Can Translation Mitigate All Immoral Passages in Scripture?

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: How to Discover a Relationship between Religion and Violence
Part II: Religion “per se”

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Can Translation Mitigate All Immoral Passages in Scripture?

The point that Ramadan makes with regard to interpretation is also made for translation. Everyone who has discussed scriptural authority with believers and unbelievers alike knows that many of them, if confronted with violent texts from their revealed sources, react by contending that the violence is only superficially there. It has to do with the “translation” of the text in question. Usually that remark is followed by good advice from the believer to look for a more reliable translation. And, of course, translations matter. This is not only underscored by those who have a rosy picture of religion. The American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan (1958- ) writes in her book A God who Hates (2009): “When you read the Koran in English or in any other language, you are reading not a literal translation but, rather, the meaning that the translator wants to impart to the text.”[107] The text Hirsi Ali and Ramadan refer to in their exchange of views can be translated in different ways. This notorious Sura 24:2 is translated by Majid Fakhry as follows:

The adulteress and the adulterer, whip each one of them a hundred lashes; and let no pity move you in Allah’s religion, regarding them; if you believe in Allah and the Hereafter. And let a group of believers witness their punishment.[108]

N.J. Dawood (1927- ) translates as follows:

The adulterer and the adulteress shall each be given a hundred lashes. Let no pity for them cause you to disobey God, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day; and let their punishment be witnessed by a number of believers.[109]

This translation is slightly different from the one quoted by Hirsi Ali. But does that help the apologists of religion? The answer is clearly negative. The differences between Dawood’s translation and the one used by Hirsi Ali and Ramadan are marginal, as we can see, and that may be expected when we consider that many scholars will have thought carefully about how that passage should be translated.

So, if “translation” is no help to the apologist of religion with regard to Sura 24:2, perhaps “interpretation” will do better. It is for “interpretation” that Ramadan has high expectations, judging from his rhetorical exclamation: “Is it difficult to understand that this is a question of interpretation …?”

But can “interpretation” do what Ramadan supposes it can? Is it possible to provide an “interpretation” of Sura 24:2 that makes the message acceptable by modern moral standards? And what would that interpretation look like?

If Nietzsche is right that there are no “facts,” but only “interpretations,” this should not be too difficult. That is the great challenge that has to be met by the “moderates” unwilling to confess openly that they get their guidance not from the holy text itself, but from moral considerations that are read into that text. The “moderate” believer must show that there is an interpretation of this specific passage that effaces its violent character. Is it likely that such an interpretation can be provided?

Even a provisional glance at the text makes that improbable. Nevertheless, let us start with the most promising element: an interpretation of what is meant by the terms “adulterer” and “adulteress.” Why is the Saudi woman characterized as an “adulteress”? The only thing she has done is “mingling”: sitting in a car with someone who is not her husband or a member of her direct family. Is that adultery?

Can Interpretation Mitigate All Immoral Passages in Scripture?

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary “adultery” means: “Voluntary sexual intercourse of married person other than with spouse.” Because in this case there is no mention of sexual intercourse, there is no adultery, so it seems. So the Saudi judges gave a wrong interpretation to Sura 24:2, the “moderate” could answer. Would that not help us out of the quandary?

Not quite. First, we have to remember that what we have done with the passage in Sura 24:2, is to force our contemporary idea of adultery onto a completely different situation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary simply follows the contemporary meaning. “Voluntary sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse” is roughly what most people in the language community nowadays mean when they use the word “adultery.” But that is likely to be different from what people mean by “adultery” in Saudi Arabia. It is also very different from what people meant in the time and the culture from which the Qur’an stems. To give the word “adultery,” as it is used in the Qur’an, the same meaning that it has in modern English is more a revision of the Qur’an than an “interpretation.”

Muslim Indonesian woman caned for getting ‘too close’ to her boyfriend. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

Nevertheless, if we follow the somewhat dubious approach of reading contemporary meanings into ancient texts there is some hope for modern “minglers.” I stress “some,” in contradistinction to “much.” What I mean is this. Suppose the Saudi woman did indeed have sexual intercourse with the man in the car. In that case the punishment as described in Sura 24:2 had to be executed, viz. a hundred lashes. Would that make our opposition to the text less urgent? The answer is clear: even in the case of actual sexual intercourse we are not in favor of lashes. So the problem is not the “interpretation” of this text. The problem is the text itself.

Moderates are always reluctant to admit this. For them, as for Ramadan, the problems that arise are always perceived as problems of “interpretation.” Therefore they never do what should be done to remedy our problems: to demystify the idea of scriptural authority itself. The problem is not that people give a “conservative interpretation” to a religion that is “per se” pristine and incorruptible, but that people think that they can make their modern conscience defer to ancient texts. We may also put it thus: the problem is (a) the content of the text itself and (b) the attitude of the people who think that they should follow ancient texts.

So far, I have concentrated on the concept of “adultery,” as part of the text of Sura 24:2. But I think analogous remarks could be made about the other words in the text. We could also focus on the meaning of “flogging” or “lashes,” as indicated in Sura 24:2, and pretend that these concepts have a different meaning now than they used to have in ancient Arabic culture. In that case we should proclaim that we interpret “lashing” as something less painful, let’s say “criticizing.” Is that a viable road to take?

I do not think so. There may be slight variations between what we, in the twenty-first century, understand by “flogging” and what people centuries ago understood by this term, but these variations are negligible.

Perhaps we could focus on the number of lashes? Sura 24:2 refers to a hundred lashes while the Saudi woman was sentenced to two hundred lashes. “You see, there are Qur’anic grounds for mitigating the sentence,” the apologist of religion might say. But this would hardly be convincing. Critics like Hirsi Ali and many other contemporaries would say that they object to flogging or lashing in general, the number of lashes is immaterial. That brings us to the conclusion that even if it were possible to argue that the woman from Qatif was not an “adulteress” because the only crime she committed was “mingling,” that might help this woman but not the next who behaves in a way that undoubtedly falls within the ordinary semantic meaning of the word “adulteress.”

What is the result of all this? The upshot is that Ramadan should have said: “I am opposed to all punishment for all adulterers.” This seems to be what Hirsi Ali requires him to do and what he is so manifestly reluctant to contemplate (as he was in a discussion with Sarkozy on a similar point that will be discussed in the next section).

Why is he not willing to do this? That a courageous stand can help sometimes is made clear by the Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, whose situation came to international attention in July 2009 and soon became a test case for women’s rights in Sudan. She was prosecuted for wearing trousers. The legal system of Sudan is based on sharia law and the criminal law includes a clause that threatens 40 lashes and a fine for anyone “who commits an indecent act which violates morality or wears indecent clothing.”[110]

The police arrested Hussein and 12 other women wearing trousers at a Khartoum restaurant on July 3, 2009. Two days later 10 of the women accepted a punishment of 10 lashes, but Hussein appealed in a bid to eliminate such rough justice. “My main objective is to get rid of article 152” (the law that prescribes the punishment). Hussein contended that tens of thousands of women and girls have been whipped for their clothes over the last 20 years. Amnesty International released a statement asking the Sudanese government to repeal article 152 and drop the charges against her.

The “trousers case” was held before a court in Khartoum on September 7, 2009, Hussein still wearing her trousers. The verdict was remarkable. Hussein was spared a whipping, but the court instead fined her 500 Sudanese pounds (200 dollars). Hussein, still intransigent, said she would rather go to prison than pay the fine.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[107] Sultan, Wafa, A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2009, p. 167.
[108] Fakhry, Majid, An Interpretation of the Qur’an, New York University Press, New York 2002, p. 349.
[109] The Qur’an, translated with notes by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Books, London 1999, p. 246.
[110] “Sudan women ‘lashes for trousers,’” BBC News, August 13, 2009.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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