Can a ‘universal’ Quran be lost in translation?


Zurairi AR, Malay Mail Online

Since its publication in November last year, an English translation of the Quran called The Study Quran has allegedly caused a stir among ultra-conservative Salafists for its wide-ranging interpretation of the holy book, or so American site The Daily Beast reported.

The translation was said to provide rich commentary drawn on various interpretations that allegedly have never before been available in English, including according to author Mobeen Vaid, even from the mystic sect of Sufism, to the rebel defectors Khairijites.

As such, it was seen as rejecting the orthodox translations and interpretations of the Quran that was perhaps influenced by the Saudi-backed export of Salafism, including the widely-read Hilali-Khan version officially sanctioned by the Islamic superpower.

It is no wonder then that the The Study Quran is being panned by some scholars, including British Abu Eesa Niamatullah, who advised his nearly 200,000 followers on Facebook to “avoid it like the plague.”

“It doesn’t just have mistakes, it’s actually dangerous,” Abu Eesa warned. His preferred translation? “Mainstream and safe” translations such as Sahih International by three American converts that was published by a Saudi publishing house; and one by British editor of the Journal of Quranic Studies, Muhammad AS Abdel Haleem.

It has however been argued that previous interpretations of the Quran, especially Hilali-Khan, have been responsible for the current strain of Islam that is hostile and combative to adherents of other religions, and espouses a spread of Islamisation and Islamism.

Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa of local group Islamic Renaissance Front, argued in a forum on December 2014 that the Hilali-Khan translation nurtured Muslims to treat non-believers as second-class citizens and see them as not equals, through the interpreters’ insertion of a Salafi worldview.

The Study Quran was also found controversial for omitting the original Arabic text in its already thick translation.

In Islamic theology, it is believed the Quran was a miracle revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). And with the prophet himself being an Arab, the revelation is said to have been made specifically in the Arabic language.

This led to the Quran being seen as exclusively Arabic in nature, with translations into other languages seen to be “diluting” its divinity. In essence this suggests that the Quran is God’s words itself, and God spoke Arabic.

We can see this same reasoning manifesting itself in Malaysia, where the above theological argument was even gazetted into laws.

The Home Ministry warned last week it is a crime to publish and recite the Quran in a language other than Arabic, and a crime to publish translations without the accompanying Arabic text.

It is preposterous that the Home Ministry has a dedicated Quran Printing, Control and Licensing Board that spends its resources regulating a holy book. In addition, its minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced on Tuesday the formation of the Hadith Assessment and Review Committee, which will be tasked with “protecting the authenticity of the hadith.”

Why are we channelling the country’s resources so the civil service can play at being theologians? What business does a government have with the paltry affair of holy scriptures?

In an ironic twist, the warning had come in response to the “Let’s Read the Quran” (LRTQ) programme, which as the name suggests, is actually urging people of all faiths to, well, read the Quran — and ultimately understand it through a language that they are most familiar with.

It is a common belief that for a Muslim to be rewarded for good deeds, it is enough for him to recite the Quran, without even understanding it. The reward of course applies only to the original Arabic text, and does not count when the Quran is a “mere” translation.

This is of course, problematic, like any usual show of blind faith. It is a common source of pride for many Muslim parents for their children to finish reciting the whole 114 chapters of Quran — called “khatam” — even when they understood nought of it.

For example, a piece in Sinar Harian on Wednesday reported a 14-year-old boy in Batu Pahat suffered from a spinal illness, and therefore was unable to attend school.  Parit Yaani assemblyman Aminolhuda Hassan who visited him then remarked that he was “amazed” that despite the boy not finishing school, he had “khatam” the Quran, as if the latter was a more significant achievement.

LRTQ claimed it aims to remedy this simplistic view, pointing out there is a greater reward to read the Quran and understand it, and even greater if a Muslim practises what he has learnt from the book.

Despite all that, one wonders why the need for the original text to come with the translations? After all, the original Quran itself can easily be found in bookstores, if not mosques. And failing that, there is always

Therein lies the paradox of the holy book, itself allegedly orally revealed over a period of around 23 years to the illiterate prophet, and widely believed to have been compiled and canonised from memory only decades after his death: can a book purporting a universal message only be understood fully by those who fathom the Arabic language?

And how do adherents square off Quranic verses said to espouse bloodshed and bigotry, especially against non-believers and disbelievers, and misogyny?

Was it a simple case of misinterpreting what was said in the book? The Study Quran, for one, believes so, providing alternative interpretations to controversial verses. But this has led to critics accusing its editor and authors of being apologists whitewashing Islamic tenets.

Perhaps the original Quran really “meant what it said.” Perhaps modern Islamic scholars who try to reinterpret age-old scriptures to suit the times are merely that — revisionists.

While some can be honest with themselves, and inevitably reject the doctrine, it is unlikely that Islam will go away soon. And for the millions of adherents in the world who cannot survive without faith, they would need something to hold on to that is more relevant with the moral and progressive values of the current century.

But it is undeniable that there is a need for a moral compass that is opposite of the Islam professed by violent extremists; if it takes revisionism to reform Islam for the modern ages, then so be it.