Gender-Neutral Translation of Quran Inspires a New Generation
A gender-neutral translation of the Quran, by the late Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, is inspiring a new generation to understand Islamic texts from the vantage point of a woman.
Delana and Karam have been studying the Sublime Quran, a gender-neutral translation by the late Iranian-American scholar, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar. They say this translation offers evidence of the fundamentals of equality for women.
“The Sublime Quran states, ‘there is no compulsion in the way of life,’ says Iranian-American activist Delana Tavakol, “This language powerfully captures for me how Islam is about collective flourishing through individual freedom. We all have our own ways of living life, and each of us are worthy of making decisions about how to shape those lives.”
As young school girls and women across Iran demand dignity and freedom, Tavakol says she feels the spirit of this verse in the Sublime Quran is behind them. “Laleh’s work reminds Muslim women like myself that our voices are valuable,” Tavakol says. “We have a place in Islamic interpretation. Not behind the scenes or on the margins, but at the front as translators, critical thinkers, and agents.”
Tavakol was raised in Los Angeles in a household that was culturally connected to her roots in Iran, but where Islam didn’t have a strong explicit presence. It wasn’t until she became politically activated in college and law school that she started to meaningfully uncover the social and political dimensions of Islam, which eventually translated into deeply personal ones for her.
For the first six months of 2022, Tavakol and Karam Rahat, a Pakistani-American born and raised in Mississippi, took part in a Quranic study group with a focus on Dr. Bakhtiar’s translation of the Sublime Quran. Rahat is a physician completing residency in New Orleans but has always been passionate about health equity and social justice with a particular focus towards Islam and how it’s practiced and perceived in the South.
“I’ve seen how women aren’t always permitted to participate as freely as men in Islamic dialogue,” Rahat says. “I understand the Sublime Quran wasn’t explicitly a feminist endeavor but rather one that allows the feminist nature of Islam to shine more clearly. I’ve already seen how having a translation created by a woman has meant so much to so many people, and I hope we continue to see a shift in how we navigate these conversations in a more equitable manner.”
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, passed away on October 18, 2020 in Chicago, from Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a rare blood disorder. Two years later, social media posts continue to reflect on Laleh’s work and feminine perspective on Islam.
As her daughter, I can attest that Laleh lived a rich and fulfilling life. It was so meaningful to learn of Delana and Karam’s study group. I shared these questions with them via email:
- In 2022, you took part in a Quranic study group focusing on the late Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation — Sublime Quran. How did you become interested in this particular translation?
Delana: I wanted to continue investing in my relationship with Islam after moving to Mississippi in 2020. As a woman, I’ve always been reluctant to turn to many of the traditional outlets for my faith, since they’re often dominated by men whose voices and perspectives don’t reflect how I experience Islam. I wanted to return to the source of it all–the Quran–but also needed a translator I could trust.
That’s when I found an article online about Laleh’s Sublime Quran. Not only was the translator an Iranian-American woman like me, but she was even a professor at the same university I attended for college. I also admired her painstaking method of translation. Her use of formal equivalence to translate the Quran made me trust that I would be reading an authentic approximation of the original text, unfiltered by personal interpretation. It was perfect.
Karam: After spending two and a half decades in Mississippi I was having difficulty reconciling my place as an advocate for an Islamic community that I was progressively no longer seeing myself within, one I felt was often characterized unfairly but was also unwilling to examine itself critically. While many speak to the distinction between culture and religion, there can be an unflinching quality to the latter that stems from the Quran and its resolute, unchanging nature in comparison to other religious texts.
Similar to Delana, I sought to return to the Quran and examine the capacity for error in its interpretation, which seemed impossible without a scholar’s knowledge coupled with a clinical precision in translation. The existence of the Sublime Quran alone clued me into the fact the translation of the Quran was not a largely settled matter, let alone its interpretation. Delana and I were discussing our personal relationships with Islam when she mentioned she was starting to read the Sublime Quran, and I knew I had join in.
2. You mentioned that your study group gave way to many revelations and the translation has opened up new perspectives for you. Share 5 things you’ve learned or gained?
Islam is truly a comprehensive doctrine. Many of our interpretations of key verses were not uniquely related to divinity, but instead provided guiding principles for everyday life more generally. One of my favorite examples is the verse commonly understood as “there is no compulsion in religion.” Instead, The Sublime Quran writes, “there is no compulsion in the way of life” (emphasis added).
This subtle change in language powerfully captures for me how Islam is about collective flourishing through individual freedom. We all have our own ways of living life, and each of us are worthy of making decisions about how to shape those lives.
As Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran are fighting to access life’s basic freedoms–not only the freedom of religion, but also the freedom to dress however they want, date whomever they want, say whatever they want, and live however they want–as stated earlier, I feel the spirit of this verse is behind them.
The Sublime Quran often talks about “reasonableness” as a standard for whether or not certain actions are in line with Quranic principles. Unlike how that term is commonly used today, “reasonable” in The Sublime Quran doesn’t seem to reference some singular, objective metric.
Instead, “reasonable” simply means “one who can reason.” Again, this highlights the value of individual perspective in Islam, and underscores that all individuals are encouraged to engage with the world through critical reasoning.
Human agency is at the heart of the Quran. From the beginning and throughout the text, The Sublime Quran repeats that it isn’t an unwavering code of strict prescriptions everyone must uniformly follow. Instead, the Quran is a guidebook, offering a criterion of moral principles for people to consider and interpret individually for the benefit of the collective.
The text doesn’t say “you must do this”; instead, it says, “perhaps you will do this.” For me, this spirit of free agency is most powerfully captured in Verse 5:48, where The Sublime Quran reads, “For each among you We made a divine law and an open road.”
The text is very conscious of its context. The writing acknowledges that our world is filled with difference, inequality, and imperfection. The principles included in The Sublime Quran are explicitly shaped with those conditions in mind. The text reminds us to “[b]e staunch in equity” (4:135), and to be cognizant that “[a]mong you is he who lingers behind” (4:72) — in other words, don’t forget that everyone has different advantages and disadvantages that deserve to be accommodated.
There are many different records and materials that Muslims and scholars will cite as the sources of Islam. Engaging with multiple points of view is valuable and a part of Quranic teachings, but I have also felt like turning to all of these different men (it’s always men) as experts on the word of God has created fractures in our community and diluted the importance of individual reasoning.
The Sublime Quran repositions this text above all other sources. It rebuilds a direct line between God and the reader, unobstructed by third party interpreters and other worldly influences. It reminds us that Islam is the intimate relationship between God’s word and individual intuition.
The verses chosen for the epigraph are brilliantly chosen and poignant: “So give good tidings to My servants, those who listen to the saying of the Quran and follow the fairest of it. They are those whom God has guided and they are those who have intuition.” (39:17–18). Initially, there’s an implication there are portions of the Quran that are superior to others, but in truth the Quran recognizes that our ability to reason permits ambiguity.
We are compelled to intuit the fairest interpretation of the Word of God; this text seeks to facilitate that process. It’s tempting to see the Quran as a paradox of a supposed universal truth constrained by the need to address what was its present day.
Many view the Quran as a guidebook to an ethical existence, with so much dedicated to addressing minutiae about contemporary life. The Quran seeks to impart an ethical reasoning framework, and the ambiguity creates space to apply it. While there are some who may seek out “what was unspecific in it, looking for dissent”, no one can discern the meaning of the Book except “those imbued with intuition” (3:7).
The controversy surrounding verse 4:34 and its supposed condonation of domestic violence has been a mainstay of Islamic discourse. While most will agree that beating one’s partner is logically and ethically inconsistent with the rest of the Quran and that traditional interpretations have committed an egregious overreach in implying any sort of physical violence, I did not realize that it is also the result of an etymological error as well.
The Arabic root’s connotation is to “create space” or “go away from” in the context of a domestic disagreement. I implore everyone to read Laleh’s investigation into this as she does brilliant work dissecting it with the same academic rigor applied to the entire text.
There’s a strong collective sense of individuality in how everyone uniquely connects with Islam and God that gives rise to communal worship. I feel this is best emphasized through formal prayer, namaz, as it can be a group activity but consists of individuals all interfacing with God alone.
Whether discussing the unique paths we all walk towards Understanding or how each individual is a partial reflection of all of humanity, I learned this same mindset pervades the Quran’s language.
3. Any other thoughts to share with regards to Laleh’s work and contributions?
Delana: I was initially concerned that other Muslims in my community would reject this translation since it goes against many of the mainstream teachings they grew up with. To the contrary, I’ve spoken with a dozen Muslim friends and family who have all reacted with excitement when I told them there’s a reliable translation of the Quran by a woman.
Karam: I formerly placed heavy emphasis on the distinction between translation and interpretation. I now see when we offer one, we inherently make some sort of assessment of the other. So much that had been previously discounted on the basis of subjectivity is available to me again. To be able to approach my spirituality with a renewed fervor is an immense gift and means more than you could know.
To learn more about Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar’s life and work, click on the stories and videos below:
Courage, Temperance, Justice and the Enduring Wisdom of the late Scholar Laleh Bakhtiar
Renowned Iranian-American Scholar, Laleh Bakhtiar, lauded for Islamic spirituality and Quranic critical thinking, dies…
AI technology resurrects the voice of Laleh Bakhtiar
(RNS) - The voice of Laleh Bakhtiar, the first American woman to translate the Quran, who died last year, is being…
The Complete Quran Recitation by Laleh Bakhtiar
Reflections on the late Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar’s work and contributions
Jordanian Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, Chief Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs to King Abdullah of Jordan, endorsed her translation of the Sublime Quran on Amazon:
The work Dr. Bakhtiar has put into her interpretation — the consistency, the method, the attention to tense, root, case and detail is second to none. I have never seen its like before. The English reading of it is also lovely and smooth. This is clearly a blessing.
10 American Muslim Women You Should Know
Each and every one of these women is included because she is noteworthy — a cutting-edge artist or writer, a…
Scott Alexander, chair of the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion and consultant on Catholic-Muslim relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (reflections from 2009)
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar is an extraordinary woman… Her contributions to the study of Islam in the West have been in a stunning array of different of capacities and have resulted in a legacy that is truly monumental.
Through the years, Dr. Bakhtiar heard from hundreds of Muslim women, battered women, and social service groups who thanked her for bringing an alternative translation into the public eye. As a keynote speaker in New York in July 2014 for Turning Point, an organization for Muslim women and girls affected by domestic violence, Bakhtiar turned to the Quran itself to empower the audience to be brave and strong as they transformed their lives. Shireen Soliman, the Board Chair of Turning Point, described the personal impact of Bakhtiar’s work:
You can imagine how validating it was to finally hear of and read Dr. Bakhtiar’s work and her ability through her work and her research to be able to arrive at a translation of the Quran which finally for me really captured the essence of Islam, and is so beautifully aligned with the work we’re doing…with Turning Point.
Reading the Quran was so illuminating. I was able to find a wonderful translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, and it opened me up to the beauty of the faith in a way that no interpretation of the text had before. And, of course, in the book you find, very clearly, Islam’s dedication to social justice, to peace, and to the less fortunate.