Reading the Qur’an in a Muslim way

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All religious texts are open to interpretation and new readings. Our understanding of the text is not bound to a moment, nor is it fixed. It is dynamic and not in English.
God commands Muslims to beat their wives. At least, that’s how many Islamophobes would describe verse 4:34 of the Qur’an. As we all know the verse states:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّمُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَلِهِمْ فَالصَّلِحَتُ قَنِتَتٌ حَفِظَتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّه ُوَالتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

Arrijālu qawwāmūna ʿalā annisā-i bimā faḍḍala Allahu baʿḍahum ʿalā baʿḍin wabimā anfaqū min amwālihim fa aṣṣaliḥatu qanitatun ḥafiẓatun lilghaybi bimā ḥafiẓa Allahu wa-allatī takhafūna nushūzahunna fa-ʿiẓūhunna wa-ahjurūhunna fī almadajiʿi wa-iḍribūhunna fa-in atʿanakum falā tabghū ʿalayhinna sabīlan inna Allaha kāna ʿaliyyan kabīran

The point being that just as neither Prophet Moses or Prophet Jesus spoke English, nor did Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is revealed in Arabic, so when someone says the Qur’an says something, and then quotes only the English, what he is saying is that they have chosen an interpretation of the Qur’an that fits his argument.

In 2008, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar published a highly-heralded translation of the Qur’an called The Sublime Qur’an, partially in response to this verse. Her basic argument is many of the English translations suggest that the verb in the verse, “iḍribū,” from the root “ḍ-r-b,” is some version of “hit.” She makes two critiques of this translation:

  1. It contradicts another verse of the Qur’an where a wife is not to be mistreated by her husband.
  2. The Prophet Muhammad, the example of the perfect Muslim, never hit any of his wives.

Her belief is that the verse is mistranslated, and does not in fact reflect traditional Muslim understandings of the verse. Her translation says:

Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place then go away from them; and the they obey you, sure look not for any against them; truly God is Lofty, Great.

The root “ḍ-r-b” has the same semantic range as the English word “strike.” In the same way one “strikes a tune,” “strikes a drum,” or “strikes oil,” the words are very strong and visceral, but not necessarily physical. To me, the best approximation that keeps the physicality of the word, while indicating it’s true meaning, is “sever,” as in “sever a relationship.” The basic sequence of event, for couples in conflict, is to argue, to separate, and then to divorce.

Many pre-modern translations of the Qur’an seem to support this reading, as early Persian and Urdu translation do not use the words for “hitting” (zadan/maarnaa), but “breaking” (keshidan/tornaa). Dr. Amina Wadud highlights the processes by which patriarchal understandings are grafted onto the text, in ways not dissimilar to other faith traditions.

As with any religious scripture, we have to keep two things in mind:

  1. The Word of God can never be truly understood by mortal creation, except by Divine Guidance.
  2. Any act of translation is inherently an act of interpretation.

I do not deny that there are many problematic readings of the Qur’an, but no normal human should be able claim the definitive understanding of what God says, least of all through translation – someone else’s interpretation – or without understanding how Muslims themselves understand the text. Just as no one would take me seriously as a Muslim, academically trained in the study of Islam, if I were to start explaining Catholic theology, no one should take armchair experts on Islam seriously. Dr. Carl Ernst, in his book Following Muhammad, says:

But the focus of many modern Protestant denominations on the Bible has led to the expectation that one can understand everything of importance of the other religious traditions if one knows what is said in the their scriptures. This concept of scripturalism is tempting, but it is a fallacy. It assumes that all scriptural verses are equally weighty, that there is no debate about their meaning, and that there as been no change over the centuries in the understanding of particular verses. It also assumes that every member of a particular religious group is equally certain to follow every prescription found in the holy book (or books). Can one predict the behavior of a Christian simply by taking a verse out of the Bible and assuming that it has a controlling influence over that person? (pg. 55)

The interpretive methodologies of one faith tradition does not carry over to other faith traditions. However, there seems to be an understanding that we can understand another’s faith by putting into terms we understand. Of course, that way can be rich to start a conversation, but will not lead any real understanding unless we engage in dialogue. We need to understand that every faith has its own way of understanding itself and how to interpret scripture. Projecting our own anxieties, perhaps issues we are not willing to engage with in our own faith, onto others achieves nothing.

For example, I am disturbed when I read something like this, which claims that there is only way to read the text because of an English translation that the author finds sympathetic. The author is representative of a particular style of thinking and discourse. What makes the piece intellectually suspect is the firm conviction that nothing like this exists in Christianity. Perhaps the author does not believe the Hebrew Bible has any relation to Christian life, as it is rife with misogynistic and violent stories and commandments. Of course, if that is the case, than he must also believe that homosexuality is not a sin according Christian doctrine, and I think he should spend more time correcting his misguided co-religionists than speaking of the mote in his brother’s eye. I wonder, if he also rejects the Pauline letters, which contain phrases like “for they [women] are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says,” (1 Corinthians 14:34) or “let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor,” (1 Tim. 2:11-14) or “for the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does” (1 Cor. 7:4). In which case, his belief system is based on the Gospels and the Gospels alone, which I am not sure is official Baptist stand. Of course, the Gospels are said to be the root of a deep anti-Semitism of the Christianity, because of the supposed deicide of the Jews. Perhaps the author believes the Holocaust to be inconsequential in terms of religious thought? There is also the passage in Luke 19:27 which says all of Jesus’ enemies are to be slain before him.

Because Dr. Bakhtiar’s translation was so well-covered in the news, and Neil MacFarquhar did the yeoman’s work of going through the various translations, that it seems impossible that anyone who wishes to speak intelligently about religion in general, or Islam specifically, would be unaware of it. Therefore, those who make the argument that there is only one way to read the Qur’an are either intellectually vacuous or intellectually dishonest. Either, they are morally and spiritually bankrupt for sowing discord and dissension. There is no spiritual reward in giving into hatred and ignorance.

Almost 50% of the world’s Muslims live in 5 countries: Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey. All five of them have have elected at least one female head of state. As a community, we are dealing with the patriarchal readings of the text, and have had some successes. Unless one argues that the vast majority of Muslims are not really Muslims, which strikes me as an odd assertion to come from a non-Muslim.

All religious texts are open to interpretation and new readings. The Word of God cannot be contained by human consciousness. Although many Islamophobes are sympathetic to Bin Laden in arguing that only he knows the Truth, the vast majority of Muslims reject this thinking as they reject Bin Laden and his associates. Our understanding of the text is not bound to a moment, nor is it fixed. It is dynamic and not in English. I end with another verse from the Qur’an (3:42) “The angels said: “O Mary! Behold, God has elected thee and made thee pure, and raised thee above all the women of the world.”
Hussein Rashid, a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, blogs at Islamicate and Religion Dispatches. This article was originally published on AltMuslimah on March 8, 2009.

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