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Disobedient Muslim Women

Anger over the word "idrib"

Laleh Bakhtiar laboured over her English translation of the Qur'an for seven years, a version that is written from a woman's point of view and is also welcoming to non-Muslim readers.

She translated all 90,000 words, but there is just one, in chapter four, verse 34, that led to sharp criticism and controversy surrounding her translation. It's from the section on women and describes how to deal with a wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who are "disobedient."

Most English translations of the Qur'an, which Muslims believe to be the word of God revealed to Muhammad, say the woman should first be admonished, then left alone in her bed and then beaten into submission.

"When I got to chapter four I had to really look at this carefully," says Bakhtiar, a Chicago Islamic scholar who is the featured speaker at the 25th annual conference of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, which opens on Saturday at Toronto's Noor Cultural Centre. "It took a lot of research time to see what it means.

"It's a command in the Qur'an, an imperative and the point is the Prophet never did it, it meant something else to him," continues Bakhtiar, 68, one of seven children of an Iranian doctor. She concluded that the word idrib, which she found could have 26 different meanings, was best translated as "to go away" or "to leave," not some form of "to beat."

"Why choose the word to harm somebody, when that's not what the Prophet did? He was a model for humanity," she says of the peace-loving prophet.

This new understanding was particularly important to Bakhtiar, who was trained as an educational psychologist and has worked as a counsellor with young Muslim women who were abused by their families. A practitioner of Sufism, the mystical stream in Islam, she looked on her interpretation as a "blessing" and welcomes, even encourages, the debate that comes with it.

"I just hope we keep the dialogue going so that one less Muslim woman is beaten in the name of God," she says. "That's my prayer, to get more women aware that there is an alternative. This has not been sanctioned by God; it's a criminal act."

Born in Tehran and raised in Washington, D.C., Bakhtiar returned to Iran with her husband, an Iranian architect, where she ran a publishing company and learned classical Arabic. (Raised a Christian, she converted to Islam in 1964.)

A mother of three, she returned to the U.S. in 1988 and earned a doctorate at the University of New Mexico. She has since written 20 books on Islam and translated 25 books about the faith.

Besides giving the text a female perspective, another strong motivator was her desire to offer a new English translation for non-Muslims and new Muslims. Instead of Allah, she uses God; instead of Isa, she uses the more familiar Jesus. Non-Muslims are not infidels or disbelievers, words she says are "loaded," but instead are those who are "ungrateful to God for his blessings."

"I tried to develop an inclusive translation so people from other faiths may read it and feel like it speaks to them as well, as a sacred text."

Some of her critics have cited her lack of fluency in modern Arabic as a shortcoming, a criticism that has not been applied to other translators who also are not native speakers, she maintains. "It's not a valid criticism, because the Qur'an is written in classical Arabic ... If you go through all the criticisms, when it comes down to it, the only difference is because I'm a woman. Obviously."

Some who study the Qur'an, including Nevin Reda, a University of Toronto doctoral student, have welcomed Bakhtiar's translation for the consistency of her language. Bakhtiar translated each Arabic word into an English equivalent and then stuck with that translation throughout the text as long as it worked in context. "That's something new and for me, it's really outstanding," said Reda.

Meanwhile, the head of one of Canada's leading Muslim organizations said he would not permit Bahktiar's book, The Sublime Quran, to be sold in the bookstore of the Islamic Society of North America because he believes women should be beaten for disobedience. "Our bookstore would not allow this kind of translation," says Mohammad Ashraf, ISNA's secretary general. "I will consider banning it."

His objection is not that Bakhtiar is a female scholar, but that she was not trained at an academic institution accredited in the Muslim world he cites the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia as such a place. "This woman-friendly translation will be out of line and will not fly too far," he says.

Walid Saleh, an associate professor of religion at the University of Toronto, notes that Bakhtiar's work is one of many attempts on the part of Muslims living in a changing world to come to terms with a text they still hold dear.

"She belongs to a long line of Muslim feminists, since the late 19th century, who have been attempting to make the Qur'an and Islam far more, in a sense, gender-equal than people think it is."

Critics of her work may say she has a "feminist" outlook, says Saleh. "But who doesn't have an outlook?"

Bakhtiar makes clear that this book is a translation, not a commentary, and has not addressed other potentially divisive issues such as women's dress and modesty, male dominance and polygamy.

Alternate Translations

Chapter four, verse 34, with its prescriptions for managing "rebellious" women, is one the most controversial sections in the Qur'an. Here are three English translations the first, by American scholar Laleh Bakhtiar, takes a woman's point of view, the second is a traditional interpretation from Saudi Arabia, and the third is generally regarded as a "progressive" translation by Muhammad Asad, who was a convert to Islam and esteemed for his efforts to illuminate Islam for the West:

"But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely not look for any way against them; truly God is Lofty, Great."

The Sublime Quran, translated by Laleh Bakhtiar

"As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly if it is useful); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). Surely Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great."

The Noble Quran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Da'wah and Guidance

"And for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them (first); then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!"

The Message of the Qur'an, translated by Muhammad Asad

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