“Read! in the name of your Lord and Cherisher, Who created. Created man, out of a mere clot of congealed blood: Read! And your Lord is Most Bountiful, He Who taught the use of the pen, taught man that which he knew not.” (Quran 96:1-5)
With these opening verses of the ninety-sixth chapter – with an allusion to man’s humble biological origin as well as to his consciousness and intellect – began, early in the seventh century of the Christian era, the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, destined to continue during the twenty-three years of his ministry and to end, shortly before his death, with verse 281 of the second chapter:
“And fear the Day when ye shall be brought back to Allah. Then shall every soul be paid what it earned, and none shall be dealt with unjustly.” (Quran 2:281)
Between these first and last verses (the first and the last in the chronological order of their revelation) unfolds a book which, more than any other single phenomenon known to us, has fundamentally affected the religious, social and political history of the world. No other sacred scripture has ever had a similarly immediate impact upon the lives of the people who first heard its message and, through them and the generations that followed them, on the entire course of civilization.
It shook Arabia, and made a nation out of its perennially warring tribes; within a few decades, it spread its world-view far beyond the confines of Arabia and produced the first ideological society known to man; through its insistence on consciousness and knowledge, it engendered among its followers a spirit of intellectual curiosity and independent inquiry, ultimately resulting in that splendid era of learning and scientific research which distinguished the world of Islam at the height of its cultural vigour; and the culture thus fostered by the Quran penetrated in countless ways and by-ways into the mind of medieval Europe and gave rise to that revival of Western culture which we call the Renaissance, and thus became in the course of time largely responsible for the birth of what is described as the ‘age of science’: the age in which we are now living.
It is to be borne in mind that, in its final compilation, the Quran is arranged in accordance with the inner requirements of its message as a whole, and not in the chronological order in which the individual chapters or passages were revealed.
All this was, in the final analysis, brought about by the message of the Quran: and it was brought about through the medium of the people whom it inspired and to whom it supplied a basis for all their ethical valuations and a direction for all their worldly endeavours: for, never has any book – not excluding the Bible – been read by so many with a comparable intensity and veneration; and never has any other book supplied to so many, and over so long a span of time, a similarly comprehensive answer to the question, ‘How shall I behave in order to achieve the good life in this world and happiness in the life to come?’
However often individual Muslims may have misread this answer, and however far many of them may have departed from the spirit of its message, the fact remains that to all who believed and believe in it, the Quran represents the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace to man, the ultimate wisdom, and the ultimate beauty of expression: in short, the true Word of God.
This attitude of the Muslims towards the Quran perplexes, as a rule, the Westerner who approaches it through one or another of the many existing translations. Where the believer, reading the Quran in Arabic, sees beauty, the non-Muslim reader often claims to discern ‘crudeness’; the coherence of the Quranic world-view and its relevance to the human condition escape him altogether and assume the guise of what, in Europe’s and America’s orientalist literature, is frequently described as ‘incoherent rambling’; and passages which, to a Muslim, are expressive of sublime wisdom, often sound ‘flat’ and ‘uninspiring’ to the Western ear. And yet, not even the most unfriendly critics of the Quran have ever denied that it did, in fact, provide the supreme source of inspiration – in both the religious and cultural senses of this word – to innumerable millions of people who, in their aggregate, have made an outstanding contribution to man’s knowledge, civilization and social achievement. How can this paradox be explained?
Thus, for instance, Western critics of the Quran frequently point to the allegedly ‘incoherent’ references to God – often in one and the same phrase – as ‘He’, ‘God’, ‘We’ or ‘I’, with the corresponding changes of the pronoun from ‘His’ to ‘Ours’ or ‘My’, or from ‘Him’ to ‘Us’ or ‘Me’. They seem to be unaware of the fact that these changes are not accidental, and not even what one might describe as ‘poetic licence’, but are obviously deliberate, a linguistic device meant to stress the idea that God is not a ‘person’ and cannot, therefore, be really circumscribed by the pronouns applicable to finite beings.
It cannot be explained by the too-facile argument, so readily accepted by many modern Muslims, that the Quran has been ‘deliberately misrepresented’ by its Western translators. For, although it cannot be denied that among the existing translations in almost all of the major European languages there is many a one that has been inspired by malicious prejudice and – especially in earlier times – by misguided ‘missionary’ zeal, there is hardly any doubt that some of the more recent translations are the work of earnest scholars who, without being actuated by any conscious bias, have honestly endeavoured to render the meaning of the Arabic original into this or that European language; and, in addition, there exist a number of modern translations by Muslims who, by virtue of their being Muslims, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be supposed to have ‘misrepresented’ what, to them, was a sacred revelation.
Still, none of these translations – whether done by Muslims or by non-Muslims – has so far brought the Quran nearer to the hearts or minds of people raised in a different religious and psychological climate and revealed something, however little, of its real depth and wisdom.
To some extent this may be due to the conscious and unconscious prejudice against Islam which has pervaded Western cultural notions ever since the time of the Crusades – an intangible heritage of thought and feeling which has left its mark on the attitude towards all things Islamic on the part not only of the Western ‘man in the street’ but also, in a more subtle manner, on the part of scholars bent on objective research.
But even this psychological factor does not sufficiently explain the complete lack of appreciation of the Quran in the Western world, and this in spite of its undeniable and ever-increasing interest in all that concerns the world of Islam.
It is more than probable that one of the main reasons for this lack of appreciation is to be found in that aspect of the Quran which differentiates it fundamentally from all other sacred scriptures: its stress on reason as a valid way to faith as well as its insistence on the inseparability of the spiritual and the physical (and, therefore, also social) spheres of human existence: the inseparability of man’s daily actions and behaviour, however ‘mundane’, from his spiritual life and destiny.
This absence of any division of reality into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ compartments makes it difficult for people brought up in the orbit of other religions, with their accent on the ‘supernatural’ element allegedly inherent in every true religious experience, to appreciate the predominantly rational approach of the Quran to all religious questions.
Consequently, its constant interweaving of spiritual teachings with practical legislation perplexes the Western reader, who has become accustomed to identifying ‘religious experience’ with a thrill of numinous awe before things hidden and beyond all intellectual comprehension, and is suddenly confronted with the claim of the Quran to being a guidance not only towards the spiritual good of the hereafter but also towards the good life – spiritual, physical and social – attainable in this world. In short, the Westerner cannot readily accept the Quranic thesis that all life, being God-given, is a unity, and that problems of the flesh and of the mind, of sex and economics, of individual righteousness and social equity are intimately connected with the hopes which man may legitimately entertain with regard to his life after death.
This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons for the negative, uncomprehending attitude of most Westerners towards the Quran and its teachings. But still another – and perhaps even more decisive – reason may be found in the fact that the Quran itself has never yet been presented in any European language in a manner which would make it truly comprehensible.
When we look at the long list of translations – beginning with the Latin works of the high Middle Ages and continuing up to the present in almost every European tongue – we find one common denominator between their authors, whether Muslims or non-Muslims: all of them were – or are – people who acquired their knowledge of Arabic through academic study alone:
That is, from books. None of them, however great his scholarship, has ever been familiar with the Arabic language as a person is familiar with his own, having absorbed the nuances of its idiom and its phraseology with an active, associative response within himself, and hearing it with an ear spontaneously attuned to the intent underlying the acoustic symbolism of its words and sentences.
For, the words and sentences of a language – any language – are but symbols for meanings conventionally, and subconsciously, agreed upon by those who express their perception of reality by means of that particular tongue. Unless the translator is able to reproduce within himself the conceptual symbolism of the language in question – that is, unless he hears it ‘sing’ in his ear in all its naturalness and immediacy – his translation will convey no more than the outer shell of the literary matter to which his work is devoted, and will miss, to a higher or lesser degree, the inner meaning of the original: and the greater the depth of the original, the farther must such a translation deviate from its spirit.
No doubt, some of the translators of the Quran whose works are accessible to the Western public can be described as outstanding scholars in the sense of having mastered the Arabic grammar and achieved a considerable knowledge of Arabic literature; but this mastery of grammar and this acquaintance with literature cannot by itself, in the case of a translation from Arabic (and especially the Arabic of the Quran), render the translator independent of that intangible communion with the spirit of the language which can be achieved only by living with and in it.
Arabic is a Semitic tongue: in fact, it is the only Semitic tongue which has remained uninterruptedly alive for thousands of years; and it is the only living language which has remained entirely unchanged for the last fourteen centuries. These two factors are extremely relevant to the problem which we are considering.
Since every language is a framework of symbols expressing its people’s particular sense of life-values and their particular way of conveying their perception of reality, it is obvious that the language of the Arabs – a Semitic language which has remained unchanged for so many centuries – must differ widely from anything to which the Western mind is accustomed.
The difference of the Arabic idiom from any European idiom is not merely a matter of its syntactic cast and the mode in which it conveys ideas; nor is it exclusively due to the well-known, extreme flexibility of the Arabic grammar arising from its peculiar system of verbal ‘roots’ and the numerous stem-forms which can be derived from these roots; nor even to the extraordinary richness of the Arabic vocabulary:
It is a difference of spirit and life-sense. And since the Arabic of the Quran is a language which attained to its full maturity in the Arabia of fourteen centuries ago, it follows that in order to grasp its spirit correctly, one must be able to feel and hear this language as the Arabs felt and heard it at the time when the Quran was being revealed, and to understand the meaning which they gave to the linguistic symbols in which it is expressed.
We Muslims believe that the Quran is the Word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the medium of a human language. It was the language of the Arabian Peninsula:
The language of a people endowed with that peculiar quick-wittedness which the desert and its – feel of wide, timeless expanses bestows upon its children:
The language of people whose mental images, flowing without effort from association to association, succeed one another in rapid progression and often vault elliptically over intermediate – as it were, ‘self-understood’ – sequences of thought towards the idea which they aim, conceive or express.
This ellipticism is an integral characteristic of the Arabic idiom and, therefore, of the language of the Quran – so much so that it is impossible to understand its method and inner purport without being able to reproduce within oneself, instinctively, something of the same quality of elliptical, associative thought.
Now this ability comes to the educated Arab almost automatically, by a process of mental osmosis, from his early childhood: for, when he learns to speak his tongue properly, he subconsciously acquires the mould of thought within which it has evolved and, thus, imperceptibly grows into the conceptual environment from which the Arabic language derives its peculiar form and mode of expression.
Not so, however, the non-Arab who becomes acquainted with Arabic only at a mature age, in result of a conscious effort, that is, through study: for, what he acquires is but a ready-made, outward structure devoid of that intangible quality of ellipticism which gives to the Arabic idiom its inner life and reality.
This does not, however, mean that a non-Arab can never understand Arabic in its true spirit: it means no more and no less than that he cannot really master it through academic study alone, but needs, in addition to philological learning, an instinctive ‘feel’ of the language.
Now it so happens that such a ‘feel’ cannot be achieved by merely living among the modern Arabs of the cities. Although many of them, especially the educated ones, may have subconsciously absorbed the spirit of their language, they can only rarely communicate it to an outsider – for the simple reason that, however high their linguistic education, their daily speech has become, in the course of centuries, largely corrupted and estranged from pristine Arabic.
Thus, in order to obtain the requisite ‘feel’ of the Arabic language, a non-Arab must have lived in long and intimate association with people whose daily speech mirrors the genuine spirit of their language, and whose mental processes are similar to those of the Arabs who lived at the time when the Arabic tongue received its final colouring and inner form. In our day, such people are only the bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula, and particularly those of Central and Eastern Arabia.
For, notwithstanding the many dialectical peculiarities in which their speech may differ from the classical Arabic of the Quran, it has remained – so far – very close to the idiom of the Prophet’s time and has preserved all its intrinsic characteristics. In other words, familiarity with the bedouin speech of Central and Eastern Arabia – in addition, of course, to academic knowledge of classical Arabic – is the only way for a non-Arab of our time to achieve an intimate understanding of the diction of the Quran. And because none of the scholars who have previously translated the Quran into European languages has ever fulfilled this prerequisite, their translations have remained but distant, and faulty, echoes of its meaning and spirit.
It is to be noted that under the impact of modern economic circumstances, which have radically changed the time honored way of life of the bedouin and brought them, by means of school education and the radio, into direct contact with the Levantine culture of the cities, the purity of their language is rapidly disappearing and may soon cease to be a living guide to students of the Arabic tongue.