Laleh Bakhtiar’s Qur’an Translation Controversy Over Verse 4:34

Sheila Musaji

Posted Oct 25, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Laleh Bakhtiar’s Qur’an Translation Controversy Over Verse 4:34

by Sheila Musaji

Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation of the Qur’an seems to be upsetting some of those who don’t want to consider the possibility that just because a particular interpretation has been widespread, that doesn’t mean it canot be re-evaluated.  There is only one verse that has stirred up controversy or objections to Dr. Bakhtiar’s translation - 4:34

I interviewed Dr. Bakhtiar back in March before this translation was published, and she explained her translation of this verse:

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). read full text of interview

Now, Mohammad Ashraf, a spokesman for ISNA-Canada, dismisses her work and says “Women have been given a very good place in Islam.” He further stated that he would not permit Bahktiar’s book, The Sublime Quran, to be sold in the bookstore of the Islamic Society of North America (Canada). “Our bookstore would not allow this kind of translation,” says Mohammad Ashraf, ISNA’s secretary general. “I will consider banning it.”

Thank God, there are others who hold a different view.  A statement was issued by Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America in response to Mohammad Ashraf:

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has asked ISNA Canada Secretary General to retract his statement that he would consider “banning” Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation of the meaning of the Qur’an and his questioning of Bakhtiar’s authority to undertake such a translation. 

ISNA is an umbrella organization that strives to represent the diversity of North American Islam.  ISNA has long recognized the validity of different schools of Islamic thought, theology and doctrine.  We have affirmed this recognition as an original signatory of the “Amman Message” ( and by offering the platform of our conferences and conventions open to representatives of our diverse community.  We do not recognize any particular scholar, school of thought or institution as necessarily authoritative for all Muslims.  Further, we support the right of scholarly inquiry and intellectual discussion on issues related to Islam. 

ISNA supports and encourages honest debate and scholarship on issues affecting the Muslim community.  In particular, we have long been concerned with the misuse of Islam to justify injustice towards women.  ISNA held its first domestic violence conference over ten years ago, and has since that time, has held numerous training and education seminars to promote domestic harmony and prevent violence against women.

It should be noted, in fact, that Bakhtiar’s interpretation of Qur’anic verse 4:34 is not new, although we do not deny that she arrived at her position independently.  A similar interpretation was offered by Dr Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman, Rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, in a 2003 special edition of “Islamic Horizons,” ISNA’s flagship publication.  It is unfortunate that many Muslims are unaware of the depth and sophistication of Qur’anic exegesis.  ISNA is committed to rectifying this lack of knowledge and expects our administrators to promote ISNA’s values and mission.

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane commented to me about this controversy:

In my view, Laleh Bakhtiar is perhaps the most profound Islamic scholar among women in the world and equal to the very best anywhere among men.  Attacks on her translation are merely a distraction from the real issue of openness in the search for truth.  This confrontation is now spreading all over the internet.  Whoever fails publicly to address and expose religious extremism, whether perpetrated by Muslims or others, is bound to become its victim.  Countering the perversion of any religion may be distasteful but it is a necessary first step in any proactive education about the truth in any religion.  These two responsibilities, both fard ‘ain and fard kifaya, are what the jihad al kabir or intellectual jihad is all about.  This is the only jihad specifically mentioned in the Qur’an, as distinct from the jihad al akbar for self-purification and the jihad al saghrir for human rights, both of which are implicit throughout the Qur’an but depend in some measure for their success on the never-ending search for truth.

I believe that it is time that American Muslims stand up and be counted on this and many other pressing issues.


See also:

The Dynamics of Male-Female Relationships: A Contemporary Analysis (Qur’an 4:34), Amina Wadud-Muhsin

Qur’an 4:34:  Chastising Women: A Means to Resolve Marital Problems?, AbdulHamid A. Abu Sulayman

Qur’an 4:34 Commentary, Pakistan Tribune

Beating Women, or Beating Around the Bush, Or ... Edip Yuksel

Does Qur’anic verse 4:34 “allow a superior husband to beat his inferior, disobedient wife?” , Linda Boegert

Leave the Qur’an Out of This, Please!, Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa

New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse, Neil MacFarquhar

Open Quran discourse

Beyond Islamic enlightenment, Ali Eteraz

  Furor over a five letter word, Leslie Scrivener

Does the Qur’an Tolerate Domestic Abuse?, Andrea Useem

VIDEO:  Interview with Laleh Bakhtiar

Grandma’s Qur’an translation raises hackles, Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah

Corporal punishment (beating, or scourging) rebellious women, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

Translation in sync with teachings, Asma Barlas

You can purchase Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation on Amazon