Ahead of my mother, Laleh Bakhtiar’s 80th birthday, I’m sharing some of her journey, in a series of posts, in her own words. A renowned scholar of Islam, in May 2016, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mohammed Webb Foundation in Chicago, for her contributions to the American Muslim Community.
The following stories offer a glimpse into her life — one that has been rich and fulfilling as a scholar, a mentor, a mother, a grandmother and a global citizen in between Iran and America. Click and read the first and second posts to catch up.
In the late 1980’s, my mother left Iran and after a few years in London ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. She then moved to Chicago as a scholar in resident at Kazi Publications.
We pick up her story in Chicago just after 9/11
After September 11, 2001, I was devastated by the tragedy that struck New York. I was embarrassed too by what immoral extremists had gotten away with. It was a solemn time for me and many other American Muslims as we mourned this senseless tragedy.
I could no longer remain silent. As Socrates had said, “Know your ignorance; that is wisdom.” Or as Rumi said, “Out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Having written ten books on Islam and Sufism, I would refer to present day English translations of the Quran only to be met by disappointment. Why is the translator using the words ‘infidel’ or ‘disbeliever’ for the word that also means ‘to be ungrateful’? Why are they literally translating ‘blind, deaf and dumb’ when the Quranic sense is clearly about those who willfully refuse to see, hear or speak. They are not physically blind, deaf and dumb, but unwilling to see, hear or speak out.
In response to feminist concerns that the Quran is often used to support the repression of women, I took up the challenge of providing a new interpretation that includes women’s viewpoints. This challenge was long overdue after more than fourteen centuries of mostly male interpretations and translations.
I have been asked many times: How can you go against tradition and over 1400 years history of commentary? I believe that if we study Islamic history, after the time of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs in the 7th century, we Muslims have had uninterrupted rule by tyrants and dictators with the exception of a few years of a pious ruler. Does that mean that we cannot go against history and demand pious and benevolent rulers? No, of course not. My response is that the minute that each individual member of the Muslim community or ummah gains consciousness of something wrong being done in the name of God, in the name of Islam, he or she has the responsibility to speak out.
I have been schooled in Sufism which includes both the Jafari (Shia) and Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafii (Sunni) points of view. As an adult, I lived nine years in a Jafari community in Iran and have been living in a Hanafi community in Chicago for over twenty years with Maliki and Shafii friends. While I understand the positions of each group, I do not represent any specific one as I find living in America makes it difficult enough to be a Muslim, much less to choose to follow one sect or another.
I first publicly presented the results of the translation of The Sublime Quran at the WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity) Conference (November, 2006) where Muslim women from all over the world had gathered to discuss the possibility of forming a Women’s Islamic Council. I gave the logic as to why the word “to beat” in 4:34 has been a misinterpretation.
I looked around the room at the hundred and fifty women as I waited for my turn. I saw top Muslim women leaders, including international human rights activists, scholars, and artists. There was Baroness Uddin, the first Muslim woman to enter the House of Lords in Britain as a member; Nogi Imoukhuede, the Nigerian advocate in the stoning case of Amina Lawal; Zainah Anwar of Malaysia, who wrote Standing Alone in Mecca; Dr. Massouda Jalal, the Afghani presidential candidate; Ingrid Mattson, President of the largest organized Muslim group in America, the Islamic Society of North America; and Mukhtaran Mai, the Pakistani woman who was gang raped yet went on to write In the Name of Honor: A Memoir.
As I walked up to the stage, my life went by me in a flash. Suddenly it struck me, how did my life journey bring me to this day? How did it happen that I became a voice for Muslim women? I reminded myself how after my divorce I had to find a way to support my three children and myself. This took a great deal of introspection, as I am naturally an introvert. But, with no male figure in the family — father, brother, husband, uncle, cousin, nephew — as a single mother, I had the strength of purpose.
Now at the podium, I shook myself out of my past memories when I heard the applause. My turn was next. The Sublime Quran was about to be presented to the world. I went to the podium and paused to look at the expectant faces in the audience. With a mixture of pride and humility, I announced that with God’s blessings I had just finished a translation of the Quran.
The beaming faces of women from all over the world surrounded me. After seven years of quiet, steady, focused work, this was a moment to be thankful for. After the speech, I looked up and two Muslim women approached me. They said that they work in shelters for battered women and that they and the women in the shelters have been waiting for over 1400 years for someone to pay attention to this issue through a translation of the Quran.
It was my hope that the initiating of a dialogue would further open the minds and awaken to consciousness and conscience those men who place their hand on the Word of God giving themselves permission to beat their wife and those women who believe they deserve to be beaten!
Islam is said to be a school of thought and action. I had mastered a great deal of the thought and now, with the translation of the Quran and challenging previous interpretations of 4:34, I had earned, it seemed, my activist wings. The journey had taken me from the legitimizing of the status quo to speaking out and discerning between right and wrong.
Final thought from Davar Ardalan:
In all the years that my mother has spent in deep and impactful scholarly endeavors, she has never forgotten her children and grandchildren. Laleh has stood by all of us Iran, John, Saied, Samira, Aman, Amir, Mani, Shervin, Rodd, Ryon, Karim, Susan, Ryan and her youngest grandchild Layla.
Thank you for reading my mother’s life and work and she is still as active as ever! A loving mother and grandmother and pioneering champion of human rights and women’s rights in Islam turns 80 years-old on July 29, 2018. You can follow her on Twitter Laleh Bakhtiar.
Part 1 of Laleh’s Story:
Her Flag Unfurled: Celebrating My Mother’s Indomitable Spirit
Her 1956 high school yearbook at Holton Arms included this quote: “ My plume on high, my flag unfurled, I rode away to…
Part II of Laleh’s Story: