Monday, January 25, 2010

Reading the Qur'an

So I mentioned in a previous blog post that I would begin reading the Qur'an soon, and blog about it.  By original plan was to do it in 30 days, since the Qur'an is broken into 30 sections (called a Juz') for Muslims, who are supposed to read the entire Qur'an during the month of Ramadan.

I began reading the copy I got from, and found I couldn't realistically read AND understand AND blog about the entire Qur'an in 30 days.  The Qur'an isn't like the Bible, which has stories and pseudo-history that can be read through like a story book.  So far, it is a long-winded oration by God, through Muhammad.  The Bible has some of this too, but it's not like the Qur'an.  There are plenty of passages which are incomprehensible without some commentary.  My copy of the Qur'an suggests this is because the Qur'an can only be written in Arabic, whereas translations of the Qur'an are not really the Qur'an.  The word of God must be in Arabic, and any translation contains the translator's interpretation of the words.  This sounds like a cop-out, meant to deal with the fact that the Qur'an really is simply incomprehensible when read critically by people who haven't already been told what to believe about the book.  There's nothing magical about the Arabic language.  Some might find it beautiful, but it has the same expressive power as any other language. 

I still plan on reading and blogging about the Qur'an though. My plan is to use another copy which includes some commentary.  I found an online one here, which looks sufficient.  I know that the commentary could be biased, and probably represents what someone wants me to think about the text, but that's unavoidable.  I will continue to read the Qur'an sent to me first, and double check difficult passages with the commented copy.  I may not be able to read Arabic, but I can compare translations, and will keep in mind disparities when they arise.  If the translations are similar enough, I'll take it for granted that its an accurate representation of the text.

Since this will take more time than just reading the Qur'an once through, I'll probably blog every few days about each Juz' I read.  I should have one up soon, so stay tuned!


  1. I think you are partially right about the idea that the word of God must be in Arabic. It probably is mostly cop-out, but I think it's also somewhat reasonable to think that something might be lost from an entirely literal translations of Arabic to English or some other language. This happens in literature already, so someone who believes it is the word of God might also believe something is lost in translation from God, to Arabic, to English.

  2. I agree that poetic attributes can be lost during translation, like prosodic features and interesting word-play, but I don't think that the core meaning is something that's not translatable. You may have to abandon some of the beauty in order to get the correct meaning, but I think it can be done. It's then up to the translator to decide which is more important, or how much to sacrifice of one against the other. I would think the will of God to be more important than the flowery prose with which he is presenting his will, but that's just my opinion.

  3. Because the Quran was revealed over a 23 year period, it is important to understand it within context (time-bound) and also as a universal timeless message. Commentary usually puts the message within a historical context from which we can then extract a more universal moral/ethical message. I would reccommend M.Asad with commentary because it is more in line with "mainstream" Islamic thought (Your chosen translation is from a particular sect--and some understanding is different from that of the "mainstream") Another translation is that of Yusuf Ali with commentary---unfortunately, not available online but might be found in the libraries. (Yusuf Ali is slightly chauvanistic and is best read together with Pickthall translation---though he does not have commentary)
    commentary is called Tafsir and there are many--because this is something that was done from very early in Muslim history. M.Asad explains many of the deeper meanings of the Arabic words so that the verses take on more depth than what a mere translation can give. Yusuf Ali links many of the verses to those of the Torah, Midrash, Rabbinical works or NT adding and interesting perspective.

  4. Thanks for the advice kat. The copy of the Qur'an that was sent to me was translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (is this the Yusuf Ali you referred to?), but there isn't a commentary. I look for the M. Asad.

  5. Even if the Qur'an is in Arabic there are still translation problems. The style it was wrote it has a great importance with they placement of periods and dashes in relation to what the words would mean, and their is a lot of uncertainty even reading it in straight Arabic unless you are some type of Arabic scholar.

  6. Yes--it probably is--Yusuf Ali comes with and without commentary---M.Asad, Pickthall and Yusuf Ali are "mainstream" translations.(accepted by both Sunni and Shia).

    I would say Surah 2 is tough to get through. It is the longest Surah and has a lot of legal stuff in it---(it helps if you have some idea about Judaism and (Halaka)Jewish law) If you are going to read without commentary---I would recommend you start with Surah 1 and go backwards from 114, 113--78 (Juz 30). these are shorter Surahs and act as summary points of the basic ideas of the Quran. ---But if you are reading with commentary--starting from the front would be fine too.