The Koran: Scrutinising the Inscrutable

Each new translation of Islam’s most sacred text offers fresh insights into its meaning. Yet there are still surprises in a book that is not only hard to read, but hard to know how to read, even for Muslims

Academia Critique Faith History International Islam Literature

In the weeks after September 11 2001, several American friends asked me: “Which translation of the Koran should I read?” It was a good question, if a bit naïve. Would anyone ask which translation of the New Testament they should read in order to understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland? If my friends got as far as the ninth surah (or chapter) of the Koran, they would have read: “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them, arrest them, imprison them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every site of ambush.” This is how Tarif Khalidi’s new translation, The Qur’an (Penguin, 556 pp, £25), has it. The verse is much quoted by al-Qa’eda spokesmen; it is reputed to be one of Osama bin Laden’s personal favourites.

My friends might also have noted the eerily apposite verse in surah 4:76: “Wherever you may be, death will overtake you, even if you live in loftiest towers,” or felt a shiver of belated premonition at surah 74:30, with its mention of the 19 “scorching” angels who stand at the brink of hell, eternally stoked for “unbelievers”. But doesn’t the Koran also say, in a justly celebrated verse (2:256): “There is no compulsion in religion”? Puzzled as they might have been to find themselves lumped with polytheists, my friends would also have noted that the Koran contains many sublime passages, such as the beautiful “light verses” of surah 24:35, again in Khalidi’s translation:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
His light is like a niche in which is a lantern,
The lantern in a glass,
The glass like a shimmering star,
Kindled from a blessed tree,
An olive, neither of the East nor of the West,
Its oil almost aglow, though untouched by fire.
Light upon light!

At least four new translations of the Koran into English have appeared since 2001. These include the superb, if rather staccato, version of M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (now available in Oxford World’s Classics), and — in 2007 alone — The Sublime Quran (Islamicworld), a feminist translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, touted as “the first English translation of the Quran [sic] by an American woman”, and The Qur’an (Gibb Memorial Trust), a magisterial version by Alan Jones, professor of Arabic at Oxford and a leading authority on early ­Arabic; his translation is to be followed by a commentary volume next year. (Incidentally, Jones is the only one of the three translators who transliterates the title correctly as “The Qur’?n” with a long final “a”. To avoid confusion, I use the long-accepted English form “Koran” here.)

The Koran is composed in rhyming prose and much of its beauty can be appreciated best in recitation; for most Muslims, it is a heard scripture. Jones has tried to convey this elusive beauty by setting out the verses in lines of varying length, which echo the rhythmic cadences of recitation. Khalidi has now attempted something similar. He alternates what he terms “horizontal” prose passages, those dealing with mundane legal and ethical matters, with “vertical” poetic interludes, such as the verses just quoted.

Both these approaches work well; they capture something of the hypnotic music of the original. Jones’s translation strikes me as slightly superior in this regard; in the Arabic, the verses dealing with inheritance or divorce are as seamlessly musical as the more rapturous passages. The “light verses” just quoted come in the midst of prescriptions covering matters as diverse as the manumission of slaves and the penalties for false witness, but even these are enlivened by homely and vivid touches, as when (in 24:31) women are ­enjoined not to stamp their feet to make the trinkets hidden beneath their garments tinkle coquettishly. Jones’s version preserves such grace notes. With Khalidi, there is the temptation to skip from one lyrical pinnacle to the next.

Still, Khalidi’s translation reads very well and often majestically. He alternates high-flown diction with more colloquial usages, and this lends immediacy to his version. His choices aren’t always successful; to describe God’s forgiveness as “Ever-Ready” makes it sound oddly rechargeable (but then again, perhaps it is). He also has a tendency to favour abstractions and Latinate terms, which give a somewhat misleading impression. The Arabic of the Koran is almost always direct and quite pungently physical. But these are small faults. In general, Khalidi realises in English that “harmony of expression” that George Sale singled out more than two centuries ago as the dominant feature of the original Arabic.

Khalidi’s translation gives us the Koran neat; it is unaccompanied by commentary or even by those terse explanatory footnotes previous translations include. But the Koran is not only a hard book to read; it is a hard book to know how to read. To confront the scripture head on is to risk stumbling into a veritable thicket of perplexity. In many ways, it was as hard for early Muslims to understand as it is for Muslims today (let alone non-Muslims).

It seems disingenuous of Khalidi to express the hope that his new translation will “allow readers to come face to face with the Koranic text unencumbered by any commentary”. After all, from the earliest period of Islamic history, Muslims struggled with the difficulties of their scripture and set about establishing a vast apparatus of elucidation and exegesis. The Koran, together with the collected traditions of the Prophet (the hadith) — which constituted an authority equal to, and sometimes more compelling than, the Koran — formed the basis not only of law and doctrine, but of such disciplines as grammar and philology, as well as exegesis (or tafsir). It’s no wonder that many of the greatest early philologists were Persian converts, or the children of converts, to Islam: they knew what it was to grapple with a sacred text in a difficult new language.

When Sale published his translation in 1734, he prefaced it with a long and detailed “preliminary discourse”, which set the Koran firmly within its historical and cultural context; his discourse, and his translation, are still eminently useful. To read the ­Koranic text “unencumbered by any commentary” is just the way Islamic “fundamentalists” — as well as terrorists, those terribles simplificateurs — routinely read it. If any scripture ­requires commentary, historical as well as literary, it is the Koran. As it happens, no other sacred text has been so abundantly commented upon, in Arabic and in Persian.

The exegetical literature is vast; to give but one example, the commentary by the Sunni theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who died in 1209, occupies some 30 massive volumes and is as intricate as it is far ranging. The commentaries are surprisingly varied, too. The classic Sunni commentaries, with their stubborn philological and doctrinal emphasis, stand in sharp contrast to the subtle hermeneutics of their Shi’i counterparts — and the Sufi commentaries are as bold and speculative, and as delightfully paradoxical, as their own riddling treatises. Moreover, the entire body of exegesis bristles with idiosyncratic opinions, novel and sometimes fanciful insights, and fierce debates. From the earliest period, the text of the Koran, held to be “God’s speech”, as eternal as it is immutable, inspired as much fractiousness as reverence. Can such a text be properly understood apart from the long, quarrelsome but loving scrutiny in which, for a millennium-and-a-half, it has ­become embedded?

To see how commentary subtly qualifies the “unencumbered” text, consider one particularly troublesome passage. In surah 4, ­entitled “Women”, verse 34 instructs a husband on how to deal with an obstreperous wife. In the official Saudi translation, published in Riyadh in 1997, the verse reads:

But those [wives] from whom you feararrogance — [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally] strike them.

The verse seems unambiguous. But the fact that a husband was enjoined to strike an “arrogant” wife occasioned discomfort; medieval commentators squirm when they come to the verse. The great early exegete al-Tabari, who died in 923 and whose huge commentary assimilates many earlier authorities, searched for a bit of wiggle room. If you must resort to beating your wife, he says, don’t break her bones; in fact, it’s quite permissible to beat her with “a toothpick”. Al-Tabari can’t contravene the text, but he can soften it. Two centuries later, al-Zamakhshari, another Sunni exegete, would warn husbands not to use “violent force”, nor to strike a wife in the face, and he quoted a saying attributed to the Prophet: “Hang your whip where your household may see it.” This sounds harsh, but the whip is displayed as a deterrent; the threat of force, rather than force itself, suffices.

For the commentators, the problem with this passage wasn’t so much the permissib­ility of wife-beating (though that troubled them), but the fact that the injunction ran counter to the example of the Prophet. Since Muhammad himself never struck his wives, and, in fact, disapproved of such measures, the Koran here seems to be at odds with prophetic tradition, that normative behaviour known as the Sunnah (literally “custom”, but, by extension, the personal comportment of the Prophet, which all Muslims should imitate). The solution the commentators adopted was to uphold the revealed text while mitigating its application. Khalidi is, of course, aware of this; he smuggles the commentators’ qualms into his own version, which reads: “And those you fear may rebel, admonish, and abandon them in their beds, and smack them.” That smack is the sort of light touch, as it were, which respects the text while playfully modifying it. Tabari would have applauded.

Not surprisingly, this verse troubles contemporary Muslim feminist commentators (yes, they do exist). In the introduction to her translation, Bakhtiar devotes a full three ­pages to its elucidation, arguing that the word “strike” has been misunderstood, and mistranslated, for centuries; the phrase should be read, not as “beat them”, but as “go away from them”. Would that it were so; but no Arabic dictionary, medieval or modern, allows this meaning for the everyday verb daraba; alas, it can’t even be construed as “hit the road”. Bakhtiar may be shaky on Arabic meanings — she misquotes the Arabic text three times in her discussion, not an auspicious sign in a translator — but she rests her final argument on the disparity between the Koranic text and the Prophet’s recorded behaviour. As she puts it, “Since he chose not to beat, ‘not beating’ is the Sunnah.”

Bakhtiar’s argument, which derives from the work of other, more sophisticated Muslim feminist scholars, may seem feeble; certainly her translation (which maddeningly, and for no good reason, inserts “(f)” after every feminine ending in the text) is so poor as to be worthless. But if Islam in its rigid and authoritarian forms is to change, it will change from within, and women are likely to be the most effective agents of that change. There have been women Koran commentators and women experts on tradition, but this is the first time a woman has been bold enough to translate the text itself.

To invoke prophetic tradition, as Bakhtiar (and earlier commentators) do, is to supply context, however tenuously. Context is what is most lacking, however, in almost all translations of the Koran. Khalidi remarks that the Koran employs “an eternal present tense”. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we must read it that way nowadays. In the passage I quoted earlier, in which Muslims are urged to “kill the polytheists”, ordinary common sense suggests that the verse is best understood as emerging from a moment in which the early Muslim community was outnumbered and threatened by its Meccan opponents, most of whom were indeed polytheists. To construe it in the eternal present is to make of the text a rigid template imposed upon ever-changing historical circumstances.

Preachers of all faiths do this routinely, presenting a tart as a “Jezebel” or a malefactor as a “Haman”. But the device is understood as hortatory and ­allegorical. No Christian preacher would ­today urge: “Slaves, obey your masters.” Such an injunction, if it occurred in the Koran, would present a problem for a strict Muslim homilist; it would be seen as an immutable commandment. It may be essential to recognise God’s eternal word beneath the temporal swirl of events, but that recognition can also have the effect of brutalising perception; of turning complex events into mere shadow plays of the absolute. Read by itself, stripped of nuance, reduced to quotable snippets, the Koran, like any other scripture, lends itself to this distortion. It is sola scriptura taken to a simplistic extreme.

The issue of Koranic context is extremely touchy, as the celebrated case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd shows. Abu Zayd was born in 1943 and raised in a small Egyptian village as a ­pious and traditional Muslim; he knew the Koran by heart from an early age. But in 1990, he published a book, The Concept of the Text, in which he ventured to consider the Koran from a literary viewpoint. Though certain medieval rhetoricians had taken this approach long before, Abu Zayd’s speculations outraged many readers. They were particularly incensed by his argument that the Koranic text “changed from the very first moment, when the Prophet recited it, at the moment of its revelation, from being a divine text, to become something understandable, a human text”. For this, and similar musings, he was stripped of his professorship at Cairo University and declared an “apostate”. Since a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate, his marriage was judged invalid; he and his wife had to flee the country.

The notion that the Koran, though unquestionably divine in its origins, became a “human text” might seem inoffensive enough, but it has radical implications. It allows historical considerations, as well as awareness of changing linguistic nuance, to enter the discussion. Abu Zayd is presently a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and has continued his investigations; together with the Algerian-born scholar Mohammed Arkoun, an even bolder theorist, and a very few others, Abu Zayd and his students represent the best hope for a new and dynamic approach to the Koran. No doubt there are surprises yet to be discovered in this most immutable of ­sacred texts.