#33—The Study Quran, with Maria Dakake and Joseph Lumbard [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Over 1.2 billion Muslims, or one in five people on the planet, read the Quran as the sacred word of God. Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written, “The Quran is the constant companion of Muslims in the journey of life. Its verses are the first sounds recited into the ears of the newborn child and its verses are usually the last words that Muslim hears upon the approach of death. In between these moments the life of a Muslim is replete with the presence of the Quran.”
Dr. Nasr is the editor-in-chief of The Study Quran. It’s a new translation of the holy book with notes and commentary. General editors Joseph Lumbard, Maria Dakake, Caner Dagli, along with assistant editor Mohammed Rustom, spent over a decade on this project.
In this episode Maria Dakake and Joseph Lumbard join me to talk about The Study Quran, which is coming out in November of 2015 from Harper One. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLAIR HODGES: Maria Dakake and Joseph Lumbard, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
MARIA DAKAKE: Thank you.
JOSEPH LUMBARD: Thank you very much for having us.
HODGES: We’re talking about the new Study Quran coming out from HarperOne. It’s coming out in November. It’s a brand new translation of the Quran and both of you worked as general editors on that project, so I wanted to begin by talking about how you first came to encounter the Quran and how that’s changed your life, your faith, and your scholarship. Let’s start with Maria.
DAKAKE: Yes, I was raised Roman Catholic and went through all Roman Catholic schooling and had a very extensive introduction and familiarity with the Bible, biblical text, which I learned in school, and I heard at Mass, and other religious services. When I was in college I became very interested in Islam, mostly by way of Middle East politics. I was a government major and I began studying Arabic and I began studying a little bit about the Islamic world. I was taking Arabic classes, although just beginning, and I decided I really should pick up a copy of this Quran and try to understand what it says; I heard so much about it but hadn’t read it.
I picked up a translation, because my Arabic was not yet good enough to read the Quran, I had only just begun learning, and picked it up and began reading. I read until about the middle of the second Surah, which is a significant chunk into the Quran, and I was really very taken with it, very struck by it, in part because there is such a sense of the immediacy of the voice of the Quran. When one reads the Bible or hears the Bible, with some exceptions of course, it is often a work of narrative, telling stories, spiritual stories, important stories, but really told in that form— different kinds of narrative.
The Quran was really more of the text itself, as I read it, felt like a voice calling out directly to me, and that is something that not just I have noticed of course. A very commonly understood quality or feature of the Quran is that it does address its audience often very, very directly. That struck me. It was very unusual for me. It was very compelling, in all honesty, but at the same time it was also little disturbing to me because I had been raised Catholic and for a while I put it away after that. But not too long after I picked it back up again and after reading more of the Quran I decided to go ahead and read some biographies of the prophet Muhammad, a little bit about of the founding of the Muslim community, and the expansion of Islam. That really began my interest in Islam and so I eventually embraced Islam myself.
So in many ways the Quran was the opening of that door to Islam for me.
HODGES: How about you, Joseph?
LUMBARD: My story is somewhat different than Maria’s. I came from a background as an Episcopalian. I was active in church growing up and, like Maria I had an extensive exposure to the Bible. My father was a Sunday school teacher. I acted in church plays, forgot my lines and all of that fun stuff. Then when I became Muslim, I actually became Muslim more through the presence of other Muslims that I knew, and also through an understanding of the person of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Then it was after I became Muslim that I really started reading the Quran in depth.
The Quran you might say, although of course sits at the foundation center access of the faith in many ways, wasn’t necessarily my first experience of Islam. Then I started to read it more actively— I wasn’t even taking Arabic at the time so I really read it in translation. I was reading the Yusuf Ali translation and the Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall translation. Those were the two that I had an experience with.
One thing that struck me is the way in which the Quran moves around from topic to topic; it’s much different than the text of the Bible. It’s more of an intimate conversation and as one penetrates more deeply and fully into the text, it’s just like when one gets to know an individual more and one can understand how all of the shifts in conversation continue to relate to one another. That experience was something I continue on to this day as I’ve learned Arabic and now experience the text in the Arabic language rather than in English. As one goes further and further, every experience of the book really is a deepening of one’s relationship, not just with the word of God but with God’s self.
HODGES: Both of you have had personal encounter with the Quran; it’s affected your religious life and you’ve also dedicated your life of scholarship to the Quran as well. Let’s talk a little bit about the make-up of the Quran itself, a little bit about its origin, how was it revealed and recorded, and then how it’s laid out, for people who haven’t yet read from the Quran. It differs from the Bible, Joseph, as you mentioned, in jumping around and so let’s talk about that. Maria, why don’t you start?
DAKAKE: The Quran itself, of course, is a scripture. It’s often referred to as a scripture, but it is really primarily an oral body of revelation. It is revealed to the prophet Muhammad orally or verbally and he, himself being traditionally illiterate according to Islamic teachings and Islamic report, taught it to his followers also orally. It’s only much later that it comes to be written down. In many ways this accounts for that feature equality I was talking about before, where it feels like a conversation; you feel like it’s engaging you. You don’t feel like it’s telling you a story when you read the Quran, you feel like it’s telling you something about yourself or asking you to think about yourself. That immediacy comes very much, or is very much related to, the manner in which the Quran was revealed.
So Islamic tradition teaches that the prophet Muhammad grew up in Mecca, which was a primarily pagan or idolatrous culture that seems to have believed in one overarching creator God, whom they called Allah. The prophet Muhammad’s father was Abdulallah, the servant of Allah, so the name as a name of God was already there, but still they worshiped other gods as well. The tradition says that the prophet Muhammad did not participate in this and as a young adult he would go off and meditate in caves in the mountains outside of Mecca. We don’t know exactly what he did but the tradition tells us that he was inherently a monotheist, a “hanif,” someone who followed an Abrahamic form of monotheism, one that was neither Jewish nor Christian.
On one of his retreats into the cave, it is said that in the middle of the night, one of the last ten nights of Ramadan, one of the reasons Ramadan is such a sacred month, the angel Gabriel came to him, and came to him actually in a rather violent manner even, grabbing him, some accounts say grabbing him by the neck or grabbing him by the shoulders, and shaking him and saying to him, “Recite,” or, “Read,” in Arabic, “Iqra,” and the prophet responds “Ma iqra,” meaning either “I don’t read” or “What should I read,” depending on how you translate it. In any case the angel continues to command him to recite until the angel finally recites the first five verses that are revealed to the prophet, and again these verses are very general. They are making him aware of the existence of God who created human beings, who taught them what they know. Then the angel left and Muhammad ran out of the cave, terrified as one might after an experience like that, and immediately ran down the mountain and saw the angel on the horizon, who then identified himself to the prophet Muhammad as the angel Gabriel, who seems to have been someone already familiar to the prophet Muhammad, and maybe to the people of Mecca in general, as part of traditions of Judaism and Christianity that circulated throughout Arabia.
In any case, he still was concerned and afraid and he came back home terrified and shaking, and the Quran recounts this indirectly, or makes mention of this. It’s really his wife Khadija who calms him down, who tells him that this is not something evil or satanic, you’re not insane or possessed by jinn, which was something that was commonly discussed in Arabia at that time. “I don’t know what this is,” she said, “but this must be something good because I know your character, Muhammad. I know you’re a good person.” Eventually, after he received more revelations, he came to understand, as well as talking with some people, predominantly Khadija’s cousin, Waraqah, who was a Christian, talking with some other people and coming to realize that the messages he was receiving were indeed from God, and gradually understanding that they were very much connected to the traditions of Judaism and Christianity with which he was at least somewhat familiar.
HODGES: So it was an oral revelation initially, a recitation. “Recite,” Gabriel instructed Muhammad, and this became a book. Joseph, why don’t you give a little bit about the history of that because that occurred, for the most part, after the death of the prophet, is that right?
LUMBARD: Yes it did. It is said that during the life of the prophet there were several companions who did write down parts of the Quran on parchment, or on the shoulder blades of dead camels, camel bones, or on date leaves, and things like this, but most people could not read and write and writing materials weren’t prevalent at that time. So it was mostly an oral tradition.
Upon the death of the prophet there was no official collection of the Quran. It is said that every year the angel Gabriel would come to the prophet, peace be upon him, and would review the Quran and that the order in which they would review the Quran every year was the order in which we now have it today. So when you go to a single Surah of the Quran, sometimes the verses from one Surah will have actually been revealed years apart from each other, and it was only by that arrangement when they would review it every year that we have it in the form that each chapter or Surah came to be.
In the year 634, under the caliph Abu Bakr, the Muslims decided to collect the Quran all together in one place. Abu Bakr assigned Zayd ibn Thabit with the task of getting everything together. It’s said that before this a few of the companions, four of them are mentioned by name, at least four companions had large compendiums of the Quran, exactly how much they had gathered we don’t know because we don’t have those manuscripts with us, but there were several who had it. Nonetheless, Zayd ibn Thabit was tasked with gathering everything together and everything that he gathered together was then given to the caliph Abu Bakr who, upon his death, it went to the next caliph Umar, and upon the death of Umar it went to Umar’s daughter Hafsah, who was also a widow of the prophet.
In the year 650, by this time Islam was in places like Basra and Kutha in Iraq, up in Damascus and everything, so you start to have a problem that if one person starts reading the Quran and starts reciting it somewhat incorrectly, in Basra or Kutha, or both places, then all of a sudden those errors will continue to be repeated and then people will start to lose the text of the Quran. So the caliph Uthman wanted to unite the community on a single text, and he again assigned Zayd ibn Thabit to collect the whole of the Quran and to, in a sense, cross-check it with everyone in the community and put it down in the right order. So the difference between what happened in 634 and what happened in 650 is that in 634 it’s as if you gathered together all of your notes from a bunch of business meetings or from a class, you put them all in one place so that you knew that you had them, but then in 650 you gather them together, you check them against other people’s notes, and you make sure that you have everything in the right order.
This is what happened in 650 and that’s what we call the continental skeleton of the text. It didn’t have all of the dots that it has now to distinguish each of the consonants from one another, nor did it have all of the dashes that would mark the vowels on the text. This text was then written down in multiple copies and sent, at least four of them were sent out, to the major cities of the Islamic empire at the time and probably more, and then the caliph Uthman ordered that all of the other manuscripts of the Quran be disposed of. This didn’t necessarily happen, in fact we have the record that one of the people who had collected a copy of the Quran before Abdullah ibn Masud objected that he had to burn his, and he did not. Nonetheless, the whole of the community was from that point forward, according to Islamic histories, unified upon a single text, but it’s important to note that from this point forward the oral tradition was still central.
It’s said in Islamic tradition that the written tradition and the oral tradition are cross-checks against one another, and neither one of them can be taken as an independent authority, but the two of them together serve to re-enforce one another, and it’s because of the two re-enforcing one another that Muslims believe we have the accurate copy of what was revealed to the prophet Muhammad today.
HODGES: In the news recently at the University of Birmingham, they discovered perhaps one of the oldest fragments of the Quran in the world. What do you think about that, Maria?
DAKAKE: Well it’s interesting because the radio carbon dating gives a range of dates and the range goes I believe, from 568 to, I think they said, 658. It’s fascinating because if it is from, let’s say, between the 640s or even 630s, it represents a copy of the Quran that pre-dates what the tradition tells us, or when the tradition tells us, the Uthmani codex that Joseph was just speaking about was collected. In that case it gives us evidence, first of all, that there were written Qurans, or Quranic parts of the Quran in any case, that existed prior to the Uthmani codex. I mean prior to this some of the earliest fragments that were found were from a few decades later, around the 670s, and so this is the earliest one that has been found. It’s only two folios and I’ve gone over it very carefully; it in is a much older style, it’s clearly a Meccan style, very well known. Again, a continental text without full dotting, but nonetheless, I compared it very carefully to the Quran we have now and it is indeed identical, except for the different ways in which the dots and the vowels and so forth are marked.
One of the issues that immediately then came up was people said, “Yes, but it could also be earlier than that, in fact it might even predate the prophet Muhammad himself,” which would feed into certain revisionist arguments that some Quranic scholars have put forward that the Quran drew upon earlier texts that were Christian perhaps in origin, and they might take this as possible evidence of that particular point of view. But I point out a couple of things actually, that of course there is a lot of technical issues. I am not an expert in radiocarbon dating, but apparently they’ve tested the paper or the parchment rather than the ink and parchment could be reused, it could be wiped clean. So we don’t know exactly; it’s early but we don’t know. We can’t really pinpoint a date well enough to make a dramatic argument about this predating somehow the prophet Muhammad.
The other thing that’s kind of interesting is one of the pieces is from Surah Al-Kahf, the eighteenth surah of the Quran, and it’s from a part of a story that’s being told about the companions of the cave, which is known in the Christian tradition as the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,” which is not a biblical tradition, but a Christian tradition, and there’s something really unusual in the retelling of that story that the Quran gives. In the Christian account, for example, it says that the sleepers slept for three hundred years before being miraculously awakened. In the Quranic text it says they slept for three hundred years plus nine, and that’s a very significant point because three hundred and nine years would be the lunar equivalent of three hundred years in the solar calendar. Which means that this is not something that would have come from a Christian text, a Christian text would have been using a solar calendar. This clearly is coming from a text written by people who operate according to a lunar perspective and therefore seems very natively from Arabia at least.
HODGES: I’m glad you brought up some of the polemical things that people would say about the origins of the text, because the Quran actually has a very interesting relationship to other scriptures, the Hebrew scriptures, and the Christian New Testament, and the word “Islam” itself, referring to “submission to God” is rooted in Abraham submitting his will to God. The Quran talks about “people of the book,” which refers to Jews and Christians. So I’m interested, Joseph, why don’t you talk about that element of things, about the Quran’s relationship to the Bible?
LUMBARD: Well the Quran presents itself as very cognoscente of being a continuation of the same tradition as the Hebrew scriptures and as the Gospels as in the New Testament itself. The four previous revelations that are mentioned by name in the Quran, or what it refers to as the pages or scrolls of Abraham, and then it refers to the Torah, and it refers to the Psalms being sent to David and it refers to the “injil,” or “gospel,“ that was with Jesus. It’s also important to know that Jesus is himself referred to in the Quran as a word of God, and some have said that from a Quranic perspective Jesus himself is, in a sense, the revelation. Now the Quran says over and over again that it confirms that which came before and that the prophet Muhammad is simply sent to confirm the message that previous messengers came and that he brings nothing new. So from a Quranic perspective everything that has come through all the prophets, in all time, is the same fundamental message.
Nonetheless, the laws that different prophets have differ somewhat from time to time. You might say they fit more the circumstances in which people might find themselves at the time, and also the rites, or “manasik,” as the Quran calls them, are somewhat different within each religion. One might say that it’s a presentation where the form of the religions will differ, but the fundamental message of the religions is the same. Now in history, of course, there are many aspects of it that we can’t necessarily assess because we don’t have lots of the archaeological information that we might want from a historical critical perspective. This is how the Quran itself presents its relationship with the previous Abrahamic scriptures.
HODGES: With some of the stories that it interacts with, for example the figure of Noah appears in the Quran, and a lot of Christians that read the Bible today read that story in sort of a fundamentalist register. They view this story as literal history where there was a global flood that wiped out all of humankind except for Noah and his family. Does it show up similarly in the Quran? Is that the same type of story? Are there differences?
DAKAKE: It is different in the sense that it doesn’t have that universal completely catastrophic element that you have in the biblical story. The stories told in more than one place, as many of these stories are told, and told for different purposes— the story of Noah in the Quran is really a story about his particular people, his group, could be his city, his tribe, in a sense, or his town, his small group of people where he was living, well we don’t know how small it was, but it isn’t universal, it’s his particular people that are wiped out by the flood and his story is often told in a sequence of other stories about people to whom God sent a prophet but then they did not listen to the prophet, they rejected the teaching of the prophet, they refused to heed his warnings and they were wiped out by earthquakes or other devastating, what would seem to be, natural events.
So the story of Noah is one of many of these stories that is told and they’re all told in a very similar way. So it’s rendered in the context of other prophetic stories and in a way that again re-enforces the idea that God has sent many messengers to humanity; he sends them always with the same essential message that there’s one God and that is the only God they should listen to and they need to behave ethically and morally and when those prophets are rejected, then disaster eventually comes upon their people. In a sense, when I was — this is kind of a side story but— when you have children and you get baby things they always have this little Noah’s ark theme, stuffed animals and sheets, and when you actually—
HODGES: I actually had Noah’s ark wallpaper when I was a kid.
LUMBARD: I had the sheets.
DAKAKE: As a biblical account it’s terrifying. It’s not a children’s story at all in many ways! So the chronical account is, in a sense, less drastic and the purpose of its telling is different.
HODGES: Do you think most Muslims read it as a literal historical account, or are there some Muslims who read it as more allegorical? I mean contemporary scholarship shows that it has resonances with the Enuma Elish and other Babylonian stories and things. Are there Muslims who have more of a revisionist approach where they’ll accept the Quran as revealed but they’ll look at a story, like when it’s talking about Noah as being something that’s actually not explicitly historical or anything like that?
LUMBARD: The Quran is a very frustrating book for a historian. It’s really difficult to find history and build it in that way, and it’s one of the things that actually helps prevent a literalist reading of the stories of some of these biblical figures, and to go back to what Maria was saying about the story of Noah, it’s really a very good example. You have really very little discussion of Noah’s life of the building of the Ark, there’s no—
HODGES: The specifics, like how many cubits to make it and stuff.
LUMBARD: In Genesis 6 you have this discussion of the specifics, and then Genesis 9 tells the story after the flood. There’s no discussion of that in the Quran. Rather, what you really have in the Quran is this discussion. The Quran says that Noah called his people for almost a thousand years and then God sent the flood. So really, in a sense, it’s a story of how incredibly patient and merciful God is, that Noah called his people in one way and they reject him that way, then Noah went and called his people in another way and they rejected him again. Then Noah went and called his people in another way and he kept on doing it and he kept on doing it and he kept on doing it, and then after more than nine hundred years he finally said, “Okay, God, these people are misguided, go ahead, have your way with them.”
But if you really understand how long it is, and you even look and you read the language— there’s a tendency sometimes when people read the Quran you read phrases like, “If only that they were thankful” or, “If only they would think, that they might reflect” and things like this. People seem to read it as if God is angry but really if you read it as God is loving and God is merciful, it’s more like a parent who would say for a child, “If only he would think. If only they would reflect; they would see what I am trying to do for them.” This comes out in so many of the Quranic stories, and I think Noah is a very good example of that.
So while all of those stories that you might have in the Near Eastern milieu, it reflects those— Muslims don’t see that as in any way taking away from the fact that it might be revelation. That actually even contributes to it because from a Quranic perspective God sends guidance to every single human collectivity, and so for other people to have known about this story, or similar stories, to have been within a civilization in many different ways would actually fit into the overall Quranic understanding of the relationship between the divine and the human.
HODGES: Yes, and it’s this recurring story. Joseph, you actually write about this in one of the essays in The Study Quran, “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions,” and you kind of situate the Quran as relating stories of prophets going all the way back to Adam, and there’s even a sort of pre-existing Quran that was revelatory, but it’s this cycle of—and Mormons talk about a cycle of apostasy and restoration—and it seems to be that that is a recurring theme within the Quran, that God is patient, that God sends revelation through a particular figure, ultimately that revelation is somehow discarded or disobeyed and then things come to a head and they have to start over again, and then the prophet Muhammad then is seen as sort of the Seal of the Prophets, kind of the final human manifestation, or person who would receive that message. Is that right, that he’s kind of viewed as the end point?
Maria, being the Seal of the Prophets—you talked about how one of the benefits of the Quran is it kind of shows how God is revealing things for particular circumstances. So Muhammad is addressing his contemporaries in terms of their paganism and calling them back to devotion to the one God, but him being the Seal of the Prophet then kind of locks Muslims into that text then, that there’s not an expectation of further revelation. Correct?
DAKAKE: That’s right. Well, certainly not in that particular way, not in the sense of sending an actual prophet. In some ways I think that this has been the basis for—In principle Muslims can accept religions that came before, but it’s harder for them to accept religions that came after if they are completely new in the sense that the idea that this is sort of the final time that God will speak to humanity. But that doesn’t mean in a sense, and this is certainly something I find when I read the Quran, there’s a way in which the Quran continues to be revealing, one might say.
Just quickly, to go back to the idea of the stories, one of the things that the Quran says at the end of the sixth Surah, right before the seventh Surah where many of these stories as I was saying beginning with Noah are told in sequence. It talks about human beings being made “khalif,” the people who succeed one another continuously on the earth. So one group of people is given a message and they don’t listen to the message, they’re wiped out. Another group of people is given a chance, you might say, and maybe they succeed for a while, or they don’t succeed at all and they’re wiped out, and then there’s another group of people. After relating these stories the Quran will often say, “Well that’s what they did, you’re not going to be asked about what they’ve done.”
So it’s not doing this in order to tell you something so much about the past, but it’s a way of saying, “Now it’s your turn, now you’re the khalifah. Now you are the generation that has inherited the earth. How are you going to respond?” So there is a way in which because of the immediacy of the way the Quran is revealed, there’s a sense that it does continue to speak directly to every new generation.
HODGES: Let’s talk about some of the other main themes of the Quran. Maria wrote one of the essays that I enjoyed, it’s about social justice and ethics in the Quran. One of the things, Maria, that you point out at the beginning of that essay is that it’s been difficult for people to wrap their heads around what sort of ethics are promoted in the Quran because the Quran is not a systematic treatise, as you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, that it comes in waves, it comes in flashes of insight, and different points are being made, there’s complexity there. So it’s quite easy, I think, for people to selectively prooftext from the Quran, find a Surah that seems very violent or very strange, and to kind of pull that out of its context and present that as the message of the Quran. This essay that you wrote is sort of trying to complicate that, make it more difficult to read it so shallowly. Talk about some of the themes, some that you write about in terms of social justice, including patriarchy, the treatment of women, and violence, and things like that. I’d like to hear more from you on those subjects.
DAKAKE: Sure. First of all, let me just say that one of the reasons why this is an essay on Islamic ethics and not necessarily on law per-say, there is a very widespread misperception that the Quran is a book of law and this misperception is based in part on the fact that Islam is a religion, a very legally based religion, and of course the Sharia is extraordinarily important to Muslims. It refers to not just law, but in fact to their whole way of life. So for that reason there is this sense, well the Sharia is based on the Quran which it is and so, therefore, the Quran must be a book of law, when in fact that’s not the case. There’s only about two hundred verses or so of the Quran that give distinct legal rulings, whereas there are over six thousand two hundred verses in the Quran itself.
The other thing is the legal text, or where you do find legal rulings. Ten are in the Medinan verses almost exclusively, with the exception of some dietary laws that appear in Meccan verses. But almost all of the rulings have to do with social issues, marriage, or divorce, family relations, criminal law, economic or commercial practices, and so on. All those things are found in the Medinan verses because when the prophet Muhammad was in Medina, that’s when he was not just— In Mecca he was just a leader of a small persecuted religious minority, but once he gets to Mecca he very shortly becomes, in effect, the ruler of that city, and so is in a position there to create and structure a society based on those principles that the Quran was teaching.
So the Medinan verses, it’s not perfectly even, but the Medinan verses tend to be concentrated toward the first part of the Quran. For example, the second, third, and fourth Surahs, which are all very, very long, some of the longest Surahs in the Quran, they are Medinan. So these Medinan verses— So people pick up the Quran, I should say, they read from the beginning of the Quran. They might see even then it’s going to be interspersed with other things, but they might see more law and legal rulings than they would if they actually started from the back of the Quran.
I often tell people to start from the back because that’s where you find, you might say, the moral and ethical principles that are actually referenced far more often and really are the context in which these legal rulings have to be understood. So in the essay I do begin by saying that you may agree or disagree with the particular rulings that you find in the Quran in the way marriage or divorce or family relations are structured and so. You may very much disagree with those. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that they are framed within an ethical context and their purpose is indeed moral in nature. It’s about constructing a society where everyone is taken care of, where people are not exploited, where there is unity and harmony to the extent possible. These are where everyone is bound by certain rights and responsibilities, and this is a kind of framework in which many of these laws have to be understood. And of course, the very important issue of justice, and charity, and generosity, and forgiveness, these things are constantly reiterated in the Quran.
At the same time, the Quran is revealed in the seventh century, a time when throughout pretty much the known civilized world at that time things like patriarchy or slavery were widespread. Islam doesn’t bring patriarchy, or doesn’t bring slavery to a community that had not known those things, but in fact is coming into a situation where those things are understood to be normative, perhaps even unchangeable. So, although that structure— I know there have been a lot of Islamic feminists, or female writers who may not consider themselves feminist, who would argue that the Quran is ultimately not patriarchal. I think indeed it is trying to undermine to some extent, or at least to amend, the patriarchal structure such that it is not so unjust for women. Nonetheless that patriarchal element in the few places comes out fairly clearly.
But again, I think what’s really important when you look at the Quran, you have to look at it on the one hand honestly and look at what it says. You also have to look at it holistically, and there are many places where the Quran seems particularly concerned to uphold the rights or to— it wouldn’t have even been seen as rights at that time— but to amend and improve the situation of women at that time, and to prevent particular kinds of forms of exploitation and abuse, that they would otherwise have been regularly subject to.
HODGES: That’s Maria Dakake. She’s an associate professor and chair of the Religious Studies Department at George Mason University. She specializes in Islamic thought, Quranic studies, Shi’ite and Sufi traditions, women’s issues. She’s also co-director of Interdisciplinary Islamic Studies program at George Mason and recently she work together with Joseph Lumbard and others on The Study Quran. They assisted with the translation commentary and other matters within that book.
Joseph, I wanted to turn to you to talk a little bit about the translation of this particular edition. The make-up of the HarperOne edition, how long it took, and some of the translation issues that cropped up along the way, because there’s a saying that goes, “The Quran cannot be translated, the true Quran is in Arabic. Any translation is simply a translation of that true Quran.” So let’s talk about some of those issues that come up when you’re producing a translation.
LUMBARD: Well, that’s a very good question. I don’t know if one could really say that it’s one of the most difficult books to translate, considering that you have a new translation coming out just about every year now. But in our translation in particular, when we first set out to do the text, we thought that we were going to use an existing translation and write our commentary upon it. In other words, we had the model that you have with most, not all, but most of the study Bibles that are out there.
HODGES: Yeah, like the Jewish Annotated New Testament uses the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
LUMBARD: The Jewish Annotated New Testament uses the NSRV. The Jewish Study Bible uses pre-existing translations, the same with the Harper Collins Study Bible, Oxford Annotated, etc. But, as we went through all the translations—
HODGES: This was about ten years ago that you started this, right?
LUMBARD: We first started this in January of 2006.
HODGES: Okay, so you’re going through these translations trying to decide?
LUMBARD: Yes, and then we met and we were all at a conference together and we made a fateful decision that there weren’t any that we could use as a text for a study Quran. What we wanted was something that is accurate, consistent, and eloquent. We actually developed an Excel Word chart in which every word of the Quran is located and every commonly recurring phrase is found so that we could track how we were translating everything and keep track of our workflow. We didn’t use this to make sure that everything was always the same. In fact, what we used it for was to register when we had agreed that certain words in different contexts would need to be rendered somewhat differently. We did this to make sure that we had consistency and to keep track of agreements that we had made.
The workflow was that each of the general editors, myself, Maria, and Caner Dagli, who is at the College of the Holy Cross, we would each translate a part of the Quran, so each of us was responsible for about a third. Then we would share that with the other general editors. We would go through a process where we would get the feedback from the other general editors then sometimes discussed a few of the issues, differences that we may have.
After we had gone through with that discussion, then a final edited version of that with some notes regarding disagreements that might still persist would be sent to the editor-in-chief. He would go through that, and then we would get that back and then we would again— the primary translator would go over that part, and if there were any important editorial things or differences of opinion have been settled, report that back to everyone else. But that was just the first step.
Then once we had everything down and we really got even deeper into it, when we were going into the commentary, we found even more inconsistencies. We ended up developing about, well, hundreds of translation memos that would have everything in Arabic and in English, and all of the different instances of it so that we could go through it and sit down and make an agreement about how we would need to work with particular phrases and particular words. So that even if we couldn’t have a direct equivalence in each instance, there would be consistency in how we were dealing with particular terms.
This, by the way, is I think part of what does set this translation apart. If you go through the history of Quran translation, it is very different from the history of Bible translation in that almost every translation that’s out there is an individual effort, of the Quran that is. And now, I hope that we’re starting a trend where translations of the Quran will be done by academic committees, and hopefully there’ll be more translations done by academic committees because there are certainly other ways to do it than what we did. But we do think that what we have developed is a translation that works very well for a study Quran, especially because it is consistent and accurate throughout.
HODGES: With this translation, and within any translation from the original, there’s a sense that much of the original can be lost in translation because one of the things Muslims appreciate most about the Quran is its beauty, its structure, and that itself serves as a sign of its being a revelation to Muhammad. The fact that this person couldn’t have sat down and wrote this document. This is something that was revealed. So, what are some of the syntax and grammar things that get lost in the translation from Arabic to a language like English?
DAKAKE: Well, I would say that a lot of it has to do with the richness of the Arabic vocabulary and so words have multiple meanings and those meanings— there’s a tradition that some commentators will say that certainly— mystical commentators will say the Quran can have each verse can have many, many interpretations. Any grammatically accurate interpretation is one thing that God meant to communicate through that verse.
I can give you one example we had, there’s a word “mithal,” which can mean example, likeness, parable. It has a wide range of meanings and we did try, as Joseph explained, to be as consistent as possible. So that people would be able to read this and say or see, even people who didn’t have access to the Arabic and wanted to make a study of how a particular word or term is used in the Quran.
They could at least do a study at some level because we would try to be consistent in the terminology. “Mithal” is one of those words that completely defeated us in this. When we realized that we struggled to find one English word that would fit all these contexts and it simply, it did not. But you see that already says something about the differences in language. There is a single word in Arabic that connotes in the mind of someone who knows Arabic, all of those things simultaneously. There’s no way to represent that in English.
Another example, another quick example, there’s a word that the Quran uses which is “ta’wil.” “Ta’wil” was usually understood to mean interpretation. In discussing the Quran as the history of Quranic interpretation develop, sometimes people made a distinction— “ta’wil” was one of the earliest words that was used for this process of interpreting the Quran and that’s because it is a Quranic term itself, and an important one.
But there came to be a distinction between two terms, “tafsir,” which is what is usually used for Muslim commentaries or interpretations of the Quran exegesis. And “tafsir” really means to explain something in detail. “Ta’wil” is a word that means, its etiological meaning is to bring something back to its origin or to know how something is going to turn out in the end.
This term is used in many ways in the Quran, I should say in different ways in the Quran. But always it includes— the term always means both interpretation and the fullness of the meaning of something that might only make itself known over time. For example, the story of the prophet Joseph, which will be familiar to Jewish and Christian audiences, he has these dreams in the Quran just as in the biblical account that foreshadow what’s going to happen to him and to his brothers in the end. But he doesn’t know what they mean at the beginning, right? He only knows what those dreams mean when everything comes to fruition and he ends up in charge in Egypt, that his brothers come to visit him, and so on. Only then does the full understanding of that dream, the full interpretation of those dreams, are made known to him. But it’s also the “ta’wil” in the sense, it’s a way those things turned to full meaning that unfolds over time.
In the beginning of Surah three it says that the “ta’wil” of the Quran is known only to God, or in some readings known only to God in those who are firmly grounded in knowledge, which can mean God— it’s only God, or God and those people who know the true interpretation of the Quran, but it can also mean they are the only ones who know the fullness of the meaning that will be revealed over time. So again, it’s a word that in order to appreciate what it means within the context of the Quran you need to have its full semantic range, you might say, naturally in your head.
We tried to do that through the commentary, we would point these things out at the commentary. But in that sense it’s still going to be fragmented in a way that it wouldn’t be for someone who understands the language and all of these meanings will be present to them.
HODGES: Not only the polyvalence of some of these words, it’s also just the baggage that some words carry. Joseph mentions this in his chapter on the Quran in translation and that’s the word “din.” Is that how it’s pronounced?
HODGES: Din, so that’s religion. Religion from the Western context— they’re talking about trying to find the roots of that word and some people root it in the idea “to treat something carefully,” some people root it in the idea “to bind,” so we’re bound to God, we bind ourselves to God, religion, we’re tied to God. But the Arabic root for “din,” it kind of comes from a totally, not a totally different, but a different kind of place where it talks about to owe a debt, to be obedient, to follow, human beings are in debt to God.
So some of these words just have multiple meanings, but there’s also instances of words where in English they carry this baggage. People hear “religion” and they think an organized church or something like that. Whereas throughout the Quran that same word could actually be talking about just owing a debt to God, being obedient to God, perhaps even pointing to the idea of submitting to God.
There’s so many things that I wish we had more time to talk about, but I wanted to also ask about one of the things that, Joseph, you write in this essay, that the Quran cannot be translated on the linguistic plane. You’re writing this in a book that is a translation of the Quran. It cannot be translated on the linguistic plane. The only true translation of the Quran possible is of an existential order. Only those who have assimilated the revelation, or immersed themselves in its teachings so thoroughly that its meaning speaks through their thoughts, words, and deeds can be said to represent an effective translation of the noble book. It seems to me that you’re saying here rather than being so concerned about translating the Quran, that the reader should actually seek to be translated by the Quran, by taking in its message, its ideals, its teachings.
LUMBARD: Yeah, that’s really what the Quran tells one over and over again, as one goes over the Quran. There’s a tradition now where the Quran is memorized by many people throughout the Islamic world. But that’s considered what we call in Islam a sufficient obligation, meaning that if there are people who are preserving the Quran, it’s not something everybody has to do. But everybody who is a Muslim has to try to live in accord with the Quran to the best of their ability.
And so, over and over again the Quran says, “Do you not understand? Do you not reflect? Do they not contemplate the Quran or do their hearts have their locks upon them?” And the Quran will say in many instances, “None understand this, save those who are possessed of intellect.” Every single time the Quran is challenging you to go deeper into its message, understand it more, and live in accord with it.
It’s said that during the life of the prophet, many of the companions of the prophet, they would only memorize ten verses of the Quran at a time, and then they wouldn’t memorize anything more until they had learned how to act upon and implement those verses that they had memorized. Once they knew how to implement them, then they would go and memorize ten more verses. This is something that to some degree you might say is lost in the emphasis upon memorization that you find in some parts of the Islamic world today.
HODGES: It’s fascinating, like you say, the idea is that this book is going to translate you in the process of engaging with it. Is this how most Muslims engage with the text? Do you picture Muslims sitting down with The Study Quran and reading through it and meditating upon it? Or how do Muslims usually encounter the text? With Christians, they sit down and read different chapters, or do they have favorite verses that they might memorize, or do studies of different stories? How do most Muslims engage with the Quran itself? How do you see this translation being used?
DAKAKE: Well, I would say first of all, as you may know, the basic content of the Muslim prayer are passages or parts of the Quran. Every Muslim has to memorize at least a certain number of small Quranic passages in order to be able to say their prayers properly. Most Muslims will memorize a good number of verses so that they can repeat different verses or different passages, I should say not just verses, but different passages in their prayers.
A lot of young children when they’re Muslim, at a very early age they will have to, what they’ll call, read the whole Quran. And that’s where they actually work on learning how to read, to actually recite from looking at the text, how to recite the Quranic text. And sometimes that includes memorization and sometimes it’s simply learning how to read the entire text.
One of the things about Arabic it’s— I often say it’s the only thing about Arabic that is easy is that it’s phonetic, and so once you learned what the different consonants and vowels mean and so forth, well, anyone could sit down and read the Quran even if they don’t know what it is saying. They don’t actually know its content necessarily.
At the same time, many Muslims will continue throughout their lives to read the Quran on a regular basis, not just in prayers, but also maybe a regular practice is to read a few pages a day of the Quran during Ramadan. You may know that the Quran is— Muslims have divided the Quran into thirty equal sections. In this way people can read the entire Quran in a month, a lot of people like to do that during the month of Ramadan because it’s the month in which the Quran was revealed.
At the same time, I think there is, and for good traditional reasons you might say, there is a lot of hesitance on the part of Muslims to engage entirely with the meaning of the text, whether by reading a translation or if they’re capable of reading the Arabic text itself. And they feel that very much they should depend upon traditional scholars for the interpretation of the Quran. I teach a class on the Quran regularly at my university based in Northern Virginia where there is a huge Muslim community. When I teach courses on the Quran, usually fifty to seventy-five percent of the class comes in one way or another from a Muslim background, whether or not they are observant. And if we are looking at a passage of the Quran I’ll often say to them, “What do you think this means?” And I’ve gotten the response in the past, “Well it’s not for us to say what it means. We need to look at what the traditional commentators say that it means.” I think on the one hand this is true; of course you don’t want sort of interpretive anarchy. The Quran can’t mean everything.
At the same time I do think that the Quran asks for its listeners and its readers to personally engage with the text. There’s a passage that says, “Why do you not contemplate this Quran?” Right? So it’s asking, it’s very directly asking the reader to do that, but there’s a kind of hesitation because people are afraid that they’ll interpret something incorrectly. One of the things that I hope that this will do is now a Muslim can look in English who, let’s say, is not an Arabic speaker or might be, but can’t access the traditional commentaries. They can look and they say, “Well, this is what I think this verse means when I read it and now I can look at the commentary and I can say, ‘What have the traditional commentators said about this?”” And they can see, in some cases, I mean in many cases the interpretation is pretty uniform across the tradition but for other verses there might be a multitude of interpretations. Then they can look at that, they can engage with that, they can see that Muslims themselves discussed and thought about what these verses might mean and didn’t always come to the same conclusions.
They can feel safe that there’s a kind of guideline if they don’t feel safe doing it on their own, that I can look at what these traditional commentators say. But also I think in some ways opens it up for them to have a more personal engagement, more thoughtful and contemplative engagement, with the text.
HODGES: Yeah, there’s a sense in which this version, The Study Quran itself, is really presented to Muslims in particular, also for people of other faiths to get to know Islam better, but there was a decision made early on for the scholars involved in the project to be believing Muslims, that it would be a project by believing Muslims. Joseph, I wanted to have you expand on that a little bit. Talk about the decision to include only believing Muslims on that, and also the place of non-Muslims in scholarship about Islam in general.
LUMBARD: Well, I think the decision to have only Muslims on the project was that of the editor-in-chief himself and it’s something that I agree with in large part. The reason I agree with it is because it really is our responsibility to present Islam to non-Muslims and to the broader non-Arabic reading Muslim audience, which is the vast majority of Muslims.
Amy-Jill Levine put this very well when I was attending a presentation that she did for the Jewish commentary on the New Testament. She said that reclaiming our history and retelling our story is our responsibility and our right, and that doing so counteracts many of the effects of colonialism. I think that everything that she is saying there as regards to the Jewish tradition applies completely and even more so to the Islamic tradition.
Thus far there hasn’t been the opportunity for Muslims to fully, in a sense, tell their story within the Western context. There’s too much noise around it and I think that this volume will be an important step towards that. One of the things that we should reflect upon, where we sit today is a very interesting point in history, where English has quite unexpectedly become an international language of Islamic intellectual discourse. Therefore to have a study Quran that comes out in English is not just something that is important within English speaking countries, which is Australia, America, The UK, etc., but really it has the potential for important international impact.
HODGES: That’s Joseph Lumbard. He’s a professor in the Department of Arabic and Translation Studies at the American University of Sharjah. He’s written and translated articles on and books on Islamic philosophy, Sufism, Quranic studies, and he’s also serve as an adviser for Interfaith Affairs to the Jordanian Royal Court.
Together with Maria Dakake, they are general editors of The Study Quran from HarperOne. You can read more about The Study Quran, you can download some sample pages from it at TheStudyQuran.com. We’ll take a brief break and be right back with the conclusion of this episode.
HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Today we’re speaking with Maria Dakake and Joseph Lumbard. Together they worked as translators, commentary authors, and as general editors for HarperOne’s Study Quran, which is coming out in November. You can read more about that book at TheStudyQuran.com. I’ve also put links up on the Maxwell Institute’s website.
I wanted to conclude this interview by going back to the beginning, the opening Surah of the Quran which is called “The Opening.” And invite Joseph, if you had recite that and then have Maria read the translation and talk for a minute about this opening portion of the text. So, Joseph, if you would that would be great.
LUMBARD: I’m happy to do so with the one caveat that I am not a professional reciter.
HODGES: And there are like really professional reciters, right? There are even competitions where people can win awards for beauty, accuracy. What kind of things do they judge it on?
LUMBARD: Accuracy is first and foremost, and then there’s also beauty as well, but one of the main things is to be accurate and to know the rules of recitation, and then to be able to implement them. And really perfectly, it’s really very, very technical to be able to recite the Quran just right.
HODGES: Okay, so with that caveat, this isn’t a competition. So you will really give us an idea of what it sounds like. Here’s the opening.
LUMBARD: Alhamdu lillaahi Rabbil ‘aalameen. Ar-Rahmaanir-Raheem. Maaliki Yawmid-Deen. Iyyaaka na’budu wa lyyaaka nasta’een. Ihdinas-Siraatal-Mustaqeem. Siraatal-lazeena an’amta ‘alaihim ghayril-maghdoobi ‘alaihim wa lad-daaallee.
HODGES: Thank you, that was excellent.
Maria, why don’t you read the translation of this—Who did this one by the way? Who did this translation?
DAKAKE: Joseph did.
HODGES: Oh, good. Okay, so, Maria, read Joseph’s translation then of this opening Surah.
DAKAKE: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment, thee we worship, and from thee we seek help. Guide us upon the stray path, the path of those whom thou hast blessed. Not of those who incur wrath, nor of those who are astray.
HODGES: So that’s the entirety of that opening Surah. What’s interesting to me is you then include about seven pages of commentary on that, but there are entire volumes that have been written about just this opening Surah. How did you decide what to fit in there? We’ll close by talking about some of your favorite elements of the commentary of this opening.
Maria, why don’t you start, and then we’ll have Joseph…
LUMBARD: Can I actually say something since I’m technically credited with writing the commentary on this? However, the commentary for this particular Surah was done a little bit differently than all the others. In all of the others, we would go off and we would kind of do our thing and look in the commentaries and present it to everyone else after we finished the research and writing.
For this one, since it was the opening one, the first thing that we did was we had a group discussion about what should be included and then after we had that group discussion I wrote the commentary. So really this particular commentary is more of a group endeavor than many of the other commentaries.
HODGES: And that said, how do you decide how to boil it down? In addition to the commentary there’s also about two pages of introductory material as well.
DAKAKE: Right, and I would say that this verse, although it is— I should say this passage, this Surah even though it’s very small, it is repeated by Muslims continuously. It functions for Muslims in a way that’s very similar, for example, to the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity and people have pointed out that there are some similarities in terms of its tone and the attitude it takes toward God.
When Muslims pray, every prayer has a certain numbers of cycles in it. So the morning prayer has two cycles in it, the content of the prayer itself, sometimes people will do additional cycles, but there’s two cycles in the morning prayer, and four in the two afternoon prayers, and three in the evening— I’m sorry, at sunset, and four in the evening.
Each one of these cycles of prayer includes and begins with the recitation of this passage. So, this is something that every Muslim, even a small child by the age of three living in the household where people are praying all the time will learn by heart from hearing it repeated so many times. And then Muslims say it at many other times as well. So it really is— it kind of defines and encapsulates the attitude of the human soul toward God from a Muslim perspective.
HODGES: Joseph, what sticks out to you about this and what you all elected to focus on in the commentary?
LUMBARD: Well, I have to say, it was really a privilege to work on this particular commentary and as I went through the different commentaries that are out there— one of the reasons there are so many extensive commentaries is because there are sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad that say that it is the most important Surah. There’s a famous saying which says that everything that is in the Quran is found in the Fatihah, and everything that is in the Fatihah is in the first sentence of it: Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem—”In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and everything that’s in that is within” that it begins with.
As one goes through it, one really does see that there is a degree to which this is— you can really see how this works because, for example, if you look at what is verse three, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Right before it, verse two says, “Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds.” Verse four says, “Master of the Day of Judgment.” When you say that God is the Lord of the worlds, you are saying that God encompasses all space.
When you say that God is Master of the Day of Judgment, you are alluding to the manner in which God governs all time. When you are saying that God is the Compassionate, the Merciful, right between those, it’s a way of saying that God’s compassion and God’s mercy interpenetrates all space and all time. That is one of the central messages that you have throughout the entire Quran, is that God is merciful and compassionate, that God wants to forgive, that God wants to even annul all of your sins, so long as you turn to God.
As one verse of the Quran says, “God does not change what is in a people until they change what is in themselves.” But part of the implication is that if you do change what is in yourself, that God will help you do that more, and more, and more as you progress.
HODGES: That’s Joseph Lumbard. He’s a professor in the Department of Arabic and Translation Studies at the American University of Sharjah and we’re also speaking with Maria Dakake today. She’s Associate Professor and chair of the Religious Studies Department at George Mason University. Thanks both of you for coming on the show. The Study Quran looks beautiful. Thank you so much for being on the show today.
DAKAKE: Thank you for having us.
LUMBARD: Thank you very much for having us, Blair.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)