Qur’an translation of the week #157: Feminist? Qur’anist? Perennialist? Aḥmadi? Or Sufi Mystic? Harmonizing the Multiple Identities of Laleh Bakhtiar in her Translation of The Sublime Quran

A guest contribution by Sheam Khan, University of Leicester

Identifying the ideology of a Qur’an translator has rarely been more complex than in the case of The Sublime Quran and its translator, Laleh Bakhtiar, whose ideological positions are often paradoxical. There is a wealth of information available regarding her life and works, but the polarities of her publicly adopted positions often leave one with more questions than answers! Bakhtiar was a self-declared modernist and feminist who simultaneously practiced a decidedly unmodern and deeply traditional version of Sufism, which seeps into her translation choices in numerous places. She is also a Qur’anist, in that she claims to reject all hadīth in favour of a Qur’an-centric worldview, whilst unabashedly depending on selected hadīth to support a number of her most controversial Qur’anic interpretations. Likewise, Bakhtiar publicly rejects the entire tafsīr canon as ‘words written by men for men’ but dedicated over two decades of her life to prolifically translating ‘the words of men’, albeit selectively chosen men, such as al-Ghazālī and Ibn al-ʿArabī. And perhaps, most surprisingly, Bakhtiar not only adopts certain core Aḥmadi beliefs that clash with all her above-mentioned positions, but has managed to weave them seamlessly into her translation! This complex intertwining of juxtapositions has come to define both Bakhtiar’s persona and her Qur’an translation. This is all aside from the Sunnī/ Shiʾī tug-of-war she seems to play with herself through the course of her various presentations of The Sublime Quran, which I will detail later in this post.

What is then most mystifying is how, despite having a plethora of ideologies, and often conflicting sectarian biases woven into her translation (and all those mentioned in the title are really in there!), Bakhtiar’s Sublime Quran is still presented, and broadly accepted, as a straightforward, dictionary-based Qur’an translation, albeit one that has feminist leanings, or is as Bakhtiar calls it ‘a gender-neutral’ rendering.

The Sublime Quran was first published in 2007 and received notoriety and acclaim in almost equal measures; for example, it was recommended on Oprah.com in 2009 by David Eggers and is of course, best known for Bakhtiar’s rendering of Q 4:34, as perhaps most famously discussed in an article by Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times. The hype was only further heightened by her claim that her Qur’an translation was the first by a Muslim woman, (which it was not), and that her Concordance of The Sublime Qur’an was the first concordance of the Qur’an in English (which it also was not!). Bakhtiar has been repeatedly criticized for making these false claims, but is this to be seen as deliberate dishonesty? I would say, not exactly! As one familiarizes oneself with Bakhtiar and her works, it dawns on you that the obsessive claim of being first at everything is perhaps intended by her to be understood more loosely; in her interviews and speeches she repeatedly mentions that her father was the first Iranian to ever travel to America for education, and that her mother was the first American woman to ever marry an Iranian! She continues that she and her siblings were the first mixed-race Iranian-American children to be born, and that her family were the first to ever move to Iran from America … and so the list of firsts goes on! Her works being publicly declared as ‘the first’ of some kind is a natural continuation of this pattern.

The Sublime Quran maintains a loyal following to this day, despite not having the most aesthetically pleasing presentation. The most readily available version is the English-only edition, which is printed on extremely thin paper that allows the print from the other side to show through, and has a rather awkward alignment from right to left on every second page.

Her loyal following may partly be due to the assurance she gives her readers that the translation she is presenting is ‘free from any transient, denominational or doctrinal bias’, all things that readers of Qur’an translations have become more aware of over the last fifteen years. She expounds on this claim by explaining the complex ‘scientific’ methodology she has developed ‘unfettered by the shackles of tafsīr literature’ which, in her opinion, is biased and representative of the patriarchy. Her solution is to produce a ‘concordance-based’ translation that relies heavily on the linguistic roots of the Arabic verbs. This formulaic approach however doesn’t seem to solve the conundrum as neatly as she may have hoped, since it decontextualizes the words completely, regularly producing rather puzzling translations.

In her preface, Bakhtiar recalls her delight when a friend told her that the translation methodology she had selected (formal equivalence) was what she believed was used for the translation of the King James Version of the Bible. However, Bakhtiar’s decision to omit all footnotes and commentary, which she believed ‘is as formal equivalence dictates,’ leaves her translation unintelligible in places. The ‘fog of language,’ a term coined by Hussein Abdul-Raof, desperately needs illumination by way of footnotes or commentary in The Sublime Quran, which is missing in this translation. The ambiguity in meaning is particularly glaring when Bakhtiar chooses to translate religious concepts that can be characterized as semantic voids when presented without any explanation or recourse to the original term intended, such as zakāt, ʿumrah and salāt. An example of this is Bakhtiar’s rendering of al-ʿumrah in her translation of Q 2:196 as: ‘And fulfill the pilgrimage to Makkah and the visit for God’. Bakhtiar translates al-ʿumrah simply as ‘the visit,’ stripping the word bare of all religious connotations and spiritual nuances and leaving it difficult to identify what is intended to anyone who is not already aware of the concept of ʿumrah.

Consistency of methodology is another USP Bakhtiar claims for The Sublime Quran in her preface, where she dismisses all other existing English translations as ‘lacking in internal consistency and reliability’. It is therefore disappointing to find that her own methodology is far from consistent. For example, Bakhtiar is forthright about the importance of using Latinized names for the prophets, but she chooses to still refer to John with the Qur’anic ‘Yahya’ whilst Jesus, Mary and others remain Latinized. Likewise, Bakhtiar makes an impassioned argument for using the word ‘God’ instead of ‘Allah’ because she believes it is more inclusive to not use ‘Allah’, contending that ‘all the English-speaking Muslims who refer to their God as ‘Allah’ are going directly against the Qur’anic narrative of Sūrat Ibrāhīm in which, at Q. 14:4, the Qur’an ‘tells the Prophet to speak to people in their own language.’ ‘Subsequently,’ says Bakhtiar,‘it does not follow the Sunnah of the Prophet who did speak to people in their own language’.Aside from this being a peculiar argument from Bakhtiar, who publicly rejects the sunnah and hadīth, her uncompromizing position on the use of the name ‘Allah’ is quite an indictment of hundreds of millions of non-Arabic speaking Muslims who refer to ‘God’ as ‘Allah’. Paradoxically, she uses the Arabic name of Satan without hesitation, and refers to him often as Iblis, further highlighting the internal inconsistency in her methodology.

However, since the majority of those reading a Qur’an translation by default do not understand the Arabic language, a translation is often selected simply for its readability in the target language and the way it flows, rather than for accuracy or methodology, which cannot be gauged as easily.  With Bakhtiar being a native English-speaker, and a prolific translator, expectations in this regard would naturally be very high. It is therefore one of the more unanticipated disappointments to find her translation lacking in fluency in the target text, often descending into what resembles gibberish! A good example of this can be seen in Bakhtiar’s translation of Q 19:43:

There is, of course, also the question of accuracy and faithfulness to the source text, terms sometimes frowned upon in translation studies. I use them here to reference clear linguistic errors, not ideologically-influenced translation choices that may be present due to sectarian bias. The Sublime Quran is brimming with linguistic inaccuracies, an example of this is its translation of Q 75:26–31 which can be seen in the picture on the left, in comparison to Mustafa Khattab’s translation of the same passage in the picture on the right.

A number of translation errors are immediately apparent, but the one I specifically highlight here results from her decontextualized translation methodology where fa lā ṣaddaqa wa-lā ṣallā is translated as ‘for he established not the true nor invoked blessings’.

Errors such as these link back directly to Bakhtiar’s concordance and are therefore repeated each time the word appears in the source text, making the probability of repeated errors in the target text extremely high. It is the sheer volume of such unforced errors that led to public criticism from the likes of Islamic law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl of the University of California, who concluded in the Chicago Tribune that, Bakhtiar has a reputation as an editor, not an Islamic scholar. Three years of classical Arabic is not enough!’

The Many Reincarnations of The Sublime Quran

Since the publication of The Sublime Quran in 2007, Bakhtiar has republished her translation, either partially or completely, in several different guises. The target text is always the same, but it is ‘reincarnated’ as a new work and presented in a new format. The Quranic Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad was published in 2015, and extracts only the verses from her translation that directly address the Prophet (S). This works seems to be Bakhtiar’s answer to those who criticise her rejection of the traditional Sunnah. Her naming it as ‘The Quranic Sunnah’ allowed her to escape being labelled a Qur’anist based on a technicality, whilst continuing to reject the entire hadith corpus.

This was followed by The Chronological Quran as Revealed to Prophet Muhammad, published the following year (2016), which reformats the text of The Sublime Quran into what Bakhtiar considers to be the chronological order of its revelation, which she says she received from Prince Ghazi of Jordan. With its publication coming a full nine years after the first edition of The Sublime Quran, we find Bakhtiar is more open by this point in acknowledging in her preface that she has referred to Jaʿfarī sources, something that is categorically denied by her in earlier versions of The Sublime Quran. The Chronological Quran has an innovative layout, where verses that are revealed later are numbered but not mentioned and then referenced again in the place where she believes they belong. It is however difficult to follow and her hopes of explaining the sīrah through this work did not materialize.

Lastly, there is the small matter of the thirty-volume series, also published in 2016 by Bakhtiar! This series entitled ‘Critical Thinking and the Chronological Quran’ divides her translation into 23 parts according to each of the 23 years of Muhammad’s prophethood, while the remaining seven volumes are dedicated to the rest of the prophets mentioned in the Qur’an. These volumes are supplemented with critical thinking strategies but essentially follow the same order as The Chronological Quran.

What’s next for The Sublime Quran?

Despite Laleh Bakhtiar’s passing in 2020, her translation of The Sublime Quran is set to explode into the digital age with an AI version of her work currently in production! During her long battle against myelodysplastic syndrome she began using Garage Band to record her thoughts on the Qur’anic text, and a modified version of Google Assistant’s voice-driven AI is currently being developed to allow fans to not only listen to her voice, but ask questions about the Qur’an and have virtual conversations with her on Qur’anic interpretation and other disciplines. 

Sheam Khan

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