Have you ever seen a counterfeit article of clothing? If you have been shopping in a poor area in a developing country, you likely have. Some of them feature some pretty funny misspellings and mistakes, or variant spellings of popular brands — like “Abibas” and “Guccy.” While proficient English speakers wouldn’t likely be deceived, they fool some people — at least for awhile.
Strangely enough, the experience of realizing that what you have in your hands is a fake is something that some Muslims these days are experiencing when reading the Bible!
In recent years, many “Muslim-friendly” translations of the Bible have been produced, which use Islamic terminology, design elements, and even Qur’anic slogans (like bismillah rahman arraheem) to get Muslims to read them. These translations are known as MITs (Muslim Idiom Translations).
Despite their good intentions, these translators have gone too far in their efforts to make the Bible culturally relevant and have crossed the line into inadvertent deception. The Islamic elements of the books essentially trick Muslims into thinking these books are Islamic. Practically speaking, this is borrowing credibility from Islam, by leveraging the trust and credibility that Muslims have in Islam in order to get them to read and accept the Christian message.
Proponents of these books reason that the Islamic characteristics make reading the Bible feel more familiar to Muslims, which they believe is better than making Muslim readers feel they are reading a foreign book from a competing belief system. The translators may be correct when it comes to the initial response of Muslim readers, but sooner or later they will most likely catch on that the book they are reading is not what it seems.
The term bismillah… (Literally: “in the name of God”) is like a trademark for Islam, just like if you wrote “Just Do It” on a T-shirt, everyone knows that it’s a Nike. So if you check the tag of the shirt and it says “Adidas,” then you know it’s a counterfeit.
In the same way, if bismillah… is written on a Bible and Muslims read it, the naive ones will think it’s a Muslim book, but for those who know better, it looks like Christians are using deceptive tactics to trick Muslims into reading the New Testament (to put yourselves in Muslims’ shoes, see point 5 in this article). It also gives them more reason to believe that Christians have changed the Bible — an accusation which is already common among Muslims.
In the information age, it has become dramatically easier for the average Muslim to compare translations. In the past, such comparisons could be done only by those with access to paper copies of multiple editions of the Bible — a small proportion of Muslims worldwide had this access.
But now, anyone with internet access can quickly switch between translations while viewing biblical texts on multiple websites and mobile apps. This new reality should spur the global translation community toward a higher standard of accuracy, so that contradictions between translations do not cause Muslims (and others) to stumble and reject the Word of God on account of our mistranslations of His Word.
Of course, even if access to translation comparison were not so ubiquitous, the Christian community still has a solemn responsibility before God to preserve the Word of God, stewarding the transfer of its sacred meaning across linguistic and cultural barriers with utmost faithfulness.
Mistranslations of the Bible can cause far-reaching consequences in the lives of millions. Small translation errors propagate small theological misunderstandings that can negatively affect the discipleship of readers — especially in cases where a language has no other translation.
Likewise, major errors like mistranslating the “Father” and “Son” propagate major theological errors that can majorly miscommunicate the gospel, causing unnecessary stumbling blocks that hinder the process of salvation and discipleship. In one Muslim-friendly translation, the word used for baptism in Matthew 28:19 is commonly understood to mean “circumcision” — quite confusing for a new believer to understand that circumcision is part of the Great Commission. Using branding from other religions only adds more stumbling blocks, ranging from readers thinking it’s an Islamic text to readers feeling the book is an underhanded trick by deceptive Christians.
Using branding from other religions only adds more stumbling blocks, ranging from readers thinking it’s an Islamic text to readers feeling the book is an underhanded trick by deceptive Christians.— Pierre Houssney
In the case of languages that have multiple translations, like Arabic, believers are able to benefit from varying renderings of biblical meaning, which helps them gain a more nuanced understanding of the Bible. Different translations highlight different facets of the original Hebrew or Greek words’ meanings, which enriches and balances theological understanding.
However, when some of the available translations differ significantly, using terms that are not even vaguely synonymous or related, readers become rightfully alarmed, and doubt is cast on the trustworthiness of all the translations that are being compared. We must recognize that this causes serious damage to the reputation of the scriptures, especially for Muslims who already believe that the Bible is corrupted.
Instead of falling into the trap of borrowing textual and visual branding from Islam (and other religions), translators must be careful to fulfill the goal of using terms that Muslim readers understand accurately, while not using distinctly Islamic terms that make the book feel Islamic.
This is in fact what my father, Georges Houssney, did when he created the first translation of the Bible in modern standard Arabic (Kitab el Hayaat KEH) — he did extensive linguistic research to ensure that the terms used in his translation were understood by Muslims across the wide range of Arabic dialects, while maintaining a neutral religious identity. In this way, Muslim readers neither feel they are reading a foreign text from a competing religion, nor do they feel they are reading an Islamic text, but rather feel they are reading an ordinary Arabic text that they can understand.
For more information on these issues, I’d highly recommend my father’s five-part series entitled “Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology between Christians and Muslims”.