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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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.