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The Qur'an: A New Translation - The eternal present tense


The Qur'an: A New Translation

By Tarif Khalidi

530pp, Penguin Classics, £25 


 We look for two things in any new translation of the Qur'an. How close does it get to communicating the meaning of the original, that inimitable oral text, the very sounds of which move men and women to tears and ecstasy? And does it offer something more: a new perspective, perhaps; or an innovative rendering?

    Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, scores high on both these criteria. He manages to capture the allusiveness of the text, as well as something of its tone and texture. While being faithful to the original, he succeeds in conveying linguistic shifts, from narrative to mnemonic, sermons to parables. And there is an innovative component: it is the first translation that tries to capture both the rhythms and the structure of the Qur'an.

    The best way to demonstrate its newness, and how close it is to the original text, is to compare it with an old translation. The translation I have in mind is Khalidi's predecessor in the Penguin Classics: The Koran, translated with notes by NJ Dawood. First published in 1956, Dawood's translation has been republished in numerous editions. It has been a great source of discomfort for Muslims, who see in it deliberate distortions that give the Qur'an violent and sexist overtones. It is the one most non-Muslims cite when they tell me with great conviction what the Qur'an says.

    The change can be detected with the name of the sacred text itself: we move from "Koran", the older anglicised form, to the new "Qur'an", which is now accepted as the correct Arabic transliteration and pronunciation of the word. This is not just a trivial matter of linguistics; it signals a shift from the old Orientalist way of presenting the Qur'an in English to a new inclusive way that takes Muslims' appreciation of their sacred text into account.

    Subtle differences in chapter headings signal significant change. The opening chapter of the Qur'an in Dawood is "The Exordium". In Khalidi, and indeed universally among other translations, it is "The Opening". Dawood translates Az-Zumar (chapter 39) as "The Hordes", suggesting bands of barbarian mobs; Khalidi renders it as "The Groups".

    While Dawood's translation presents the Qur'an as a patriarchal, sexist text, Khalidi brings out the gender-neutral language of the original. A good example is provided by 2:21. In Dawood we read: "Men, serve your Lord." In Khalidi, it becomes: "O People! Worship your Lord." Dawood's translation of the famous verse 2:25, frequently quoted, is largely responsible for the current misconception that Muslim paradise is full of "virgins" - despite the fact that the Qur'an explicitly denies any carnal pleasures in paradise. This is because we find "men" in Dawood's translation in the garden of paradise who are "wedded to chaste virgins". Khalidi renders it correctly: "In these gardens they have immaculate spouses."

    The old Penguin translation uses rather obscurantist images throughout to give the impression that the Qur'an is full of demons and witches. For example, in 31:1, Dawood has God swearing "by those who cast out demons". Khalidi translates the same verse as: "Behold the revelations of the Wise Book."

    So this translation is a quantum leap ahead of the old Penguin version. But it also has a rather special character. Khalidi is not interested in providing the context of the verses of the Qur'an. We therefore do not always know who the Qur'an is addressing at various junctures or who is speaking to whom in its internal dialogues. Here M Abdel-Haleem' s translation (OUP, £7.99), published in 2004, is more useful. Neither is Khalidi all that concerned with providing the reader with help. Footnotes, for example, would have been useful for occasional explanation of what is happening in a particular passage. Instead, he takes a rather unusual attitude to the Qur'an. It is "a bearer of diverse interpretation" , he says; and its ambiguities are deliberately designed to stimulate thinking. Let the reader be "patient of interpretation" and read at will. All that is needed is to approach the text with sympathy.

    Khalidi wants the reader to enjoy the experience of reading the Qur'an. Of course, he wants to communicate the majesty of its language, the beauty of its style, and the "eternal present tense" of its grammar. But he also wants the reader to appreciate the Qur'an's unique structure, how the language changes with the subject matter, how it swirls around and makes rhythmic connections. He wishes to show how each of the seven tropes of the Qur'an (command, prohibition, glad tidings, warnings, sermons, parables and narratives) registers a change in the style of its language. A lofty ambition, but one he pulls off with some success.

    The shifts in style are presented in two ways. Linguistically, Khalidi moves from literal translation, rendered in clear prose, via the use of heightened language to deeply poetic renderings. Physically, the layout of the passage changes, so each style looks different on the page. The narrative passages, or sections dealing with social and legislative affairs, appear in a prose format. The dramatic and metaphysical sections are arranged in poetic style.

    This translation manages to give a glimpse of the grandeur of the original. Khalidi's poetic sections will be compared with AJ Arberry's The Koran Interpreted (OUP, 1964), widely considered to be the most poetic of all translations. While I still prefer Arberry, Khalidi compares very favourably.

    But, for the life of me, I cannot see why poetic translations cannot number the verses consistently and consecutively. Like Arberry, Khalidi provides verse numbers on the side margins non-consecutively. There are a couple of other unforgivable omissions. In the main text, the chapters have no numbers. While there is a short glossary, there is no index. I found the translation very difficult to navigate.

    These omissions notwithstanding, this is a magnificent achievement. And Penguin, which had a rotten image among Muslims thanks to Dawood's translation, has redeemed itself.

Saturday June 21, 2008, The Guardian, London

Buy The Qur'an: A New Translation at the Guardian bookshop

Ziauddin Sardar blogs on a different verse or theme of the Qur'an weekly at




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Total Comments (31)

  1. Nothing new, but correctness in expressing in english language. Each language has its own different representation. Arabic is unique language
    By Shamim Ansari 02/08/2018 04:34:57
  2. This new Quran does not seem to address the fundamental concepts of hate against kafirs and Jihad and war against them. In my view changing spellings and names of chapters and other such small changes will not really be effective.
    By Rajeev Jain 03/12/2015 01:44:19
  3. Dear Aj

    The Study Qur'an has been praised in unqualified and rather superlative terms by a posse of distinguished Islamic scholars from the highest echelon of scholarship. 

    Is it available for free download - if so can you pass the link please.
    By muhammad yunus 02/12/2015 03:50:18
  4. Dear , M Younus ,
    The Study Quran a new translation and commentary by Seyyed Hossein Nasir, caner K D . Just downloaded it. The unique thing about it for first time to my knowledge  both Shia and Suni scholars contributed and provided commentary .
     I like in depth introduction.

    By Aj 01/12/2015 19:29:02
  5. Dear Muhammad Mustafa,

    The Qur'an - if it is indeed a book of God must be understood on its own right. If you make its understanding contingent to the Sahab's interpretation, you render the Qur'an an incomplete book that must be read in light of how the Sahaba interpreted it - a highly porous domain as there is no single book on the interpretation of the Qur'an by the Sahabas and moreover the Qur'an does not appoint the Sahabas as the final authority in comprehending its message. And if you say we must understand the Qur'an in light of hadith and tafsir which contain hte views of the Sahabas then no common Muslim or non-Muslim can ever grasp its message for the hadith and tafseer corpus are exhaustive - encyclopedic. 

    To make life easy for common people who want to grasp the core message of the Qur'an, it leaves the following clear hints: 

    ·        It calls for focusing on its clearly stated or definitive commandments – those that are of in universal nature and not specific to any particular context:

    “He is the One who has revealed to you (O Muhammad,) the Book which contains (some) clear verses (muhkamat) that (form) the essence of this Book, while others are allegorical (mutashabihat). Those with perversity in their hearts follow that which is allegorical seeking confusion and seeking an interpretation. No one knows its interpretation, except God. Those, who have knowledge, say: ‘We believe in it; it all comes from our Lord;’ yet none is mindful of this, except the prudent” (3:7).

    ·         It calls for probing and studying the Qur’an with devotion (2:121, 38:29, 47:24):

    “Those to whom We have given the Scripture study it as it ought to be studied (with devotion and sincerity); it is they who believe in it…” (2:121).

    “We have sent down the Book to you (O Muhammad,) with blessings so that the prudent may probe (yaddabbaru) its verses (message) and be mindful of it” (38:29).

    “Will they not probe (yatadabbarun) the Qur'an? - or are their hearts sealed” (47:24)?

    ·         It commands the readers, especially the believers to seeking the best meaning in it (39:18, 39:55).

    “Those who listen to this speech and follow the best (meaning) – it is they who are guided by God, and it is they who are prudent” (39:18). 

    “Follow the best (meaning) of what has been sent down to you from your Lord, before suffering comes upon you of a sudden and without your knowledge” (39:55).

    ·         It warns that only those can benefit from its message who approach it with a pure heart (positive state of mind) (56:79):

    “None but the pure (mutatahhirin) can touch it (the Qur’an) - given that the Qur’an was an oral revelation, the verse suggests that only those pure (of heart) can draw benefit from it.

    ·         It claims to be its own best interpretation (ahsana tafsira, 25:33)

    “…We provide you with the Truth (the Qur’an) and the best interpretation (of its message)

    ·         And finally, the Qur’an declares:

    “God sends down the best of discourses (ahsan al Hadith) as a Book fully consistent in itself, and whose statements corroborate, expound and refer to one another (39:23).

    The reader is, thus, required to struggle to find the best meaning through close scrutiny of its text, because there are many passages that cannot be comprehended without cross referencing other verses; and exploring the Secondary Sources, only when it is necessary but with care.

    By muhammad yunus 08/09/2015 00:02:36