The Koran in English: A Biography is part of the series Lives of Great Religious Books launched by Princeton University Press. This series aims to provide biographical introductions to sacred texts and influential religious works such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Biblical books, the Jewish Talmud, Rumi’s Masnavi, etc. One may not expect it, but the stories that build up around religious texts can be fascinating and instructive in their own right. In this case, we see how people in other times encountered the Holy Quran and how they struggled with it, we witness social and political dimensions and we acknowledge the immense influence this book continues to wield.
The author, Bruce B. Lawrence, is a professor at Duke University and particularly suited to this task — among his credentials is an earlier book on the Quran titled The Quran: A Biography. The book under review here is a concise volume that serves as a complementary chapter in that same history, more specifically the story of the Quran’s encounter with the English language.
Here we note the fundamental distinction that the author takes considerable pains to stress: the title ‘Quran’ refers to the primary Arabic text, the Noble Book, the Word of God as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) some 1,600 years ago. The 18th century witnessed the Anglicising of this text and the emergence of the “English stepchild”, the ‘Koran’, which is now the primary resource for American and European audiences approaching Islam.
What does it mean to translate a majestic religious text into another language? A new book offers food for thought
The first wave of translations of the Quran was largely undertaken as a Christian effort to counter the supposedly heretical faith of Islam. First and foremost was the transition to Latin in the 12th century by the priest and diplomat Robert of Ketton, whose superlative and highly influential translation demonstrated a sensitive, inquiring touch and a genuine effort to understand rather than vilify. Scottish writer Alexander Ross, chaplain to King Charles I, undertook the first English translation in 1649. British Orientalist George Sale’s translation done in 1734 has proved to be the most popular of this lot, running to more than a hundred editions to date. Translations by English clergyman J.M. Rodwell in 1861 and another Orientalist, E.H. Palmer, marked a slight shift in attitudes: no longer was translation an effort to overthrow ‘Mohammedan heresy’, but rather an attempt to understand Prophet Muhammad the man.
Surprisingly, it was Indian Muslims who turned the tide in the 20th century. From countering Islam, translation became a way to combat Christian missionary efforts. The pioneer was the journalist and scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali who diligently crafted a masterpiece that was to prove enormously influential on future translations, and yet was marginalised in the public domain because of the translator’s Ahmadi background. Prominent efforts that followed included those of the British-Indian barrister Abdullah Yusuf Ali and famed convert Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall; these are two of the most widely used translations to date. Pickthall’s version aimed to communicate the majesty of the Arabic text in a style reminiscent of the King James Bible. In contrast, the Anglophile Yusuf Ali used the high English of William Wordsworth and cited John Milton, William Shakespeare and Lord Alfred Tennyson in the footnotes — the colonised were now speaking back to the coloniser.
The fourth notable translation of this era is credited to Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam and became an intellectual giant of the Muslim world. His version is remarkable for its modern rational outlook and penetrating intellectual depth.
In his translation which was published in 1929, the India-born mufti of Penang, Malaysia, Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar wrote, “The translation of the Quran is somewhat like playing a game of chess. Everyone may learn to play the game, but no one has yet exhausted the knowledge thereof.”
Other notable translation efforts include British scholar A.J. Arberry’s attempt to replicate the rhythm and rhetorical style of the original. Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi highlighted the “gender conscious” dimension, or how the Quran engages directly with men and women. Shawkat Toorawa, a professor of Arabic literature at Yale University, is the sole translator who aimed to recapture the haunting music and powerful emotion of the original prose with use of dramatic language and rhyme. A sample from Toorawa’s version of Surah Maryam reads: “16. Recall Mary in the Scripture, when she withdrew from her people to a place easterly/ 17. She placed a screen between them and her. Then We sent her Our Spirit, who appeared to her as a man, formed fully/ 18. She said, ‘I seek refuge from you with the Lord of Mercy! Away, if you have true piety!’/ 19. ‘I am a only a messenger from your Lord,’ he said, ‘come to bestow on you a son of great purity.’/ 20. ‘How can I have a son,’ she asked, ‘when no man has touched me and I have not engaged in harlotry!’/ 21. ‘It shall be so!’ he said. ‘Your Lord says, “It is easy for Me! — We shall make him a Sign for people and a Mercy from Us.”’ This is a firm decree.”
In reading Lawrence’s biography of the Koran, we also sympathise with the translator wrestling with the eternal dilemma: how to translate? Should one honour the language or the meaning? Can a translation be a thing apart, independent in its own right? It depends on whom one asks. For instance, centres of Islamic learning — such as Al Azhar University in Cairo — do not endorse any translation unless it is explicitly stated that it is a translation of the ‘meanings’ of the Quran. As per the orthodox line, in no way can these efforts supplant the actual Quran.
And there may be truth to that. Translation is not simply a matter of transference, of straightforward export of intellectual content. For the Quran — as with most great scripture — the sheer majesty of the text, the authority of its arguments, the profound depth of the discourse and its matchless aesthetic are all qualities that are the key to its power, and yet they are inseparable one from the other even as they strain the fundamental limits of the Arabic language.
To quote Swiss writer Frithjof Schuon from his masterwork Understanding Islam: “It is as though the poverty-stricken coagulation which is the language of mortal man were, under the formidable pressure of the heavenly Word, broken into a thousand fragments or as if God, in order to express a thousand truths, had but a dozen words at His command and so was compelled to make use of allusions heavy with meaning, of ellipses, abridgements and symbolical syntheses.”
While Lawrence does not provide an answer to the translator’s dilemma, it is interesting that his book itself — wholly inadvertently — comes down heavily in favour of the Arabic. Reading about how translators wrestled with the text and surveying the stark contrast in their sincere efforts, the reader cannot help but feel that there is something amiss here, that by being restricted to the wholly inadequate modern English, he or she is missing out on something essential, an experience of immense proportions.
What would it be like to read the actual Arabic? What would it be like to experience the same words God Himself used — words that have been known to transform unbelievers on the spot and make grown men teary-eyed even in this day and age? All in all, this Koran saga flames the appetite for the real thing: the Quran.
The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
The Koran in English:
By Bruce B. Lawrence
Princeton University Press,
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2017