Born Mary Nell Bakhtiar to an American mother and Iranian father in New York City, Bakhtiar grew up in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. as a Catholic. Her mother, however, was a Protestant. At the age of 24 she moved to Iran with her Iranian husband, an architect, and their three children, where she began to study Islam under her teacher and mentor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, at Tehran University, studying Quranic Arabic, eventually converting to Islam in 1964 and changing her name to Laleh. Bakhtiar by then was a nondenominational Christian. She divorced her husband in 1976 and returned to the U.S. in 1988. She held a BA in history from Chatham College in Pennsylvania, an MA in philosophy, an MA in counseling psychology and a PhD in educational foundations. She was also a Nationally Certified Counselor. By 2007, Bakhtiar lived in Chicago where she was president of the Institute of Traditional Psychology and scholar-in-residence at Kazi Publications. She died on October 18, 2020, in Chicago from myelodysplastic syndrome.
Laleh Bakhtiar translated and wrote a combination of 25 books about Islam, many dealing with Sufism. She also authored or co-authored a number of biographical works. Her translation of the Qur'an, published in 2007 and called The Sublime Quran, is the first translation of the Qur'an into English by an American woman. Laleh Bakhtiar's translation attempts to take a female perspective, and to admit alternative meanings to many Arabic terms that are ambiguous or whose meaning scholars have had to guess because of the antiquity of the language. Her work seeks to create understanding between non-Muslims and Muslims.
In her Quran translation, she translates kāfirūn as "those who are ungrateful" instead of the common translations "unbelievers" or "infidels". She also translates the Arabic word ḍaraba in Chapter 4, Verse 34, concerning treatment of a husband towards a rebellious wife, as "go away" instead of the common "beat" or "hit". The English words "God" and "Mary" are used instead of the Arabic Allāh and Maryam. Bakhtiar believed these translations will not push non-Muslims away from Islam.
Bakhtiar stopped wearing the headscarf, worn by many Muslim women, after the September 11 attacks, as she came to believe that in America it does not promote its goal of modesty and attracts excessive attention.
The head of one of Canada's Muslim organizations, Islamic Society of North America (Canada), ISNA, Mohammad Ashraf, said he would not permit her book, The Sublime Quran, to be sold in the bookstore of ISNA because Bakhtiar was not trained at an academic institution accredited in the Muslim world and also said that "this woman-friendly translation will be out of line and will not fly too far" and that "women have been given a very good place in Islam."
Khaled Abou El Fadl, Islamic law professor from UCLA, said she "has a reputation as an editor, not [as] an Islamic scholar", and that three years of Classical Arabic were not enough. He also "is troubled by a method of translating that relies on dictionaries and other English translations." Bakhtiar disagreed with such criticism saying, "The criticism is [there] because I'm a woman." She also said that some other well-known translators were not considered Islamic scholars.
Bakhtiar's daughter Davar Ardalan is an author and a journalist. Her niece is novelist Lailee Bakhtiar McNair and her nephew is former tennis player Fred McNair, whose mother is Bakhtiar's sister Parveen. Lailee McNair was named after one of her aunts, Lailee.
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- Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune April 10, 2007; "A new look at a holy text" (accessed July 8, 2011).
- Ardalan, Davar. "Courage, Temperance, Justice and the Enduring Wisdom of the late Scholar Laleh Bakhtiar". Retrieved October 18, 2020.
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- Andrea Useem, Laleh Bakhtiar: An American Woman Translates the Qur'an Publishers Weekly, April 16, 2007
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- The Sublime Quran. 2007. ISBN 978-1567447507.
- Neil MacFarquhar, New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse, The New York Times, March 25, 2007
- Leslie Scrivener, Furor over a five-letter word, Toronto Star, October 21, 2007
- Ardalan, Iran Davar (2010). My Name Is Iran: A Memoir. Henry Holt and Company. p. 147.
- Ardalan, pp. 235, 288.