Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reading the Quran: Finding a Translation

The first question, of course, is what translation of the Quran to read.

This is a nontrivial challenge, because there is a strong theological thread in Islam that says such a thing is not even possible.   The Quran was given to the Prophet Muhammed in Arabic, and it was written in Arabic, and it cannot be understood correctly unless it is read in Arabic.

On the one hand, this makes sense to me as a pastor in a denomination that still cares about original languages.  There are nuances to the as-close-to-the-original-as-we-can-get Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible that often do not surface in the English.    The original language helps us get to both context and intent, in ways that translations and transliterations do not.

It goes deeper than that.  The act of translation is frequently an act of interpretation, and as such, the theological and cultural predilections of the translator can impact how a passage is presented in a new language.

So I get it.  On the one hand.

On the other, larger hand, that just doesn't work.

I'm a Reformed Christian, and a Protestant.  One of the most potent and significant contributions of my tradition was the assertion that sacred texts must be colloquially accessible.   Meaning, they must be spoken in the native language of a culture.

The reason for this was twofold.  One, it prevented a hierarchy of spiritual awareness, in which one group of individuals controls access to a sacred message by being the only people who "truly" know what that message means.   God speaks in ways we can all understand, and can speak through any medium.   Language ceases to be a means of control, but a means of liberation.

Second, it facilitates the spread of that message, as it can be delivered across cultures in their idiom and according to their structures of meaning.   A translation of the Gospel into Twi or Urdu or !kung remains sacred.  Paradoxically, that sacred resonance sticks around deep into some...unusual...translations, like the KLV or the LCB.   Both of them might be a little wackadoodle, but nonetheless are perfectly capable of getting the essence of the God thing across in their own bizarre way.

Finally, and more significantly, I have irresolvable difficulty with the idea that God's relationship with us can be delimited by one particular culture or one way of articulating the sacred.   Despite what the King James Onlies might say, a god whose revelation can only be truly spoken in one human tongue just...well...doesn't feel like God.   God's language is Being.   Period.  Pesky, pesky mystic that I am.

That leaves me fuddled.  Where to find a translation of a book that isn't supposed to be translated, but that needs to be?

I own two English Qurans.   I've got an old scholarly hardback version, one I picked up at a used bookstore in Salt Lake City whilst there clinging to the last bright embers of a relationship with a Mormon ex-girlfriend.   But while still well regarded, the English is a bit clumsy.  And I've got a "pocket Quran" that I found in my Jewish son's room, one given to him by a Muslim friend.  Or, to be precise, one given to him by an Ahmadi Muslim friend.  Meaning, it's produced by a peace-loving, kind-spirited, pacifist and heretical sect of Islam.  The same peace-loving, pacifist, and heretical sect that an old friend happens to belong to, the Muslim friend who gifted me a photo of a man deep in prayer as a wedding gift.

I pored through the text, and researched the interpreter.  Seemed good enough from a linguistic perspective, although angry Wahabis bellowed their one-star displeasure at this worse-than-infidel in their Amazon reviews.  

I compared, briefly, the translation of the first sura in the Ahmadi version with the version officially approved by the House of Saud.   Honestly?   Pretty much the same, only my serendipitous translator seemed to make choices that consistently resonated more graciously in my ears.

From this, my choice will be not to read one translation, but to read several.   This is how I was trained to respectfully approach the Bible passages I am responsible for preachin' on, after all.   Where there is concurrence, I will assume the idea conveys smoothly from Arabic into English.   Where there are significant distinctions, I will assume there are challenges in translation, and look to other resources to surface the reason for the issue.

Seems like a plan.


  1. Pickthall is a bit more neutral than other translations---but it does not come with tafsir---however, it is available for free on the internet

    Arabic---Muslims read (and memorize) the Quran in arabic---even if we do not speak the language. (60% of Muslims live in Asia and Arabic is not their language). However, what this means is that we are well aware of important (arabic) concept words that give nuance and meaning to the religion. some examples...Taqwa---it means love/awe of God/God-awareness. The person who has Taqwa is called a muttaqeen (one who has Taqwa) and it can be translated as "believer"...but other Arabic words can also be translated as "believer"...such as....
    muslim = one who submits (to God/God's law)
    momeneen = one who has Iman (Iman = the use of ones intellect and reason to arrive at (heartfelt) conviction)
    Ofcourse---the most important concept in Islam is Tawheed (unity).
    Tawheed is the concept of "One God" but the "one" here denotes uniqueness rather than a numerical in---nothing in creation like him.....God is Uncreated, Unique, Genderless, Independent....etc....the 99 names is the concept that shows various attributes (facets) of God...that are not limited---that is why the number is open-ended...

    Mainstream Islam---believe that Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is the final messenger (Prophet) but there are groups that claim their leaders are a "prophet" such as some in the Nation of Islam, some Ahmadiya, I think the Bahai also....perhaps the Druze (?)....anyway...these would fall outside of mainstream Islam.....

  2. kat: Thanks for your insights! I appreciate them. Pickthall is one of the translations I'm utilizing, and online availability is a big plus.

  3. I've been trying to read Bakhtiar's translation, which I thought would be good since it is the first one by an American Muslim woman. It makes a really big deal of the translation of 4:34, which is usually rendered to allow husbands to beat their wives. She finds lots of reasons not to translate it this way. Anyway, her translation is, to me, so literal as to be almost unreadable, I'm sorry to say. I also have Ali Ozek's translation (which has footnotes embedded in the text itself, which I find somewhat annoying). I have an audio version in the car, but I don't know the translator. And the Penguin edition, that reorders the suras chronologically. I will look for this version you have; it sounds interesting.