.” All English translations translate this verse in a similar way.
That is, a husband may not hold back his wife from divorce by hurting, harming, injuring her or using force against her. Reading this verse as if for the first time, it suddenly occurred to the translator that what the Quran says in 2:231 contradicts the way 4:34 has been interpreted over the centuries by everyone except the blessed Prophet. The translation in the Sublime Quran of 4:34 reflects the interpretation as the blessed Prophet understood it: “Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones (f) who are in accord with morality are the ones (f) who are morally obligated, the ones (f) who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those (f) whose resistance you fear, then admonish them (f) and abandon them (f) in their sleeping place, then go away from them (f); and if they (f) obey you, surely look not for any way against them (f); truly God is Lofty, Great.”
In 4:34, as translated in a similar manner by all present English translations except the Sublime Quran translation, Muhammad Asad, for example translates 4:34 in the following way: “Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great.”
What this tells us (and all present English translations) is that if a woman wants a divorce, a husband is forbidden from harming, hurting, injuring or using force against her while for a woman who wants to stay married, it is permissible for her husband to beat her!!! Recall our premise: Islam encourages marriage. If women were aware of this contradiction, what woman would chose to stay married and be beaten rather than be divorced and unharmed?
The Arabic Word of God was, is and remains the Word of God. There is no change in the Arabic. The change is in our perception, our interpretation. The understanding of saying “go away” is a revert interpretation to how the blessed Prophet understood it. Whoever believes in and follows the Sunnah should logically agree with reverting the interpretation to the way that the blessed Prophet understood it.
We refer back to the first two arguments: 1. The word “beat” is a command which the Prophet chose not to carry out; and 2. The Arabic word “beat” has 25 meanings so why chose a meaning that does not follow the legal and moral principles of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet? 3. Interpreting the word as “beat” contradicts 2:231 and fosters divorce rather than marriage, commands to immorality and prohibits morality which is one of the definitions of a hypocrite in the Quran (see 9:67).
While I have personally been blessed by my contacts with the most understanding and compassionate of men in my lifetime, and I have never found myself in a situation of being physically threatened or beaten, reading about and hearing first hand stories of women who have, I felt the deep sense that I am essentially and spiritually one with them by my very existence. The question I kept asking myself during the years of working on the translation: How could God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, sanction husbands beating their wives?
The feeling, however, did not rise to the surface until the day I first publicly presented the results of this translation of the Sublime Quran at the WISE (Women¹s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity) Conference (November, 2006), in particular in reference to 4:34. There were 150 Muslim women from all over the world who had gathered to discuss the possibility of forming a Women¹s Islamic Council. I gave the logic as to why the word “to beat” in 4:34 has to revert to its original interpretation as understood by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and the mercy of God be upon him.
At the end of the session, two Muslim women approached me. They said that they work in shelters for battered women and that they and the women in the shelters have been waiting for 1400 years for someone to pay attention to this issue through a translation of the Quran. The heavy weight of responsibility suddenly fell upon my shoulders. I had to publish my findings as soon as possible so that, with the Will of God, one less woman: wife, mother, sister, daughter, cousin, friend, in general, or Muslim wife, in particular, would be beaten at all and especially not in the Name of God; so that by initiating a dialogue, the minds of the exclusivists will awaken to consciousness and conscience; they will counsel those husbands who place their hand on the Word of God and give themselves permission to beat their wives, that they have neither the legal nor the moral right to do that. It is the prayer of all women throughout the world that all future translations of the Quran, in whatever language, will revert the interpretation back to the legal and moral principles of the Quran and Sunnah of the blessed Prophet, inshallah. God knows best.
It is a universal, inclusive translation with no parenthetical expressions
This translation of the Quran is a universal translation, for all times, related to the Quran’s eternality and not to it as a text frozen in the time period of its revelation. To this end, there are no parenthetical phrases further interpreting and elaborating a verse, thus allowing the translation to be free of any transient political, denominational or doctrinal bias.
In addition to the translation being unbounded by time, in several sensitive cases, the word chosen to translate an Arabic word is also of a universal rather than a particular nature. This then broadens the perspective and scope of the Quran so that it becomes inclusive rather than exclusive to one particular group of people. In other words, in this way a larger audience can relate to its message. Examples of this would be the translation of the derivatives of k f r, literally meaning: To hide or cover over something. Most English translations use the verb “to disbelieve” making the active participle “one who disbelieves” or “one who is an infidel.” In the present translation the more inclusive viable terminology is used, namely, “to be ungrateful,” the active participle being “one who is ungrateful.”
The Quran itself declares its timelessness and universality. Therefore, its understanding or interpretation must also be eternal and for all time, inclusive of all of humanity rather than exclusive to one group of people. Applying the above criterion to the word aslama, “he who submits,” in the eight times that it appears in the form of islam, it is translated according to its universal meaning as “submission,” and the forty-two times that its form as muslim, it is translated according to its universal meaning, “one who submits.” Or the word for religion, a word clearly misunderstood and even denigrated by some, the word din actually means “way of life” in its universal sense and is so translated in the Sublime Quran.
The translation has internal consistency and reliability
After having spent many years studying the various English translations of the Quran and realizing the sincere efforts of the translators in this great, divinely blessed task, it has become clear to me that English translations lack internal consistency and reliability.
Clearly no translation of the Quran can compare in beauty and style with the original Arabic, which has been described as: “by turns, striking, soaring, vivid, terrible, tender and breathtaking.” (Notes by Mohammad Khalifa to the translator). However, I found, when the context is the same, if the same English word is not used for the same Arabic word throughout the translation, it becomes difficult for someone who wants to learn to correlate the English and the Arabic to be able to do so. In other words, the twenty or so English translations put emphasis on interpreting a Quranic verse without precisely representing the original Arabic word. For example, in one translation, the English verb “to turn” is used for over forty-three different Arabic words and the noun “sin,” twenty-three.
For the Muslim, the Quran is the Word (Logos) of God much as Jesus is the Word of God for Christians. Just as a Christian believer wants to learn as much as possible about the life of Jesus, so the Muslim wants to know more about each word that God chose for His revelation through the Quran. This realization, in turn, prompted this present translation, an attempt to give the sense of unity within the revelation to a non-Arabic speaking reader.
The method used by English translators of the Quran to date is to start at the beginning of the sacred text and work through translating until the end. I used the same method in translating over thirty books before I earned a Ph. D. in educational psychology much later in life. Armed with this science, I began this translation as a scientific study to see if it was possible to apply these principles to a translation by finding a different English equivalent for each Arabic verb or noun in order to achieve a translation of a sacred text that has internal consistency and reliability.
There is a different English equivalent for each Arabic grammatical form
For every Arabic verb¹s perfect (past tense), imperfect (present and future tense), and imperative form, the same basic English equivalent is used adjusted according to whether it is past, present or a command. A different English equivalent is used for a verbal noun, an active or passive participle, and a noun, again, adjusted according to its usage. The English equivalents for these verbs and nouns are then studied in context and, where necessary for correct meaning, an alternative equivalent that has not been previously used elsewhere in the text is used. This resulted in 5800+ unique English equivalents. I then added the some 50,000+ particles (adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions or interjections not listed in the al-Mujim al-mufahris to complete the data base.
Beginning this process seven years ago with the words instead of the first sentence, I later learned that this was much the method, called formal equivalence, used in the translation of the King James Version of the Bible first published in 1611 CE. This translation, then, is one of formal equivalence in order to be as close to the original as possible. This is the most objective type of translation, as compared to a translation using dynamic equivalence, where the translator attempts to translate the ideas or thoughts of a text, rather than the words, which results in a much more subjective translation.
Words not appearing in the Arabic but necessary for English are in italics
Words not appearing in the Arabic, but necessary for English, have been put in italics along with interpretative words or phrases to clarify the context. An example is that often the Quran refers to someone¹s being struck blind, deaf and dumb. The meaning refers to someone who is “unwilling to see, hear or speak,” not someone who is physically disabled. Therefore, I have added in italics the word “unwilling.”
The translation is presented line by line and not verse by verse
In terms of presentation, most English translations of the Quran presently available translate and present the translation Sign by Sign (or verse by verse), much like a translation of the Old or New Testament. As the Quran was revealed in the oral tradition and is still recited in Arabic as it was revealed, this English translation is arranged to match the Arabic oral recitation.
Symbols indicating how a line is recited in Arabic is indicated
There are various marks used in the science of recitation that are marked in the English translation as well so that one can read the English translation as one listens to the recitation. This will be even more useful in the bi-lingual edition to follow. There, also, the English translation will be more exact for those who wish to learn Quranic Arabic. That translation will distinguish between 2nd person singular (i.e., thee, thou, thine) and 2nd person plural (you) which the present translation does not do. This is by special request from English speaking readers who find it difficult to relate to the usage of thee, thou and thine and the relevant verb forms. As a compromise to them, when the reader finds the word you in bold (you), that indicates that the original was thou or thee and (your) was thy or thine in the Arabic.
The sign ^ before and after a phrase, as worked out by early commentators of the Quran, indicate that the phrase can either be recited as part of the previous phrase or as the beginning of the next one.
A warning not to stop (as a stop would change the meaning) is designated by (l[) in the Arabic followed by the symbol: € in English. This is placed in the column to the left of the English translation. The Arabic letter (m) indicates a necessary stop. This is marked at the end of a line of English translation with a period (.) followed by the symbol: €. The Arabic letter (j) indicates a non-obligatory, but preferred stop. This is marked at the end of a line of English translation with a period (.) followed by the symbol: °. The Arabic letters (~l) indicate that a pause is preferred and permissible. This is marked at the end of a line of English translation with a semi-colon (;) followed by the symbol: °. The Arabic letters (ql) mark a permissible stop, but continuing is better. This is marked at the end of a line of English translation with a comma (,) followed by the symbol: °. The Arabic letter (
< ayn) appears inside a circle in an Arabic text denoting the end of a Sign and indicating a stop unless it is superceded by a contrary symbol written above it to continue. The reader will find a period (.) at the end of a line of English translation unless the discussion continues to the next Sign. When the English sentence requires a ? or an ! and it is followed by °, the Arabic text may be indicating a (j) or (ql) or (sl). A period (.), question mark (?) or exclamation point (!) not followed by ° has been used by the translator as normal English punctuation. Each section (ruk]) of each Chapter has been indicated in the margin and numbered consecutively. The fourteen Signs where a prostration is obligatory are indicated at the end of the English line of translation with the symbol: ý.
The First English Translation of the Quran by an American Woman
Just as I found a lack of internal consistency in previous English translations, I also found that little attention had been given to the woman¹s point of view. So when words in a verse refer directly to a woman or women or wife or wives and the corresponding pronouns such as (they, them, those), I have placed an (f) after the word to indicate the word refers to the feminine gender specifically. Otherwise, in the Arabic language (as in Spanish), the masculine pronoun may be used generically to include both male and female human beings.
While the absence of a woman¹s point of view for over 1440 years since the revelation began, clearly needs to change, it must be acknowledged that there are many men who have been supportive of the view of women as complements to themselves, as the completion of their human unity. To them, I and other Muslim women are eternally grateful. They relate to women as the Quran and Hadith intended. The criticism women have is towards those men who are not open to this understanding, who are exclusive in opposition to the Quran and Sunnah¹s inclusiveness.
Clearly the intention of the Quran is to see man and woman as complements of one another, not as oppressor-oppressed or superior-inferior or thinking-feeling. Consequently, in the introduction and translation, I address a main criticism of Islam in regard to the inferiority of women, namely, that a husband can beat his wife (4:34) after two stages of trying to discipline her.
The Sublime Quran is available from Kazi Publications at http://www.kazi.org/product_info.php?products_id=2232