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New Look at the Quran Ignites Debate on Wife-Beating
By Jeff Diamant   |  May 06, 2007

NEWARK, N.J.: A new rendition of the Quran, which has a gentler take on marital relations than usually seen in English translations, has hit a nerve among Muslims.

The controversy is over both a single verse and the qualifications of the Muslim woman who translated the new version, “The Sublime Quran,” which hit bookstores in April.

Most English renditions of Islam’s sacred book instruct husbands, as a last resort in treating disobedient wives, to beat or strike them, after admonishing them and refusing to share a bed with them. But translator Laleh Bakhtiar of Chicago claims that in the context of Islamic teachings, the Arabic word daraba, usually translated as “beat” or “strike,” actually has the nonviolent meaning of “to go away.”

Bakhtiar, 68, isn’t the first Muslim to say or write this. But “The Sublime Quran” is believed to be the first Quran to translate Chapter 4, Verse 34 that way.

Bakhtiar’s efforts have drawn both praise and criticism around the world, online and in newspapers. Muslims interviewed at one of New Jersey’s largest mosques, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick, said her translation makes sense to them and may stop some men from hitting their wives. But they said they worry Bakhtiar hasn’t studied enough classical Arabic to gain widespread acceptance as a translator of sacred text.

“It’s great she’s trying to deal with this,” said Sarah Rashid, 23, of Moorestown, N.J., speaking after prayer one recent Friday at ISCJ. “I’m definitely intrigued by it. … My only concern is that she’s not a scholar. She doesn’t seem to have the qualifications that would legitimate her translation. She’s only had three years (of classical Arabic). I’ve had five years, and I wouldn’t consider myself qualified to translate the Quran.”

Bakhtiar, a psychologist who has translated 25 books from Arabic to English, says her translation stems from Islamic writings in the Quran and elsewhere about Muhammad, who is revered by Muslims as the prophet through whom God revealed the Quran to humankind.

A critical part of her reasoning, she says, comes from Chapter 2 of the Quran, part of which tells husbands not to harm wives they are divorcing. The predominant translation of the later verse thus struck Bakhtiar as illogical, she said: “How can we promote marriage as a moral act and discourage divorce as an immoral act, when a woman can be divorced and not harmed, and yet stay married under the threat of being beaten?”

While many Muslims are aware translations of the Quran are imprecise efforts to replicate the holy book’s classical Arabic, this rendition bothers those who are sensitive to perceptions that Islam endorses domestic violence, yet care about accuracy.

“The Sublime Quran” is different from other English translations in other ways; it’s designed to be inclusive and easier on the eyes of non-Muslims, Bakhtiar said.

Instead of using the common transliterations Musa and Isa, for instance, her Quran simply uses “Moses” and “Jesus.” The Arabic word kafir, translated in other Qurans as “infidel” or “unbeliever,” is translated in hers as “one who is ungrateful,” which she said she thinks is less jarring to non-Muslims. Salaat, which means prayer and is transliterated in most English Qurans, is translated straight into English in hers.

Most renditions of the Quran, Bakhtiar said, “are good for Muslims, but they don’t particularly open the door to someone who wants to try to understand Islam better. Unless you kind of know the language, they’re not helpful at all.”

What type of acceptance will this Quran gain? Akbar Ahmed, professor of Islamic studies at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, doubts it will have far-reaching influence even if there are American followers.

“The bottom line is, for the vast majority of the Muslim world that is not English-speaking, this kind of exercise — while a labor of love to the translator — is little more than a dent in Islamic scholarship,” he said.

Bakhtiar, who spent seven years on “The Sublime Quran,” concedes her translation of daraba didn’t come easily. She consulted several books trying to find alternative meanings for “beat” or “strike,” before finding “to go away” buried in a 19th-century Arabic-English lexicon written by a non-Muslim.

Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of “The Qur’an and Sayings of Prophet Muhammad” and “The Koran for Dummies,” criticized Bakhtiar’s work as a “modern-day revisionist approach.”

“If you look at commentaries throughout the 1,400 years that the Quran has been around, there’s never been any interpretative commentaries of the Quran that has seen this word as other than something … physical,” he said.

That doesn’t mean, he said, that the Quran sanctions beatings. He cited Islamic writings that place limits on the hitting, saying they should not be in the face, should not cause harm, and could be administered with a toothbrush. He added that Islamic tradition says Muhammad never hit his 11 wives.

“I think that it’s more important to grapple with these verses and be able to understand its interpretations and limitations,” Sultan said. “I don’t think the solution is really to change the meaning.”

Unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, Islam lacks a central authority on translations or interpretations.

“If it’s not in Arabic, every translation is considered inaccurate,” said Basem Hassan, a board member of the ISCJ. “That’s why Muslims pray in Arabic.”

Some speculate “The Sublime Quran” has another obstacle toward acceptance: the translator’s gender. Many conservative Muslims are unlikely to take a female translator or any “progressive” American scholar seriously, though most people interviewed at ISCJ — men and women — said they support the effort.

“Am I interested in what she has to say? Absolutely,” said Fakhruddin Amhed, of Bedminster, N.J. “If she’s closer to the truth on the actual meaning of that verse, more power to her. Up until recently the translation was done exclusively by men. It’s not unreasonable to think some male bias would have crept in.

“She’s free to interpret as she wants,” he said. “She lives in America.”

(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J.)