Today’s Workshop: Reading the Qur’an with Heart and Mind.

Today I had the honor of leading a workshop on how to read the Quran for the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. In a brief hour and a half I managed to walk though the traditional origin story of the Quran and some of its literary structures. We looked at Surah al-Fatiha (“The Opening”) and Surah al-Baqara (“The Cow”).

Both surahs contain much that is crucial for learning how to read the Quran. Like any text far removed from the culture of 21st-century educated Americans, the Quran requires a guide to understand its message. Of course, Muslims who keep salat recite al-Fatiha several times a day, so it is a core verse for Islamic devotion. According to Raymond Ferrin, it also has some neat chiasms in it. Al-Baqara, the longest surah in the Quran, gives great insight into the relationship between Islam and previous “Religions of the Book.” Verse 256 of al-Baqara, “there is no compulsion in religion,” will be quoted in pretty much any Muslim interfaith dialogue.

Anyway, I had a great time leading this workshop. I posted my powerpoint on Academia for anyone who is interested. A big thanks to my teacher, Ghazala Anwar, for recommending me for this opportunity.

One of the things that struck me while preparing for this workshop was the need for a guide.

While preparing, I came across a reflection paper I wrote when I first encountered the Qur’an, as an undergraduate taking an “Islam 101” course:

I have been exasperated by flipping around the Qur’an, trying to find verses here and there in a text that seems to have no coherence, narrative thread, plot, or anything else approaching what I consider good literature.

For the record, reading that makes me cringe.

I now see that the problem was not the Qur’an itself, but the abysmal translation my professor assigned. I’m talking about Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose translation first appeared in 1934. If you visit a mosque and they give you a free Qur’an, Yusuf Ali is likely the translation. The Saudis have invested a lot of money into printing a lot of Yusuf Alis.

I’m not a specialist in Arabic (someday, inshallah), so I can’t vouch for its faithfulness to the Arabic. But as a native English speaker, I can say its English sounds pretty bad to my non-1934 ear. It feels stilted, loaded with artificial thee’s and thou’s, wooden and literal. Yusuf Ali read classics at Cambridge, and his translation reads to me a lot like the old Loebs.

In short, I think part of the reason I failed to appreciate the Qur’an was lack of a guide, that is, a good translator. It was only when I started studying Qur’an with a Muslim professor who unpacked the Arabic original that I began to really get a glimpse of its profundity.

So I hope that in my workshop today, I was a faithful guide. And even if I messed it up entirely I recommended some books that are recognized as good guides by Muslims and non-Muslims alike: Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, Carl Ernst’s How to Read the Qur’an, Abdel Haleem’s translation, and of course The Study Qur’an.

Early on in grad school, I was told to seek as much advice as possible from as many different people. One solid piece of advice I received is not to turn down opportunities because of my own nervousness about being prepared to do something. In this case my mentor felt I was prepared and offered me the opportunity. I’m glad I did, and from what the students said, they were too.

2 thoughts on “Today’s Workshop: Reading the Qur’an with Heart and Mind.

  1. Justin

    I checked my copy and indeed it is the Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation–thank you for the recommendations. For a beginner like me who would have to pick one, would you recommend Sells or Ernst?

    1. Post author

      Hi Justin! Sells only translates the early Meccan surahs, but he also provides commentary. Abdel Haleem translated the whole Qur’an but provides only the occasional footnote. I don’t know whether or not Sells is Muslim, but his book is respected by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and is commonly assigned in “Qur’an 101” classes in university.


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