A new translation of the Quran.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 20 2008 3:03 PM

How To Read the Quran

A new translation captures the confusion.

Reading the Quran can be a baffling experience. Unlike the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the Quran is not a collection of books recounting the mythical history of a community of faith. It is not, like the Gospels, a pseudo-biographical sketch of a particular prophet in a particular time. It does not narrate the life of Mohammed, nor does it chronicle the rise of Islam (indeed, Mohammed is barely mentioned in it). Though the Quran is divided into 114 chapters (called suras), these are arranged neither thematically nor chronologically but rather from longest to shortest, the lone exception being the first and most important chapter, al-Fatiha, or "The Opening." The chapters are given evocative titles like "The Cow" or "The Feast," but these have almost nothing to do with the content that follows. The Quran itself states that its verses have multiple meanings, some of which are unfathomable to human beings and known only to God. And yet, in both style and content, the Quran is unique among scriptures.

The words of the Quran are thought to be infused with divine power. Muslims believe it to be the actual speech of God handed down through Mohammed between 610 and 632 CE. The physical book—its cover and pages—is considered sacred and is to be handled only in a state of purity. Its verses are inscribed on buildings and tombs in order to sanctify them. They are placed in lockets and worn as amulets to ward off evil. They are etched into cups so that when one drinks from them one consumes God's divine power. The mere act of writing out the words of the Quran—the art of Islamic calligraphy—has been elevated into the supreme artistic expression in the Muslim world.

The inherent sacredness of the Quran has historically created an unusual problem for many Muslims. Since the end of the seventh century CE, when its verses were collected into a single, authoritative canon, the Quran has remained fixed in Arabic, the language in which it was originally revealed. It was believed that translating the Quran into any other language would violate the divine nature of the text. Translations were done, of course. But to this day, non-Arabic versions of the Quran are considered interpretations of the Quran. Unless the original Arabic verses are embedded on the page, it cannot technically be called a Quran.

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The consequences of this belief are obvious. For much of the last 14 centuries, some 90 percent of the world's Muslims for whom Arabic is not a primary language had to depend on Islam's clergy—all of them men, as women are not allowed to enter the clergy—to define the meaning and message of the Quran for them, much as pre-Reformation Christians had to rely on priests to read them the Bible, which at the time was available only in Latin. That is now changing. Over the last century, the Quran has been translated into more languages than in the previous 14 centuries combined. A great many of these translations have been done not by Muslim clergy but by scholars and academics, by Muslim laity and non-Muslims, and, perhaps most significantly, by women. (The first English translation of the Quran by an American woman, Laleh Bakhtiar, was published in 2007.)

Arabic is a language whose words can have multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings, so how one chooses to render a particular word from Arabic to English has a lot to do with one's biases or prejudice. Take the following example from Sura 4:34, which has long been interpreted as allowing husbands to beat their wives: "As for those women who might rebel against you, admonish them, abandon them in their beds, and strike them (adribuhunna)." The problem, as a number of female Quranic scholars have noted, is that adribuhunna can also mean "turn away from them." It can even mean "have sexual intercourse with them." Obviously, which definition the translator chooses will be colored by whatever his or her preconceived notions are about a husband's authority. The new crop of Quran translators are brushing aside centuries of traditionalist, male-dominated, and often misogynistic clerical interpretations in favor of a more contemporary, more individualized, and often more gender-friendly approach to the Quran. In the process, they are not only reshaping the way Islam's holy book is read; they are reinterpreting the way Islam itself is being understood in the modern world.

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