the sublime translation

laleh bakhtiar reaches back to the original intentions of language & creates a new inclusivity for the qur’an.

photo by sally ryan

The Holy Qur’an appears in my life on a regular basis. I hear it sung in the most beautiful of serpentine melodies during ceremonies to mark deaths, births and weddings. When listening to poetry and music, I recognize quotes from it. Even in my travels, it is ever present. On the minaret of a Friday mosque in Kasgar China, I find the Arabic alphabet rendered most astonishingly to resemble Mandarin calligraphy. At the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I find verses of the Qur’an etched on the dome in a splendour of blue tiles. In my daily prayers, I recite Arabic verses from it, the English meanings of which I memorized as a child. After long years of studying Arabic and simultaneously navigating geographic and social spheres where it was the principal language of communication, I have made linguistic and grammatical sense of what I have been reciting several times a day for over thirty years.

The interpretation and practice of the Tariqa or path of Islam to which I belong is by all accounts extremely progressive. I was appointed, for the duration of one year, to lead a special Majalis, or religious and educational gathering especially for women (to which men are not permitted entry), which has its roots in the Fatimid traditions of the tenth century. It is noteworthy that in our contemporary practice, there is no Majalis exclusively for men to which women are not permitted entry.

Very recently, I began reciting “signs” (verses from chapters of the Qur’an) on important religious occasions such as the Eid al-Adha, which marks the sacrifice of the Prophet Abraham of his Ishmael. Even in our tradition, it is quite a new thing to have a young woman stand before a congregation of the faithful and belt out the sacred melodic poetry of the Qur’an. The spiritual and symbolic magnitude of these moments is unmistakeable.

The other young women in my community and I, who have not subscribed to the traditional gender roles of Muslim women that focus mainly on creating and nurturing family, are not just challenging the stereotype — we are breaking it. And we are doing so among Muslim communities as well as in the face of the West, which insists on painting us as either legless victims or disenfranchised angry women. Many of us imagine ourselves as clearing the path for a sisterhood to come, so that the generation of Muslim women after us shall have the privilege of leading lives and making choices, both religious and secular, without the burden of providing a complicated explanation every time they speak out or stay silent.

Understandably then, when I heard that an Iranian-American woman had written a progressive, inclusive and linguistically consistent translation of the Qur’an, I was rather excited. There has been a susurrus of disapproval buzzing around Laleh Bakhtiar’s recent English translation, The Sublime Qur’an. The Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) Canadian secretary general, Muneer Fareed, made a statement that he would consider banning her translation. However, he was quickly overstepped by Ingrid Mattson, ISNA’s American president, who apologized for his statements and publicly acknowledged Dr. Bakhtiar’s authority as an Islamic scholar as well as the legitimacy of her translation of the Qur’an.

It is curious that people are contesting the authority of Dr. Bakhtiar, a scholar, writer, translator, editor and publisher of awe-inspiring accomplishment, to translate the Qur’an. Not only is she a uniquely renowned and celebrated scholar of Sufism, but she has founded a whole new school of psychology merging Gurdjieff’s Enneagram with its roots in thirteenth-century central Asian Sufi Tariqas to develop a methodology for modern healing. In addition, she is the author of over fourteen books ranging in topic from Sufism, to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him), to the esteemed fourteenth-century scholar Al-Ghazzali. She has also translated over twenty-five books, including Fatima is Fatima and Iqbal: Manifestation of the Islamic Spirit, as well as adapting the Encyclopaedia of Islamic Law.

The language of the Qur’an is not didactic but poetic, and therefore open to many different kinds and even levels of translation, from literal to symbolic to esoteric. This diversity of interpretation creates a diversity of belief that necessitates tolerance and openness. However, as is the case with most religious traditions, orthodox interpretations of the faith often challenge or even reject more progressive and liberal readings of the same text.

In the case of The Sublime Qur’an, the controversy largely concerns chapter 4 (Surah), verse (Ayah or Sign) 34 of the Holy Qur’an. Dr. Bakhtiar reverts the translation of the Arabic word dharhaba, translated for centuries by Muslim clerics as “to beat,” back to its original meaning of “to go away.” This is nothing short of revolutionary for empowering Muslim women in traditional societies, where a system of patriarchy cites the absolute authority of the Qur’an as the legitimizing factor for domestic abuse. Any educated man or woman who has studied the Qur’an and understood that it elevated, in the seventh century, womankind as equal to, if not higher than, mankind knows that the problem is not with the Qur’an itself. Rather, the problem lies with interpretation by a specific group, with its own values, to serve a particular agenda.

Dr. Bakhtiar’s desire to be inclusive and to tolerate multiple points of view and diverse paths has perhaps been born out of her experience as the daughter of an American mother and Iranian father who was “not religious, but spiritual, devoting his life as a physician to help to heal the suffering of people.” Dr. Bakhtiar was raised a Catholic and did not convert to Islam until the age of twenty-four when she moved to Iran and studied Islam under Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

She speaks at length about the “inclusiveness” of her translation and by implication of her vision or understanding of Islam, which eschews the narrow orthodoxy that is so often associated with Islam by those who judge it only from the symptoms of the acute socio-political upheavals taking place in many Muslim countries.


Sikeena Karmali Let’s begin by talking a little about the translation process. It can become quite complex, not just from the point of view of deriving and disseminating meaning across language from the actual text itself but also, in the case of sacred religious or canonical texts, questions of authority and legitimacy. Let’s take the example of Mowlana Jalal Uddin Rumi or simply Rumi, as he is called in the West. Many of his fans do not even know that he was a devout Muslim, a Mowlana and the founder of an entire tradition of Sufi mysticism. Although the more popular translations eschew these passages, his writing refers frequently to the Qur’an and even quotes from it.

Laleh Bakhtiar People often forget that Rumi actually wrote in Persian. American scholars and poets who have translated his work have done a great service in introducing his ideas to the public; so much so that, for a long time, he was the best-selling poet in America. But the major translator of Rumi does not speak a word of Persian. He worked with a Persian who is very well versed in Rumi — this is what people say — and then because he was a poet he was able to put it into poetic language. Rumi’s poems are recreations, another kind of translation that is perfectly acceptable. So, whereas Rumi became extremely popular, the original idea of what he was saying has not necessarily come across. As you have said, for instance, how often he refers to Qur’anic verses or to the life of the Prophet (peace be upon Him) because this puts a religious tinge on it. And in fact, Rumi did not “write” the poetry. He whirled as he was reciting it and his disciples wrote it down. This was an amazing opening of the spiritual world, of intuition.

SK Can you tell us about your own translation process?

LB I’ve translated twenty-five books, so I have a great deal of experience with translation. I used to begin at the beginning of a book and go to the end. Thinking back on that, I realized that the translations I had done probably lacked internal consistency. The same word was not always translated the same way, when the context allowed, because when I got to the middle of the work, I’d forget about what word I used at the beginning and put a synonym. For one Arabic word, the reader finds maybe five, six, seven English synonyms, so they’re thinking that this is a new word rather than understanding that this is the same word that was previously used. If you’re doing a normal translation, then nobody is really bothered by that. But when you want to translate a sacred text like the Qur’an into English, so that people can learn the Arabic from the English, then you need to be consistent.

SK Well, language is given great prominence in the Qur’an, so much so that Muslim culture extols the pen as being mightier than the sword. How did you
get around this labyrinth of words and meanings?

LB I determined that I would begin with the words first. There is a very well-known Arabic lexicon, al-muj’in al mufahris. It lists all the nouns and verbs and some particles in the Qur’an, and then it includes a part of each verse. I began with that seven years ago. And at that time my computer did not have an Arabic program. I had to first transliterate the word into English characters to begin making a database of the words. That took quite a long time.

Two years into it, I was talking to a friend and I thought I had come up with a new method of translation. I was a little concerned because I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I thought it was like a social science experiment. My friend told me that was how they translated the King James version of the Bible. The method is called “formal equivalent” and it is the most objective kind of translation because you use the same word every time [it occurs], if the context allows. This gives a consistency to the translation, which is often lacking when translators start at the beginning and go to the end.

So this is the method that I used and through this I was able to maintain internal consistency; but at the same time I also used language that was all-inclusive. Arabic is so rich that there are many different words you can use for [the translation of] a word. I always chose the word that would be most inclusive of people of all faiths.

SK In your book, Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest, you say that, “The Virgin Mary and the miracle of the virgin birth of Christ, the Word of God, as contained in the Qur’an, are important Sufi symbols of aspects of the Truth: for the birth of the Word to the Virgin Mary is as the birth of the Word to the unlettered Prophet. The miracle of Islam is the Qur’an as the miracle of Christianity is the Christ.” 1 Just as the symbol and icon of the Virgin Madonna has shaped not only the religious but also the social and cultural imagination of Christendom, so language has shaped the religious and cultural consciousness of the Muslim world.

LB Yes, the greatest miracle of Islam that was given to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) is the Qur’an. And the Qur’an itself means recitation. The Qur’an was the basis for the development of Islamic literature, arts and architecture, where so much of the calligraphy appears on the mounts. Everybody throughout Islamic civilization has been inspired one way or another by the Qur’an.

As the word Qur’an itself means to be recited, it was an oral tradition. The Qur’an was the first book-length book in the Arabic language. There is a strong oral tradition in the Islamic world, and the literate people of the past would be able to recite Rumi, Hafiz, Saadi, or any of the other great poets of the Persian language. So it is one of those wonderful things that happens in the Islamic world today, where you can recite a line of poetry in response to somebody … and maybe you’re a general in the army and he is a taxi driver, yet he can recite back to you the next line.

SK Given this strong oral tradition, did you find it a challenge to translate the “poetry” of the Qur’an?

LB The Arabic of the Qur’an is the spiritual message. No matter how you try to find the poetry and the rhythm in it, you can never succeed. A translation is just that: a translation. It is never comparable to the original. A person receives spiritual blessings from reading it in Arabic, listening to the recitation of it in Arabic, or reciting it in the Arabic language. So we’re at a second tier when you talk about interpretations or translations or anything of that sort. What happens with translations is that those people — extremists for instance — who rely on a traditional interpretation can go to these and find whatever they are looking for.

SK Muslims are told to use aql, the faculty of their intellect, to understand the miracle of the Word of God. Do you feel that you have given contemporary Muslims, both men and women, both in the East and the West, the gift of your Sublime Qur’an to interpret for ourselves?

LB I just wanted the English-speaking audience to be able to know exactly what the words say without any interpretation. There isn’t a translation in the English language where a person can read exactly what the words are at the basic level, not the esoteric level of mysticism and not the more orthodox literal level. I object to many of the versions of the Qur’an over the centuries where the translator gives his own interpretation. The Qur’an is eternal and universal for all humankind at all times.

The language of the Qur’an is not didactic but poetic, and therefore open to many different kinds and even levels of translation, from literal to symbolic to esoteric.

Sikeena Karmali was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated in Canada, the US, Italy and Egypt. From 1994 to 2004 she worked in the fields of international development and human rights. She now lives in Vancouver, and is writing her second novel, The Mulberry Courtesan.

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