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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Quran Translation: American Muslim Woman Presents New Translation of “Beat Them (Lightly)” Verse

This article is reprinted from Publishers Weekly Religion BookLine, April 18, 2007

“Laleh Bakhtiar: An American Woman Translates the Quran”

By Andrea Useem

What does it mean to beat someone “lightly?” Muslims have debated this question over the centuries while interpreting a verse in the Qur’an where God instructs Muslim men, if they fear “disobedience” from their wives, to take several steps: admonish them, sleep separately from them, and then-here’s the point of controversy. Until now most Muslims have understood the final command, idribuhun, to mean “beat them lightly.” Scholars have given this phrase a range of meanings, some as innocuous as tapping a wife with a wet noodle, others as ominous as hitting them without leaving a mark.

But to Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American Muslim author and translator, this interpretation seemed both illogical and immoral. “As Muslims we are supposed to follow the Prophet Muhammad’s example, and we know that the Prophet never hit anybody,” so how could the Qur’an be saying it is okay? Bakhtiar told RBL, noting that when the Prophet Muhammad was upset with any of his multiple wives, he withdrew from them for some weeks rather than beat them.When Bakhtiar, in the midst of what became a seven-year project to translate the Qur’an into English, came across an alternative translation for the word in question that meant “to go away from,” instead of “to beat lightly,” it made perfect sense to her, she said.

Her new translation of the holy text, The Sublime Quran, is out this month from the Chicago-based Kazi Publications and is the first by an American Muslim woman; U.K.-based Madinah Press published the 1999 Noble Qur’an, which was translated by Englishwoman Aisha Bewley and her husband.

But with the “beat them lightly” interpretation so ingrained in Muslim thought and legal structures, will her translation really effect change? “It’s a start,” she said. “The very fact that Kazi Publications, the oldest Muslim publisher in America, is willing to publish it is in itself a sign things are changing.” 


So far her translation has stirred mostly controversy, with Arabic grammarians challenging her translation of the verse and rank-and-file Muslims in the blogosphere criticizing the fact that Bakhtiar doesn’t speak modern Arabic.

Bakhtiar said she hopes her translation will elevate the image of the Prophet Muhammad around the world. “Why can the Danish feel they can make fun of him? Because we’re allowing behavior that is immoral and then expecting everyone to respect our Prophet. It doesn’t work that way. It has to start with us: we have to morally heal ourselves first.”

Previous articles in Religion BookLine on Laleh Bakhtiar:

“New Qur’an Translation by American Woman Will Be a First,” by Marcia Z. Nelson, Religion BookLine, June 21, 2006

“A Bridge Between Two Cultures,” Religion BookLine, May, 1996

Other Coverage of Laleh Bakhtiar’s new translation:

“Translating Quran for today,” (op-ed) by Laleh Bakhtiar, The Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2007

“A new look at a holy text,” by Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, The Chicago Tribune, April 10, 2007

“Verse in Koran on beating wife gets a new translation,” by Neil MacFarquhar, International Herald Tribune, March 25, 2007

“Saved by Bakhtiar,” (blog posting: critique of Neil MacFarquhar article) by Muslim blogger Sunni Sister, March 25, 2007

“When Every Word Counts,” (commentary) by Hesham Hassaballa, Beliefnet.com, undated

There Are 10 Responses So Far. »

  1. What kind of religion/ideology is it that subjects women to veils, “beating lightly,” sexual banishment, genital mutilation (95% of Egyptian women are-NYT), etc. Why can’t husband and wife discuss their differences instead of being banished from the harem, or emotionally violated! Why must women be physically and emotionally tormented and subjected to rape or murder via stoning for their conduct or expressing their free will to marry a person of their choice viz. Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Turkey.

    I find all religion unnecessary superstition, especially what we now know about evolutionary biology, that we are just one species among others: that we share 95% of our the DNA with rats, 98% with chimps, etc. Do rats or chimps have a Christ or God or a prophet who leads them to heaven. We need to ask a very substantial question: Do we really need a Messiah, or a prophet to guide us toward a moral existence? Recent studies done on other animals suggest that they already possess certain moral and altruistic tendencies, which guide their daily lives and social intercourse.

    So, I say shed this remaining vestige of illiberalism and unnecessary baggage called religion, come out in the open, and Live!

  2. Dear Whoelarth,

    Thanks for your comments. I know many people share your sentiment that religion is unnecessary and can be counter-productive. That said, many others feel that religion is extremely important to their lives and would never abandon it. Ms. Baktiar’s translation of the verse previously interpreted as endorsing some form of physical reprimand may be important to those who strive to live according to their scripture of choice.


    Andrea Useem

  3. Ms. Baktiar is not the first Muslim thinker to reinterpret the verse in question as meaning “to temporarily leave” or “go away from.” Kuwaiti Islamic scholar, Tariq Suwaidan, declared this reinterpretation to be in the true spirit of the Quran and Prophet 3 years ago at an Islamic conference in Toronto (Reviving The Islamic Spirit) to an audience of 15,000 and in the presence of esteemed scholars from around the world. It caused little controversy at the time and provoked if anything a serious re-analysis of Quranic exegesis. Unlike Ms. Bakhtiar, critics cannot accuse Mr. Suwaidan of failing to comprehend the Arabic lexicon.

    I think Ms. Bakhtiar’s publication should be taken seriously.

  4. Hi.

    This idea that “dharaba” means “to strike out” (as if on a journey) has been around for ages — including before our respected Tariq Suweidan mentioned it in Canada. But Bakhtiar’s translation, as it has been reported on, has two major problems that people are unwilling to address:

    (1) She is not proficient in Arabic, period. Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Pickthall were. Bakhtiar has claimed in the media that we (Mozlems) accept Ali and Pickthall because they were men. Nonsense. It’s because they knew Arabic. In addition, most people I know have not taken issue with Aisha Bewley’s (Ustadha Aisha being a well known and well respected translator of classical texts for the last 30 years) nor with an earlier translation by an Egyptian woman simply because of their gender. For her to play this ridiculous gender card against Muslims who object to her — and that group includes *many* women — is harmful and insulting (meaning, it’s bad enough non-Muslims play this game with us; do we really need it from another Muslim, when our truth and our reality is much more complex and subtle than “She’s a woman. Woman bad. Ooga.”).

    (2) There is a difference between translation and tafsir and I think what she’s done is tafsir (not just here but in other verses, although we’re all focusing on this one so heavily). She is not qualified, by a long shot, to do tafsir. And Yusuf ‘Ali has received the **same** criticism over the decades for doing the *same* thing.

  5. PS: I’m sorry I took up so much space.

  6. Dear Umm Zaid,

    Thanks for the comment congrats on your successful blog, http://www.SunniSisters.com.

    You might be interested in reading a three-way interview I did with Laleh Bakhtiar, Hadia Mubarak and Bonita McGee for Beliefnet. (The interview should be posted in June — I’ll forward you the link.)

    Some Muslims see a value in Bakhtiar’s translation in helping Muslim women out of the “crisis of faith” they sometimes experience when they are victims of domestic violence.

    I’ll look forward to your feedback on that conversation.


  7. A more important word to interpret in this verse is “nushuz”, which has been incompletely translated as disobedience. When this word is examined in the totality of Quran, it can be seen that nushuz, here, refers to acts of sexual unfaithfulness . If the husband “fears” nushuz, which implies that he does not have any proof of adultery (whose punishment is 100 stripes), a three-staged approach is suggested to deal with this disturbing situation. If one can understand 100 stripes as a punishment of adultery, I do not understand why one would have a problem with beating in this verse. If the wife fears nushuz, the appropriate action to take is explained in 4:128. Bottomline: there is no need to take an apologetic stance in this verse if you interpret nushuz correctly.

  8. […] was curious to see if Shakir would mention a recent translation of that verse by an American Muslim woman, which rendered the word formerly translated as to “beat them” to read “go away […]

  9. There’s an interesting point here that perhaps has to be acknowledged. In some critiques of Bakhtiar’s analysis, there is a question about her credentials. This critique is applied in many cases across the spectrum of Islamic topics. While credentials matter, however, we would do well to explore exactly what credentials warrant authoritative perspectives. Is it Arabic proficiency that grants her authority? If that’s the case, then we might say that her book presents a challenge to the seemingly ignored alternative views of Ali and Pickthall’s translation. Is it not a valid question to examine why or how it is that alternative readings of this verse were ignored? I find that, far too often, Islamic reactionaries hide behind the mystique of credentials in order to protect old views and preserve the status quo. In a sense, then, what Baktiar’s book may be doing is raising a question about the position of scholars and how they generate particular forms of knowledge that ought be questioned. In addition, there is a valid tradition of knowledge that Bakhtiar’s critique draws on, namely feminist standpoint epistemology. This isn’t limited to feminist studies, of course, but has at its source the legitimate, philosophical question of who produces knowledge and from what position. “Men” are not simply a biological phenomenon. We are a grounded, situated political and social category who write and interpret from that precise location. Bakhtiar’s book is raising a question about Ali and Pickthall’s location as men of their time. That, to me, is a valid critique.

  10. […] aspects of Muslim practice I found noxious, particularly the treatment of women. There’s an ayat [verse] that seems to allow men to beat their wives. And then there is the verse about killing enemies wherever you find them. But when I looked at […]

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