By Ziauddin Sardar
June 25, 2008
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.
Consistency is Overrated
By Madeleine Bunting
June 23, 2008
This week is the toughest yet. I feel I've strayed into a territory of passionate interest and concern to Muslims - issues to do with consistency in the Qur'an - but which to me seem rather uninteresting. There's a touch of Oscar Wilde's comment that consistency was much overrated in my response. But I realise that there are important issues here so I will try and understand something which feels very foreign to me.
In one verse we are told that the juice of palm trees is wholesome and then we are told not to consume alcohol. How do we find our way through this kind of apparent contradiction? It's a familiar conundrum from the Bible - take for example attitudes to family; we are given the commandment to honour our parents and then Jesus says at one point that family loyalty and commitments are subordinate to his command. I feel that all religious texts entangle you in these kinds of complexities - it is part of how they are trying to address all human truth for all time.
Zia explains "abrogation" which is very helpful, but extremely intimidating. He offers a glimpse of a kind of scriptural dogfight which has run for centuries and which I find off-putting. But I can see its importance - Zia gives the example of how abrogation has been used to justify stoning for adultery and I would be interested to know if there are other equally dramatic examples.
I can't help feeling that abrogation becomes so important when every line of a religious text is claimed to be the word of God. It then becomes crucial to clarify and tidy up that text to crystal clarity. But if the text is a human creation with all the evidence of its author or authors and with a certain untidiness on the part of its character, then the arguments over particular lines are less significant. Because it is always understood that text has to be read and interpreted in every age: the tradition inspired by the text is a constantly evolving understanding of that text.
In Zia's commentary on abrogation, he describes just this even though he and I start from different places - "we have to think with all the resources we have acquired through history, we have to apply our thinking to all the new experiences history has brought us and we have to accept that we may have to do things differently...in order to achieve the same ends as those sought by the classical scholars." That seems to me to be a good definition of a religious faith tradition.