In my previous post I wrote about my frustration with stilted Qur’an translations and my discovery of Michael Sells’ more idiomatic translation of the early Meccan surahs. Once I began to glimpse part of the Qur’an’s beauty, I could take it on faith that there is more. But I would have to revise my aesthetic expectations to see that beauty.
As an avid fan of the Hebrew Bible and Robert Alter’s work on its narrative, I had a hard time understanding the way the Qur’an is structured. When we read Qur’anic versions of biblical stories, we would have to flip around, flitting from surah to surah, reading one verse here and one verse there. Why couldn’t the Qur’an be arranged to make more sense? Why not put all the verses on Abraham in one place?
Sells yet again explains:
For Muslims, the Qur’an is first experienced in Arabic … In Qur’an schools, children memorize verses, then entire Suras…. As the students learn these Suras, they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics – taking it to heart in the deepest manner. (11)
Muslims refer to the Arabian desert culture Islam arose from as the Jahiliyah, a term denoting ignorance. The Jahiliyah had a rich tradition of oral poetry. The Qur’an is no different in this regard. It is meant to be an oral text – hence the Islamic tradition of memorizing the entire Qur’an, a practice that is likely as old as the compiled Qur’an itself. Devout Muslims don’t need to flip around the Qur’an to read its narrative of Abraham because they have those verses ready to call to mind.
Of course, memorizing the Qur’an means memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic. Muslims consider the Qur’anic text and its language, its content and its form, to be inseparable. Muhammad’s Arabic society, as Sells describes it, “had developed one of the most finely honed and scrutinizing tastes in the history of expressive speech” (7). The sounds of the Quran are simultaneously the most important and most untranslatable part. I began to see this even more when I listened to videos of cantors giving voice to what is for them the word of God.
Previously I mentioned that having a poetic translation of part of the Qur’an helped me see its beauty. Just as Robert Alter helped me see concretely exactly why the Hebrew Bible is aesthetically pleasing, so Sells helped me see why the Qur’an is such effective poetry. Understanding its orality, as expressed in memorization and highly developed performance techniques, has given me an even greater peek at this monumental collection of poetic revelation. In my next post I will write about the beginning of my adventure with Arabic.