New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse

Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American scholar, had already spent two years working on an English translation of the Koran when she came upon Chapter 4, Verse 34. The hotly debated verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately beaten – the most common translation for the Arabic word daraba – unless her behavior improves. Daraba has been translated as beat, hit, strike, scourge, chastise, flog, make an example of, spank, pet, tap and even seduce; Ms. Bakhtiar was convinced she found the correct translation when she came upon a definition for daraba as to go away. When the prophet had difficulty with his wives, what did he do? He didn’t beat anybody, so why would any Muslim do what the prophet did not? she asks. Critics fault Ms. Bakhtiar on her familiarity with religious tradition and Arabic grammar, the two touchstones of Koranic translation. Ms. Bakhtiar said she expected opposition because she is not an Islamic scholar and because men in the Muslim world, she said, disapprove of an American woman reinterpreting the prevailing translation. They feel the onslaught of the West against their religious values, and they fear losing their whole suit of armor, she said. But women need to know that there is an alternative. Conservative scholars suggest the verse has to be taken at face value, with important reservations. Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Islamic scholar who serves as Egypt’s grand mufti, said Koranic verses must be viewed through the prism of the era. The advice is always broad in order to be relevant to different cultures and in different times, he said through a spokesman in an e-mail message. In our modern context, hitting one’s wife is totally inappropriate as society deems it hateful and it will only serve to sow more discord.