On Qur'an Translations

I'm not a Muslim. I've never been a Muslim and never will be. I will never be religious in any capacity. Personally, I find religion problematic for many reasons.

I am explaining my feelings about religion only so that, when I say that the Qur'ān has some of the most beautiful things I have ever encountered in any language, you understand just how strong an impression this book must have made on me. Though a large bulk of the book is merely annoying to me (in the manner of, say Leviticus or St. Paul's epistles,) there is a sizable collection of passages and chapters that cannot fail to stir me to a sense of awe every time I read or hear them. In fact, when I listen to a recording of a gifted reciter reciting Sūratu-r-Raḥmān (my favorite) I am almost always in tears by the end of the recitation. It does not make me believe, and nor does it need to. One may be amazed at the sight of the Parthenon or the Hagia Sophia without believing in Greek Orthodoxy or Olympian Thymocracy.

When reading English translations of the Qur'ān, however, I am struck by how often translators forgo the aesthetic and rhetorical possibilities of the English language in favor of pedantic, ploddingly interpretive prosification. They all busy themselves with the task of representing what this book has to say without giving the English-speaking reader any idea of why so many people listen. Mind you, there have been a few translators who have tried to show another side of the Qur'ān. Michael Sells' excellent book Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations is a fine example.

Even the less "poetic" parts of the Qur'an use sound as a unifying device. For example, here's a rough attempt at rendering the beginning of Surat-ul-Baqara in a way that attempts to preserve some rhythmic effects of the original:
This book is not to be doubted. A guidance it is for the God-fearing
Who believe in the unseen and keep worship and spend of what we have bequeathed,
And who believe in what is sent down unto you and what was sent down before you. They are convinced of the Hereafter.
These take guidance from their Lord. These it is who succeed.
Those who have disbelieved, whether you warn them or not, it matters not; for they will not believe.
God has set a seal on their hearing and on their hearts and on their eyes there is a veil. Theirs will be a mighty doom indeed.
Some among humanity say: We have believed in God and the Final Day, when they do not believe.
They think to deceive God and those who believe, but they deceive none save themselves. But this they do not perceive.

However, translations like this are rare in the extreme and those by Muslims all but  nonexistent. The reason, I am convinced, is that in order to translate the Qur'ān as literature, one must approach it as a literary text. The theological objections to such an approach may be summarized as follows:

1) A literary text is a human composition, whereas the Qur'ān, if it represents the word of God, should not be compared to any kind of human production.

2) To deal with the Qur'ān as a work of art is to suggest that Muhammad is its author, rather than simply its deliverer.

3) Claiming that the Qur'ān represents anything other than fact is blasphemy.

4) A literary approach would require one to see that the Qur'ān, in language and content, is historically determined, and therefore culturally bound, rather than the Book for All Mankind it is espoused to be.

However, one does not need to be an atheist to find fault with this line of thinking. In fact, the Egyptian Amin al-Khuli (1895-1966) suggested that a literary approach to the Qur'ān was the only way of explaining its divine provenance and inimitability. He argued that, because the Arabs prized verbal arts above all else, the acceptance of the Qur'ān by the Arabs (and the Islam that it entailed) could not have occurred had the Arabs not recognized the Qur'ān's absolute preeminence relative to human texts. In other words, Amin al-Khuly argued, the birth of Islam succeeded in large measure precisely because the Arabs saw the Qur'ān as a superhuman literary text that could not be matched by any human efforts. It is quite well-known that the Qur'ān, at the very beginning of its revelation enthralled its audience via its unique (i.e. inimitable) linguistic features. Many listeners tried to explain its outlandishly powerful effect on them in terms of poetry and various other verbal arts. All these explanations are refuted by none other than the Qur'ān itself. Taha Husayn defined the Qur'ān as a literary genre unto itself when he exclaimed that "the Qur'ān is neither poetry nor prose; it is Qur'ān."

I personally find that the virtue of the Qur'ān is indeed the virtue of so much great poetry: Sound, resonance and meaning exploited masterfully to their full potential. It has often occurred to me that perhaps the Qur'ān could benefit from an attempt at literary translation. Perhaps I could try to represent it not as a spiritual handbook, but as a work of art. I'm still working on that.


  1. I have tried to get in touch (by email, etc.) but there seems to be no way other than these comments. I was wondering if you have seen Fazlollah Nikayin's 'poetic' translation. If so, I am really eager to know your opinion about it. I hope that you respond.

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