NEW YORK (Reuters) - A new English-language interpretation of the Muslim Holy book the Koran challenges the use of words that feminists say have been used to justify the abuse of Islamic women.
The new version, translated by an Iranian-American, will be published in April and comes after Muslim feminists from around the world gathered in New York last November and vowed to create the first women's council to interpret the Koran and make the religion more friendly toward women.
In the new book, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, a former lecturer on Islam at the University of Chicago, challenges the translation of the Arab word "idrib," traditionally translated as "beat," which feminists say has been used to justify abuse of women.
"Why choose to interpret the word as 'to beat' when it can also mean 'to go away'," she writes in the introduction to the new book.
The passage is generally translated: "And as for those women whose illwill you have reason to fear, admonish them; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!"
Instead, Bakhtiar suggests "Husbands at that point should submit to God, let God handle it -- go away from them and let God work His Will instead of a human being inflicting pain and suffering on another human being in the Name of God."
Some Muslims said the new interpretation strayed from the original. Omar Abu-Namous, imam at the New York Islamic Cultural Center Mosque, questioned Bakhtiar's interpretation.
"There is nothing to stop a woman from translating the Holy Koran. The translator should have good command of the Arabic language in order to convey it and translate it into other languages. I don't know if Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar has good command of Arabic," Imam Abu-Namous said.
"Maybe she is depending on other translations, not on the original," he said.
Bakhtiar defended her work, telling Reuters she translated from the Arabic text and that she "reads and knows classical Arabic."
The New York imam also said the passage she is challenging speaks of when a woman wants a divorce, and only allows a man to "hit his wife, according to the Prophet, with a 'miswak,'" or a twig of a pencil's length, on her hand.
Arabic Language Professor at the American University in Cairo Siham Serry said her interpretation of the word "idrib," was "to push away," similar but slightly different from Bakhtiar's "to go away."
She said she agrees with the imam that 'miswak' means twig and that the Koran does not encourage the harm of women. But she also said that men can interpret that passage to justify their own behavior.
"How can you hurt someone by hitting her with a very small, short and weak thing?" she asked by telephone from Cairo. "But sometimes the interpretation of the Koran is according to men, and sometimes they try to humiliate the woman."
Bakhtiar writes in the book that she found a lack of internal consistency in previous English translations, and found little attention given to the woman's point of view.
In other changes to the text, she cites the most accurate translation of the word traditionally translated to mean "infidel" as "ungrateful."
And she uses "God" instead of "Allah," saying that God is the universal English term.
Bakhtiar has been schooled in Sufism which includes both the Shia and Sunni points of view. As an adult, she lived nine years in a Shia community in Iran and has lived in a Sunni community in Chicago for the past 15 years.
"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," she writes.
The new text is published by Islamic specialty bookseller Kazi Publications, which has a store in Chicago and online.