There was a time when an attempt to translate the Qur’an into any language was regarded as blasphemy. As the direct word of God, revealed to the Prophet Mohammed through the archangel Gabriel, the Qur’an was considered untranslatable. No matter how capable and sincere the scholar, it was thought that no translation could capture the grandeur and beauty of the original Arabic.
The Indian scholar and reformer Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) was the first Muslim to defy this tradition when he translated the Qur’an into Persian. He was roundly criticised for his efforts; some religious scholars pronounced a fatwa against him. But Shah Waliullah’s courageous enterprise paved the way for the Qur’an’s translation by Muslims into all languages. Alexander Ross (1649) did the first complete English version. More than 60 English translations have appeared. Since its revelation to the Prophet Mohammed in 7th-century Arabia, the Qur’an has moulded the lives of millions. Even today, it is regarded as a book of guidance par excellence by more than 1bn Muslims the world over. Little wonder that it has been at the centre of scholarly attention by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. However, with so many English translations, is a new one really justifiable?
Tarif Khalidi’s new text stands above others on several counts. First, he has done well to state clearly the Muslim beliefs about the Qur’an and its immense impact on Muslim society and world history. In this respect, this publication marks an important departure from the usual western-focused or orientalist discourse on Islam, which often fails to present Islam and the Qur’an as Muslims believe in them.
Khalidi is also sensitive to the multiplicity of registers in the Qur’anic text – which veers from legalistic commands to profound homily. Alive to this feature, he has introduced for the first time horizontal and vertical formats in the layout. His poetic, vertical presentation of dramatic, emotionally charged dialogues – such as the following exchange between God, Mohammed and the unbelieving Makkans – is a striking change from the usual bland paraphrasing in English translations:
“Say: ‘To whom does the earth and all upon it belong, if you happen to know?’
And they shall respond: ‘To God’ […]
Say: ‘Who is the Lord of the seven heavens, the Lord of the great throne?’
And they shall respond: ‘God’ […]
Say: ‘How then can you be so beguiled?’”
This translation brings into relief a largely unacknowledged feature of the Qur’an – gender equality – which is at times eclipsed by the unjust patriarchal order in some Muslim societies. In his introduction, Khalidi observes that “the most startling aspect of its [the Qur’anic] rhetoric is the deliberate address to women alongside men, rendering the Qur’an among the most gender-conscious of all sacred texts”. Another departure is Khalidi’s use of “the eternal present tense”, which is reader-friendly and highlights the timelessness and universality of the Qur’anic message.
Notwithstanding Khalidi’s rejection of the “nineteenth century [western] paradigm of reading the Qur’an”, he at times commits some surprising errors of perspective spawned by an orientalist discourse. In his glossary, for example, he brands several figures and events as “unidentified”, “uncertain” and “mysterious”, which borders on a distrust of the Qur’anic account.
I take issue with some of his word choices. In recounting the persecution of the Israelites at the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt, the Qur’an mentions Pharaoh’s slaughter of Israelite boys while sparing their girls – an account identical to that in Exodus in the Bible. Khalidi describes it: “They killed your children and debauched your women.” The choice of “debauched” is not borne out by either the Qur’anic or Biblical text. Likewise, his translation of the Arabic word dhilla as “humility” is surely incorrect: most translators render it as “humiliation” or “ignominy”.
Nonetheless, Khalidi’s work serves the noble cause of drawing attention to the affinity between the subject of the Qur’an and the Bible. His call for the study of the Qur’an on its own terms is welcome – as is his observation that: “This is one area where collaboration between Muslim and non-Muslim scholarship holds much promise, in terms of both new knowledge to be gained and a better understanding of the place of the Qur’an and of Islam in the contemporary world.” The sooner this laudable project is taken up, the better it will be for our pluralistic society.
Dr Manazir Ahsan is director-general of the Islamic Foundation, and vice-chair of the Inter Faith Network