I recently purchased a New Testament, newly translated for a people with no Scriptures in their language. It was exciting to see the culmination of so many years of work.
My heart sank, though, when I turned to the Gospel of John and saw that it was the Gospel of Yaaya. Who is Yaaya? Could this be yet another Muslim Idiom Translation?
1. What is a Muslim Idiom Translation?
A Muslim Idiom Translation is a translation specifically for Muslim readers. The translators produce this kind of translation with the goal that Muslim readers might learn more than they would from traditional Bibles and, eventually, come to faith in Jesus Christ through their own, personal reading.
What is unique about these translations is that the translators are very much aware of the fact that many Muslims are not comfortable reading the Bible because it conflicts with their beliefs and includes blasphemous concepts and expressions. The translators address this challenge directly in the translation in innovative ways not seen in traditional Bible translations.
In this blog article, I will provide examples from a Muslim Idiom Translation available in English, The Holy Injil in Modern English. You can learn more about this work and read it online at their website.
I am defining this approach based on what has been done in the past, but what remains unanswered is what the proponents of this approach are doing now and what will they do in the future as their approach grows.
2. What is removed in a Muslim Idiom Translation?
Muslim Idiom Translations often translate Son of God in innovative ways to reduce the possible concern of the readers. One approach is to replace Son with other terms for Jesus Christ, such as ‘Messiah’ or ‘Beloved.’ Some even use ‘Caliph,’ resulting in Jesus being referred to as ‘God’s Caliph.’
Another approach is to replace the term God with a synonym such as ‘Most High,’ resulting in ‘Son of the Most High’ instead of ‘Son of God’ as in Luke 1:35 and 4:3 in The Holy Injil in Modern English. In fact, the expression Son of God doesn’t occur at all in this work.
In some cases, the word son is simply not used in the translation as would be seen in traditional translations. In Luke 3:38, the reference to Adam as a ‘son of God’ is not found in The Holy Injil in Modern English. The verse reads “of Enosh of Seth of Adam of Allah.”
To listen to some of these works, you might want to check out this website offering “stories” from Scripture.
These works differ from traditional translations in how they handle controversial terms for God the Father and Jesus the Son. What they share in common, though, is a willingness to adapt new renderings that differ with traditional translations and are subject to the assessment of being mistranslations.
Furthermore, as this approach is applied more and more to the Old Testament, we have yet to see how proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations will translate in novel ways. But we have some hints as we will discuss next.
3. What is added in a Muslim Idiom Translation?
Muslim Idiom Translations often employ place names and personal names from the Qur’an for the benefit of Muslim readers. For example, in The Holy Injil in Modern English, the place name Jerusalem is translated as ‘al-Quds.’
Furthermore, Jesus is ‘Isa,’ Mary is ‘Maryam,’ John the Baptist is ‘Yahya,’ and Satan is ‘Iblis.’
Muslim Idiom Translations in Arabic have also added the Islamic profession of faith to Scripture. The first statement of the Shahada is “There is no god but Allah/God.” In 1 Corinthians 8:4, the apostle Paul writes “there is no God but one.” Several translations have taken the similarity between what Paul wrote and the Muslim profession and translated 1 Corinthians 8:4 as “there is no god but Allah/God” in Arabic.
To learn more about this issue and see examples from several works, you might want to read the article, “Making the Bible More Islamic Than the Qur’an Through the First Half of the Islamic Creed (the Shahada).”
4. How does this relate to the “Son of God” controversy?
Many heard of Muslim Idiom Translations for the first time around 2011 as part of the “Son of God” controversy. For decades, these topics had been discussed and debated among Bible translators, but sending churches and donors were not aware of the issues in any significant way.
In 2011, however, a series of articles in well-known Christian publications brought greater attention to the issue. Churches began to respond by investigating the Muslim Idiom Translations and declaring them unfaithful.
Some organizations such as Frontiers did not change their approach in any way in response to the criticism and, to this day, continue producing these translations.
Wycliffe Bible Translators, however, eventually agreed to a set of guidelines that appeared to bring an end to this method of Bible translation. These guidelines were set out by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and so they are often referred to as the WEA conventions.
However, the WEA conventions were not the end of Muslim Idiom Translations. It primarily served to drive the proponents of this strategy underground. They now work in strict secrecy, as strictly as you can while publishing and distributing your work.
5. What is the history behind these translations?
In the 1970’s, Charles Kraft, a professor of missions at Fuller Theological Seminary, started teaching that new approaches to missions and Bible translation were needed. He and his students laid the foundation for a movement called the Insider Movement.
One of Kraft’s students was David Owen, who produced a summary of the Gospels in a Qur’an style. Another Fuller graduate was Sobhi Malek, who translated the Al-Injeel Al-Shareef (The Noble Gospel), now known as the Sharif Bible. This work is a highly contextualized translation for Muslim readers, employing terms and names from the Qur’an. It also serves as a resource and model for those doing Muslim Idiom Translations today.
I will share some resources below in the answer to the tenth question in case you are interested in reading more about the history of this strategy.
6. Do we need special translations for evangelism?
The proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations believe that a single translation of the Bible can not adequately serve the distinct audiences that exist in Muslim contexts and the distinct functions that the Bible should serve.
In particular, they claim a Muslim audience needs a translation specifically for them, designed to meet them where they are in their cultural and religious context. It is only when they have such a translation that they will be able to truly understand the truths of Scripture from their own vantage point. Such a translation is claimed to be a more effective tool for evangelism.
It is important to bear in mind that many proponents of these translations adhere to the Insider Movement. According to this approach to ministry to Muslims, the missionary is more of a facilitator than a teacher. It follows that the translation has to do the explaining; consequently, they believe it is appropriate to add explanatory information to the text and remove language that might offend readers and discourage them from proceeding.
7. Why are Muslim Idiom Translations no longer openly discussed?
After Wycliffe Bible Translators agreed to the WEA Conventions in 2013, the leadership of Wycliffe and SIL International wanted to move past this controversial topic. Wycliffe missionaries who supported Muslim Idiom Translations such as Rick Brown stopped publishing articles and promoting the topic. Even Wycliffe missionaries who opposed these translations such as David Abernathy went silent.
Furthermore, Rick Brown and others in Wycliffe and related organizations stopped referring to their work as Muslim Idiom Translations. Note that Rick Brown, John Penny, and Leith Gray first proposed the name “Muslim Idiom Translation” prior to the controversy; they didn’t agree with other terms being put forward such as “Muslim compliant translations.”
As the proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations stopped using the very term they coined, the term “religious idiom translation” started to be used.
More recently, translators and consultants with Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International have started using the term “contextualized” as a new term to refer to Muslim Idiom Translations as well as other translations.
There is some disagreement about whether the term Muslim Idiom Translation should still be used, but there is no disagreement that this approach is expanding and gaining acceptance in the major Bible translation organizations.
8. Why are more Muslim Idiom Translations being produced?
The major proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations may have paused in response to the WEA conventions in 2013, but then they proceeded with the general approach.
Many viewed the WEA conventions as a rejection of Muslim Idiom Translations in the broader sense. However, a significant number of Bible translators didn’t see it in the same way. In fact, those who agreed to the conventions appear to have interpreted them in the narrowest way, as simply referring to how to translate Son of God and the Father in Scripture, but not more than that.
Bear in mind that the WEA conventions only apply to Scripture. When missionaries produce stories, oral stories, and Scripture-based products, they are free to follow the Muslim Idiom Translation approach.
In the case of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International, they continued to promote the method through their primary training program at Dallas International University and even created the Abraham Center which promotes the Insider Movement and Muslim Idiom Translations. The Abraham Center was recently disbanded, but the faculty associated with the center continues to teach and promote the same approaches.
It appears that a couple generations of Bible translators are firmly committed to Muslim Idiom Translations. As a result, they will continue to produce these kinds of works and promote them as “accurate” reproductions of Scripture, if not the best kind of translation for ministry in a Muslim context.
9. Who promotes Muslim Idiom Translations?
One of the distinctives of the proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations and the related Insider Movement is discretion or even secrecy. They are very careful in how they present their translation work.
If you want to see how careful these translators are, just look at the welcome to the Holy Injil in Modern English. If you find out who the translators are for this work, please let me know.
Many of those who are actively producing Muslim Idiom Translations will not admit publicly to what they are doing. Furthermore, they will describe their translations as “faithful” and “accurate”, knowing that most would not agree with that assessment.
No matter how much they want to keep their methods from any scrutiny, they eventually publish a translation and make it available in print and online. The careful examination of their translations is the best method to determine who promotes Muslim Idiom Translations.
On the topic of publicly referring to their work with Muslim Idiom Translations, I’m encouraged to see Dr. Andy Warren-Rothlin mention his involvement in a recent bio statement online. Dr. Warren-Rothlin is a consultant with the United Bible Society and serves on the board of SIL International. He promotes Muslim Idiom Translation through his research, writing, and consulting.
The major proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations have not changed significantly over the years. The Bible translation ministries that are the most supportive continue to be Frontiers, Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL International, the American Bible Society, and the United Bible Society. Fuller Theological Seminary and Dallas International University provide training and support these approaches on an academic level, undergirding the practitioners on the field.
10. How can I learn more about Muslim Idiom Translations?
To learn more about this topic and the latest developments, I suggest reading a recent article entitled “Son of God” Unresolved: Ten Years After a Landmark Petition, Translators Continue to Remove “Son of God” and Insert Islamic Teaching into New Translations. While at the Biblical Missiology website, check out the other articles on Bible translation.
Another helpful resource on the web is the Arlington Statement on Bible Translation. This statement was written in response to the growing influence of Muslim Idiom Translations. It is signed by a number of theologians, translators, pastors, and missionaries.
Michael Marlowe has several useful resources available on his website under The ‘Muslim Idiom Translation’ Controversy.
Three significant books have been written in response to the Insider Movement and Muslim Idiom Translations. The first is Chrislam: How Missionaries are Promoting an Islamized Gospel. This book contains 25 chapters addressing the Insider Movement and Muslim Idiom Translations. It was the first major work to respond to these issues from a conservative, biblical perspective.
In 2018, a second book was published by a group of scholars and practitioners which included many authors from the earlier work: Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts. This work includes 31 chapters as well as an epilogue and appendix. One especially noteworthy aspect of this work is that it includes chapters from proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations. This volume also addresses the Muslim Idiom Translations in more depth, even discussing the ethical issue of raising funds while not fully disclosing to donors in language that the donors will understand the kind of translation the funds are being used to produce.
The third book is about to appear: Islam and the Bible: Questioning Muslim Idiom Translations. This work significantly advances the conservative response to the Insider Movement and Muslim Idiom Translations. This collection of articles focuses more in depth on the translation issues, especially establishing that the movement is growing in number and influence. While gaining ground as an acceptable approach among Bible translation ministries, the approach is also leading to more and more erroneous translations.
I hope you will take the time to learn more about this important topic and join those who want to see the Scriptures translated accurately.
If you know a Bible translator or even support one, I would appreciate it if you would forward this article to them and ask them for their response.
If you know someone who is planning to be a Bible translator, please bring this topic to their attention. It’s a painful process to join a mission agency and then have to leave because you didn’t know the extent of their involvement in the Insider Movement and Muslim Idiom Translations.
The Muslim Idiom Translations will continue to be produced, and the essential question is not how to slow or stop this movement. The most important question is how can we contribute to the production and use of faithful and accurate translations, translations that equip believers to worship God the Father as well as witness to their Muslim neighbors.
May the Lord continue to raise up faithful servants who will translate for the glory of our triune God as they equip the church, Christ’s bride, to take the gospel to every tribe, language, people, and nation.