When I first read the Qur’an in ‘Islam 101,’ I had been excited. Muslim friends had told me it was the most beautiful poetry on earth. But at first, I only found it tedious and repetitive. In this and the next blog post I will explore my struggles in understanding this sacred text.
My professor, who is not a Muslim, favored the Muhammad Yusuf Ali translation, a go-to translation for many English-speaking Muslims. I did not. I liked his extensive tafsir, but I could not get into his translation. It reads like the King James Bible, but without the veneer of being the “King’s English.” To me, it sounds stilted, Victorian, too full of nays and thees and thous. Take his translation of Surah 102:
The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things),
Until ye visit the graves.
But nay, ye shall soon know (the reality).
Again, ye soon shall know!
Nay, were ye to know with certainty of mind, (Ye would beware!)
Ye shall certainly see Hellfire!
Again, ye shall see it with certainty of sight!
Then, shall ye be questioned that Day about the joy (ye indulged in!)
The “ye” language is bad enough. But I really have a hard time with the words in parentheses. I understand he does it to preserve the integrity of the original, to show that he has added words, but it only adds to the awkwardness of his translation.
Frustrated, I despaired at finding beauty in the poetry of the Qur’an. But given that some of my most intelligent friends believe this is the revelation of God, I wanted to continue trying to find that beauty. Then I came across Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Sells, a non-Muslim scholar of Islam and comparative mysticism, translates and comments on the early Meccan surahs. More than later revelations concerned with the problems of civilization-building, the earliest revelations focus on the intimate mercy of Allah and provide consolation for Muhammad as he struggled with self-doubt and persecution. Islamic belief holds that the Qur’an is ultimately untranslatable, but Sells enabled me to glimpse some of the majesty of the original in English. Take his translation of the surah above:
Acquisitiveness turns you away
Until you reach the graves
Oh then you will know
Surely then you will know
Surely you will know with a knowledge certain
You will see a blazing fire
Then you will see it with an eye certain
At that time then
You will be asked about true well-being
I like the added punch of the last line, its “true” dripping with sarcasm. I also like the repetition in the middle of the surah.
Sells consistently avoids punctuation. This conveys the fragmentariness (and often vagueness) of the original Arabic, but it makes the Qur’an sound like e.e. cummings. That last problem aside, reading Sells’ translation of the early surahs was my first step in understanding the beauty of the Qur’an. Though I cannot comment on its accuracy, I do think he renders it in good English. Check out my next post on the orality of the Qur’an and how that helped me see its beauty.