God Speaks Arabic

in optical character recognition

A friend send me a link to a review of a new English translation of the Qur’an by Prof. Abdel Haleem of SOAS. The translation is getting some good press and my friend thought that I should use that for my upcoming class. I wish I had know about it sooner because I surely would. What struck me in the review was what has always bothered me about various translations:

Abdel Haleem makes use of a simple but ingenious device to solve two critical problems. The Qur’an often addresses different parties – for example, the Prophet, or the Community of Believers, or the hostile Meccan tribe of the Quraysh – and switches from one to another in the same verse. Abdel Haleem inserts parentheses to make it clear who is speaking or whom is being addressed. He uses the same device to provide context: for example, when the Qur’an says “those who believed and emigrated”, Abdel Haleem adds “[to Medina]”. He also includes brief summaries at the beginning of each chapter, as well as judicious footnotes explaining geographical, historical and personal allusions.
Abdel Haleem’s emphasis on context – the way that each verse connects with many others, and how the different parts of the Holy Book explain each other – makes this translation a remarkable achievement. For the first time, readers of the Qur’an in translation are able to see that it is a commentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. It spans a period of 23 years; and to understand what is going on in any particular verse, you need to appreciate what is happening in the Prophet’s life at the moment the verse was revealed. Moreover, to understand what the Qur’an says about a particular subject in one particular verse, you have to know what the Qur’an says about the same topic in different places.

Context. Which is not to say that anyone picking up the Qur’an needs to sack around a concordance and a commentary and all that – but some moderate intervention of context into the translation is surely appreciated. Serendipitously, I was reading (or attempting to) al-Jahiz’s Kitab al Haywan, written sometime in the last two decades of eighth century. It is presumably a book about animals but it has lots more in it. Lots weird more. Here is a passage where al-Jahiz ruminates on translations which caught my eye:

When it comes to books of religion with information about God, the Almighty, how should the translator observe the dictates of the unity of God when discussing the concepts of sciences and cosmos and being. How can we make sure that he does not transgress the boundaries of what may or may not be said about God or Man? And how will he distinguish statements attributed to the Prophet from those attributed from the Quran? How does he know what comes from logic and what comes from custom? How do we get him to know true from false reports as well as what should or should not be labeled as ‘true’ or ‘false’? And what is ‘true’? And what is ‘false’? what are there criteria?

See what I mean? Even al-Jahiz back in the day knew that translation is all about context and value-judgements. And he asked the question…how do we know what is true? The problem with translating the Qur’an is not the problem of knowing Arabic but the problem of depicting truth.

On the Muslim side, the Dogma held that Qur’an is a created-text that existed before anything else. It is inviolate. Arabic is the language that God speaks through. The Qur’an has been preserved as-is from the time of its revelation to this day. I am not going to invite a fatwa on my ass (steve is dying for that to happen) by going into that debate of the ‘inimitability of Qur’an’ [i’jaz al-quran] on a blog! Still, one effect of this dogma was that Arabic and Qur’an were linked within Islamic theology and theologians argued that the Qur’an should not be and cannot be translated from Arabic – and that even attempting to do so would be to commit blasphemy. The ‘truth’ could only exist in Arabic, it seemed. Which did not stop anyone as translation of the Qur’an moved inside the Commentaries on the Qur’an.

On the other side were Christians who had to prove that the Qur’an was filled with lies. The earliest translation of Qur’an into Latin was done explicitly to convert Muslims – and to show Muhammad for the heretic that he was. In 1142, Peter the Venerable asked the Englishman Robert of Ketton, archdeacon of Pamplona, to undertake such a translation. Over the next two years, he summarized and translated the Qur’an and called it Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete. It was a best-seller and remained on top of the charts well into 18th century. A second, less well known, translation was done by Mark of Toledo around 1210 or 1211. In the c. 16th when the Turkish menace was, well, menacing Vienna and Hungary, Robert of Ketton’s translation held center stage in the discourse about the Moors. It was reproduced in popular pamphlets, T¸rkenb¸chlein – where alongside lists of Moorish barbarity were passages from the Qur’an (hey! kinda like what happens now on CBN!) about Muslims forcing circumcisions and conversions and rapin’ and pillagin’. The text of Robert’s Qur’an was in print and circulation around c. 1533 and was even censored a few years later on account of possessing heretic powers of corruption.

Which brings me to that other aspect in the history of Qur’anic translations: Orality. As early as 1493, we have printing presses in Istanbul. Yet, no Qur’an in print. In the c. 16th we have Syrian Christian presses and Goan missionary presses but the one Muslim press that operated in Istanbul in 1740s had to be shut down because of severe opposition. The Qur’an – the dogma held – was transmitted orally, should be recited and memorized and passed on in an oral tradition. The oral transmission of Qur’an was the backbone of the madrasa system, being the first step for every child to memorize before going on to shar’ia etc. The one who successfully memorizes the entire Qur’an is called Haf’iz ul-Qur’an. The supremacy of oral knowledge and oral transmission of knowledge meant that print did not impact Islamic societies until colonialism dictated it. It was not until the c. 19th that Muslims started to translate Qur’an into Urdu and Hindi. Yusuf Ali’s 1934 translation being the most popular one to this date. You can go here to compare three translations of the Qur’an.

What does orality have to do with translation? To put it simply, translations are printed word and the knowledge and comprehension of Qur’an was tied directly to the knowledge and comprehension of Arabic. To be a Muslim was to learn Arabic; to learn Arabic was to memorize the Qur’an – to memorize the Qur’an was to submit to its unique beauty and orality.

Translating the Qur’an is a matter not only of bridging languages but of modes of transmission as well. Add to that the polemical and political dangers and I don’t know why anyone would ever undertake such a task [for the kids!]. All that being said [and, uh, I said a lot. sorry], I am really glad that there is this new translation. Go buy it.
I need to stop reading my diss. texts right before writing a blog entry.

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