The Magazine

Rewriting the Koran

From the September 27, 2004 issue: A bigoted Saudi translation.

Sep 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 03 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THE UNITED STATES took the bold step last week of formally designating Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" for its lack of religious freedom. In the words of the State Department's 2004 report on religious freedom worldwide, "basic religious freedoms are denied to all [Saudi citizens] but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam . . . commonly called Wahhabi." This incontrovertible statement of fact is a breakthrough in the diplomatic dance of many veils. It casts in a new and somewhat hopeful light certain forms of engagement the administration continues to pursue with the Saudi kingdom.

Thus, also last week, the State Department welcomed a group of professors of religion from Saudi Arabia on a three-week tour of the United States. The stated goal of the visit is to show the 15 guests how Americans handle various issues of public policy and civil society, including state and federal responsibilities in education, the accreditation, financing, and curriculum of public and private schools, the academic study of religions including Islam, religious diversity, and interfaith activities.

All this should indeed be strange and informative to visitors whose delegation is led by five professors from the Imam Mohammed Ibn-Saud Islamic University, a seminary for the training of clerics in Wahhabism. Familiarly known as the "terrorist factory," this institution was the alma mater of three of the 9/11 suicide hijackers. Abd al-Aziz Abd al-Rahman Al-Omari (who was on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center) met and befriended several bin Ladenite clerics while studying at the Ibn-Saud campus in the city of Qaseem. Ahmed Abdullah Al-Nami (who was on the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania) studied at the university's branch in the city of Abha. And Mohned Mohamed al-Shehri (who was on the plane that struck the South Tower) was recruited, according to Saudi dissident sources, to the bin Laden network directly from the university.

Not only that, but the same seminary ran the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America (IIASA) as an extension campus in Fairfax, Virginia, under the supervision of the Department of Religious Affairs of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Early this year, the State Department expelled 24 Saudis associated with this network for abusing their diplomatic passports to interfere with American religious life.

The most obvious window into the theology taught at Ibn-Saud Islamic University is the Wahhabi Koran, an edition of the Islamic scripture, with commentary, printed in every major European, Asian, and African language in paperback editions that are distributed free or at low cost throughout the world (and are available on the web at www.kuran.gen.tr/html/english3). The fifteenth revised edition of this work was published as The Noble Qur'ân in the English Language by Darussalam Publishers and Distributors in Riyadh in 1996. The translators are Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, both affiliated with another extremist institution, the Islamic University of Medina, two of whose faculty members are also among the educators being hosted by the State Department.

The Wahhabi Koran is notable in that, while Muslims believe that their sacred text was dictated by God and cannot be altered, the Saudi English version adds to the original so as to change its sense in a radical direction. For example, the opening chapter, or surah, is known as Fatiha, and is recited in Muslim daily prayer and (among non-Wahhabis) as a memorial to the dead. The four final lines of Fatiha read, in a normal rendition of the Arabic original (such as this translation by N.J. Dawood, published by Penguin Books): Guide us to the straight path, / The path of those whom You have favored, / Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, / Nor of those who have gone astray.

The Wahhabi Koran renders these lines: Guide us to the Straight Way. / The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who have earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians). The Wahhabi Koran prints this translation alongside the Arabic text, which contains no reference to either Jews or Christians.

There is nothing to indicate to the uninformed reader that these interpolations, printed in parentheses, are absent from the Arabic. The reader encountering Islam for the first time, as well as the Muslim already indoctrinated in Wahhabism, is led to believe that the Koran denounces all Jews and Christians, which it does not.

There are, of course, many individuals who are unprepared to read this translation with a critical eye. This is especially true wherever Wahhabis conduct the missionary outreach called dawa--above all in prisons in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Indeed, it is to just such readers that this edition is directed. The Wahhabi Koran is also a mainstay of Muslim student groups on campuses throughout the West.

Distortions of the text stating or implying that God has condemned the Jews and Christians are scattered throughout the Wahhabi Koran. Notably, they invert the meaning of the several verses that express respect for the "People of the Book," the Jews and Christians. Thus, verse 2:62 in its authentic form states: Believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans--whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right--shall be rewarded by their Lord. (The Sabaeans were followers of an ancient religion impossible to identify clearly today.) In the Saudi English translation, this passage is footnoted to declare, No other religion except Islam will be accepted from anyone, although no such statement appears in the Arabic.

The standard translation of verse 3:113 reads: There are among the People of the Book some upright men who all night long recite the revelations of God and worship Him, who believe in God and the Last Day, who enjoin justice and forbid evil.

The Saudi translation again inserts verbiage hostile to non-Muslims. In the Wahhabi Koran, the upright Jews and Christians turn out to be those who convert to Islam: those enjoining Islamic Monotheism and following Prophet Muhammad and not opposing Prophet Muhammad. To repeat, where the Arabic text actually praises pious Jews and Christians, the Wahhabi English version praises only Jews and Christians who become Muslims.

The original verse 5:65 says of the Jews and Christians: If they observe the Torah and the Gospel and what is revealed to them from their Lord, they shall enjoy abundance.

The Wahhabi edition adds that, in addition to Jews' observing the Torah and Christians' the New Testament, both must accept the Koran--that is, become Muslims--which nowhere appears in the Arabic text and conflicts with traditional Islamic theology. Mainstream Islam treats the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran as different books. Wahhabism, by contrast, treats the Jewish and Christian scriptures as primitive editions of the Islamic text.

And, inevitably, the Wahhabi Koran adds language aggravating Muslim-Jewish controversies. Verse 17:1 refers to the night journey, an out-of-body experience in which the Prophet Muhammad was taken on a magical steed to a site called in the standard text the farther Temple. The Wahhabi translation alters this to stake the Islamic claim to Jerusalem. It refers to Muhammad's journey by night from Al-Masjid-al-Haram (at Makkah) to the farthest mosque (in Jerusalem).

Contempt for non-Muslims suffuses Saudi translations of the Islamic holy book. It is a matter of some urgency, then, that federal and state correctional institutions stop allowing the use of the Wahhabi Koran in Islamic teaching. Every prison warden in America should examine his library and replace this volume with an accurate translation.

The same bigotry is integral to the creed taught at the Imam Mohammed Ibn-Saud Islamic University and spread around the world by preachers and missionaries funded by the Saudi royal family. The spotlight the administration has now fixed on Riyadh's policy of religious intolerance may have embarrassed our Saudi visitors this week. If so, their discomfort is only fitting, as long as their universities and their government continue to promote the extremist cult in which terrorism breeds.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of The Two Faces of Islam.