Following a Fatwa-Review of “a Very Established Scholar,”
Palgrave/Macmillan Aborted the Publication of the
Reformist Translation of the Quran
(The Complete Review of the Sunni Scholar and Our Response)
“…. From the perspective of the academic study of the Qur’an, this book has very little to contribute……. .”
– A anonymous Sunni Scholar who was described by the editor of Palgrave-Macmillan as “a very well-established professor.”
In 2004, my colleagues and I signed a contract with Palgrave/Macmillan publishing house for the Quran: a Reformist Translation. The editor and other staff of the publishing house were very encouraging and enthusiastic, and last summer, I was personally introduced to the director of the publishing company at its New York headquarters. Palgrave even published an announcement about the upcoming Reformist Translation in their 2006 Fall/Winter Catalogue, which was later postponed for the summer of 2007. However, in December 2006, the editor informed me that the board determined that my manuscript was not acceptable for publication.
iNear Eastern Studies and Islamic Studies departments are heavily dependent on the grants of Sunni or Shiite establishments and the financial support of repressive regimes. Furthermore, Middle Eastern or Near Eastern Studies programs employ a good number of embedded CIA agents disguised as scholars, whose real job is to promote the agenda of imperial politics. So, for both theological and political reasons, the likelihood of a book by outspoken progressive muslims receiving negative reviews from those “well established scholars” was high. Perhaps, the publishing house looked for a “scholarly” excuse to censor the work of a politically incorrect team. Early signs of such a desire were evident when the publishing house recommended I delete the last section of the Manifesto for Islamic Reform, where I address Muslims, Christendom, Jews, and all Humanity.
The “very well-established” scholar’s letter (partially quoted above), was filled with prejudice, false accusations and misrepresentations. There was however, one substantial criticism, which consisted of our usage of a word, yes a single word in the translation: progressive. Palgrave’s “very well-established scholar” apparently had allergy towards that word; his rejection of that word did not rest on a linguistic argument, but on his lack of differentiation between “progressive” and “Progressive,” the first being an adjective and the latter, a relatively modern political label. Based on his reactionary and regressive mindset, our scholar pontificated that the author of the Quran could not have any idea about a progressive concept! (See verse 15:24; 74:37; and 66:5)
I believe that without hearing my defense against this Sunni version of excommunication in the guise of a “scholarly review,” the publishing house committed an injustice against my person and our work. I called the publishing house and asked them to give me the chance to respond to the reviewer and defend myself and work against his disparagement and distortions; I was told he remain anonymous.
These so-called scholars who glorify tradition do not have the guts to engage in critical thinking. They are aware of a lot of literature and are very good in quoting this or that in their works, yet they lack originality and the courage to criticize the establishment. They are aloof towards the plight of the masses. They do not take the risk of actively participating in leading the masses in a better direction. All they care about is their pension, their reputation among those who would rank them in the academic game and politics. Most of their production is regurgitation of useless academic material that contributes nothing toward the betterment of individuals and the society. They consider themselves objective, yet they cannot tolerate honest people with conviction.
We were not surprised to hear negative remarks, insults, or false associations from a reviewer who considers a rejection of backward and bankrupt sectarian dogmas “heresy.” However, we were surprised to learn that the board of the publishing house cancelled the publication of a potentially controversial yet crucial book that would introduce the message of the Quran–the message of peace, justice, reason, and progress–without the distortion of sectarian teachings. Any scholar who can see beyond his or her office can see the growing reform movement, open or clandestine, particularly in Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Egypt and Kazakhstan where people take great risks to question the popular sectarian dogmas.
Men and women of reason who have been promoting Islamic reform since the 1970’s by rejecting manmade religious dogmas have been the target of Sunni and Shiite extremists, terrorist groups and oppressive governments. Many of those who converted to rational monotheism are oppressed, some are forced to emigrate, others are forced to hide their whereabouts, and a few have been assassinated. For instance, my friend, Dr. Rashad Khalifa, was assassinated in Tucson, Arizona, by an al-Qaida affiliate terrorist group al-Fuqra or al-Fuqara; my Turkish comrade, Ms. Gonca Kuriş, was kidnapped, tortured and assassinated by Turkish Hizbullah, allegedly a tool of a faction in the Turkish secret police agency. And with the publication of this book, we are concerned about Layth who lives in Saudi Arabia, an oppressive and regressive monarchy supported by the US-Inc, which has been incubating a frustrated and bigoted population.
It is our conviction that some powerful interest groups do not wish the voice of a progressive islamic reform movement to be heard, a movement that does not justify state terrorism and atrocities as a response to group violence and terrorism; a movement that rejects serving the recently increased appetite of the imperialistic hegemony and military adventures of U.S. Inc., which has been advocated and conducted in the Middle East and beyond by the coalition of Neocon, right-wing Evangelical Christians, the Oil/Weapon industry, AIPAC, and the axis of Anglo-fascists, under the guise of national interest, freedom or security. Modern world history is filled with numerous examples showing that the terrorism, atrocities, genocides, covert operations, destruction and misery caused by militaries and police forces of governments are by far much worse than the ones committed by terrorist gangs and organizations.
We cannot allow the national propaganda machines lead us to seek refuge in a super evil that promises to save us from a smaller one, especially if the latter is the by product of the first. We should not let our governments be hijacked by war profiteers who do not hesitate to satisfy their greed for more power and money at the cost of the blood of the young and innocent, white and black, here and abroad. We should not let their embedded agents in academia and press dupe us through double speak, misinformation, and disinformation. We should not let some dubious forces manufacture consent in our names. We should not let ourselves be manipulated by fear-mongers, who will only increase or exaggerate the source of our fears. We should take back our governments by getting informed and involved. We should not let the fanatic Jihadies and Crusaders lead the world to their bloody Armageddon.
You may visit the following websites for the full letter of the Sunni scholar whose advice was taken at face value by Palgrave/Macmillan, and our response to the letter. You may also find in the following websites, recent updates, reactions, and feedback from reviewers, our responses, related news in the media, and the activities of the global reformist movement:
Let the world hear the message. Let the West hear the voice of monotheism, the voice of reason, peace, justice and progress. Let the East and the Middle East hear the clear message of the book that they have abandoned for centuries, despite efforts by their leaders to repress it.
9:32 They want to extinguish God‘s light with their mouths, but God refuses such and lets His light continue, even if the ingrates hate it.
9:33 He is the One who sent His messenger with guidance and the system of truth, to make it manifest above all other systems, even if those who set up partners hate it.
Now, I will intersperse my response with the full letter of the Sunni scholar who led Palgrave/Macmillan to drop the publication of this book:
“Thanks very much for sending me the manuscript of Quran: a Reformist Translation. As you requested, I will attempt to address the quality of the debate, the market/audience and potential for course material, and the timeliness for this publication.
“From the perspective of the academic study of the Qur’an, this book has very little to contribute. The translators represent an eccentric modern movement that claims its inspiration from Rashad Khalifa, a scientist who in 1974 came up with a computer-based numerological analysis of the Qur’an that served as a basis for his wholesale rejection of the last 14 centuries of Islamic tradition, and his founding of a new sect called United Submitters International. The translators repeatedly refer to this event as a miraculous discovery, something which will have very little appeal either to mainstream Muslims or to non-Muslims looking for a solid approach to this sacred text. The problem with this numerology is its complete disconnection from meaning and history, and its claim that permutations of the number 19 demonstrate the miraculousness of the Qur’an. This apologetic approach (which is well known in 20th-century thought, though by no means unchallenged) is based on intellectual sleight-of-hand, using the language of science to confer religious authority on a sacred text.”
This so-called prominent scholar does not bother to provide evidence for his accusation. His arrogant and hostile reaction to the numerical structure of the Quran is a typical reaction of an innumerate Sunni or Shiite mullah. Ironically, many Sunni scholars around the world applauded and celebrated Dr. Rashad Khalifa and his work for about a decade, until they learned that he was not one of them. Rejecting our claims, which are published in numerous books, in a “scholarly” review and depicting it as “intellectual sleight-of-hand” without providing a shred of evidence is itself intellectual sleight-of-hand.
As for our inspiration being Rashad Khalifa, that is a misstatement. Though it was Rashad who pulled our attention the message of the Quran and monotheism, the source of our inspiration was and always has been reason and the message of Quran through the light of reason. When he was alive among us, we called him with his first name and discussed issues with him freely. We never considered him as an “authority” regarding islam. To the contrary, we found ourselves mostly agreeing with him, since he was using reason in his critical evaluation of sects and religions. We reject being labeled as members of a sect, since we have problem with organized religions and we submit ourselves to God alone. This very translation differs in numerous verses from the translation of Rashad Khalifa.
As for the “wholesale rejection of the last 14 centuries of Islamic tradition”… This is a misstatement of our position, since the so-called modern Islamic tradition did not originate 14 centuries ago, but it originated after the compilation of fabricated hadith three centuries after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Besides, we never rejected the use of sectarian tradition and liturgy as historical documents, sure being subject of critical evaluation. We also never rejected their role in learning the political, social, cultural and linguistic norms and events of the past. So, the accurate assessment of our position would be the following: “Wholesale rejection of 11 centuries of sectarian tradition which is based on hearsay and medieval Arab culture as a secondary authority besides God’s word.” Those who are familiar with our work will attest to the fact that our Sunni scholar is twisting our well-known position with his sleight-of-words.
“To proclaim that the Qur’an contains 20th-century scientific discoveries renders meaningless the religious faith of Muslims of the past who could not possibly have been aware of such a concept. It also makes the faith of future Muslims irrelevant, since these 20th-century scientific discoveries will be utterly transformed in another hundred years. Moreover, it demonstrates a staggering audacity in suggesting that only now for the first time in 1400 years has someone actually grasped the significance of the Qur’an. In a way, this is the mirror image of those hypercritical exposés (e.g., Christian Luxenberg) claiming to discover for the first time in history that the Qur’an is actually written in Syriac or is somehow a forgery. This adds nothing to the understanding of the origins and meaning of the Qur’an in its original context, or to the way in which it has been interpreted over the centuries.”
Indeed, this is a powerful argument. Not because it contains truth; but because it cunningly appeals to a diverse group of people and feeds their prejudices. It appeals to Orientalists and Atheists who consider the Quran the work of an uneducated desert Arab lived in medieval ages. According to this group, the Quran cannot contain any information that could not have been known by Muhammad’s contemporaries. So, this group will be ready to reject our arguments without even listening to them, as this so-called prominent scholar has done.
This argument, ironically, appeals to traditional Sunnis too, since they consider the Quran incapable of containing any information beyond Muhammad’s knowledge. Idolizing Muhammad and limiting the knowledge and information contained in the Quran with Muhammad’s understanding, contradicts many verses of the Quran, which we listed in the footnotes of the translation. Without dealing with any of those verses, this so-called prominent scholar ignores the numerous scientific statements mentioned in the Quran, and reduces the divine knowledge to the limited knowledge and understanding capacity of medieval men. They ignore the fact that, if the Quran is God’s book as it asserts, if the Quran contains information beyond the time of its revelation as it asserts, then Muhammad, a human messenger, could not have properly understood many scientific statements contained in the Quran. Furthermore, our prominent scholar ignores the fact that we do not have an accurate and exhaustive account of Muhammad’s understanding of the Quran. All we have about Muhammad are volumes of contradictory hearsay narrations collected more than two centuries after his departure. The best of those books contains stories of holy goat eating and abrogating verses of the Quran, monkeys stoning adulterous monkeys to death, Muhammad being bewitched by a magician, or Muhammad marrying a child almost 50 years younger than himself!
The scholar revered by the board of Palgrave/Macmillan wants us to subordinate the knowledge of the Quran to these kinds of tradition. He wishes us to pollute our mind with the understanding of those who glorify those kinds of silly stories.
Let’s read again, his last statement in the excerpt above: “This adds nothing … to the way in which it has been interpreted over the centuries.” What? “Over the centuries?” Why not “by Muhammad and his companions?” If our only way of understanding the Quran is trying to understand the interpretation done centuries ago, then what about the second-century muslims? If the second century muslims had no right to understand the Quran on their own, then there could be only one generation that had the right to understand the Quran: The first generation. The rest, according to Palgrave/Macmillan’s scholar, had to regurgitate their interpretations. However, if those who lived in the second century, or the third century, or the 13th century had the right to interpret the Quran according to their own times, then why should we, the 21st century generation, not have the same right? The “prominent” scholar, as it seems, is too prominent to notice this simple logical fallacy in his argument.
“The only way in which this might be seen as useful is in the extent to which it documents new intellectual movements that have emerged in Muslim circles during the 20th and 21st centuries. In this sense, this book could be considered a contribution, although frankly it would need to be treated in comparison and analytically from an outside perspective in order to be considered academic. Simply to publish this work as it is basically gives this religious group a platform to express their distinctive theology, which is highly polemical and dismissive of other perspectives. They state quite clearly that “we intend for the translation to reflect the original message of the Quran for those who have scholarly or personal curiosity in it” (page 9), but they identify this original message with their “alternate perspective,” which is explicitly a rejection of all previous views.”
In this translation, we did not just replace the “previous views” with our “alternative perspective.” For almost all cases where we differed from the traditional translations, we provided sufficient discussions in the footnotes, using linguistics, sound reasoning, and the light of other verses of the Quran. We understand the reaction of scholars of theology who secure a position at a university by merely cutting and pasting previous views without critical thinking; the reformist paradigm appears foreign and scary.
“The possible market appeal of this book is questionable. There is considerable controversy attached to be translators’ inspiration, Rashad Khalifa, who was apparently assassinated by Muslim extremists. Controversy may assist book sales, as happened in the case of The Satanic Verses, but it would be a cynical and questionable strategy to publish a book simply because it arouses the wrath of many people. Nor would scholars of Islamic studies be drawn to use this book in courses, unless they were dealing with fringe movements in the modern world. I myself would never use it in my course on “the Qur’an as literature,” though I might draw it to the attention of a student interested in modern science-based ideological approaches to the text.”
Those Muslim extremists followed the “tradition”, which we are accused of not respecting. The books of jurisprudence of both Sunni and Shiite sects and their interpretations of the Quran distort the verses of the Quran and drive a satanic rule: “Anyone who is deemed heretic or apostate by ulama should be killed.”
Dropping the name of The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdi, our Sunni scholar is intending to scare the publishing house, which we believe was the real reason for the cancellation of the publication of this translation. The publishing house received numerous positive feedback and endorsements from prominent scholars.
How a sober mind, especially someone who is considered a scholar, could confuse this translation with a fiction that contains ugly insults and false accusations to Prophet Muhammad and his family? Where in this translation did this Sunni scholar find such disrespect, even a hint of such a language? To the contrary, this translation is one of the strongest defenses of Muhammad’s integrity and model character against the defamation of hearsay tradition. Nevertheless, the Sunni scholar reached his goal, which was to scare a prestigious American publishing company off from publishing a book that could be catalyst in peace and progress.
“I have not yet addressed the claim of the translators to represent a reformist and nonsexist view of Islam. I think that such a goal is worthwhile and indeed is being pursued responsibly by a number of scholars and activists. However, there is a big gap that separates the eccentricity and polemical exclusivism of this text from, for example, the serious academic and philosophical engagement with ethical issues characteristic of the group represented in the volume Progressive Muslims: on Gender, Justice, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi. The translators make their case for a nonsexist reading of the Qur’an by highly selective and arbitrary readings of terms, such as the absurd rendering of the Arabic word bakr (normally “virgin”) as “progressive,” a meaning that is practically inconceivable in seventh-century Arabia. They apply their own understanding of the principles of the Qur’an to revise the text with remarkable disregard of historical and linguistic precedent. It would be a mistake to equate this kind of revisionism with a genuine spirit of reform, since it would create a false impression for those who might be interested in real Islamic reform. “
Good. Finally, to support his accusations, our scholar is providing a specific example, though it is a single word. He picks that particular word after 13 full pages. Assuming that he read at least 13 pages from this translation before writing this diatribe, could we say that he did not have a problem with our arguments for rejecting the traditional translation of verse 4:34, where we rejected the traditional distortion justifying husband beating their wives, or our rejecting the traditional take on 5:38, where punishment for thieves is limited with cutting off their hands, or our rejection of traditional translation of 9:29, where distortion of a word create an extra tax on non-Muslims, or our rejection of traditional translation of 4:127, where the fatherless children of widows are considered candidates to be married by their adult guardians? Our “prominent scholar” could not find anything wrong with those radical and important diversions from tradition. To support all his unsubstantiated attacks on behalf of a regressive and diabolic innovation that replaced a Quranic tradition, he finally finds a single word in our translation: progressive.
Interestingly, he does not acknowledge the extraordinary importance of our powerful arguments debunking the traditional interpretation on 4:34; 5:38; 9:29; and 4:127 (among hundreds of others). Restoring the meaning of these four verses alone to their indented original meaning, yes this alone, would have immense contribution to the intellectual, social, and political lives of more than a billion Muslims. But, our scholar does not care about truth, well being of Muslims or their progress. All he cares is to follow a status quo that landed him on a secure job.
As for the word progress: After sending the draft of the translation to Palgrave/Macmillan, together with few others, we revised the translation of verse 66:5 and we replaced the word “progressive” with “foremost ones,” which we had already listed as one of the other alternatives in the discussion section of the draft. We have a strong argument why the word “abkar” should not be translated as “virgins.” The Sunni scholar does not respond to any of our arguments. His problem with the word “progressive” is pervasive and emanates from his regressive position.
According to Palgrave/Macmillan’s scholar the meaning of progressive, is “practically inconceivable in seventh-century Arabia.” He would be perhaps right if it was written in capital letters as Progressive. But, claiming that a population that demonstrated the capacity of igniting a splendid civilization in a dizzying speed, yes claming that such a population had no concept of progress is a sign of intoxication with the cocktail of arrogance and ignorance. Had he checked verse 74:37, he would be shocked to see the word “progressive” or its synonyms.
“The endorsements that have already been cited for this work include some from people (Irshad Manji and Daniel Pipes) who are known primarily for their antagonism and enmity towards Islam, a project which has significant backing in certain political quarters. Their notion of “reform” is a complete capitulation of Muslims to the dictates of the globalizing capitalist economy, and as an endorsement it will speak worlds about the questionable credentials of this work. The other endorsements are cautious to say the least. Thus one can only call this a timely writing from an opportunistic point of view.”
This knee-jerk reaction to a couple of names who supported our work demonstrates the level of awareness of the scholar about our position: zero. His antagonism and fanaticism against our theological position perhaps deprived him to learn our political position. Had he read any of our articles on contemporary political issues, available in books and several websites, he would learn immediately that our political position is in line with the position of Noam Chomsky and all other activists promoting global peace and justice. Had he also checked the names of others who endorsed our work, he would be confused, since most of them have nothing to do with his scenario. For instance, Kassim Ahmad of Malaysia is inverse of Daniel Pipes of USA. Kassim is a strong voice against American imperialism and Zionism. Similarly, Reza Aslan and all the rest of those who endorsed the book may not necessarily share the same political or theological positions. The idea of Islamic Reform may appeal to many different people for many different reasons. The stereotypical lenses of the “prominent” scholar is unable to see the nature of the endorsements we received, and thus, he takes out his two boxes and puts the two names in our list, together with my name, in the one labeled “bad”, and put the rest in the “cautious” one.
“More could be said about the translation itself, which is flat and uninspired in its style, quirky in the interpretation, treats verses atomistically without connecting them, and in its citation of the Arabic is marred by an idiosyncratic transliteration system based on modern Turkish. But I think it should be evident that I do not recommend this for publication, and I think it would be a mistake for Palgrave to take this on.”
This might be considered a fair criticism. Though his blinding bias takes away his credibility regarding the style and literary value of this translation, we never claimed superiority of the Reformist Translation in literary style. This has never been the primary goal of this work. In fact, there are numerous spelling errors, and it might create too many distractions for the Spelling Bee contestants. Since the book was delayed beyond our patience, we decided to go with the publication despite some spelling errors. I do not recommend this book to those who are going to treat it like a dictionary or another Shakespeare; they can find better books.
The Reformist Translation of the Quran is now available at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0979671507/
 For the portrait of a version of such “scholars” see: Vampires Anonymous and Critical Race Practice, Robert A Williams, 95 Mich. L. Rev. 741 (1997), reprinted in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge 614 (Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic eds., 2d ed. 2000).