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Female translation…so what? April 4, 2007

Posted by Rasheed Eldin in Proggies, Responses.

I can’t remember now where I heard the rumours of a new Qur’an translation by a progressive Muslim woman… but this must be it, as announced by Faisal Alam of Al-Fatiha. If it serves their desires, it gets forwarded!

The first translation of the Qur’an by an American woman. What an event! The fawning article in the New York Times [reproduced below] includes a priceless insight into her lack of qualification:

“[Laleh] Bakhtiar, who is 68 and has a doctorate in educational psychology…does not speak Arabic, but she learned to read the holy texts in Arabic while studying and working as a translator in Iran in the 1970s and ’80s.

Her eureka moment came on roughly her 10th reading of the Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, a 3,064-page volume from the 19th century, she said. Among the six pages of definitions for “daraba” was “to go away.” [Bakhtiar says:] “I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, that is what the prophet meant…”

Update: A proper slap-down here from the erudite Umm Zaid.

Since I just gave you a link to notes for a lecture by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, let me inform you that he has discussed the issue of Qur’an translation throughly in one of his books, which I recommend. And here’s a video lecture on a somewhat relevant theme: Debunking the Male Bias Myth.

This ‘revolutionary translation’ reminds me of what I said about Scott “Siraj al-Haqq” Kugle’s contribution to a UK Channel 4 documentary aired last January:

Let’s turn now to the discussion much later in the programme with Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle, whose essay on Sexuality, diversity and ethics in the agenda of progressive Muslims has become a holy text for the more intellectual-wannabe homosexualist Muslims, as well as those who just want to point at something to get out of listening to someone quoting them the Qur’an. “See? This very clever man has shown that all those straight male scholars you listen to are just homophobes.” There is much to be said about this “progressive” agenda.

[…] I take it that Kugle (like many others) would like us to accept that since “homosexuality” is a modern concept, it was not known at the time of the Qur’an’s revelation, therefore the Qur’an is silent on the issue (which is about love…). Even if we were to go along with this, I have already stated my assertion that the Qur’an is clear on the prohibition of homosexual acts. I further assert that the vagueness of terms in the Qur’anic discourse in fact emphasises the generality of prohibition of homosexual relations (i.e. relations between members of the same sex that are characterised by desire; alternatively, relations between members of the same sex that attempt to take the place of the spousal relationship). I am ready to debate any claimant who states otherwise and has the nerve to put his views to the test.

Kugle mentions that the disagreements we have over the Qur’an are “a matter of interpretation”. This is another of those magic-wand terms used to ‘explain’ away clear texts. Yes, everything in the Qur’an or any other source-text must be interpreted: but such interpretation must adhere to sound methodology, or else it is just vanity, and arrogance such as amounts to infidelity. I made some comments on this (as well as Kugle’s claim that the Shari’ah is man-made) in the post on Safra’s preview.

Kugle has a problem with how “cultural assumptions about the nature of men and women, about the nature of sex” affect Qur’anic exegesis, but I wonder how radical a reinterpretation he would consider justifiable once the ‘queer scholars’ get onto the case. There is no problem with females interpreting the Qur’an, although I have not heard of many such tafseers. [There is a recent one by ‘A’ishah ‘Abdur-Rahman Bint ash-Shati’ (in Arabic), which I have not yet had a chance to read.]

But as for saying that people with same-sex attractions should be specially brought to interpret the Qur’an: this is ridiculous. What is needed is qualification in the Qur’anic sciences, and inner feelings are irrelevant except in the finer details of the exegete’s understanding. I’m not really interested in hearing a practising homosexual’s reinterpretation of the Qur’an, as it will be hard not to discredit him entirely, because of his blatant personal motivation. Such motivation is clear from articles such Kugle’s, which similarly display “cultural assumptions”: but some of these are inherently contradictory to Islam. 

Below is the article from the New York Times.

March 25, 2007

New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse

CHICAGO — Laleh Bakhtiar had already spent two years working on an English translation of the Koran when she came upon Chapter 4, Verse 34.

She nearly dropped the project right then.

The hotly debated verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately “beaten” — the most common translation for the Arabic word “daraba” — unless her behavior improves.

“I decided it either has to have a different meaning, or I can’t keep translating,” said Ms. Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American who adopted her father’s Islamic faith as an adult and had not dwelled on the verse before. “I couldn’t believe that God would sanction harming another human being except in war.”

Ms. Bakhtiar worked for five more years, with the translation to be published in April. But while she found a way through the problem, few verses in the Koran have generated as much debate, particularly as more Muslim women study their faith as an academic field.

“This verse became an issue of debate and controversy because of the ethics of the modern age, the universal notions of human rights,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian-born law professor and Islamic scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The leader of the North American branch of a mystical Islamic order, Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, said he had been questioned about the verse in places around the world where women were struggling for greater rights, but most of all by Westerners.

Women want to be free “from some of the extreme ideology of some Muslims,” the sheik said, after delivering a sermon on the verse recently in Oakland, Calif.

[In Germany last week, a judge citing the verse caused a public outcry after she rejected the request for a fast track divorce by a Moroccan-German woman because her husband beat her. The judge, removed from the case, had written that the Koran sanctioned physical abuse.]

There are at least 20 English translations of the Koran. “Daraba” has been translated as beat, hit, strike, scourge, chastise, flog, make an example of, spank, pet, tap and even seduce.

“Spank?” exclaimed Professor Abou El Fadl, who has concluded that the verse refers to a rare public legal procedure that ended before the 10th century. “That is really kinky. That is the author fantasizing too much.”

Ms. Bakhtiar, who is 68 and has a doctorate in educational psychology, set out to translate the Koran because she found the existing version inaccessible for Westerners. Many Jewish and Christian names, for example, have been Arabized, so Moses and Jesus appear in the English version of the Koran as Musa and Issa.

When she reached the problematic verse, Ms. Bakhtiar spent the next three months on “daraba.” She does not speak Arabic, but she learned to read the holy texts in Arabic while studying and working as a translator in Iran in the 1970s and ’80s.

Her eureka moment came on roughly her 10th reading of the Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, a 3,064-page volume from the 19th century, she said. Among the six pages of definitions for “daraba” was “to go away.”

“I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, that is what the prophet meant,’ ” said Ms. Bakhtiar, speaking in the offices of Kazi Publications in Chicago, a mail-order house for Islamic books that is publishing her translation. “When the prophet had difficulty with his wives, what did he do? He didn’t beat anybody, so why would any Muslim do what the prophet did not?”

She thinks the “beat” translation contradicts another verse, which states that if a woman wants a divorce, she should not be mistreated. Given the option of staying in the marriage and being beaten, or divorcing, women would obviously leave, she said.

There have been similar interpretations, but none have been incorporated into a translation. Debates over translations of the Koran — considered God’s eternal words — revolve around religious tradition and Arabic grammar. Critics fault Ms. Bakhtiar on both scores.

Ms. Bakhtiar said she expected opposition, not least because she is not an Islamic scholar. Men in the Muslim world, she said, will also oppose the idea of an American, especially a woman, reinterpreting the prevailing translation.

“They feel the onslaught of the West against their religious values, and they fear losing their whole suit of armor,” she said. “But women need to know that there is an alternative.”

Religious scholars outline several main threads in the translation of “daraba.”

Conservative scholars suggest the verse has to be taken at face value, with important reservations.

They consider that the Koran holds that force is an acceptable last resort to preserve important institutions, including marriages and nations. Some scholars have accused some Muslims of trying to make the verse palatable to the West.

“I am not apologetic about why the Koran says this,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Islamic scholar who teaches at George Washington University. The Bible, he noted, addresses stoning people to death.

Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose writings underpin the extremism of groups like Al Qaeda, published extensive commentaries about the Koran before he was hanged in 1966.

Islamic tradition states that Muhammad never hit his 11 wives, and Mr. Qutb considered a man striking his wife as the last measure to save a marriage. He cited the prophet’s horror at the practice by quoting one of his sayings: “Do not beat your wife like you beat your camel, for you will be flogging her early in the day and taking her to bed at night.”

The verse 4:34, with its three-step program, is often called a reform over the violent practices of seventh century Arabia, when the Koran was revealed. The verse was not a license for battery, scholars say, with other interpretations defining the heaviest instrument a man might employ as a twig commonly used as a toothbrush.

Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Islamic scholar who serves as Egypt’s grand mufti, said Koranic verses must be viewed through the prism of the era.

The advice “is always broad in order to be relevant to different cultures and in different times,” he said through a spokesman in an e-mail message. “In our modern context, hitting one’s wife is totally inappropriate as society deems it hateful and it will only serve to sow more discord.”

A caller on a television program in Egypt recently asked the mufti if he should stop sleeping with his wife if she was causing discord, the spokesman said. The mufti replied that the measures in the verse were meant to bring harmony, not to exact revenge.

More liberal commentators, particularly women, say the usual interpretation reflects the patriarchal practices of the Arabian peninsula.

This school holds that the sacred texts have become encrusted with medieval traditions that need to be scraped off like a layer of barnacles. Some Saudi women have been trying to do this by emphasizing the public role played by Aisha, one of the prophet’s wives, while the Asma Society gathered Muslim women from around the world in New York last fall to explore the establishment of a female council to interpret Islamic law.

Some analysts hold that the verse cannot be rendered meaningfully into English because it reflects social and legal practices of Muhammad’s time.

“The whole idea is not to punish her,” said Ingrid Mattson, an expert in early Islamic history at the Hartford Seminary and the first woman to be president of the Islamic Society of North America. “It is like a fear of sexual impropriety, that the husband takes these steps to try to bring their relationship to where it is supposed to be. I think it is a physical gesture of displeasure.”



1. amad - April 4, 2007

I recommend reading this post for all those who ‘feel’ gay… and pls scroll down my comment with regards to homosexuality.

And if you like, please add us to your blogroll.

Pearls from the Sunnah

2. AnonyMouse - April 4, 2007

As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

Y’know what’s funny? That they’re trying to make it seem as though this is the first time *any* woman has tried to translate the meaning of the Qur’an from Arabic to English – yet, a now-common translation, from Saheeh International, was produced by a woman (Umm Muhammad)!!!

3. Rasheed Eldin - April 4, 2007

Wa ‘alaikum as-salam wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh.

Thanks for your comments, and sure, I’ll add you to the blogroll. We haven’t updated that in some time…

I didn’t realise that Umm Muhammad (the same one as did the book on tajweed and another called “Realities of Faith”?) did the Saheeh International translation. Sheikh Yasir in his book included a footnote in which he praised this translation, while (rightly in my view) criticising that it was done anonymously.

4. AnonyMouse - April 12, 2007

As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaat,

I only found out that this Umm Muhammad did the Saheeh International translation when someone told me about it, and I then did a quick Google search to confirm it… I don’t know if she’s the author of the books you mentioned, though…

5. Rasheed Eldin - April 14, 2007

Interesting – the Saheeh International translation is also the top recommended one according to Imam Suhaib Webb:

This is the site he oversees – it’s wonderful:

6. Rasheed Eldin - April 22, 2007

Ola Shoubaki, who also happens to a female – but more importantly is an expert Arabic linguist, specialising in “the science of etymology (ishtiqaaq) in light of the Qur’an and Tafseer” – replied to a query about this fanciful interpretation of “Daraba” thus:

“Although Arabic is necessary to understand the Qur’an, and it is important to know the linguistic meaning of words, one cannot divorce the interpretation of the Qur’an with the understanding of the sahabah and the first three generations after the Prophet (salla Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).

“Tafseer is not performed through knowledge of the language alone. In fact, al-Suyuti mentined in “Al-Itqan” no less than fifteen different sciences that one is required to have knowledge of before they are allowed to perform tafseer of the Qur’an:

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