As the first American woman to translate the Quran into English, Laleh Bakhtiar corrects often misinterpreted verses on women’s treatment by re-infusing the translation with a feminine perspective. In this interview with Muslima curator Samina Ali, Laleh discusses her experience interpreting the Quran.
IMOW: You are such an incredible spiritual force that I’m not even sure where to begin. You’ve written and translated a combination of 25 books about Islam. In 2007, you published the first translation of the Quran by an American woman, The Sublime Qur’an. As a woman translator, much less an American woman, you must have known you would face criticism. What compelled you to translate the Quran?
Laleh Bakhtiar: In the year 2000 I was beginning to write a history of early Islam, just covering the life of the Prophet. I had written the history text when I sat back and realized that you can’t write about the history of early Islam without including the Quran. I had reviewed all the available English translations of the Quran and found each of them to have a problem. They were not consistent in the translation of the same Arabic words when the context allowed. The Arabic language has gender specific pronouns and this was not indicated in the translations. Little attention was paid to the grammar of the Arabic words when translated into English. Most of the translations contain interpretation in the translation, so you are not able to find an exact Arabic word for an English word. Based on my having studied Quranic grammar at Tehran University in the Ph.D. program as well as with a private Egyptian teacher for several years, I realized that I had to do my own translation.
Why was it so important to you to incorporate a female perspective?
The feminine perspective is extremely important, because no one has paid attention to it in any of the translations of the Quran into other languages. So it is very easy to misinterpret the role of women in Islam, or ignore it!
One place where you specifically bring in an alternative perspective is in Chapter 4, Verse 34, which speaks to how husbands should treat a rebellious wife. The common translation of the Arabic word daraba has been to “beat” or “hit.” In short, the verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately “beaten” unless her behavior improves. It’s an unfortunate translation that has been abused by some men. You translate the word differently. Can you explain your translation and its significance?
The words “beat them (f)” in Chapter 4 verse 34 have denied Muslim women their rights given in the Quran for almost 1500 years. Muslim women have challenged it in articles, essays, lectures, and books, but none have translated it in a complete translation of the Quran the way the Prophet understood it as shown by his behavior until I was blessed to translate the Sublime Quran.
Islam teaches that whenever a person becomes aware and conscious of an inconsistency in Islamic teachings, he or she must speak out. I along with so many Muslim men and women are continuing to do so in regard to this issue.
I will now give you the irrefutable reasons why the interpretation of “beat them” in 4:34 is wrong. However, let me first state firmly and clearly that I am not speaking about the Arabic of the Quran. That is the eternal Word of God revealed to the blessed Prophet. It is how Muslims have interpreted the Word of God that is at issue.
First of all, it is a command, an imperative form of the verb, in the Quran. When it is interpreted as “beat” the Prophet did not carry it out. This serves to denigrate the blessed Prophet as if he sanctioned God’s command but refused to carry it out. While the same word, idrib, also means “go away,” jurists over the centuries have refused to understand the word the way the blessed Prophet understood it as his behavior indicated when he was confronted by issues of domestic unrest. Yet when we revert the interpretation of “beat them (f)” to “go away from them (f)” we have elevated the blessed Prophet and can add another command of God that he carried out. Therefore the interpretation must return to the way the Prophet understood it by his behavior.
The part of Chapter 4 verse 34 in question is typically translated in English as: “Those husbands who fear disobedience on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then abandon their sleeping places, then beat them.”
My position is that the understanding of this verse must revert back to the interpretation given it by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and the mercy of God be upon him, through his actions. He never beat anyone much less any of his wives. When there was marital discord between himself and his wives, he went away.
Anyone who claims to follow the Sunnah [practice] of the Prophet must do the same thing, because the Sunnah of the Prophet is not to beat, hit, hurt, spank, or chastise any woman. Therefore the Sunnah of the Prophet is not “to beat them (f)” but “to go away from them (f)” or “to leave them (f).” The word daraba or its imperative form in verb form I, idrib, has 25 meanings. Why take a meaning that harms someone when the Prophet did not do it?
When you got to this particular verse, you had already been working on the English translation for two years. Yet you nearly dropped the project. Why?
I knew that the God that I loved would not have allowed husbands to beat their wives. If I had not been blessed to discover the contradiction in the Quran itself that shows understanding it as “beat” creates a man-made contradiction, I would not have been able to continue with the translation.
I think the bottom line is that the verse is not a license for battery. The verse is meant to bring harmony back into a marriage, not increase discord. In that same vein of creating harmony: you translate the Arabic names into English as well. Moses, not Musa. May, not Maryam. Jesus, not Isa. God, not Allah. Why do you think this will help non-Muslims in their understanding of Islam?
I believe in speaking to people in their own language. When you refer to the Prophets with their English names, you strike a similar chord with them, and they are amazed that Muslims believe in many of the same Prophets who are mentioned in the Jewish Scripture as well as the New Testament.
Some may not know this from your lengthy vocation as a writer and translator, but you were raised Catholic. What do you think was your “eureka” moment, the moment you first knew you might convert?
Actually, I am not sure I am a convert or even a revert. It seems to me that I was always Muslim, but just did not know it. My father practiced Islam as a youth, before he became the first US trained Iranian physician to return to Iran in 1931. He was 67 years old when I was born, and after he and my American mother were divorced, he fathered 10 more children. I grew up in America with my mother and never knew him until much later in life, when I moved with my husband and two children to Iran. It was then that I learned about Islam, and realized I had always believed what Islam taught without knowing it.
After your conversion in 1964, you wore the headscarf. In fact, you only took if off after 9/11. Why was that?
I was divorced two years before the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Iranian court awarded me my three children. When the revolution came, I only had a means to support my children and myself in Iran. A law was passed that all women had to wear the hijab. It began as a following of a country’s law, but I grew to love wearing the hijab because it helped me discipline myself. Later I moved back to the US and when I became post-menopausal, the Quran said that I did not need to be so careful. My children lived in three different states in the US, and none of them lived in Chicago where I worked. I had to travel by air to visit them. I found when I got on the plane, everyone looked at me with great fear in their eyes. One of the main objectives of the hijab is not to call attention to yourself. I found that I was doing just that so I stopped wearing the scarf, but to this day I still only dress modestly.
To all the women reading this, regardless of their faith, what is the bottom line? Is Islam a sexist, patriarchal religion?
Not in my view. I find Islam liberating! The question has to do with free will. As it is interpreted in the West, it means the freedom to do whatever you want to do when you want to do it. This is not free will, but pursuing our own desires. When we pursue our own desires, we are following our passions (as opposed to our reason). Our passions are known as “the animal soul” (nafs al-amarah). It contains two aspects: lust and anger—qualities we share with animals. If we choose the Western interpretation of “free will” and the pursuit of our own desires, we are following our animal soul, not reasoning with ourselves but following our instincts which have been programmed by God’s will. If we choose the Islamic interpretation of “free will,” we freely choose to follow God’s guidance and do what God enjoins us to do and prohibit what God asks us to prohibit.
You’re the first woman to translate the Qur’an. What are examples of what some other up-and-coming female scholars are doing?
Muslim women are engaged in all areas of activities, bringing people to consciousness about the role that they play in the Islamic community. This includes Muslim women scholars as well as activists. It is amazing overflowing of presence!
In your opinion, what can the next generation of women do to help create the equality and justice that was originally intended for them by the Quran?
Their most important job is to reform Islam from within, not from without by incorporating a western type of feminism on their faith. If we firmly believe that Islam grants us equality and justice, then we need to work for it from within.