The Koran in English, with Bruce Lawrence and David Peck [MIPodcast #72]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. When the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad it arrived in the language of his place and time—Arabic. To this day, for virtually all Muslims whether Arab or not, the Qur’an only truly exists in Arabic. You can read an English translation, sure, and there are many to choose from. But the Qur’an is said to defy translation. You’ve never read the Qur’an if you haven’t read it in Arabic.
In this episode, Bruce B. Lawrence of Duke University joins us to talk about his latest book The Koran in English: A Biography. It’s part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. We’re also joined by Dr. David D. Peck from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Dr. Peck was a visiting scholar here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute this summer.
Bruce and David tell us all about the history of the English translation of one of the world’s most renowned scriptures, the Koran in English. Is it possible to render God’s words in human language? For Muslims, is it possible to do that in any other language than Arabic?
Questions and comments about this, and other episodes, can be sent to email@example.com. And don’t forget to take a moment to rate and review the show in iTunes.
BLAIR HODGES: We’re joined today by Bruce B. Lawrence. He’s the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University, and he’s the author of a new book in Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Book series on the Koran in English. Thanks for joining us today Dr. Lawrence.
BRUCE LAWRENCE: Well, I’m glad to be here and thank you for having this through the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. I’m pleased and privileged to be on your program.
HODGES: Thank you very much. We’re also joined today by Dr. David D Peck and he’s a visiting scholar here at the Maxwell Institute and also a professor of history of Brigham Young University, Idaho. He specializes in the history of the Middle East and Islamic civilization. Dr. Peck, thanks for being here with us.
DAVID PECK: Thank you and it’s certainly a pleasure to be with both you and Dr. Lawrence.
HODGES: I thought we’d begin by speaking with you, Bruce. It’s been said that if you haven’t read the Koran in Arabic then you haven’t really read the Koran, and in the introduction to your book which is a biography of the English translation of the Koran, you write that there’s always been hesitation reluctance and even resistance to translate the Koran. Can you explain that? Why is that?
LAWRENCE: Sure. I think there are many reasons, but the chief reason is that the Koran itself was revealed in Arabic. It says about itself that it is “an Arabic Koran, full of wisdom,” and so there’s a sense in which the privileging of Arabic as the language of revelation—which was there from the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century—pervaded all the transmission, reception, and response to the Koran in its successive generations. And then there really developed roughly from the ninth century on a doctrine that in effect said there’s a superiority of the Koran, that the Koran itself cannot be rivaled in Arabic, and also therefore cannot be rendered in any language other than Arabic. And that notion pervades not only among Muslims and throughout the Arabic-speaking Muslim world, but throughout all of the places in Africa and Asia and of course now in Europe and North America where there are Muslim communities.
The notion is that you have to know Arabic in order to understand the Koran, and of course you don’t understand the Koran, you can’t become a Muslim, and if you don’t become Muslim you can’t be saved. So, as I say in the introduction of my book that you come up with the syllogism that says you have to know Arabic in order to be saved. That really narrows the possibility for many of us. I don’t speak for myself—I’ve had the privilege of studying Arabic actually since I was a teenager. I’m now in my mid-70. So I’ve been working at it. I wouldn’t say I know it, but I’ve been working at it for over half a century. But most people don’t even have half a year or half a moment to think about Arabic but they still wonder about their destiny and they often have heard about Islam and heard about the Koran but they want to have access to it in some language other than Arabic.
So the question has been, can you as a non-Arab and perhaps also a non-Arab non-Muslim make any sense of the Koran in the language other than Arabic? And the answer of orthodoxy—you correctly ask me how do I put these two contradictions together that the Koran is a universal message of revelation to all people and yet there’s an inside tag that says if you don’t know Arabic, you can’t understand the Koran, if you don’t understand the Koran you can’t become Muslim and you can’t be saved. How do you reconcile those two? And what I try and do in my book The Koran in English is to explain how over centuries, really over almost a millennium now, you’ve had people trying to render the Koran into other languages—Latin, German, French and of course now English, and to make some sense of it, not only as a kind of commentary on the Arabic, but as a kind of parallel text. I hesitate to say coeval. That is to say that the translation is equal to the original, but it at least renders a sense of it that is elevated enough to attract someone to say, “Well, this message is one I want to read, I want to understand, I want to apply its message if I can to my own life.”
So my argument is that the Arabic Qur’an may be untranslatable in theory or in orthodoxy, but in practice, in history, it has been translated. It continues to be translated. And as I state towards the end of my book, there are ongoing endeavors that suggest by the middle of the twenty-first century, we may have another thirty or forty translations of the Koran into English beyond the 115 that we already have.
There has never been in the last few centuries any lack of effort to try and translate the Koran into different languages, including prominently English, but there remains the orthodox dictum, if you will, gatekeeping slogan that says, “Thou cannot translate this Koran. It’s Arabic. If you don’t know Arabic you don’t know the Koran; if you don’t know the Koran, you’re not a Muslim.”
HODGES: What are some of the reasons why people are driven to create a translation, and what are some drawbacks to translation that orthodox Muslims are concerned about? There’s that famous Italian saying of “translator-traitor.” Talk about some of the reasons people are driven to translate and some of the specific reasons why people resist the idea of translating this text.
LAWRENCE: Yes, it’s wonderful, Blair, you cite this Italian dictum because it’s so succinct that it almost is an ironic play on itself—traduttore, traditore. So, you almost have to be tongue-tied in order say it, “traduttore, traditore.” Literally means “translator, traitor” or anybody who translates is a traitor. And as I explained in the beginning of my book it means you’re betraying two languages—the source language, because it can’t be translated, but also the target language which will not have a full sense of the original meaning. So, you’re betraying both the text you’re translating and the group to whom you’re hoping to address the translation. So all you can really have is a kind of mishmash, a kind of loose equivalence, but you can never have something that is a standalone text which someone would read on its own without reference to the original.
Now, you know, what has happened in terms of Islam is that many people have realized the importance of Islam as a revealed religion and the community of Muslims worldwide from the seventh century on. Most people know that Islam expanded from an Arabian source across North Africa and across Asia, and of course it has become even more in the last couple century a global religion that includes Europe and North America with significant Muslim communities. But there is this idea that if you translate—and I’ll just take one example which is often cited by orthodox Muslims, the very word that is most resonant in Islam that pervades the Koran that is there more than any other word is the name of God which is Allah, A-L-L-A-H. One of the major disagreements that exists till the present day is if you translate and you try to appropriate for another language the sense, the true deep deepest level of meaning and resonance of the Koran, can you do it if you translate Allah as “God”?
Now, one of the people I mentioned in my book whom I argue is probably the most significant translator of the Holy Koran in English, is a man named Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Abdullah Yusuf Ali was a British Muslim. He knew Arabic from the time he was very young, but obviously he also knew Hindi Urdu which is the language of South Asia, but he also knew English. And he was determined when he made his endeavor to translate the Koran into English, he said at the beginning, “I want to make English itself into an Islamic language.” He quickly added, you cannot make English into an Islamic language unless you have an English equivalent to “Allah” and that is “God.” So Ali made the deliberate decision, the first phrase that comes up in all 114—except one—of the chapters of the Koran, is “In the name of Allah,” Bismillah. So he translates it “In the name of God.”
When his translation became very popular and later towards the end of the twentieth century, it was reproduced, reprinted from Saudi Arabia, the large hand of orthodoxy said there that the name Allah can’t be translated, so they de-translated it. It’s an awkward word and even worse process, but there is this term “de-translate” which means Yusuf Ali has said “In name of God” for Bismillah, the Saudis rendered it as “In the name of Allah” and then went on the rest. So, I think in just that shift between Allah and God and then back from God to Allah, you have in microcosm the entire controversy about whether you can translate not only the Koran itself, but even the name of God from Arabic into English.
HODGES: David Peck, in addition to these types of questions about specific terms like even the name of God, what else about the Koran makes it especially difficult to render into other languages?
PECK: Let’s see if you agree with this Dr. Lawrence. I think one of the most difficult things about translating from Arabic is the fact that the nature of the language is different in its structure. For example, most of the nouns in Arabic are going to come from verbs. We often call them verbal nouns. So, they’re not going to have a noun like a “book” they’re going to have a noun like a “writing.” Does that makes sense?
PECK: So, what happens is these nouns bring along with them a verbal sense and so, they can often have an active element to them that when you render them into English and you simply say, “We’re going to call this a book,” it’s not really a book sounding in Arabic. It sounds like a writing. I think that would be one of the difficulties.
Another one is poetry, because, frankly from my perspective, English is a relatively weak poetic language in terms of rhyming. You have a number of limited rhymes, whereas in Arabic you have an incredible richness of rhyming opportunity, so it’s difficult to render some of the poetic sections to it. And certainly, I would at least point out those two, that the feel of the language, the flow of the language from its verbal origins is one of the one of the most difficult ways of translating this book as well as the poetry.
HODGES: The version of the Koran I read several years ago seemed very blocky and it was so interesting for me to think about Muslims talking about the beauty of this text, because the way that this particular translation—and unfortunately, I don’t remember which one it was—it was so blocky. There wasn’t beauty there, and I imagine that a lot is lost for that reason alone. What would you say about that?
PECK: I guess if I were to respond to that, the word Koran itself in Arabic refers to recitation. It refers to being recited rather than merely being read with the eyes. And that oral component to the book is very, very important and so, the notion is this is meant to have rhythm to it. It’s meant to have a poetic balance to it. It’s meant to communicate on that level as well as the reading level. And so when you put it in English and you reduce this verbal notion to that blocky text, and then we don’t read it out loud in a way that we pick up on the meter of the language and the beauty of the language that way. I think that it’s just an incredible challenge. When you render into English, you’re going to have a hard time making it sound like good English.
HODGES: Bruce Laurence, you mentioned that most people in the world can’t receive salvation through this Arabic text because they don’t speak Arabic and so on, but also fewer than twenty percent of Muslims today are native speakers of Arabic. So what are the theological ways that Muslims would account for that gap, realizing that the Koran in Arabic is essential to their salvation in so many ways? How do they account for Muslims who don’t speak Arabic?
LAWRENCE: That’s a great question. Let me address that after I do just a brief follow-up to David’s comment about the difficulty of rendering Koranic Arabic into any language, but especially in English. I want to just call attention to one of the people who recognized what David correctly said. It’s not just getting the meaning of the literal sense of what the word is in Arabic into some English equivalent. It’s having this larger flow, this rhetorical sense, this rhythmical beauty of the Arabic, which is extraordinarily hard to render in English. And A. J. Arberry, one of the people I mention about midway through my book who was a British Orientalist, if you will, who wrote a lot about Islam and translated both Persian Arabic texts long before he took on the Koran—but at one point, he just said, “You know, I can’t really stand it because—” This is a direct quote from Arberry. He said, “I need to make a translation, because all of the others are characterized by a certain uniformity and dull monotony from the seventeenth century to the twentieth.” I think David would agree with me, and you probably also Blair in your reading would find that in almost every rendering of the Koran, there is a certain uniformity and dull monotony that is not characteristic of a lively scriptural text. So what Arberry tried to do, and of course he did it in Victorian English which has its own limits, but he said what he wanted to do was to create or imitate in Victorian English, and this is a direct quote from Arberry, “those rhetorical and rhythmical patterns which are the glory and the sublimity of the Koran.”
So, if one can’t attempt to render what one hears and listens to as being glory and sublimity into English, you aren’t going to have an echo much less a happy rendering of the Koran. So, the example I want to give, and this is what many people who are non-Arab Muslims seek to find, is when you say something like the Bismillahir rahmanir rahim. So, I’ve just given you my first real phrase in Arabic. I mentioned Bismillah before but the full phrase is—and I know David recognizes this from his own work—Bismillahir rahmanir Rahim.
And many people say, “Well, that just proves your case. You can’t get the rahman and the rahim which is obviously an echo. In English. Even my students—and I’ve had different kinds of students or general audiences when I say rahmanir rahim, they say, “It sounds like poetry.” I said, “Well, it is.” It’s not strictly poetry because the Prophet Muhammad was not a poet, but it has a lyrical flow that is characteristic of poetry. As [indiscernible name] once said, it’s not prose but it is prose. It’s not poetry but it is poetry—when he was speaking about the Koran. It’s a mixture of both. But the rahmanir rahim is clearly lyrical.
So, I can’t tell you how many hours, maybe days, thinking about this quandary, that if one is going to translate, one has to begin with making sense in English, in some kind of lyrical sense, rahmanir rahim. One of the ways I’ve come up with it which has been applauded by some scholars and rejected by others and will still be debated forever, is instead of saying Rahmanir rahim in English, to say “full of compassion ever compassionate.” So one uses the same word “compassion” twice, or if you will, “full of mercy ever merciful.” But you echo in English the same word which is the same word of course also in the Arabic, the rahmanir rahim come from the same stem.
This is what David was saying that you have to create a kind of flow that uses nouns with an echo, a sense of their verbal background. And if you don’t do that, you’re going to miss it.
Now, for people who are non-Arab Muslims—to answer your other question—the problem there—and I’m sure David has travelled in the Muslim world, I’ve spent a lot of my working life overseas especially in Asia. And I have been to places where I’ve heard beautiful, beautiful recitations of the Holy Koran in Arabic. At one point I would stop somebody and say, “Can we go back over that phrase, because it has many, many meanings.” The person would look at me and say, “But I don’t know what it means. I just know how to say it.”
So the first instance of what happens because of the Arabic accent for orthodoxy, is you have to learn the Koran in Arabic but what the second part of that means is if you learn it in Arabic, reciting in Arabic is sufficient without knowing its meaning. And in my view, that also defeats the purpose of the revelation. Sure you can say it, sure it sounds beautiful, but if you don’t know what it means even if you’ve memorized all 6,236 verses, all 114 chapters, have you really grasped the sense of revelation?
I just want to finish by saying I had probably one of the happiest moments in my whole teaching career when I was teaching a course on the Koran, and there was a Muslim student who took it and I asked him why and he said, “Well because I’m a Hafiz of Koran—that is, I memorized the Koran—but I don’t know what it means.” He was honest about that. He said, “Listen, I can tell you”— I would pick up the Koran, any chapter, any part, and he could recite the whole rest of it or recite what was before it and after it, but it took him one semester of that course and then we had a subsequent independent study, and he said it wasn’t until he really had thought about all the levels of meaning within the Koran that he began to understand it. And then he looked at me puzzled and said, “But now I can’t translate it.” [laughs]
So, even with the best of intention, the highest principle of dedication to the text and to its authenticity, there still is the difficulty of getting from Arabic into some sense of English, but then some sense of English into what Steiner calls, “a re-appropriation of its elevation,” of its high quality. And as David said, that’s very, very hard when you’re dealing with poetry, and when you’re dealing with poetry that’s also scripture, it’s even harder.
PECK: Well Bruce, you actually bring up something, I think very important, in your book with regard to this that I think if you could address for us it would help us. That is, in the book you refer to Mohamed Assad’s translation, I think it’s his 1980 edition, where he says that he intends to—I think this is a direct quote from him—translate for “the hearts and the minds of people raised in a different religious and psychological climate.”
Of course the question that pops out to me is, which people does he think he’s translating for, and which psychological climate? And sort of to follow up on that, yes, having lived in the Middle East—in fact I remember during Ramadan, taking a taxi ride in Cairo and the driver and I both reciting together Al-Qaria—
LAWRENCE: Oh yeah.
PECK: —that particular Sura, and how much enjoyment and pleasure there was with the two of us reciting that together. But that climate, how can a translation bring the climate of Muhammad’s day in translating to his earlier followers, or how can it bring the climate of wherever you’ve been in the Middle East or my experience with that taxi driver, I wonder about that psychological climate if it can actually be translated, or if the translator interposes themselves between the text, and they decide what the psychological climate is rather than facilitating the reader to discover that psychological climate for themselves.
LAWRENCE: Well, I’m really glad you picked this up. It’s actually on page eighty of my book where I talk about this particular provision from Muhammad Assad. And I think I should say to people who are probably less well-attuned to either the Koran or to the process of translation than you are that Muhammad Assad is one of four people whom I single out in in my book as saying, “If you want to understand how the Koran was trying to say”—once you grant that it has to be translated despite the difficulties and that the real goal is to make a text that somehow is inviting in English while acknowledging that it will never equal the beauty or the soaring majesty of the Arabic but still give a sense of the message, you have really four people—I start with Maulana Muhammad Ali because everybody starts with him. You cannot avoid Maulana Muhammad Ali, his 1917 translation. But then you quickly move to Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, both of whom were excellent translators. I’ve already mentioned Yusuf Ali. Marmaduke Pickthall is another fascinating Britisher who became a convert to Islam and then was supported by a Muslim ruler, the Nizam of Hyderabad to do his own translation. And Pickthall’s is, in terms of forensic skill—that is, bearing down and thinking about the meaning of verses and putting them in English—he’s probably one of the best there is.
But Muhammad Assad came from an even different route. He was an Austrian Jew in the 1920s and he was very unhappy with what he thought was a very superficial, commercial, overly bland public life. Most of the upper class to which he belonged in in Europe in general, Austria in particular. He was a journalist he looked at different religious traditions and then he finally discovered that Islam was much more appealing to him and had a kind of on-the-train conversion where he picked up a copy of the Koran after he got home from a trip and he suddenly saw this particular verse which stood out for him, which said, “You have to watch out what you do. You have to be sure that you don’t go down to your grave only obsessed by greed.” For him, that’s it. I’m going to become a Muslim. And he did. He left his home, left his community, went off to Arabia, wound up marrying an Arab woman who became the mother of a man named Talal Assad who’s a famous anthropologist from New York.
But the point is that all of his Jewish family were killed in the Holocaust and ironically, this Jewish convert survived as a Muslim and then did this translation which we know as The Message of the Koran.
So I just gave that brief history of Muhammad Assad, David, to remind everybody that in some sense what Muhammad Assad is doing in his translation is telling you about his own journey and hoping other people can also come to the Koran and come to Islam, whatever their different religious or psychological climate. But his psychological climate was one where he definitely felt that he had to have a higher, elevated, religious if you will, metaphysically transformative experience, in order to continue his life and the Koran was the basis for it. But again, he says—part of that quote that goes on after what you quoted, he says, “You can’t do it without having an instinctive feel of the language.”
He felt because he lived in Arabia, because he had an Arab wife, because he spent what, fifteen years of his life at the end of his life in Granada, Spain working on the Koran, that he had an instinctive feel of the language and therefore he could give people an idiomatic explanatory rendition that nobody else had ever done.
While I agree with him, I also want to point out what David said is absolutely true of Assad, is true for everybody else. Even when there are some places—and I think there are several where Assad triumphs, that is where he adds meaning and value to the Koran in English that nobody else before him has ever done or since him has done without him. Despite that achievement, there’s no poetry. There’s nothing of those rhythmical, rhetorical features that are very lauded in the Koran and that he tried to reproduce.
And I would just quickly say Thomas Cleary, the one person I cite in my book who is extraordinary because unlike David he couldn’t recognize Arabic in a taxicab in Egypt or anywhere else. But Thomas Cleary is a brilliant translator who has produced religious classics from China, the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, and also studied the Lotus Sutras and translated them into English, so he’s a marvelous scholar of Far Eastern languages. But he realized the importance of the Koran and with an Arabic speaking partner, assistant, he worked at first on a just little abridged thing called The Essential Koran, K-O-R-A-N.
Then, after that, he decided he would do the whole of the Koran and published his entire translation back in 2007. And it is poetry. Now not everybody will like the poetry. Not everybody will say that it accurately reflects this distinct phonological tradition of the Koran. I have known people who are agnostic and even atheist who’ve read Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Koran and said, “It’s an interesting book. I may have to read more. There may be something to this.” Unfortunately, they would not have that same reaction to Muhammad Assad or even, I think, to Abdullah Yusuf Ali unless they were really interested in Islam before they picked up the book.
So, there’s a certain sense in which the bravado—can I call it that? Some people say it’s a foolhardiness or some people would say it’s a treachery, but whatever. It’s the courage, certainly, of certain persons like Thomas Cleary, who are not Muslim, do not know Arabic, but venture into the terrain of translating the Koran and come up with something that’s been very useful and even productive for other people.
HODGES: That’s Dr. Bruce B. Lawrence. We’re talking with him today about his book, The Koran in English: A Biography. It’s part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books Series. We’re also speaking with Dr. David D. Peck, a visiting scholar here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.
So, to put a bow around all of that discussion, I think one thing that your book will point out to readers, Bruce Lawrence, is that many of these men who undertook these translations had a personal vested interest, at least in some of the theology, and we’ll get to that a little bit later on.
But before we do, we wanted to talk a little bit about the origins of the text, and I’ll ask Dr. Peck here, in a quick nutshell, what’s the traditional story about the origins of the Koran, and then how does that compare to what many scholars today believe about the text’s origins?
PECK: Yes. I think this is a very important question. As I was reading the book, Bruce—which I really enjoyed, truly.
LAWRENCE: Well, thank you.
PECK: Oh, yes. I think you’ve done a great job. After I read the account of the revelation to Muhammed, just from my own experience, I expected the next section of the book to answer the question, “what exactly is it that translators think they’re translating,” in other words, what’s the source text? I know that’s largely absent from your book and I was curious as to the story behind that, but in getting to that, it seems to me that there’s a lot of academic debate that’s been going on for decades that I know you’re aware of, that talks about, what is this book? where did it come from? It couldn’t have come in twenty-five or fifty years. You know all these arguments. But the notion is the history of this text, I wonder first of all why you chose to not go through that. We don’t seem to know how the book was—or at least there’s debate over how it was put together. And there are varying texts of the Koran as you know, that are used by some sects of Islam, etcetera. So, what could you tell us about the origin of this text and the effect of the history of its origin on in those translations?
LAWRENCE: Well David, thank you for that very thoughtful and also probing question. Actually, when I was doing this book, I must confess I had a longer section on how the Koran itself was created. I also had a longer section on the complicated biography of the Prophet Muhammad which is more than just the traditional or the commonplace story that people would know from the early sources in Islamic history. So, after I had done this, my editor got back to me and said, “You know, this is great for a scholarly audience. Why don’t you put that in a footnote and tell us the real, the simple story, or the straightforward story about both the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran so we can get to the translation?” In other words, I was vetoed.
PECK: Well, I would disagree with your editor, but I’m glad that at least it made it to a footnote!
LAWRENCE: Well, no, but I want to tell you that this footnote, even crafting a footnote—the reason why your question goes to the heart of who I am not just as a person who is devoted to scripture and engaged by the Koran but also a card-carrying historian, you know, I wanted to be able to say, “Listen, like everything historical, it has a context. The text has a context.” So I said there’s a lively debate, it’s been going on for more than a decade about the critical text of Koran. The Uthmanic codex, as you know, goes to 634, and then of course Al-Azhar in 1924 approved what it called the standard edition of the Arabic Koran. I quote several people but I think this one person I think said it better than I could paraphrase, so let me just quote Timothy Conway. “The formation of a standard single text of the Koran seems to be much more complicated than the traditional Muslim account which maintains that the text was fixed during the Caliphate of Uthman.”
And I go on to say this polite skepticism is confirmed in what I think to be the best source—I’ve read lots of things but I think the best source that I’ve read on this whole question comes from a French scholar François Déroche which is titled Qur’ans of the Umayyads, published in 2013, where he goes through and shows how there were compromises made in order to come up with what was the standard text.
So, obviously there were variations. And he quickly adds, in terms of a text that is as complex the Koran with, as you know, 114 chapters, 6,634 verses, it’s not a question of how many chapters were different but how many readings that were of course not standardized until the end of the seventh century, how many of these could be done differently, and what does that mean both philologically and theologically if you have different readings.
And so I have thought a lot about this issue, I’ve had debates with people when I did my earlier book, you may know I did a book back in 2005 called The Qur’an: A Biography and I had a slight section on different textual editions of the Koran that differ from the Uthmanic codex. And several people said, “Oh, why didn’t you have a whole chapter on that?” And again, what I would say to you David and also to Blair is that I think there is a lot of room for debate and there can be lots of questions raised.
I think what it comes back to, and let me just give the most skeptical version, which comes back actually to the seventh century to somebody I know David knows called Ibn Masud. So, Ibn Masud was a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, was one of the early ones who heard the Koran when it was spoken, that is before was committed to writing, and himself was devoted to making sure that the Koran was accurately transmitted. Ibn Masud said two things that most Muslims would reject outright. First of all, he said the Surah al-Fatihah, which is the first of the chapters, is more like a preface instead of the first chapter, that actually that the Surah al-Baqarah is what really begins the Koran. That that Fatiha is kind of like a preface or an overview but not part of the actual Koran, whereas the last two Surahs or chapters, the Mu’awwidhatayn, are really apotropaic, or healing verses, that were said in different occasions and they were put together as verses and then as chapters that reflect a kind of, if you will, handbook of healing for the Koran but are not part of its essential message. So, the essential message of the Koran goes from Surah al-Baqarah to Surah al-Ikhlas. And if one thinks about this theologically, it makes a lot of sense that the coherent message of the Koran is really between the second chapter and 112th with a kind of preface called Fatiha and a kind of appendix called the apotropaic or Mu’awwidhatayn verses.
HODGES: I think to translate this for a Latter-day Saint audience, I would say this would sort of be like if centuries from now Mormons were debating whether or not the chapter headings in the Book of Mormon were part of the original, or maintained the same scriptural status as the text of Joseph Smith’s translation or something like that.
So, this really comes down to debates about the purity of the Koran and the correct interpretation of the Koran. And this becomes a really contentious issue, this question as to whether the Koran has been transmitted through the centuries in Arabic just as Muhammad received and recited it, or has there been corruption to the text, additions to the texts and things like this.
And there are also theological ramifications for this. Dr. Peck, I know you have an example of that where there are different translations of Surah 7:172 as an example of that.
PECK: Yeah. I think we can get to that. I just want to make one last comment before we go on and that is it seems to me that the question of how the Koran was formed, for me, actually raises the question of the Koran being first translated into Arabic, if you will. In other words, in those early periods what they’re really doing, it seems to me, at times is translating whatever they received into some kind of Arabic that’s being developed—the alphabet’s being created, etcetera. And so, the question then becomes aren’t we even translating a translation of a translation?
HODGES: So like the canonization process…
PECK: The canonization process itself, the addition—most listeners may not know that Arabic doesn’t have a short voweling. It doesn’t mark them, it marks the long vowels. But later on, these diacritical marks that give the short vowels were added in there, but—
HODGES: These marks show how you pronounce certain words—
PECK: But they were not in the original text, and the ones you choose to use can change the meaning of the text itself, sometimes rather dramatically.
So that was my point about saying that maybe a history of the text itself is important to understand. Maybe the purity of the Koran that is being worried about isn’t—it has its own issues. But I’ll move on then to what I was talking about or what you were talking about with Surah 7, Surah al-A’raf, verse 172. And it’s in particular an example from the translator Assad—who I respect deeply by the way. This is not meant to be disrespectful. But in this particular verse, a perfect tense is used, and as you know, Arabic doesn’t have tenses in the same way English does, but the actual verse is in the perfect, speaking of a completed past effort, and yet when I come to Assad, he insists almost on giving it a present tense in English meaning. So, can I just mention in a little more detail what I’m talking about?
PECK: Yeah. So, before we go on. So if I were to look, let’s say, at another translation, it would say—and I’m kind of cheating in a sense because I’m using The Study Qur’an which came out after I think your book was already well underway—
LAWRENCE: Yeah, but I note that—just to paraphrase what you’re going to say—that of all the text that I have, and of course they’re based mostly on Pickthall, The Study Qur’an, it has the largest commentary of almost two and a half pages on just this one verse.
PECK: Yes. That’s correct. In fact, that’s what I’m looking at in my particular edition of the book—
HODGES: And this is The Study Qur’an. People that have listened to podcast before, we spoke with the editors of this as well so people can go back and listen to that episode to get more background, but yes, go ahead.
PECK: Oh, that’s good. I encourage them to do that. You may agree Bruce, it’s going to become a very important work, at least for academics in English.
So, Surah 7:172 says “and when thy Lord took from the children of Adam from their loins their progeny and made them bear witness concerning themselves, alastu birabbikum,” right? “am I not your Lord.” They said, “Yea, we bear witness.”
LAWRENCE: Bala shahidna.
PECK: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. So, this whole qaloo bala shahidna, all of that and all of the alastu birabbikum, all of that is in that perfect tense. So, it’s “When thy Lord took.” But when we go to the Mohammad Assad translation, here’s what he says of the same verse. “And whenever thy sustainer brings forth their offspring from the loins of the children of Adam, he [thus] calls”—and that “thus” is in brackets as you know—”thus calls upon them to bear witness about themselves,” alastu birabbikum, “am I not your sustainer?” to which they answer qaloo bala shahidna, “yea, indeed we do bear witness thereto.”
And so, it’s “brings forth their offspring from the loins of the children of Adam,” which is talking about birth, right? So, the one is talking about a completed action. “He took.” And this uses the phrase “brings forth their offspring.” My first point about that is, it seems to me that it’s a complete departure from the clear Arabic, because the clear Arabic it seems to me is perfect. It’s not an ongoing action, it’s not an incomplete action. But when we look at Muhammad Assad’s footnote to that, he acknowledges that. He says, “in the original, this passage is in the past tense. (‘He brought forth. He asked them,’ etc.—”
PECK: —”thus stressing the continuous recurrence of the above metaphorical question-and-answer; a continuity which is more clearly brought out in the translation by use of the present tense.”
Now, first of all, that doesn’t even make any sense to me. I have to admit that saying it’s clearly the past tense, and that means there’s some kind of continuous recurrence, and then he goes to the present tense. Doesn’t that reflect his probable view that this was not a primordial event? This was not a pre-birth event? Because as you know, many commentators take it literally to say, “Everybody was there. Everybody was asked by God, by Allah at the same time, “am I not your Lord?”
HODGES: So this is like a pre-mortal event.
PECK: And everybody took the covenant, but that Assad agrees with those commentators who don’t believe that, and therefore has actually translated the perfect you know, ma’adi, he’s translated the perfect tense of the Arabic intentionally into an imperfect English. Is that accurate? And if it is, how often do you find—Do you find translators frequently choosing English that interposes their interpretation of the Koran onto the language in ways that the language itself may only questionably support, or not support at all?
LAWRENCE: Well David, I really applaud your exegetical fervor in looking so closely at this text and at the language of it, and I’m certainly glad that Blair told me you were going to talk about this because I brought sitting before me, four or five different translations, and you’re absolutely right that none of them—and I could cite who they are but it would take up beyond the time we’ve got—but none of them transfer the tense from the perfect, which it is the Arabic, to the present as Assad did. But your intuition or your insight about why Assad did it is absolutely right, that in every instance of the Koran where there’s something that has a kind of metaphysical aura of magic or a kind of layering of worlds of the unknown—al-ghaib, which is a phrase as you know used in the Koran a lot for what’s not known for human beings—he tries to render it into something that can be more palpable to use a term that other people like to say, he’s much more somebody who’s aligned to a kind of rationalist way of trying to explain things, as if it was a human progeny rather than a divine act.
So I think your critique of Assad is correct, your claim that he also has shifted the Arabic from perfect to present is true, and as I said, I’m looking at five different translations other than Assad, nobody else does this. But where some of them really get caught up—and I think almost equally important for your project, and I would guess you know for others’ interpretation of the Koran is that, the anfusihim, which is really the key phrase here, waashhadahum AAala anfusihim, is they look at themselves or are they looking at their souls? And there is one translation I have in front of me, happens to be by Ahmad Zaki Hammad, a very well-known translator. He says, “Your Lord took from the children of Adam from their loins, all the souls that would become their posterity and he made them bear witness to their own souls.”
LAWRENCE: So this is much stronger than “themselves.”
LAWRENCE: This is actually giving, you know, some substance to the soul as an element that is apart from the body, and predominates in and through it. So I think the accent on anfusihim, which of course you do not have in Assad, who like many others just says, “oh, they bear witness about themselves,” but it’s actually anfusihim, which can be and often is, as you know in Arabic nafs and fus is “self,” but it’s also “soul.” So there is a large theological issue lodged in here, you’re right about the change in tense, but also in the choice of words for how you translate the noun anfusihim.
PECK: Oh, I think you’re—I would agree with that too. You know I do a lot of work on Sufism and Sufis that I deal with, when I bring up this particular verse, to almost a person will say “souls.”
PECK: And then they will also say our souls are very old. I have a dear friend that would say we’re at least twenty-thousand years old.
PECK: Because what they do is they say, “we were souls when this happened.” And not only that, but they’ll go on further and say, when they said shahidnah, not only concerning themselves but that they sort of held or offered, “we offered,” they would say, “our souls as collateral against the trust that we pledged to God when we said we will hold him as our Lord.”
PECK: So I think there is an intense theology, as you say, there and I appreciate you bringing that up.
LAWRENCE: Well that’s beautiful.
HODGES: So to break all that down, this is an interesting issue especially to Latter-day Saint listeners because what this boils down to is, there are some Muslims who believe in some kind of premortal or primordial existence for human souls, which would resonate with a Latter-day Saint audience who has a similar theological view.
PECK: Yes, I think you’re absolutely correct, and not only that, but that the premortal or primordial experience was universal for all humankind, which I think Latter-day Saints would say that everybody who showed up here on Earth quote-unquote “agreed to the plan presented by the Father,” and that’s very much like this idea of Allah saying to all the souls, “Accept me as your Lord.” It’s a pledge, it’s a covenant—
HODGES: It’s a relationship.
PECK: Yeah, and so not only the fact of a primordial existence, but the fact of a primordial existence in which everybody we see on this planet is bound by primordial covenant to God himself.
HODGES: David, is that a common belief in the Islamic world, or would you be pretty hard pressed to find someone who’s familiar with that? It seems kind of—
PECK: The belief in primordial existence of some sort, you know, being taken from the loins of Adam and being presented before God in some primordial state—at least pre-birth state, we might want to be able to call it that—is found in Islam in many places, but it is not found universally in Islam. But I found it among Sunni scholars that I’ve interviewed, I found it among Shia scholars I’ve interviewed. And for Sufi’s it’s almost an article of faith. In fact, in almost every Sufi text that deals with the anthropology of Islam—what happens to humans as they move through this sort of pre-birth experience, etcetera, on to an eternal destination, either paradise or hell—almost to a person Sufi’s will start with this primordial covenant. In fact, they call it yawm alast, The Day of “Am I not your Lord.”
LAWRENCE: And I just want to add to what David said, and he said it beautifully. I just want to add that the person who has embodied this—and I’ve often been at funerals where people will recite the poem of Rumi where he talks about birth and rebirth and it really goes from being a plant, to being an animal, to being a human, to being an angel, and you know, “when have I ever been less by death?” Every death brings a higher elevation to where I experience the eternity of my soul. So I mean Rumi himself—you know the whirling dervish, the embodiment of the thirteenth century hope for poetry and pluralism in Islam—also expounds the same view that David just did. That the soul is transient, and it keeps moving up.
HODGES: That’s Bruce Lawrence, he’s the author of The Koran in English: A Biography. We’re speaking with him today and Dr. David Peck, a visiting scholar here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
I wanted to ask Dr. Peck about some of the political ramifications of English Koran translations and then have Bruce Lawrence expand on it. So, Dr. Peck, one of the things that Bruce points out in his book is that Saudis have kind of come to rule English Koran translations. If you encounter an English Koran translation—some of these kind of inexpensive paperback copies that get passed around—chances are that it’s come through the Saudis. What does that suggest about these, about the state of the English Koran today? Politically, what are the implications there?
PECK: Just to first of all say that I thought that Bruce did an excellent job of, in very few words, covering the basics of this very complex question. But if I were to summarize it, it would be that, first of all, Saudi Arabia has been for quite some time purposefully expanding—with a missionary zeal—its interpretations of Islam often referred to as Wahhabism, part of what’s called the Salafi Movement, which I in a second would like Bruce to address the significance of, because I think in the book it’s mentioned, but I don’t know that readers will know the significance of what was said about that in the book. It is a short book, it is a well written book, I highly recommend this book and I am going to use it with my own students but—
So in looking at this though, let me begin by saying, it seems to me that what happened is the Saudi Arabian government realized some time ago, several decades ago, that they could sort of take control of the English language dissemination of the Koran. At least, assert themselves, I don’t know if “take control” is too strong, but really assert themselves in the English-speaking Koran. And they did this in several ways. They formed the King Fahd Institute, which would manage translation of the Koran not only in English but other languages as Bruce mentions in his book.
HODGES: There’s a photo of it in there, too, I think right.
PECK: Yes, there is a photo of the institute and a huge Koran as a statue in front of it. At any rate, this institute began with the use of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation because it had gone out of copyright, this translation by a South Asian who—
HODGES: Which was fairly liberal and rationalistic, too, which is funny—
PECK: Yeah, he was very liberal and rationalistic. This is a fellow who’s going to be quite different in many respects from the Saudis.
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah.
PECK: But a very popular English translation. And so maybe the first way in which this was co-opted, was by getting all of that translation and changing it in ways which would fit the Saudi message, the message they wanted to send to the English-speaking world. And then eventually they came upon their own translation, which is covered very well in Bruce’s book. And this is the Khan Hilali translation. And that particular translation, I think, fits very well with this sort of Wahhabi message that they—this Hanbali, Wahhabi, Salafi message that they want to inculcate in the minds, in the hearts of Muslims whose primary language is English, as well as others who read the book. But I thought what—
HODGES: Wait, what would two or three key points of that theology be like, what are the key points that they’re trying to control?
PECK: Well there’s going to be a literalism given to many passages of it, and so I think that one of the ways in which they’re going to look at this is a very fundamentalist sort of way.
LAWRENCE: Let me just add David—
LAWRENCE: —not only fundamentalist, but also unitive. That is to say that there’s only one interpretation, there can’t be multiple, there’s only a single translation and interpretation that is possible.
PECK: Absolutely and I think it’s a very important point. But the one I would like to hear you address, Bruce, is this, the Peachy—I’m trying to remember the name—
PECK: Johani, yeah. Peachy-Johani translation. What was the process whereby the King Fahd Institute got control of that? You do touch on in the book. And do you view that as sort of an effort to silence an alternative translation? In other words, did they obtain the copyright so that they could suppress it, because you say you had to write the author to get a copy of it, you can’t get a copy of that translation.
LAWRENCE: Well let me just say that although I think I’m fairly diligent as a scholar and I try and track down every lead, I had not even heard of Johani-Peachy, but a good friend of mine who I mention also in the book who’s done a partial translation of the Koran and I really commend him for his effort to make the rhythm in his translation. But David knows full well and I’ve also tried to emphasize it that you can’t just translate the meaning, you have to have the flow, you have to have the passion, you have the lilt of poetry if you’re going to speak, not just read, the Koran in English.
So one of the people who’s recognized this and agrees with me who happens to be a devout Muslim. I won’t say I am a devout non-Muslim but I’m not a Muslim. And so this fellow who is a devout Muslim, Shawkat Toorawa, got in touch with me, he said, “Bruce you know there’s another Saudi translation, you’ve got to get hold of it.” And he told me who it was, you know, and David’s quite correct, it’s Daoud Peachy, an American convert to Islam and then Maneh al-Johani who’s a Saudi Arab, obviously Sunni, Muslim. And I tried to get hold of him, I couldn’t get hold of him.
I wrote back to Shawkat and said “You know I can’t find this thing anywhere. You told me about it but I don’t get it.” He said, “Well gee, you’re in luck because the author gave me his address so maybe you could write him.” So I wrote him. I actually wrote Peachy because Johani died, you may recall Johani had a car accident and died back in 2000. So I wrote Peachy and he sent me his own copy and that’s the only way I got it. I couldn’t get it online, there’s no Amazon.com thing for it, so I thought “Gosh! this must be a really, you know just a rudimentary thing.” But it is a polished translation! These guys worked for two decades to make, what they call, an accessible, clear translation.
But they made two mistakes. First of all is, they translated Allah into God. And the second thing, we haven’t talked about this is, the word “Islam.” David made a very pivotal point earlier about the fact that everything in Arabic comes from a verbal stem, a verbal flow. So “Islam” literally is the name of a religion, but it also means the act of surrender. And a “Muslim” is one who participates in that act of surrender. But it had meaning long before Islam came into being. There were islams before Islam and they were muslims before Muslims.
So what they do, that is Peachy and Johani, everywhere that it refers to Moses or refers to Jesus or a previous group, they talk about Islam with a small “i” or Muslim with a small “m,” or they just say “someone who surrenders.” And for the Saudis, that’s heresy because every time Islam comes up in the Koran, it has to be capitalized, every time there is Muslim, it has to be capital M. So on both counts—because Allah translated and because Islam was not left as Islam, but instead was translated surrender—they faulted it. They refused to disseminate it, they allowed it to be published but they then they didn’t disseminate it. So it’s similar to sort of saying this is a dead end book, its shelf life is over even before it started.
So just to follow up on this one story since I appreciate David having picked it out of the pages of my book, I actually went to Turkey, I had to go to Turkey for something else, I made a point of going to see Daoud Peachy who now lives in Turkey and teaches there. And I went and had a whole evening conversation with him—a very nice man, very gentle, very devout. But also very sad because this translation of his, on which he worked so hard, and which was published from Saudi Arabia, from Jeddah, was not disseminated, and so it left him trying to hope that maybe he could find a Turkish publisher to make the English version of it available to others.
But I think there are two sides to Saudi censorship—the one that David correctly mentioned is to have sponsored, first of all, use of Ali, and then their own independent translation by Khan Hilali. But the other side of that is to censor or suppress even translations not just by other people they don’t like, but even by their own scholars whose outcome or product they don’t like. So I think it’s a very heavy hand of censorship, I regret it, I think everybody has to understand it, and I think even some Saudis—and I must quickly add, I know some Saudis who also feel this is not a protective but a really detrimental activity that is gauged by Saudi Religious Affairs, and there are some Saudis—I want to say this very strongly—who passionately would like to see more openness and greater variety to Koran translation.
PECK: I think that’s wonderful. If I could just interject one small thing, then, to follow up from my perspective if we could include this. You mentioned Salafi in there, and I don’t know if a lot of our listeners understand the influence of the Salafi movement with ISIS or al-Qaeda, we might say Boko Haram or others. In other words, Salafism—if you could take just a moment and say how might Saudi control of the English translations of this text advance the Salafi concept of fundamentalism and the reestablishment of a seventh century caliphate.
LAWRENCE: Well, I think I could give many examples but I just think that one that is most painful, but also pervasive for me in my own experience, is I’ve done a lot what’s called prison ministry. I mean I visit people who are in prison because I feel they’re still very much a part of the larger human enterprise, and they maybe are more needy than some of the rest of us who aren’t physically in prison.
So in doing that prison ministry, I’ve often come across Muslims, and quite a few of them are Muslims who read the Koran that’s made available in prisons. And to my dismay, I found that in many—not all—but in many instances, the Koran that was available was a Khan Hilali, the one that is provided free of charge. And we didn’t mention this, but one of the reasons why the Saudi ministry is so effective is that their Korans are distributed free of charge like Gideon Bibles that are delivered to hotels free of charge. So this idea that you can just have a Koran free of charge seems like a great boon, except when you read it.
And when you read the very first chapter, the Fatiha—David and I’ve talked a little bit about the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Koran. When you read the opening chapter of the Koran which simply says at the end of this very short, just seven verses, he says, Ghairil maghdubi alaihim waladdalleen—”Those on whom God is not angry and who have not gone astray.” In the Khan Hilali says, “those on who God is not angry, the Jews, and have not gone astray, the Christians.” Well they’ve interpolated what is there in some commentaries, but not all commentaries, and not, I would say, mainstream commentaries. But there is this kind of dissident view that says that the revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad that became the Fatiha was referring to Jews when it said “those on whom God’s angry,” and when it says, “those who’ve gone astray” it’s referring to Christians. As many people including Tabari, who is a very famous ninth century mufasa or commentator on the Koran, but he said, this would be completely anachronistic because when the Fatiha was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, there were Jews and Christians among his listeners!
LAWRENCE: Why would he exclude them before they’re even exposed to the Muslim message? So it’s an anachronistic way of claiming that every time the Koran talks about people who God’s angry at it’s Jews, and every time it says people gone astray it’s Christians, and yet it is inserted—not as a commentary, but inserted as part of the text.
HODGES: And readers wouldn’t even know. It just seems like that’s what the Koran says. These additions aren’t making it clear that these are interpolations.
PECK: Yes. So I think it’s very damaging, I think it’s very dishonest, I think it’s not accurate to say that the Koran in its revealed form had those interpolations, and it also is very damaging because it suggests that Muslims have, as perpetual enemies, both Jews and Christians because they’re first of all God’s enemies.
HODGES: That’s Bruce B. Lawrence, he’s in emeritus professor at Duke University and he’s the author of The Koran in English: A Biography. It’s part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.
To wind down, I want to talk about the last chapter in your book, Bruce. Your concluding chapter focuses on the Graphic Koran. Graphic novels are really popular right now—these are illustrated books, they’re kind of like comic books but they’re more complicated than that, they’re kind of an illustrated book. This last chapter that you wrote was actually enough to entice David Peck into buying a copy of that Graphic Koran, he wanted to check it out. So tell us a little bit, a brief history, what is this graphic Koran?
LAWRENCE: Well, I mentioned to you before that part of my research is to listen, to listen to my friends, listen to people who know more than I do, and when I can, try to follow their advice. So I had finished my book, I had finished at least what I called the final draft of what was going to become this book for Princeton University Press. I’d been working on it for over four years. And again, a friend of mine got in touch and said, “You know, before you send off your manuscript, you might want to take a look at this new book that is coming out by an artist.” And I said, “Oh, I’m not dealing with art, I’m dealing with translation.” He said, “Well actually, it’s kind of translation and art sort of mingled together.” And I just couldn’t imagine—because I know David has seen illustrated Korans but Korans are illustrated with border designs, especially Surah Fatiha and then some place in-between you have illuminated borders, but artistic work in the Koran is not something that I’ve ever seen.
So I hesitated and finally postponed submitting my final manuscript to press until I got a copy of this incredible book, really incredible piece of work called American Qur’an by Sandow Birk. And I have to just say to you, I spent two weeks simply mesmerized. I didn’t do anything else, my wife wondered why I lost my appetite. I said, “I think the only thing I can do is to absorb what is the message of this big coffee table sized book called American Qur’an.”
And what it really was is, he’s an artist who was influenced by 9/11 and then the Iraq war that followed in March 2003, and he wanted to see if all Muslims are really as evil as the ilk that perpetuated 9/11 and that continued under al-Qaeda with Osama bin Laden. And he traveled around the world. He was also a typical Californian artist, he was a skateboarder, and a surf border, and he went around different places where he could not only pursue his art but also have some fun calisthenics on the side.
And so he found in one place in Ireland, he found this wonderful Chester Beatty Library. If you’ve never been there or ever have a chance to go to Ireland in Dublin, I urge you to go to Chester Beatty—wonderful copies of the Bible, Celtic versions of the Bible, but there also are ancient Mamluk manuscripts of the Qur’an, many of which are written and then smudged out because somebody makes an error, they smudge it out and rewrite it. And he suddenly thought, “Gee, I can do that! I know I’m not perfect, I certainly don’t know anything like the Arabic in the Koran, but I can sort of copy a good translation.”
And then he had the challenge of finding a good translation. And curiously enough, the one he liked was Assad, but he didn’t feel that he could get copyright for it. So he picked another one by a fellow named Rodwell who was a nineteenth-century British translator of the Koran. And so he used Rodwell with some interpolation from Assad, but also Thomas Cleary, the other guy I mentioned who is the Buddhist poet who has translated the Koran into English. And between Assad and Cleary, using Rodwell as the base, he transcribed all 6,346 verses of the Koran, and then did borderline designs that illustrated different aspects of American life, and published it as American Qur’an.
And I think it is a bold, beautiful, and unfortunately weighty book! When I say weighty, it’s very heavy—not in its tone; it’s tone is quite wonderful and uplifting—but it is fifteen pounds, more than you can carry on your bike or moving around from place to place. But if one explores it and sees how he depicts a certain verse, because you can’t do everything from the Koran as David knows well from having studied and taught it, but he picks a certain verse, a certain message from a particular verse, and then illustrates that on the border. And I found that he did this with great skill and did it in such a way that made you look from the image to the text and back to the image and gave a fuller meaning to the Koran then you have with simply a literary translation, even one that comes closest, but not quite achieving the level of aesthetic excellence that you have in the Arabic Koran.
So I thought Sandow Birk, American Qur’an, was closest to being a Graphic Koran, and I ended my book by talking about him and hoping that this kind of boldness—which was done with reverence, because he himself is, he described himself as a nonbeliever, I think he’s more an agnostic than atheist, but he’s certainly not a Muslim, he’s probably not even a practicing Christian of any sort. But he’s a very devout artist. And I thought the product that he produced, this wonderfully illustrated American Qur’an is worthy of being included in a book on the Koran in English.
PECK: Oh I thought you did a beautiful job with including it, too. I have a couple of points that I would like to hear your response to. One of them is, listeners may not know, but the titles of the chapters or the Surahs of the Koran are often taken from a phrase within the Koran, or some particular set of words that are in that Surah. And so the name of a chapter comes from within it. And I thought was fascinating that he chose to not name a Surah, so to speak, after that but he chose to illustrate the Surah by finding the work that was in there. And so I felt that he was doing something absolutely ingenious that was in the spirit of the Koran, and I would like to hear your comment on that, and then just a couple of other things. I think he used the word “adapt,” not “translate,” but he had an adaptation of the Koran, is that—
LAWRENCE: That’s right.
PECK: Anyway, I think he used “adapt,” and I am just going to ask if you could comment on the relationship between a book and a reader. Because I think this illustrated Koran really shows that he has adapted the message of the Koran to his life, to his world, to his culture, and he’s made it relevant to himself, and hopefully by extension to many, many, others, including Americans.
So those two points I guess, the first one is, comment on how he might have captured the spirit of a Surah—instead of naming a Surah, and drawing it from the language of the Surah itself, and this idea of adaptation and personalization that marries a book to a reader in a way that relates to their life, it may even relate to their existence.
LAWRENCE: Well my first comment is, I hope that there are many readers of both my book and Birk’s book who have the same attention to detail and reflection that you have. Because you’ve just described it in ways that leave me shivering on the other side of the phone here, because you’ve done it so eloquently, and with such careful choice of words.
So I want to say that, yes, this is definitely what I call a robust use of artistry in the service of making the Koranic message clear. And you’re absolutely right, the images are picked from a single verse in a way that the Koran itself doesn’t do, but which it lends itself to doing. And I thought the example of Surah Yassin—the 36th chapter, which for many people is the heart of the Koran—was, to me, one of the most graphic examples where he did this beautifully in both counts. Picking the name, Yassin, which is just two letters from the beginning of it—and this is where Assad, who as you noted quite correctly got his tense wrong when he was doing 71-72.
But I think he got his philology right when he did Yassin, and said Yassin could be actually a diminutive for all human being, and so he actually translates it. You remember Muhammed Assad translates Koran 36 not simply as Yassin but as “oh human being,” or “oh thou human being.” And what Birk does is to pick up the title and then leave out the “thou,” the second singular pronoun. So he just says “Oh human being.”
And then he goes on to illustrate it with this wonderfully evocative image taken from verse 33, “Right before them is the dead earth. We make it produce the grain they eat.”
So it’s a very vivid image of the earth as dead and then grain coming up. And what he’s done is to put in the circle—in the border around this particular opening two pages of Surah Yassin “Oh human being”—a kind of Nebraska or Iowa farm field where you have a tractor on one side and you see the sun on the other, and it’s all done in evocative colors that are both green and brown, and the sky is light blue with the clouds seeming to pick up the verses and lift them skyward, or let them drop down from the sky to earth, whichever way you want to go. But it’s a beautiful way of sort of epitomizing one verse, admittedly only one from this very strong—I should say this is not only a strong chapter, but if you’ve been at Muslim funerals, and of course I’ve been to a few and I’m sure David has, this is always recited. This is always recited, so it’s not only just another chapter or set of verses from the Koran, it’s a powerful one that is liturgically woven into the life and also the death of most Muslims.
So to have this image of the dead earth, and then having it come to life through the grain that people eat, I thought was just a wonderfully involved, complex, but also evocative use of the Koran, both in replicating the graffiti verses that he’s all copied out—he copied out all 6,346 of them—but also here, doing this border which beautifully etches a farm field in America to illustrate a point from seventh century Arabia.
PECK: That’s beautiful. So he’s showing us, again, that maybe translation isn’t enough. That the reader should adapt, that the power of the Koran, the power of a holy book, might be not so much even in its original text, not so much even in its translation, but in its adaptation and its application.
That’s my view of that, and I don’t know if you have any closing thoughts. That’s basically it for me. But do you find in your own life that this affects you, or that you adapt it into what you do in your own life? Does this Koran project of yours have an adaptation to you?
LAWRENCE: Oh, thank you for the question, and the answer is, the answer is yes, yes, yes, aiwa, aiwa, aiwa to use the Arabic as well as English. I mean, as I said, I am a Christian, I’m not a Muslim, I think I’m what people would think as an oxymoron, I’m a devout Episcopalian. But one of the things that I really enjoy in my own meditative life is reflecting on the names of God, the asma ul husna as they’re called in Arabic. But also since I’ve read Birk, I must say it’s not only those two weeks where I was just immersed in the book, but what changed was the way in which he does what some Muslims have done through the centuries, which is to say the Koran is important not just because it’s these 114 chapters—and I completely agree with David that you might have to think very hard about whether what we have is absolutely what was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad by the Archangel Gabriel, but there’s enough of a distillation of it that I think the question of whether it’s a perfect replication or not is secondary to the fact that whatever survived has great value, tremendous value.
And Birk has done something which I have never seen done in any other form. He’s picked out verses, which are almost like ethical mandates, they’re kind of like pithy distillations of the whole message of the Koran, and he’s put them in the form of a mihrab. Mihrab is a place you find in a mosque, a niche, and he’s made this mihrab out of an ATM machine.
Now you might say, “Oh, that’s really profane. I mean, that is just crossing the line, I can’t imagine what a Saudi reviewer of this book would do!” I don’t think that will happen, but if a Saudi reviewer came as far as the last chapter and read that there was a Californian artist who was somewhere between an agnostic and atheist and he did the whole the Koran and then portrayed some of it with an ATM machine, they might even burn the book. I mean seriously, they would think this is just total heresy. But I think it is over-the-top beautiful reflection in American idiom of what the Koran is all about.
So he does this mihrab where he has on one side, from the Koran, “Always be just.” They’re all dicta. “Always be just.” And then it has on the right side, “Be true to every promise.” And then it has the left, “Be modest in your bearing.” And then I have to say, I’ve recently been ill with cancer, and when I was ill with cancer, I used this verse and it gave me great comfort, which was from the 94th chapter, the fifth and sixth verses: “Truly with hardship comes ease.” Truly with hardship comes ease. And it’s one of those messages that, when you’re ill, it just helps you focus on what is really important in life. And I think Sandow Birk did it better than almost anybody I can imagine.
So yes, I have used him, and I really appreciate everything that went into this. And by the way, it took him over ten years, and I never met him, but when I finally got to talk to him he said, “You know, there were points when I just about gave up, I thought nobody’s going to care about what I’m doing with the Koran, but I have to do it because it is a life’s work that has elevated me.” So I’m glad he persisted. I think his book is too big for most people to carry and maybe, you know, to hefty for some people even consider buying. But I think everybody who gets a chance to look at the Koran and to read Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an will be elevated by it.
HODGES: That’s Bruce B. Lawrence. He is the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University. His many books include Who is Allah and Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence, and he’s also the author of the new book The Koran in English: A Biography, part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.
And we also spoke today with Dr. David D. Peck, a visiting scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He specializes in the history of the Middle East and Islamic civilization.
A really quick question at the very end, if readers are interested in reading an English translation of the Koran, which one would you recommend if they’re looking to get that poetry, and also what’s the best devotional English translation? Which one would each of you recommend?
LAWRENCE: Wow! I would love to hear David’s commentary on that. I guess mine would be to say that if it’s devotional—and I really appreciate, Blair, you asking the question. For devotional, I would say that there are two very different ones, each of which can be satisfying but in a very different way.
If you want something where there is this sense of, if you will, the kind of hope and expansive nature of the Koran as a devout book—which I think it has to be in English if it’s going to render the Arabic—I would say Thomas Cleary. Either his first book, The Essential Koran, or his full translation The Qur’an. To me—and I must say also to many of my Muslim friends whom I’ve met and asked the same question you asked me, they say if it’s somebody who doesn’t want to read Arabic or can’t read Arabic, or wants an English standalone apart from the Arabic, then Cleary, The Essential Koran or The Qur’an is the best.
But then they quickly add—and I would agree with them—that either Abdel Haleem, who did The Qur’an for Oxford University Press, has the one that’s sort of closest to reflecting the meaning of the Arabic but without the poetry.
And if you want something between Abdel Haleem and Cleary, then I would say something that doesn’t give you poetry but gives you very resonant prose and does a very nice job of packaging the whole of the Koran, I would recommend Wahiduddin Khan. It’s by Good Work Books, I talk about it in my book. He’s a very elderly man now, he’s in his 90s, I actually got my own copy of this when I was in Istanbul, they handed it out to me at a mosque which I attended in Istanbul, an English translation and it’s a beautiful, beautiful, accessible, pocket-sized Qur’an simply called The Qur’an, the Wahiduddin Khan translation.
So those are my three. The top one, if you only have one, would be Cleary. If you want to be able to use a little bit more than Cleary, try Abdel Haleem, which is not poetry, but it gives you the meaning of it. If you want something between poetry and prose that I think still is very, very accessible—and for devotional purposes very useful, I carry it when I go on a trip—it’s Wahiduddin Khan, simply called The Qur’an.
HODGES: And people can check out the transcript of this episode for the spelling of those if they’re unsure. Alright, Dr. Peck, how about you?
PECK: Well, you know, I would agree with the Cleary suggestion. And there’s so many different ones that I enjoy, because each time I read them, something new pokes out because of the way they translated it. So I mean, there’s all of those.
But if I were to look for clarity, I agree on everything you said, and I would add The Study Qur’an, myself, and the reason is because I tend to relate to Sufis really well. You could probably tell that from my work and our interview here today. And the editor Seyyed Hossein Nasr—himself, you know, an advocate of Sufism and a Sufi—in providing its commentary always makes sure that there’s an esoteric interpretation thrown in whenever he can do it. So you get both the literalism, and you get sort of this sense of esoteribirksm, and a sense of morality—how does this book apply to me, you know? So that’s one reason why I like The Study Qur’an as well.
And if you’re like me, reading the Koran, I believe, has made me a better Mormon. In other words, this engagement has been enriching to my own religious life. And from what I’m hearing from you, Bruce, this is enriching to your own spiritual—and perhaps even like me being a better Mormon, you’re better Episcopalian. I don’t know, I hope so! But anyway, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and recommend these Korans.
LAWRENCE: Well I totally agree with you, and that’s one of the things that I really treasure about Mormonism, the Mormon tradition—and we didn’t even talk about the parallels, but they’re so amazing, I mean, the notion of an angel appearing and to a prophet. And I must say, you know a couple of times I’ve taken—this is just a small joke at the end, you may want to edit it out, but I have to tell you this—
LAWRENCE: Back in 1981—I’m that old—I was taking a bunch of Muslim visitors, for the State Department, around and we got to Oakland California. And they said, you’ve got to—maybe one or both of you’ve been to the wonderful Mormon temple there in Oakland. And we went there. And I had somebody who was representing the Mormon tradition, in perfect Arabic, get up and say “You know, Mormons and Muslims, we all are alike. We have prophecy that came through an angel, we have a book that came down, revealed, and it’s been preserved in its revealed state, and the only thing we differ on—it’s a slight difference, when Mormons say the shahada, it’s La ilaha illallah Yousuf rasulullah.
PECK: [laughs] That’s a great anecdote!
HODGES: You’re going to have to translate that!
PECK: “Yousuf” is “Joseph.”
LAWRENCE: Well, “there’s no God but God, and Joseph is His prophet.”
PECK: Yeah, Joseph Smith is his prophet. What he’s is saying is that Joseph is His messenger. Yeah, “there is no God but Allah and Joseph is His messenger.”
HODGES: Ah, instead of “and Muhammad is his prophet.”
PECK: It’s a beautiful—and I’ve had that experience so many times, I have to agree with you. Inshallah, Bruce, we will meet in this life—that means God willing, right, inshallah, Allah willing, we will meet in this life. I feel like I have come to know you, and I deeply respect your work and the sincerity and the spirituality and the enthusiasm that you bring to it. Thank you.
LAWRENCE: Well thank you. I feel I’ve heard an echo of my own voice at its best in this interview today. Thank you very, very much, both of you.
HODGES: Thank you, we appreciate you taking the time Bruce. Thank you.
PECK: Thank you.
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)