Open Quran discourse

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

October 25, 2007 Ed Cartoon

Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar’s new translation of the Quran has stirred controversy in the Muslim world.

In her translation, which took seven years to complete, Bakhtiar modified passages about the prescribed disciplining of women by their husbands.

Most notable is Bakhtiar’s conclusion that the word idrib does not mean “to beat,” but instead best translates as “to go away” or “to leave.” This conclusion runs contrary to some traditional interpretations.

While the justification for this change is beyond most non-Muslims or non-Arabic speakers to comment on, including us at The Gazette, one wonders about both the motivations behind, and the legitimacy of, the change.

Bakhtiar holds a doctorate degree from the University of New Mexico, and was educated in classical Arabic in Iran after moving there with her husband. She was raised and educated in the United States and converted to Islam at 25. To some, this makes her an outsider to Islam.

This issue is one for the Muslim community to resolve amongst itself, but this does not mean the controversy does not have significance for non-Muslims.

Some might argue Bakhtiar’s Western background negatively influences her interpretation of Islam. Many Westerners object to the alleged prescriptions of violence in the text and Bakhtiar’s translation aims to clarify the truth about the Prophet and his message, and dispel perceptions he was a violent man.

Bakhtiar is a trained and dedicated scholar, having studied Islam intensively for 43 years and written over 20 books on the subject. Her experience makes her a credible authority. However, the influence of political correctness in the West makes one question her motives.

It is the mission of anyone trying to present Islam with a friendlier face to non-Muslims to find ways to make it more acceptable, and the language used in her translation clearly aims to make the text more “inclusive.”

A true translation of religious texts should stem from the spiritual guidance intended in the text itself, not politics.

If Bakhtiar has changed the original and irrefutable meaning of the text, then she has done a disservice to Islam and to academia. If her intentions are to alter the faith in order to make it more acceptable to Westerners, then it stands that orthodox adherents to the faith could be upset.

But is it wrong to adapt a religious text to modern attitudes?

Our attitudes, as shaped through religious values, are mediated by others’ interpretations, and Bakhtiar’s translation, whether or not it is based on objective evidence, is an example of this.

The controversy highlights the rift between the Muslim world and the values attached to religion in the more secular West. Bakhtiar’s mission is noble in that it encourages cultural interchange in a way that invites Westerners to approach the Quran themselves.

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