ORIGIN STORY

How Three American Women Translated One of the World’s Most Popular Qurans

The story of how three white women from U.S. became some of the most influential Qur’anic publishers in the world.

One of the most influential and widely read English-language Qur’anic translations in the world is written by three American women. They converted to Islam in the 1980s and now live and work in Saudi Arabia.

But what makes the Saheeh International translation of the Qur’an so different from other women’s translations is that despite its origins, it’s not a feminist reclamation of some of the Qur’an’s most contested verses. Instead, the Saheeh International Qur’an enjoys widespread popularity, including with some of Islam’s most conservative adherents. And most recently, the decades-old translation has become the main version used in English-language propaganda put out by ISIS.

Its creators, however, remain virtually unknown—largely of their own volition. This is the story of how three white ladies from America became some of the most influential Qur’anic publishers.

***

While her peers were busy getting high in bellbottoms, Emily Assami spent the 1970s studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria, where the California-born woman had moved with her Arab husband. She’d arrived there as an atheist. But before long, she found meaning in the Qur’an and pursued language studies at Damascus University, eventually converting to Islam and moving to Saudi Arabia. These days, she’s better known as Umm Muhammad to followers, or by her chosen name, Aminah.

“She was always seeking after Truth but her father did not believe in God,” a biography of Assami in Why Women Are Accepting Islam states. “She wished she had God who could talk to her and guide her like the Prophets had.”

According to that biography, Assami grew up in a family of atheists. (Her father, a scientist, did not believe in God.) But she first grew interested in Islam after a biased comparative religion presentation by a history teacher.

“She wanted to study about Prophet Muhammad and what he said about god and her opinion was if she could find it irrational, as she expected, she would abandon this subject once and for all,” the book states.

Assami then asked her father to help her find a book on the Prophet Muhammad. But he told her that, to his chagrin, nothing in the library on that topic was written by Muslims.

Yet when Assami eventually got her hands on the Qur’an, something clicked. She was drawn by the similarities to the holy books she recognized.

“I started to read the translation of the Qur’an from the very beginning. I found there were many things, I didn’t understand, but others impressed me,” she wrote. “So I decided to continue my reading since I was unable to sleep anyway, in order to keep from thinking too much I began reading although my heart was not really in it, and suddenly before me were these words: ‘And give glad tidings to the patient, who say when misfortune strikes: To God do we belong, and to Him is our return...’”

“And I felt better than, somehow,” she wrote.

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Her colleagues, two decades younger than Assami, followed soon after.

Mary Kennedy, the Orlando-born English major who serves as an editor for the publishing house, grew up in a Christian family in Florida. She told Arab News that she was inquisitive, but “many things never clicked.” That changed when she began reading Islamic texts.

Her brother’s conversion paved the way for her own. And her family as supportive, Kennedy said.

“It wasn’t a trauma to see anyone taking up another route for them,” she told Arab News. “They got calmed with time when they saw me serious about Islam and settling down well with Islamic rules and a Muslim family.”

Like Assami, Amatullah Bantley’s journey to Saudi Arabia started early. As a child, she found the Catholicism she was raised in unsatisfying: Every time she went to confession, no matter what the sin, her penitence was the same.

“Say ten Hail Marys and promise not to do it again,” she recalled to The Daily Beast.

She sought liberation from her family’s Catholicism by in a lack of faith, yet she continued to yearn for a higher power—one she believed created the universe. “In my mind, I held more to the idea of ‘Mother Earth,’” she said. Then in college, she met international students who were Muslim, if not overtly practicing, and captivated her attention. They eventually discussed religion, though Bantley was hesitant.

“I remember saying, ‘I would never live like that,’” she recalled. “I obviously bought into the common misconception that women have fewer rights in Islam.”

But Bantley remained curious. She learned more about Islam and concluded that if women were mistreated in Muslim countries, it was because of culture and human influence—not religion.

“I saw the beauty of the religion and became convinced it was from God Himself,” she said. “I embraced Islam in 1986 and moved to Saudi the following year.”

In 1989, she stumbled upon Dar Abul-Qasim when a widowed friend asked her to ferry her husband’s manuscript to a publisher. Bantley asked if she could read it before handing it over, and returned with suggestions for the widow.

Then Bantley pulled in Kennedy to serve as an extra set of eyes on the English-language copy, and Assami—who by then was fluent in Arabic—to help go back to Arabic texts whose translations were unclear in the book.

“To make a long story short, we cleaned up and reorganized the text and prepared it for printing,” Bantley said. “The publisher liked our improvements and so the three of us continued to edit other author's works, and then later started writing our own titles as well.”

Since then, the three women have continued to work as a team on a variety of texts, adopting the moniker Saheeh International—the former word meaning “authentic.” Eventually, people began to suggest that they tackle a bigger project: The Qur’an.

***

The women of Saheeh International are not the only ones to have taken on the task of translating the Qur’an. At least two other women have completed full, solo translations into English. Many more have been part of larger, co-ed teams devoted to the project, including the much-lauded Study Qur’an, published in 2015.

But the other female translators, Laleh Bakhtiar and Taheereh Saffarzadeh, approached the translation project differently. Saffarzadeh was praised after her death for translating the holy book into “poetic English.” And for Bakhtiar, perhaps the most well-known of the female translators, goals included a better understanding of Surah an-Nisa, verse 34—the infamous verse about men beating their wives.

“Men have authority over women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard,” it reads in one common translation. “But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”

Bakhtiar—whose translation, The Sublime Quran, came out in 2007—grew up Catholic in the U.S. but then studied under Seyyed Hossein Nasr (one of the translators of The Study Qur’an) when she moved to Iran. She converted eventually converted to her father’s faith. Then Bakhtiar studied Arabic and took on the task of translation and—as the origin story goes—really had to grapple with verse 4:34 for the first time.

"I decided it either has to have a different meaning, or I can't keep translating," Bakhtiar told the New York Times. "I couldn't believe that God would sanction harming another human being except in war."

She then spent months on the contested Arabic verb, daraba, before stumbling upon a definition that meant “to go away.”

"I said to myself, 'Oh, God, that is what the prophet meant,'" Bakhtiar told the Times. "When the prophet had difficulty with his wives, what did he do? He didn't beat anybody, so why would any Muslim do what the prophet did not?"

In Bakhtiar’s translation, the final part of the verse is translated to read, “‘Those (f) whose resistance [nushuz] you fear, then admonish them (f) and abandon them (f) in their sleeping place, then, go away from them (f).”

Another woman, Camille Helminski, also translated substantial parts of the Qur’an into English, according to a dissertation by Rim Hassen. On her website, Helminski claims to be the first woman translator into English.

In fact, Saheeh International preceded them all. Their Qur’an came out in 1997.

What complicates the matter more is that the whole project of translation, in Islam, is fraught with tension. The Qur’an is the revealed word of God—it is not a “book”—and was for generations transmitted only orally. Even the act of writing it down, in the original Arabic, is an alteration. To this day, memorization of the Qur’an is a mark of mastery and prestige.

“For the longest time in the Muslim world, the Arabic text was only sacrosanct because it was the revealed word of God,” Bruce Lawrence, a scholar of Islam at Duke University, told The Daily Beast. "The spellbinding beauty of a really good recitation of the quran, there's a sense of the majesty, the rhythm, the sensorium of the Qur’an that is only through the human voice, it can't come through the human eye."

So to translate it from Arabic to any other language is to take the words of God and put them through a human filter. For this reason, many Muslims won’t refer to translations as “The Qur’an” but rather imbue the title with language that signifies that this is a modified product. Often, the Arabic original will appear side-by-side.

“To this day if you went to Al Azhar [the preeminent center of Islamic learning in Egypt], they would say, there are English efforts to interpret the Qur’an... but there can be no English version of the Qur'an,” Lawrence said.

Saheeh International, follows in the same tradition with its publication: The Qur’an: English Meanings & Notes.

A feminist reclamation, then, would understandably draw ire. At stake is not merely a quibble over text, but a claim that millions of Muslims have incorrectly understood the word of God.

The 2007 New York Times interview said Bakhtiar thought “women need to know that there is an alternative” to the wife-beating verse.

“Men in the Muslim world, she said, will also oppose the idea of an American, especially a woman, reinterpreting the prevailing translation,” the article said.

But Bantley said the women of Saheeh had no such fears. Then again, they weren’t re-interpreting.

***

It took this reporter a year of trying to finally get an interview with the women of Saheeh International. The first approaches were rebuffed—they were busy, and had been burned by the media before. A last-ditch effort panned out. Bantley responded.

Bantley said that Assami, who she refers to as Umm Muhammad, teaches at an Islamic center for women in their city. In fact, she’d taught, Bantley, too.

“As her student, I recognized her ability to clarify the Arabic expressions into English was unlike any teacher I'd had before,” she said. “This was especially true in her translation of verses from the Quran.”

After Bantley told the previous owner of Dar Abul-Qasim about Assami’s gift, he spent years encouraging her to take on the project. “[W]hen he began to suggest a better and easier translation of the Qur’an’s meanings than those available, I firmly refused—I was not qualified—there was no way I could even consider it,” Assami told Arab News.

She finally agreed. Kennedy and Bantley helped with “editing and suggesting footnotes,” and the first edition came out in 1997.

(In 2007, the owner of Dar Abul-Qasim retired. Bantley bought the store and publishing house.)

The “self-assured niqab-clad American women,” as the Arab News described the trio during a 2010 visit to their Jeddah bookstore, had previously put out pamphlets and booklets on Islam in English. But taking on a translation of the meaning of the Holy Qur’an was a wholly other task.

“It differed from other projects because of the amount of research it took to accurately reflect accepted meanings of the Quran while being limited to the confines of English grammar,” Bantley said. “Some Quranic passages hold more than one meaning, while in translation, you can usually only reflect one of the intended meanings.”

Assami had begun her study of Arabic three decades earlier. “People couldn’t really answer the questions I had so I realized that I would have to learn how to read Arabic to know what Muslim scholars were saying,” she later recalled to the Arab News.

But she’s not an Islamic scholar and therefore faced some limitations on what she could take on. The women take pains to note that they started from scratch but didn’t re-invent the wheel: Assami’s translation draws its strength from the authoritative scholars she relied on and synthesized.

“It turns out the few who've tried to discredit us have been people with, albeit good intentions to protect the meanings of the Quran, concerns about some of the wording,” Bantley said. “In each case that we know of, it turned out the person's native tongue was Arabic, and so they misunderstood the English terminology.”

Assami corresponded with some of those people to clarify her meanings and language, Bantley added. “It has helped us to simplify the language and add useful footnotes in later editions.”

Now online, the Saheeh International translation is often recommended for English speakers. It is frequently the default translation on religious websites, though it is not as well known, or widely used in academic circles. Lawrence, the professor, said it is part of a recent effort to get a “first-rate English version” of the Qur’an, though he finds it lacks some of the qualities of his preferred translations.

"Jibreel talked in verse if he didn't talk in poetry,” he said, referring to the angel that relayed the Qur’an to Muhammad. Saheeh International, on the other hand, "hammers the language, it doesn’t make it sing."

Its translators prioritized orthodox accuracy over aesthetics. Occasionally those curious about it will ask on message boards whether it is to be trusted, and responses are generally positive. Infrequently, commenters mention, as a sidenote, that the translators are women. Other times, Shia Muslims attack Saheeh’s overtly Sunni interpretations.

“I have used the Sahih International both as a Sunni and a Shia. As a Sunni I couldn’t see anything wrong with it, but as a Shia it has all the flaws that other Sunni translations bring,” one ex-Sunni, now Shia commenter wrote online. “Currently I try to stay away from the Sahih International, because it is the most biased Sunni translation I have come across.”

Sunni and Shia readers may disagree on how some Qur’anic verses are interpreted into English. In the same way the Shia commenter disapproved of Saheeh’s message, when Samy El-Goarany, a 24-year-old from upstate New York, wrote his brother a goodbye note in case he was killed fighting for ISIS, he left one key instruction.

“Keep reading,” he told Tarek, according to messages revealed in court. “And read the Sahih International Qur’an, it’s the best translation.”

Indeed, this reporter first stumbled upon the Saheeh International translation when looking to see which translation was used in official ISIS propaganda, like the magazine Dabiq. Like El-Goarany’s recommendation, Dabiq and other forms of ISIS propaganda also relied on the Saheeh translation—suggesting that there is a coordinated preference for it.

It’s somewhat surprising to see that an organization that so limits the roles of women would then turn to a woman-made translation for its theological underpinnings. But then, part of what’s remarkable about Saheeh International is how very unremarkable the translation is—their effort was to make orthodox sources accessible rather than to innovate.

Take verse 4:34, the one Bakhtiar tried to reclaim for feminists.

“But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand,” the Saheeh International translation reads.

This translation by women keeps the word that caused feminists so much trouble.

That’s why Saheeh has the imprimatur of the Saudi government, as do all religious publications printed in the Kingdom. “I know the translation was once considered to be the official English translation of the Kingdom as well, but I was not involved in that process,” Bantley said. “The previous owner of Dar Abul-Qasim, who possessed the copyright of our translation at that time, made mention of that fact.”

Before that owner died, he sold the rights to the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust, based in London, which controls printing and distribution, she added. "It has been so promoted by the Saudis as a kind of updated, women's version of the Qur'an,” Lawrence said. "The Saudis wanted to have both a standard version by a man, and that was Yusuf Ali, which they modified heavily [...] and then they did this Umm Muhammad and Saheeh International."

Saheeh International works and reach have earned them a following among certain segments of Muslim women. Some of those have claimed the group as “Salafi feminists,” referring to the ultra-conservative brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

But in exchanges with The Daily Beast, Bantley rejected attempts to claim the women under that label.

“We do not agree with that at all,” she wrote. “We oppose labels namely because words such as ‘salafi’ and ‘feminist’ mean different things to different people. To some, they are positive terms; to others, quite the opposite.”

“If we had to adapt a term, it would be simply ‘Muslim’ women,” she wrote.