Qur'an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis. By Hussein Abdul-Raof. Surrey: RoutledgeCurzon, 2001. 197pp. $75.
According to an "impregnable dogma" of early Islam, the Qur'an has the quality of i'jaz, by which its rhetorical beauty in the Arabic language is "inimitable." That is so because everything in the Qur'an is an exact copy of the revelation preserved sempiternally on a "guarded tablet" in the highest heaven.
This outlook means that, for believers, the idea of translating the Qur'an is absurd: "Arabic is not just the original language of the Qur'an, it is the language of the Qur'an." English versions are therefore not entitled The Koran but The Koran Interpreted, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, and so on. This quality of being untranslatable, incidentally, makes the Qur'an unlike the scripture of any other religion.
About a decade before Qur'an Translation was written, David Crystal effectively wrote a review of it in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language: "it would be self-evident that, as God chose Arabic as the vehicle of his revelation to his prophet, this must be the language used in heaven, and thus must be superior to all others." Crystal then tellingly notes:
a similar argument has been applied to several other languages, such as Sanskrit and classical Hebrew, especially in relation to claims about which language is the oldest. For example, J. G. Becanus (1518-72) argued that German was superior to all other languages. It was the language Adam spoke in Eden, but it was not affected by the Babel event because the early Germans (the Cimbrians) did not assist in the construction of the tower. God later caused the Old Testament to be translated from the original German (no longer extant) into Hebrew.
Abdul-Raof's contribution to knowledge is only a tad smaller than that of Becanus. (And, were Abdul-Raof capable of reading modern Cimbrian—as Becanus would be—his many trivial cavils would be obviated by perusing Rudi Paret's masterful two-part Qur'an translation and commentary.)
Of course, the Qur'an cannot be fully translated. Robert Frost famously defined poetry as "that which gets lost in translation." Academic specialists agree that there is no such thing as a perfect translation of any work, poetry or prose. Abdul-Raof's study of Qur'an translation is not a work of scholarship but rather one of pious apology: he claims, ad nauseum, that the Qur'an presents a unique case of language not open to translation because it is God's own words (ipsissima verba) and the only true scripture for all humanity, forever.
G. R. Puin of the University of Saarland, the scholar who discovered early Qur'an manuscripts in the wall of a mosque in San'a, Yemen, has a much more plausible explanation for the inability to translate the Qur'an, finding that "a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible." A glance at the most popular and most reprinted of the Qur'an commentaries, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, clearly intimates this point. Concerning Qur'an 11:107, as-Suyuti (died, 1505 C.E.), possibly the greatest Arabist and Qur'an commentator ever, writes words to the effect that: "I can't make heads or tails out of this blessed verse!" And Abdul-Raof himself confirms this problem in the following delightful observation: "Al-Yazidi … suggests the meaning 'black' instead of 'yellow.'"
Perhaps the most consequential effects of this opacity derive from Qur'an 33:59, which advises the Prophet's wives to go veiled; and from Qur'an 24:31, which speaks of covering women's adornments from strangers outside the family. Women may be persecuted to the extent they were under the Taliban's recent regime in Afghanistan or enjoy equal rights with men in other venues, all depending on one's interpretation of these two verses. Half of the world's Muslim population is affected by this interpretation. In fact "nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated as equals … Part of the problem dates to Muhammad. Even as he proclaimed new rights for women, he enshrined their inequality in immutable law, passed down as God's commandments and eventually recorded in scripture."
Abdul-Raof's apologetics roll down like a mountain stream. To the famous admonition in Qur'an, 4:34, "if any of your wives prove disobedient, then beat her," our author adds on his own authority that this should be done "lightly." Likewise, "Your women are your fields: plow them however you want" (2:223), whose plain text has always been understood by Muslim commentators to mean that a husband may have intercourse with his wife in any way he chooses, he reads as having intercourse in the "proper natural manner."
Abdul-Raof lives in a self-imposed cultural void in which he pretends that the Qur'an has no historic precedents. While scholars may not know why consuming pig-meat is forbidden in the Hebrew Torah, they do know the reason it is forbidden in the Qur'an, at 2:173: because it is forbidden in the Torah. We also know why the direction of prayer, al-qibla, was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca in the Qur'an, 2:142: as the historian Paul Johnson puts it, "Mohammad's development of a separate religion began when he realized the Jews of Medina were not prepared to accept his arbitrarily contrived version of Judaism." Although Abdul-Raof does not mention it, all the Muslim commentators are in agreement that the original qibla was Jerusalem; indeed, Jerusalem's laqab (by-name) in Arabic is ula al-qiblatayni, "the first of the two qiblas."
The Qur'an clearly relies on Jewish concepts, sometimes even the original Hebrew or Jewish Aramaic words, for such basic Islamic concepts as monotheism, prophet, scripture, fast, prayer, alms, a specific direction of prayer, angels, the afterlife, hell, heaven, reward and punishment, the contents of all of the Ten Commandments, Bible narratives, and the sacredness of human life—and translates them into Arabic (often putting a new spin on them). This dependence is hardly unique to the Qur'an: "Any strong literary work creatively misreads and therefore misinterprets a precursor text or texts," writes the literary critic Harold Bloom. Nor is Islam the only religion to take from its predecessors: "When individual DNA or the personal fingerprint of one author is present in another, we have the best available argument for dependence," writes John Dominic Crossan about Christianity.
Abdul-Raof's apologetic stance shines through his entire text. Willfully ignoring the notoriously unsystematic nature of the Qur'an he claims that it
represents structurally a unified coherent unit where each chapter enjoys a beginning, a middle, and an end and is correlated to the following chapter. At the interpersonal level, however, the tenor or Qur'anic discourse is context-sensitive.
Translated into English, he is inadvertently echoing Thomas Carlyle, who observed of the Qur'an that "It is as toilsome a reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite." The Arabic literary scholar R.A. Nicholson noted the almost unanimous opinion among European readers that the Qur'an is "obscure, tiresome, uninteresting; a farrago of long-winded narratives and prosaic exhortations." W. Montgomery Watt, a foremost biographer of the Prophet Muhammad, remarked on its "disjointedness." Issa Boullata notes that "some Western writers have criticized the Qur'an" because of its perceived disjointedness and adds that even Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist thinkers, shared this opinion. Qutb, he writes,
admits that there is no certainty about the authenticity of [the Qur'an's] order, which he acknowledges is only approximate and not definitive; and he adds that even if there was certainty, the fact is that many suras were not revealed as wholes but rather piecemeal at diverse occasions, of which there is no historical record agreed upon by scholars. Hence, the only option available to him, he says, is that of assumption and preponderation in this matter.
Even as an apologist, Abdul-Raof fares poorly. How much superior is the argument of Cyril Glassé, a Muslim scholar on the salmagundi structure of the Qur'an; he points out that the medieval mystic Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi "suggested that it is this very nature, outwardly chaotic, that is a 'ruse' of the Koran to approximate the chaotic nature of the human soul, in order then to catch it, as a net catches a fish, and to bring it back to absorption in the divine from which the soul has wandered."
In addition to suffering from terminal apologetics, Abdul-Raof's study has other problems. His prose can be completely unintelligible, as in this unintentional self-parody of lit-crit mumbo-jumbo:
From a text linguistics point of view, the prepositional correlation among Qur'anic chapters is seen as a positive textual feature of a cohesive text where chapter-final and chapter-initial prepositional content is effectively employed as a form of textural cohesive link which feeds into the overall textuality and textness of Qur'anic discourse.
Other howlers from Qur'an Translation include:
The majority of the past tense in Qur'anic discourse has a future meaning.
The source text, however, has not chosen other possible forms of noun such as (/shajar|ashjar/) which are generic plural nouns because the plural form does not signify the intended meaning.
These passages simply make no sense.
Abdul-Raof implies that the Qur'an is a modern textbook of embryology, the last word in cosmology, the final authority on global warming, and supports the superstition of numerology. Here also is an implied approval of that most infantile of all modern genres, at-tafsir al-'ilmi ("scientific interpretation"). This genre explains jinn as "electrons" and so forth.
Although Abdul-Raof's English is, to be kind, feckless, his Arabic is execrable. He uses jam' al-kathra to mean "paucity" in the plural, the direct opposite of what it means. Other mistakes include wa-yahdi-kum for wa-yahdiya-kum; wa-l-nasala for wa-l-nasla; abwaba for abwabu; a-fa-Hukmi for a-fa-Hukma; bushshara for bushshira; sijjin for sijjīn. There are wrongly placed sukuns (phonetic zeroes) once each on pages 63, 64, 71, 153, and 171; twice on p. 86; and four times on page 38.
Why would RoutledgeCurzon, a respected British academic publisher, publish such arrant nonsense? In part, because academic research on the Qur'an lags centuries behind academic study of the Bible; there is, for example, no textus receptus, a generally accepted form of the text of the Qur'an. In part, the reason has to do with universities shunning Orientalists, those scholars who know their subject matter and who realize with the French Orientalist Maxime Rodinson that "respect for the faith of sincere believers cannot be allowed either to block or deflect the investigation of the historian."
The Qur'an is not some musty manuscript but a vibrant document whose interpretation has direct consequences for the world at large. To permit authors like Hussein Abdul-Raof to publish with prestigious presses implies willingly blinding oneself to the realities. Sadly, Western academia is increasingly clueless about the realities of the Muslim world.
This is important for more than scholarly reasons: "Many former Soviet officers believe that the prime reason for the failure of their mission in Afghanistan was their profound ignorance about Islam. This is a lesson worth heeding."
Michael B. Schub is a lecturer in Arabic at Trinity College, Hartford.
 F. Buhl in H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers, The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Reading, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 1974), p. 276. Buhl goes on to note that the acknowledgment of that beauty "is not however easy to a reader with some stylistic training and a certain amount of taste."
 Michael Cook, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 88.
 David Crystal, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 7.
 Sofriim (post-Talmudic rabbinic collection) 1: 7: "…it is told that five elders wrote the Torah in Greek for King Ptolemy [the Septuagint; about 250 B.C.E.] and that day was as hard for Israel as the day the golden calf was made, for the Torah could not be adequately translated."
 Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia, p. 7.
 Rudi Paret, Der Koran. I. Uebersetzung (Stuttgart, 1979); II. Kommentar (Stuttgart, 1980). German scholars must be especially vorsichtig: "the fog of language can be illuminated through footnotes that can be used in Qur'an translation as demisting devices" (p. 139). See also the common-sense evaluation of English translations of the Qur'an in Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qur'an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text (London: SCM Press, 1996), p. 291.
 Toby Lester, "What Is the Koran? The Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 1999, at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran3.htm, reprinted in Ibn Warraq, What the Koran Really Says (Amherst: Prometheus Press, 2002), pp. 107-28; also "Scholars Are Quietly Offering New Theories of the Koran," The New York Times, Mar. 2, 2002.
 Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti and Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli, Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Beirut: Dar al-Ma'rifa, 1404/1984), p. 300.
 Lisa Beyer in Time, cited in Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 44.
 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 167.
 So zakat and sadaqat are spelled with the original waw in the Qur'anic manuscripts. Christian informants also contributed. See Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1935), pp. 153, 194.
 Qur'an, 5: 32-35: "…We ordained for the children of Israel that whoever killed a human being, except as a punishment for murder of other villainy in the land, shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as though he had saved all mankind." This is a direct quotation of Mishna Sanhedrin IV: 5. Since September 11, 2001, numerous imams and rabbis have quoted this verse on television.
 Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt, 1994), p. 8.
 John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), p. 565.
 Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus and on Heroes and Hero Worship (London: Everyman, 1908), p. 299.
 Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 161.
 W. Montgomery Watt and Richard Bell, Introduction to the Qur'an (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970), p. 22.
 Issa J. Boullata, "Sayyid Qutb's Literary Appreciation of the Qur'an," Issa J. Boullata, ed., Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur'an (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2002), p. 363.
 Ibid., p. 359; on Sayyid Qutb, Mashahid al-Qiyama fi al-Qur'an (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1966, 1981), p. 11.
 Cyril Glassé, The New Encyclopaedia of Islam (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2001), s.v. "Koran," p. 267.
 Maxime Rodinson, quoted in Ibn Warraq, What the Koran Really Says, p. 6.
 Dmitri V. Trenin, book review of Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military (W.W. Norton 2003) in The New York Times, Apr. 30, 2003.