by T. B. Irving
THE QURAN IS A magnificent document that has been known for fourteen centuries because of its matchlessness or inimitability, its essential ijaz (10:iv), to use the Quranic term. A clear strain runs through its message and the intent of this translation is to permit everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim alike, to understand the sacred document itself, even though they do not understand Arabic.
here is a necessity, almost an urgency now for an American version in contemporary English. Our holy Book should be recited on solemn occasions, both public and private, for comfort, morality and guidance. This process must begin in childhood in order for it to become familiar, for it is every Muslim's duty to read the Quran and try to understand it. However, the duty has become a problem for those who no longer know any Arabic. A new generation of English speaking Muslims has grown up in North America which must use our scripture differently than their fathers would have done. Their thinking roots have become distinct on a new continent without the familiar use of our holy tongue, and a great difference has developed between their customs and their ancestral faith.
American Muslims face many problems, and the younger ones face more than the usual group of teenagers; many now have reached the second and third generation when the use of Arabic is being forgotten in the home. It has rarely been taught as a formal subject of instruction, nor has the intellectual content of the Quran been studied. The practice which has grown up around the traditional faith has been gravely weakened. Muslims do not have to dance the dabka, wear a fez, eat Arabstyle bread or shish kabob in order to be good Muslims. You can have soft drinks, but it is harder to handle stronger beverages and remain faithful to Islam.
In the first place, any accurate version is really a tafsir or commentary written in the target language, and it is important for us to have a trustworthy one with Islamic views. The Quran itself says that any divine message should be presented in a people's own tongue: 'We have not sent any messenger unless he was to explain to them in his folk's own tongue (Abraham 14:4). Later on some poetic spirit may bring us the noble paraphrase that we likewise need; I have attempted no such paraphrase myself, because I might feel inclined to take too many liberties with it. Right now the message must simply be accurate, and clear enough so that it will convince even a child. It should be a document one can read, as well as offer a basis for research, a useful whole. Centuries of research have in fact been spent on it, by Muslims and nonMuslims alike. I am not concerned with later development and exegesis here, but merely with the statement or restatement of the initial message.
The Bible as we know it, and as the Jews and Christians have known it, and especially knew it in the Prophet's day, is not as reliable as the Quran, and has led to constant variation, especially in its interpretation. Thus despite the difficult relations that exist between the West and the Islamic Middle East at present, the basic document for all sides to understand the latter area is the Quran, no matter how social scientists or theologians may try to interpret that part of the world after their own fashion.
Religion leads people to predictable action or reaction when its principles govern the outlook of its followers. Thus the Quran is shunned or favored insofar as its principles lend themselves to controlling human behavior according to the morality or whims of those in power. Sacred symbols offer a way by which people can look at the Universe, give them a life style which tells them how things are and how they should be. The Orientalists who worked for London, Paris, the Hague or Lisbon wanted to contro l Islam for their own purposes, and they decreed that the word Islam means "submission." How far they strayed is now apparent, as the Islamic lands throw off their yokes and try to regain their ancient principles.
However, translations by Muslims are not always acceptable. Muhammad Ali's is clear but his commentary and at times the English text can be affected by his sectarian tendency. Besides he has used the Havas Arabic dictionary and this is risky because of its hindthoughts carried over from Catholicism. A. Yusuf 'Ali's is more satisfactory as a commentary but his English is overladen with extra words which neither explain the text nor embellish the meaning. True embellishment is the simple telling word which does not detract, but carries the mind directly to the meaning. Marmaduke Pickthall accomplished his labor in the East, and therefore his translation is in heavy Jacobean English laid upon a superstructure of Eastern preoccupations. The Koran by N. J. Dawood which is published in the Penguin series of World Classics is better than most, but it often becomes merely a prosaic paraphrase. 'Abd alMajid Daryabadi is clear, but hard to work with because of its arrangement, especially in the naming and numbering of chapters. Egyptian and Pakistani interpreters often show that they have not been talking to anyone outside of their own circle, and this lack has hurt even their political propaganda. Mercier unfortunately was translated into English from his French version, just as de Ryer and Sale came to us more from previous translations into Latin than directly from the Arabic. Likewise the new Japanese translation was made from the English, as the modern Spanish is from French and German. Andalusia has forgotten its glory!
Since studies like Noldeke's and Bell's exist for those who need a barren type of criticism, it is not my purpose to follow in that line of research, but rather just as painstaking a one in trying to lay before the Englishspeaking world at the end of the twentieth century of their era, or the beginning of the fifteenth century of the Hijra, the message of the Qurain in reverent yet contemporary English. My purpose is not to enter into theological controversy, nor to test the ancestry of ideas that can be found elsewhere; I will not indulge in refutation, especially of old chestnuts, but let the text and the message stand for themselves. This is a long and dignified tradition which should be made part of the world heritage in a universal age.
As with the Spanish poet Alonso de Ercilla in sixteenth century Chile the Quran was written down on whatever writing material was available paper, leather, parchment, stones, wooden tablets, the shoulder blades of oxen, and the "breasts of men." Where did they secure such a quantity of paper or parchment which was needed to make the final copies of Uthman's version.
The present and traditional order is not chronological, but arranged topically, as an editor has a right to do with any book in his hands. How to split up corpus has always been a problem, especially for Western critics, but changing the order of the text has not bred believers on the West. The vaunted scientific method of investigating texts at first hand is not practised by Western experts when dealing with Islam. However, the urge to revise has worried Western critics and Orientalists like Rodwell, Bell and Dawood, as well as many others.
The Book itself consists of 114 chapters of varying size which are arranged roughly according to their order of length. Its paragraphs and sections have a very traditional order that is easily followed and by which the verses can be located. The present order in the Quran was achieved two or three decades after the Prophet's death, or about the year 650 A.D. The third caliph Uthman ibnAffan (644656) appointed a committee to achieve an authorized version of the Quranic text. Uthman's committee was set up to publish the Quran in a standard version, and the members naturally showed great conscientiousness in this respect. This committee fulfilled its task well, and so within a score of years after the Prophet's death, a splendid job was accomplished.
If we follow the traditional order, then we receive the Prophet's essential message; while if we use a revised order, then we follow his historical mission. I prefer to follow the traditional order, and state the message that Muslim scholars can follow this without effort, and on this order I elaborated the present work for contemporary English speaking readers. Within Islamic circles we cannot now produce a good English prayer book until this is based upon a reliable English version of the Quran.
The message of Islam does not come through in most contemporary textbooks used in our schools. Very few have been written by sincere Muslims, so that Islam is derided, and kept at a distance, when we need a clear explanation in our own language, devoid of strained syntax and one which can be read meaningfully and reverently in public. Thousands of Westerners who are now living in or visiting the countries of the Middle East as well as others who never expect to live or visit there, need nonetheless to understand the ethical system which prevails in the Islamic world. The crisis in Iran has shown that.
The present volume (i.e. the English translation) has been planned as an advance edition only. What has been accomplished till now has been done mostly with my own resources. Thanks to the generous help of the Aossey brothers of Cedar Rapids, and the Canadian Muslims, especially those living around Niagara Falls, I was able to accomplish this task because they have indeed helped me financially. So have my friends in Qatar and the Arabian Gulf. God will bless their efforts and kindness, their essential ihsan and sadaqa in other words, true charity.
Nevertheless this translation is not the sacred canon but merely a thread of thought plus some inspiration which appear in the pages I have been preparing. Translation is literally impossible because interpretation in another language is an ongoing process, especially with a document that must be used constantly. Almost every day I learn a new rendering for a word or phrase; then I must run this new thread of meaning through other passages. The Quran is a living Book. We must respect yet find a way to interpret this sacred text, and not deform its meaning. The refrain running through Chapter 54 on The Moon tells us: "We have made the Quran easy to memorize; yet will anyone memorize it?" (54:22). As it claims, the Quranic message is easy to learn. It is divided up so that it can be read in sittings, or read straight through (17:XII). This is clear from the canon itself.
The Quran is not a missionary manual but a record of experience. It forms both a message or risala, an "ideology" carried by a rasul or 'messenger'; and it is also a Book or scripture (kitab) sent specifically via the Messenger Muhammad (rasul Allah or 'God's messenger')may God accept his prayers and grant him peace! However the Quran does not offer minute details about everything such as is found in many other scriptures; it is an existentialist document telling about the Prophet's experience during his mission to the Arabs and the world. It is the Noble Reading (56: III); it is a consecrated Text.
In this new translation, I have attempted to accomplish what the West has generally failed to do with Islam: to study it from within and in the light of its own texts. The Quran is obviously the best preparation for such an attempt. Moreover this book gives the young Muslim something to hold on to in this day when most authority on moral matters is being abdicated. The doctrinal and ethical superstructure raised on the Five Pillars and other beliefs does not belong in this Introduction, which has been presented merely as a means of helping understand the message.
I have tried to find the simplest word so that the Muslim child can understand it easily, and feel strengthened thereby. It is also intended for the pious no Muslim who is not already tied up in theology of some other sort: we must be able to discuss Islam on our own terms, terms which have been made up through our own knowledge and our own use of the English language. This present volume has been prepared in order to spread greater understanding of the Islamic religion and to present the English speaking world with a clear rendition of the original Arabic into intelligible modern English. Even in English, the tendency with the Bible now is away from the seventeenth century language which sounds too much like Pick hall, into the English of present-day speakers.
The Islamic community in the United States and Canada has in certain fashion commissioned me with this task, and I must thank my good friends of Cedar Rapids, Iowa especially for their constant encouragement in the venture, because the whole project has grown into a massive undertaking directed also to those non-Muslims who need an introduction to the basic scripture of Islam. I also would like to thank the many people whose enquiries and requests for information and material have kept me working at the job. I hope that in this new translation I have in some small measure achieved a version of the Noble Reading, alQuran al Karim, which can open up its treasures and lay the basis for Islamic piety within the English language and throughout the Englishspeaking world. Thus for over twentythree years, I have been reading the Quran carefully in Arabic "at daybreak" (17:ix), with the aim of presenting it in a form which will live for a few decades longer, God willing, or at least until some more gifted worker takes up the challenge and improves on this version