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.

9 thoughts on “God Speaks Arabic

  1. Hi there,
    i am an undergraduate student,writing a project on koran translation. i chose Dr Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation THE SUBLIME KORAN
    What do you think of this translation.
    Many thanks

  2. Oscar: There have been a couple of studies. Ong’s Orality and Literacy is what comes to my mind straight away – and it is a brilliant work. A hot new topic amid my colleagues is Tazkira literature – which are sayings of Sufi masters written down by disciples. I expect much new material on the transmission of knowledge to emerge out of this new scholarship.

  3. Oscar Chamberlain

    August 25, 2004 — 5:09 pm

    The emphasis on the oral transmission of knowledge has its good points. The Word, taken literally, can lead people into some really dreadful mistakes. While some oral masters have been fanatics, others have counciled against literal fanaticism.

    I wonder if anyone has even done comparitive work on the shift from oral to written transmission of knowledge in religion. Hindus, and I believe Buddhists as well were reluctant to write down their major teachings for centuries. First century Christianity is particularly fascinating as the oral tradition of Jesus’s sayings moved around the Mediterranean along with the letters of various Apostles.

  4. simply because illustrated manuscripts of the Qur’an were not used in any religious, pedagogical or cultural ceremonies. They were commissioned as works of devotion to be housed in sacred spaces. Anyone wishing to know the Qur’an was not given a manuscript but was handed to a Hafiz for instruction.
    The ascendancy of print culture left the religious elite holding the notion that a cheaply produced and widely distributed copy of the Qur’an would prohibit people from giving it the proper respect.
    The basic argument is that knowledge of the Sacred was transmitted orally – whether through memorization of the Qur’an or through the Sufi master’s instruction or intonation. If you look at the way religious instruction is constructed to this day, you will find the same emphasis.
    The Islamic model for knowledge throughout medieval and pre-modern times was to personally visit the Master – and if that fails, a direct student of the Master. Even the ‘isnad is build concisely around the framework of X heard from Y who narrated etc. Fact checking the ‘isnad is done via judging whether X could actually physically have heard it from Y or not – not that X read about it in a publication from Y.

  5. re:printing, i was actually asking — you use the paucity of print qurans as *evidence* of the emphasis on orality but why doesn’t the popularity of written qurans indicate an enthusiasm for the written/not oral?

  6. desesperanto: God did make Mohammad just memorize the Qur’an – who then had his closest suhaba memorize it in turn – as it was revealed. There was only one copy of written Qur’an (mostly fragments – compiled AFTER Muhammad during Abu Bakr) until ‘Uthman and the first fitna (civil war). Casualties of Muslims who had the Qur’an memorized caused consternation that with their death, the word of God will be lost. Hence, copies were made from all extant versions and that is the definitive form it took.
    Now, you confuse ‘writing’ the Qur’an (in manuscripts etc.) with ‘print’. My argument about orality is in re: to the arrival of print culture in the Islamic world. Hundreds of thousands of hand-copied manuscripts of Qur’an existed in the Islamic world until the c. 19th.
    The printers in Istanbul were jewish businesses.

  7. how did people reconcile the emphasis on orality and the holiness of a written text? if orality was so great why didn’t god just make mohd. memorize it?

    is this view that orality was not influential in the islamic world until colonialism the definitive/uncontroverisal one? you mention the slowness to print a quran as indicating the preference for orality but there were numerous written qurans, and i’ve read about the centrality of paper to islamic cultures (eg. Paper Before Print) and mohd’s view that paper was a way to spread the quran.

    what were the printers of 1493 in istanbul printing?

  8. tsk: I would recommend 2 books.
    Michael Cook’s A Very Short Introduction to Koran. Which is very short and quite good.
    This will give you clues on the text of the Qur’an and how to understand it as such.
    The second, way more important recommendation goes to the issue of context I discussed above. Imagine the Qur’an to be a Director’s Commentary to the Life of Muhammad with lots of making-of extras and special features on the history of the region and its people.
    As such, the best place to start is with a biography of the Prophet – and one that USES Qur’an (and other historical sources) – like F. E. Peters’ Muhammad and the Origins of Islam.
    Incidentally, I have an extra copy :)

  9. sweet…. i was thinking of adding a “holy book” section to my bookshelf and i was going to ask for a recommended english translation. now i don’t have to.

    my question is, though, what about an explainer? can you recommend any books (and i’m not in one of your classes, so one or two would do) that explain sections or put them into even more context so that an outside reader would have an easier time with the text? not as glib as cliff’s notes, but i think you get the idea.

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