How To Read the Quran
A new translation captures the confusion.
The latest entry into this cornucopia of Quran translations comes from eminent professor of Islamic history Tarif Khalidi, who is currently at the American University of Beirut. Written in what Khalidi calls "measured modern English," his is an eloquent and eminently readable translation, but one that does not stray too far from other conventional English versions of the Quran. (Khalidi, like the majority of his male predecessors, renders the word adribuhunna as "beat them.") However, Khalidi's Quran is unique in that it is divided not into individual verses, as is the case with all other Qurans, no matter their language, but rather into clusters of three, four, or five verses at a time. In other words, he bundles the individual verses into lengthy paragraphs that are rendered in both prose and poetry. This may perturb those trying to pinpoint a particular verse (Khalidi does provide occasional verse markers on the margins of each page to let readers know where they are in the text), but the overall effect is that Khalidi's Quran probably reads much closer to the way the first Muslims originally experienced the Quran.
The Quran literally means the recitation, an indication that this was a text meant to be heard, not read. That may explain why the Quran was never written down in Mohammed's lifetime. Instead, the revelations were diligently memorized by a class of religious scholars called the Qurra (or "Quran readers"), who then disseminated God's words to the rest of the Muslim community in short, easy-to-remember bursts of prophecy. A few of the most important revelations—those dealing with legal or economic matters—were preserved on bits of bone or scraps of leather. But the bulk of the Quran was not collected into a single volume until about 50 years after Mohammed's death. Only then was the revelation divided into individual verses.
This made it extremely difficult to place the Quran's verses, which had been revealed to Mohammed over a 22-year span, into historical context, much less chronological order. And so the compilers of the Quran did not bother doing either. Instead, they gathered up all of the revelations and recorded them in what can be described only as random order. This was a deliberate choice on their part. Muslims perceive the Quran as God's dramatic monologue, recorded without a human filter. (According to traditional Islamic theology, the Prophet Mohammed was merely a passive conduit through which the words of God flowed.) For the compilers of the Quran to have provided any explanation or commentary to the text, for them to have organized the verses in any deliberate way—whether chronologically or thematically—would have, in their minds, interfered with the direct revelation of God. As a consequence, those who are unfamiliar with the early history of Islam, or who may not recognize the historical allusions or contextual references that assist scholars in their exegesis, can feel rudderless trying to navigate through this challenging book.
In the introduction to his Quran, Khalidi admits that "the very allusiveness of the text, its impersonality, its meta-historical tone, seem almost deliberately to de-emphasize context." But he also seems to imply that it is natural to be confused by what we read. It is through the attempt to make sense of our confusions, to work through them with reason and with faith, that the Quran's dramatic monologue transforms into an eternal dialogue between humanity and God. Indeed, of all the sacred texts of the world, Khalidi argues that the Quran is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites the reader to engage with it, to challenge it, to ponder and to debate it. After all, as the Quran itself states, only God knows what it truly means.
Reza Aslan is the author ofNo god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.