A new translation of the Quran.
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.


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.

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.

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