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Laleh Bakhtiar Discusses Evolution of IslamInterview by Tim King Salem-News.com
One of America's top scholars on Islam tackles the controversial subject of reformation; says no aspect of Quran endorses abuse of women.
(SALEM / CHICAGO) - Laleh Bakhtiar, Ph. D. recently completed the Concordance of the Sublime Quran, an English translation of the Arabic Mu’jim al-mufaris or Arabic Concordance, using verses from her English translation of the Sublime Quran (www.sublimequran.org), the first critical translation of the Quran by a woman.
She is the leading scholar on the psychology of spiritual chivalry (futuwwa, javanmardi) and integrater of the Sufi Enneagram. She has written over 20 books on Islam, including Islamic Law, and translated 25 other works.
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar's translation became controversial in regard to the idea of some Muslim men that the Quran gives them a right to beat their wives in the Name of God. This is found in Chapter 4 Verse 34 of the Quran. Most existing English translations of verse 4:34 read: “Husbands who fear adversity on the part of wives, admonish them, leave their bed, and beat them.”
She found that the Arabic root word, d r b, being understood as “beat” has twenty-six different meanings. One of the meanings, when used in the imperative form as it was in verse 4:34, is “to go away.” She realized that this is exactly what the Prophet did. While clearly he never beat any woman, he did “go away” from his wives when there was domestic unrest.
TK: Laleh, it is nice to speak with you. I have heard about your translation of The Sublime Quran and more recently about your completing the English Concordance of The Sublime Quran. I have to first ask, what exactly is a Concordance?
LB: A Concordance of a sacred text lists all the verses in which a particular word can be found. So in the Concordance of The Sublime Quran, there is a transliterated list of the 3673 words derived from the Arabic root words in the Quran. Then each of the verses in which these words are found is listed in the text and at the end there is an index of over 6000 words I used in the translation of The Sublime Quran. For instance, if someone wanted to know how many times the word “Messenger” is used and in what context, they could look up the word in this Concordance.
TK: How long did this take you to do?
LB: Ten years.
TK: Why did it take that long?
LB: In order to have a Concordance, you first have to have a translation because the verses in the translation are the ones you are going to index in the Concordance. When the translation of The Sublime Quran was first published, Muslim scholars were asked what their opinion of the translation was. Without even reading it, they responded either that I was not a scholar so they were not going to bother to read it or that as the translation is in English, it really will have no effect upon Muslims.
TK: That must have been disheartening, to say the least.
LB: Yes, it was. But at the same time that there were Muslim male scholars who immediately assumed that the translation was not worth their time, there were many other scholars and non-scholars, male and female, who supported me.
Anyway, I realized that the best way to prove that my method of starting with the words instead of the first sentence and going to the end was to do a Concordance of The Sublime Quran. Anyone who has any doubt about the validity of the translation can see the proof for themselves in the Concordance.
TK: What did those who supported you say?
LB: First of all, they read the translation before commenting, which, Tim, is a big “first” to any kind of criticism one may want to give. They understood that this was a very different translation, not just because of 4:34 and the issue of wife-beating, but because there are many differences when this translation is compared to other English translations.
TK: Tell me more about this verse, 4:34.
LB: One of the major reasons behind my wanting to translate the Quran was because I found that none of the English translations paid attention to the women’s point of view. We are now more than 1400 years since the Quran was revealed. It has been interpreted and commented upon, but without regard to women. That is, half the view of half the Muslim population has been ignored! I hoped to some extent to remedy this.
This brings us to Chapter 4 Verse 34. Most translations in various languages has been interpreted to say: “husbands who fear disobedience (nushuz) on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then leave their sleeping-places, then beat them,” some adding after the words “beat them” the word “lightly” in parenthesis.
TK: How does your translation read?
LB: “husbands who fear resistance (nushuz) on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then abandon their sleeping-places, then go away from them.”
First we have to look at the root word d r b, used in this verse in the imperative form of idrib. The words derived from d r b have twenty-six meanings, one of which is “to go away.”
We know that the Prophet never beat women and, as Muslims, we are very proud of this fact. What we fail to recognize is that this word “idrib” is a command understood to mean, “beat.” We have to ask: Is it more important that the Prophet did not beat women or that he carry out God’s command? The answer is clear. When we take a moment to reflect, we say: The Prophet did carry out God’s command and he did not beat women. Why? Because he understood the word to mean: “go away.” We have elevated the status of the Prophet and also saved women from physical and emotional harm. The Quran says that we should understand the Quran with the fairest of meanings. Is that not what we have done here?
In addition, the Prophet knew that according to Chapter 16 Verse 126, which, by the way, was revealed before Chapter 4 Verse 34, if a person is harmed by another person, that person has a right to harm the other to the same extent. The Prophet would have known that if idrib meant “beat,” wives would have to be allowed to beat or harm their husbands to the same extent that their husbands harmed them. This will not lead to a happy marriage, to say the least, would you not agree, Tim?
TK: Yes, certainly.
LB: Does it not make more sense for a husband to withdraw for a time, to let the emotions subside, and then return and discuss the issue with his wife?
TK: I could not agree more. Have you had any response from the ulema or muftis, the Muslim jurists?
LB: Yes. I have had several debates with them. One of the arguments they give is that the word derived from the root d r b or daraba is a transitive verb. It can only take a direct object. When you say in English, “go away from them,” “them” meaning wives (because the pronoun used here is feminine), you have turned a transitive verb into an intransitive verb.
TK: What was your response?
LB: First of all, I asked: When this verse was revealed to the blessed Prophet, who was unlettered, did he sit back and say: Let me see. Is this a transitive or intransitive verb? No. We know from his behavior that he “went away.”
Secondly, I pointed out to them: We are talking about translation. When you translate from one language to another, you have to go with the grammar of the target language. There are several times when I found that an English word required an indirect object when the Arabic did not have one. Examples are in 12:107, 24:28, and especially in 83:3 where the meaning of the verse changes if you don’t add a preposition between the verb and the pronoun.
I also found that in Persian and Urdu, and perhaps other languages, whether you say, ‘beat them (f)’ or ‘go away from them (f),’ the form of the verb does not change. In Urdu ‘go away from them’ is un ko choro and ‘beat them”’is un ko moro. In Persian it would be: ‘On-ha ra bezanid’ for ’beat them (f)’ or ‘on-ha ra tark konid’ for ‘go away from them (f).’ Therefore, this is only an issue when English is the target language.
Thirdly, we have to analyze the word “nushuz” because the muftis with whom I debated this verse said that only a “nushuz” wife is to be beaten. They see “nushuz” as meaning “disobedient.” What they fail to point out is that while 4:34 says: “husbands who fear nushuz on the part of their wives,” Chapter 4 Verse 128 says: “wives who fear nushuz on the part of their husbands,” the exact same word. If nushuz means “disobedient” you have to translate the word the same for husbands, that is, “disobedient,” and, Tim, I don’t know how many Muslim husbands you know who are willing to say that they have been “disobedient” to their wives!
Fourthly, there are three other words used in the Quran to mean “to strike” or “to beat” so that the Prophet would not have necessarily thought that “daraba” meant “to beat.”
Fifthly, the Quran uses daraba in the imperative form twelve times in the Quran. Other than in 4:34, which in my view has been misinterpreted, the only other time it could refer to “striking” or “beating” a person is in Chapter 38 Verse 44 which relates to the Prophet Job. He is told not to forsake his oath and to gather a bundle of rushes and strike with it. We are not told in the Quran what his oath was nor what he was supposed to strike.
When you study this issue and the word that those who misinterpret 4:34 often add in parenthesis, that is, (lightly), we see that it comes from the Old Testament and the story of Job and his wife, Rahmah.
Finally, I ask them if the best way to prove something is using the Quran to interpret the Quran. They all agreed that this was an irrefutable method. If you can prove that an interpretation of a verse in a certain way leads to a contradiction in the Quran, you have won the argument. This I did, Tim. And this is how I did it: We know that Islam and the Quran promotes marriage and discourages divorce. The muftis all nodded their heads in agreement. I told them to look at Chapter 2 Verse 231. There the Quran says: If a husband wants to divorce his wife, he must do it honorably. He cannot harm her. They agreed that this is what the verse says.
I then told them that when I read this verse, I sat back and reflected for a moment. I concluded: If a Muslim woman is to be divorced, she cannot be harmed, but a Muslim woman who wants to remain married, does so under the threat of being beaten. I asked them: If you were a woman, which would you prefer? Does this promote marriage or divorce? Does this discourage marriage or divorce? You tell me.
What happens in a real marital situation between a Muslim husband and his wife is that if the husband believes that 4:34 gives him the right to beat his wife, he assumes the roles of both judge and jury. For example, a husband and wife are having an argument. She tells her husband: “Go ahead and divorce me,” something he had hinted that he would do. He does not like it when she tells him that, so he beats her ignoring 2:231 which says he cannot harm a wife he is going to divorce. He denies his wife her right given to her in the Quran.
Or take another situation. Chapter 24 Verses 6-9 says: If a husband accuses his wife of anything, and he is the only witness, she has a right to swear an oath to God five times that her husband is not saying the truth. When she does so, all harm is removed from her. The Quran declares her innocent of the charges. Again, what happens in real life? A husband and a wife are having an argument. He, as the only witness, accuses her of flirting with another man. Before she has time to swear her oaths to God that it is not true, he beats her because of his misinterpretation of 4:34.
TK: I can now see how challenging your translation was to those who continue to imitate the understanding of the Quran from those that came before them.
LB: Exactly, Tim. The Islamic world is stuck in “imitation” or “taqlid.” In the greatest times of Islamic culture and civilization, people were more likely to “realize things for themselves” (tahqiq), rather than to blindly follow whatever a mufti tells them to do. Taqlid stops intellectual development. For example, if you ask many Muslims why they are Muslims, they will answer: Because my father was. The Quran makes it very clear that a person has to realize the Oneness of God for themselves and then declare that they are Muslim. Belief itself is begins with self-realization.
TK: I am curious about something. I am trying to learn Arabic and am wondering what method you used?
LB: As you know, there is a difference between Quranic Arabic and Modern Arabic. I do not know Modern Arabic and like just about everyone else, I do not speak classical Arabic. I studied classical Arabic at Tehran University in the Ph.D. program for a year and then for three years with a private Egyptian tutor. Also, the Persian language, which I speak, has many words that it incorporated from Arabic including the Arabic alphabet so the only advice I can give you if you are trying to learn Quranic Arabic is to find a good teacher!
TK: Laleh, you have explained how you found that 4:34 was misinterpreted, and, I must say, your arguments are very convincing. However, are there other ways in which your translation differs from other English translations?
LB: Yes there are, Tim, and I find it very important to mention them so that I am not seen as a feminist, which I am not. I am a spiritual warrior (fatat) and as such, I place great emphasis on ethics and morality in my life. This is also how I approached the translation of The Sublime Quran.
In addition to 4:34, I point out in the Introduction to the Concordance other differences between the translation of the Sublime Quran and other English translations.
For instance, another unique aspect of this translation in comparison to other English translations is that it presents a translation of the Quran that is universal, for all times, related to the Quran's eternality and not to it being a text frozen in the time period of its revelation.
The Prophet did not bring a new religion; he came to confirm what was right in the messages of the previous Prophets. He was sent as a mercy to humanity, not to just one specific group of people.
Following the Prophet’s example, 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.
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” or “to be an infidel” making the active participle “one who disbelieves” or “one who is an infidel.”
In the translation of The Sublime Quran, 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 criteria to the word aslama, “he submitted,” 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 appears, it is translated according to its universal meaning, “one who submits.”
Another example is that often the Quran refers to someone’s being struck blind, deaf and dumb. In most cases, the words refer to someone who is “unwilling to see, hear or speak,” and not someone who is physically disabled. Therefore, the word “unwilling” appears in the translation.
Another example of the use of inclusive language in an attempt to speak to people in their own language. This includes the use of God instead of Allah in English. Many English speaking Muslims, as well as many of the English translations of the Quran to date, use Allah when speaking English instead of God. The intention on the part of the speaker is to maintain a sense of piety.
However well-intentioned a person may be when speaking English, the use of the word Allah instead of God does not follow the Quranic verse that tells the Prophet to speak to people in their own language. Using God is one of the best ways to make English into an Islamic language.
Using Allah instead of God when speaking English also creates a divide between Muslims who use the word and the English speaking people of various faiths to whom they are speaking. In effect, it creates the illusion that there is more than One God—Allah and God. The response of the English speaking person of another faith is to say: I do not understand your religion; you have a different God than I do and you call Him Allah.
It needs to be clearly explained to English speaking Muslims that, unlike what they may feel, they do not have a monopoly on the word Allah. Arabic speaking Christians and Arabic speaking Jews also refer to God as Allah. The Old Testament and New Testament, when translated into Arabic, use Allah for God.
If Muslims insist on using Allah when speaking English and another English speaking person uses the word God, in effect, two gods have been created and this is the only sin that is not forgiven according to the Quran.
These were sort of general principles that I followed in the translation. A more specific example is based on a study done about Prophet Yahya by Agron Belica. In The Sublime Quran, the Arabic word, hasur, in (3:39) has been correctly translated as “concealer of secrets” and not the usual “chaste.” Thanks to Belica’s study, The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity?, the way has been opened to look at who this Prophet really was.
TK: Are there ways that our readers may be able to help you in what I can see has become a crusade.
LB: Yes, Tim. Thank you for asking. In preparing the translation, I created a database to make the translation of the Quran into other languages easier. If any of your readers are interested in translating the Quran into their native language, they should contact me. They would need to know classical Arabic, English and their own language, particularly the grammar. And, of course, they would need to have moderate computer skills.
TK: Would you like responses from both men and women?
LB: Yes, of course, Tim. And I would like to add that the other problem I have faced here in the States is that mainstream publishers and their agents are often not supportive of the attempt by American Muslims to bring reform to Islam. I would hope that this would change in time.
TK: Do you believe that Islam is in need of a Reformation?
LB: Yes I do. Islamic culture and civilization has born so much fruit and yet you rarely hear about it in America. I grew up as a Christian by my single-parent American mother. My father had been Iranian, but he lived in Iran and I grew up in America. When as an adult I came to know Islam, I came to know it through love of God rather than fear of God.
TK: Can you explain the difference?
LB: Yes. Your loving God begins by not doing what God has asked you not to do. In the case of Islam, this means not eating pork, not gambling, not using intoxicants, and so forth. Once you are certain in your love for God, then you fear not doing what He has asked you to do because you do not want to lose His love. These would be the practices like the formal prayer or fasting or giving charity. When you don’t do what God has asked you not to do, you submit to Him. When you do what God has asked you to do, you believe in Him. You have to first submit before you can believe as the Quran tells us. Unfortunately today in America, the emphasis is on the fear of God. Those who do this have forgotten what love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness mean. They are in a state of fear and unfortunately pass that fear onto their children and others who approach them trying to understand Islam.
TK: I am sure that some people will want to know how you could go against the tradition and over 1400 years of commentary on the Quran?
LB: I believe that if we study Islamic history, after the time of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs in the 7th century, we Muslims have had uninterrupted rule by tyrants and dictators with the exception of a few years of a pious ruler. Does that mean that we cannot go against history and demand pious and benevolent rulers? No, of course not. My response is that the minute that each individual member of the Muslim community or ummah gains consciousness of something wrong being done in the name of God, in the name of Islam, he or she has the responsibility to speak out. This we are beginning to see in the Islamic world and God knows best.
Learn more about Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar:
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar on stage with Professor Ayoub in New York
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar interviewed in Chicago 2nd half
Concordance of the Sublime Quran link Kazi Publications:
The Sublime Quran Arabic-English link Kazi Publications
Agron Belica's book:
Salem-News.com articles & reports about Women and Islam:
Articles for April 13, 2011 | Articles for April 14, 2011 | Articles for April 15, 2011
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