The Challenge of the Arabic Quran for English Readers | (Part 1 of 2)

The Challenge of the Arabic Quran for English Readers - (Part 1 of 2)

IN THE MODERN world English readers have access to literally millions of books covering every conceivable topic—and then some. Which ones are worth investing time and effort to enjoy and benefit from?  Each major religion has its own sacred  texts, collected from their prophets or holy/wise forebears. And sooner or later those hitherto oral compositions have been transferred to a written counterpart.

The Israelites over time had preserved their history (highlighting Adam, Noah, Abraham and their descendants over multiple generations); their prophetic texts; and most centrally the Law given to Moses along with the narratives attending his story. At some point a collection came to be assembled in the form of an approved “canon” and the treasured texts came to be meticulously passed down in written scrolls–now known as the Hebrew Bible (the Torah in its expanded totality).

Some twenty centuries ago when Christians needed a socio-political legitimacy akin to the privileged status of the Jewish community in the Rome-dominated pagan world of their age, they too assembled a book, which featured four narrative collections (“Gospel” writings–Arabic injil) recounting prophetic events and memorable teachings of Jesus. Hindus and Buddhists, and many others, likewise have their sacred collections preserved in book form.

Among the recognized “world religions,” Islam has the latest sacred Book. Its canon was definitively ‘closed’ by Prophet Muhammad, in contrast to the story of the Hebrew and Christian texts. Although no longer new on the scene, being some 14 centuries old, the Quran remains largely undiscovered by English-speaking non-Muslims. For them it is a ‘closed book,’ never even opened.

For too many Muslims, the book is honored by its location on a high shelf, but rarely opened. Unfortunately–and unnecessarily–the Book’s true treasures go largely untapped by English-speaking Muslims, who may be baffled by the un-Englishness of their experience with it. Here we aim to help remedy such estrangement from this Text, and thus, ultimately, from a cutoff spiritual connection to the “Lord of all the worlds.” We propose to point the English-only reader to some tools needed to meet the challenge of the revealed-in-Arabic message for all mankind.

The first thing that the reader will notice is that the Quran does not follow the familiar and expected pattern of a “book” in the modern sense of a discourse treating multiple sub-topics, each comprehensively and objectively addressed within its own chapter before moving on to the next subject in the next section. However, the Quran is a single-Source composition; couched in and delivered in limited segments, in human time, each in response to a specific occasion in historical human experience spanning a stretch of 23 years; to a single but mixed ethnic community–some addressed as al-nas (mankind) and others as “believers.”

The individual texts were put into their final arrangement by Prophet Muhammad, as he dictated to his scribes in his final years, under the direction of the same Gabriel, the divine intermediary who had been bringing him, piecemeal, that revelation in the first instance. Some chapters (Sûrahs) —notably the short poetic ones—were complete units of revelation, received all at one sitting. In other cases, sûrahs are composites of segments actually sent down at varying periods of the Prophet’s biography and stages of social development in the Muslim community. Remarkably, in spite of the jumbled arrival of its constituent parts, the Book constitutes a unified whole in its Arabic literary structure.

Nevertheless, there have been some academics who have sought to reorder the segments of the Quran on the basis of their supposed chronology of revelation.[i] Of course it is useful to correlate revealed readings with events in the life of Muhammad and his Companions so as to construct a full chronology of their story.  But such a reorganization of the segments of Text within the Book itself does violence to the integrity of the Book’s coherence (Arabic nam) and organizational style (¢amûd).

Yes, this Book originated from a single Mind (God-Allah) and was conveyed through a single Messenger (Gabriel); to a single Prophet-Recipient (Muhammad); during a single human lifespan (570-632 CE), within a single geographical area (the Arabian Peninsula). It is a Composition with a Semitic (not an Indo-European) type of coherence, interwoven with interlocking literary devices and patterned structures displaying serendipitously—at all levels of language—its package of Semitic expression, enveloping sound (rhyme, alliteration, puns), word-crafting and semantic engineering. These details are generally too technically complex and tightly-knit to illustrate here except  in a limited way. Accordingly, the Text in Arabic swings rhythmically along between interlaced layers of crescendo and pause.

Thus, a worthy English translation of the Quran must also swing along and pull the reader with it. No single English rendering of the Arabic Quran will perfectly mirror the message in its literary grandeur since the language devices of English are not a one-to-one match with those of Arabic.  Despite the challenges, creative translators who understand the source Text find a way to represent a dynamic equivalence of the divine Message. Compare the following English translations in their handling of the Arabic word ¢alaa (على “on”) as found in Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:5

They are on (true) guidance from their Lord… (‘Abdullah Yûsuf ‘Alî, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’ân, 1934/2001)

Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord… (Sahih International Quran, 1997)

[It is] they who have Guidance from their Lord… (A. Nooruddeen Durkee, The Tajwîdî Qur’ân, 2003)

It is they who follow the guidance [which comes] from their Sustainer… (Muhammad Asad, Message of the Quran, 1980)

It is they who act upon guidance from their Lord…  (The Study Bible, 2015)

It is these who are [advancing] upon [the path of] guidance from their Lord… (Ahmad Zaki Hammad, The Gracious Quran, 2007/2014)

One can point out that there are varying approaches to hearing the authentic message of the Book. Studying words, sentences, contexts, and understanding the live issues in the original community of Muhammad, may be one’s ultimate purpose so as to replicate a dynamic equivalent to the original community of Islam, taking into account the different social situations of today’s peoples.  But if one is to undertake an exploratory, foundational reading of the Muslim’s Book, aimed at discovering its general flavor, the authority  with which it speaks, its attitude, its approach to justice, wisdom and spirituality, then it would be advisable to begin with a free-flowing look at what is immediately being addressed on-the-ground in the Quran’s text—moving through one verse and then on through the next and so on in a continuous stream of communication.

My first meaningful and comprehensive encounter with the Book was through Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Quran. In that first, largely obsessive, pass through this translation I skipped the notes and pushed onward. Here was a Book that addressed mankind’s concerns with their Maker, their personal nature and their need for dependence on their Provider-Sustainer while answering the doubter’s objections towards cooperating with their all-wise and generous Lord. During my subsequent readings, of which there were multiple, I devoured Asad’s meticulous footnotes.

Now, some object to Asad’s flawed presentation in Appendix III, On the Term and Concept of Jinn. But I ask, Is this flaw a valid justification for foregoing his masterful translation and summary of scholarly commentaries—for the sake of properly stating some fine points of philosophical detail (which not all readers will fathom even if fully explained)!

An excellent translation will allow one to read at a steady pace, without backtracking to figure out an obscure turn of phrase or reference. I moreover commend—for readability and first-rate Islamic scholarship—The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English, 2008.  This English translation is the first made by a scholar with a certified Islamics higher education and professorship (Al-Azhar University); Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Among the pages of this beautifully produced and presented [ii] Arabic-English parallel Quran with extensive introduction and a treasure trove of scholarly background information, skillfully set out for students, is a lengthy, annotated synopsis of the history of the Quran in English (pp. 1161-1196) highlighting nearly forty efforts beginning from 1734 CE.[iii]

Featured in Dr. Hammad’s “modern-phrased interpretation” is the use of inconspicuous tiny half-brackets to enclose elliptical content—that is, supplying separately meaning intended to be understood but not overtly represented in the Arabic wording so as to be captured in a literal, word-for-word rendering.

An example from the modern-phrased  passage in Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:2-5 illustrates how elliptical meaning is enclosed in half brackets (here also in black) and incorporates it within the literal text (here in red) to form a smoothly running text conveying the overall import of the verses within its specific context :

This is the Book of God¬. There is no doubt therein. It is guidance for the God-fearing: Those who believe in the realms of the¬ unseen, and who duly ¬ establish the Prayer set by God¬, and who spend charitably¬ out of what We have provided them; and those who further¬believe in this Quran¬ that was sent down to you, O Muhammad, as a revelation from God¬ and who believe in the Scripture¬ that has been sent down to the prophets who came¬ before you, and those who, within themselves, ¬have utter¬ certainty of the immanence of¬ the Hereafter. It is these who are advancing¬ upon the path of¬guidance from their Lord. And so it is these who are the truly¬successful.

After one has immersed himself in an overview of the Quran and is ready for a verse-by-verse study, focusing on words, phrases, and cross-references to related or similar verses, s/he might want to consider Harper One’s publication of The Study Quran (2015) put together by a team of researchers under the supervision of Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Editor-in-Chief.[iv]

The wording of their translation was intended not so much as a free-flowing English text to stand on its own, but rather as a basic framework on which to hang varying interpretations, even widely-divergent ones—and to make clear how they all could in fact have been derived from the same Arabic Text. The Nasr team has evaluated the commentary (tafsir) literature of a wide representation of traditional Islamic scholars—41 commentators listed, pp. lvii-lix, and referred to throughout. The range of tafsir comments and interpretations is summarized and discussed below the English equivalent text on the same page.

Ideally, every Muslim owes it to him- or herself to have—at the very least—a minimum connection with the Arabic text, including how to properly read the Qur’anic verses (tajwid) and a working recognition of recurring Qur’anic vocabulary. [v] For properly learning the tajwid of the Quran, a qualified teacher is indispensable.

For embarking upon a deeper stage of studying the Quran, I recommend further tools such as the following two resources:

The Glorious Quran, Word-for-Word Translation to facilitate learning of Quranic Arabic (3 volumes), 2007 compiled by Dr. Shehnaz Sheikh and Kausar Khatri

The Tajwîdî Qur’ân, Transliterated by A. Nooruddeen Durkee with meanings rendered in 21st Century American English, An-Noor Educational Foundation, 2003

Both of the above have large-size Arabic print. The first has a running translation in the outside margin next to the Arabic text, in addition to each Arabic “word” having underneath it a contextually-appropriate word-by-word equivalent.  The second tool, in addition to a detailed transliteration (and a section comprehensively detailing rules of tajwid), features an idiomatic translation with elliptical meaning components given in brackets.


[i]    N. J. Dawood’s translation of the Quran—thought to be the all-time bookstore best-selling translation in English—in its first edition (1956), was printed with the sûrahs rearranged into the presumed chronological order.

[ii]    Even a high-quality leather-bound edition, in a choice of 5 colors, is available at a minimum price:

[iii]    Compare the explosion of translation efforts compiled by Wikipedia:

[iv]     The Study Quran was commissioned and designed to be parallel to the prestigious The HarperCollins Study Bible, 2006, published by the same corporate publisher.

[v]    The Arabic Quran’s inimitable attraction to the Arab depends more on quiet but astounding phonological and grammatical gymnastics than upon a large dictionary of erudite vocabulary. Scholars have, however, studied rare occurrences and words ‘borrowed’ from other languages; even influences from within Arabic dialects are recorded by early scholars, whose prodigious academic work has ensured a preservation of the Quran’s original lexical (dictionary) meaning.

In fact, something like a mere 1,700 verb/noun roots—plus the limited set of pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions (harf) —is the basis of this subtle masterpiece of Arabic literature.

According to The 80% Quran Project (, of the approximately 77,800 total words in the Quran, 82.6% of them (64,282 words) are among those listed—each with a count of its number of occurrences—in their downloadable and printable 38 page list: 894108-80QuranicVocabulary.pdf – Adobe Acrobat Reader DC

Written By

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."


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