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Friday, March 27, 2009

A Holy Conundrum

In Reading the Qur’an with Dr. Michael Sells - a column that appeared, albeit briefly, on the ICJS Website which I have visited off-and-on since 2002 - I came across this:

Participants were given two different English-language translations of the same Qur’anic passages. The Gracious Qur’an of Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad, a scholar with credentials from both Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University and the University of Chicago, served as a "fairly neutral" contrast to the more blatantly ideological Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language, the work of two professors at the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
Hammad's rendering of verses 1:6-7 -- "Guide us along the straight way -- the way of those upon whom You have bestowed grace, not those upon whom there is wrath, nor those astray" -- was more or less mirrored in the Saudi version, except for the insertion of two parenthetical clarifications: "those who have earned Your anger (such as the Jews), nor those who went astray (such as the Christians)."
Verse 2:62, which stood in Hammad as a statement of tolerance for other monotheistic religions ("whoever among them truly believes in God ... shall have their reward with their Lord"), was similarly clarified in the Saudi translation with a more stringent reading: "This Verse (and Verse 5:69) mentioned in the Qur’an should not be misinterpreted by the reader ... the provision of this verse was abrogated by the Verse 3:85: ‘And whosoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.’" "The Saudi translation", Sells said, "was fairly unique in the degree to which it attempted to shape the reader's understanding of the text with insertions. But it has enjoyed great popularity over the past decades, owing to free world-wide distribution by the Saudi government."
Dr. Sells, as many of you may know, has authored among the comparatively few books about Islam and Muslims that come out of the West and are sympathetic to the topics. He is also a popular speaker and guest-writer at many fora. His book - Approaching the Quran - was at the center of a debate when it was assigned as a reading for students at the University of North Carolina. While mentioning the book, I'd like to point readers to some excerpts from it on a Quaker website. I'd also be grateful if someone could let me have links to a similar site, by Muslims, that speaks of works considered holy by other religions in the same respectful and explanatory manner. Ordinarily, I'd have paid no great attention to the sentence I have highlighted in red, above, except that the very next day I came across the words 'abrogation' and 'cancellation' also being used in the not-so-startling BBC: Dispatches documentaries. In these, too, they reference the same edition of the Qurãn (an Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation, but with modifications), that is distributed worldwide by the SA establishment. The Doctrine of Abrogation applied to a 'Divine Revelation', by its own followers, seems - at least to my uneducated mind - a strange one. However, in various forms, it has been part of the Muslim view. While some reject such a concept, others quote the holy book, itself, as the source of such a belief. To this end, they cite Surah 2:106: "None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?" Whatever the meaning of the above-quoted verse - and it has been subject to a variety of interpretations and much debate - a translation license surely does not extend to justifying the addition of brackets for adding one's own slants and biases to the meaning. I would have expected that translators and interpreters of all works, but especially when playing with such a sensitive subject or with words they believe to be of divine origin, would confine their personal comments to the margins and footnotes.

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Blogger Sidhusaaheb said...

Why do humans love so much to hate those who are different from their own selves that they even use religion, which is supposed to promote nothing except love (for God and for their fellow beings), to promote hatred?

27 March, 2009 22:30

Blogger Fawad Zakariya said...

Zak, other than agreeing fully with your conclusion I don't have much else to say but your post reminded me of something else. Professor Michael Sells was a professor of religion at Haverford when I was an undergraduate there. Even though I did not take a class with him I attended a few of his lectures and chatted briefly with him on some occassions intrigued by a Westerner's sympathetic view of Islam and Muslims. Interestingly, he was frequently asked by Muslims if he had converted to Islam but he always refused to discuss his own faith and chose to emphasize the beauty in all religious traditions.

27 March, 2009 22:48

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@fawad zakariya
re your last line: boy, must he have had a hard time :D

28 March, 2009 11:51

Blogger Fawad Zakariya said...

Zak, I agree but that's why he is a scholar. These guys can perform miracles with their learning:)

I was always interested in his talks because his real passion was the Arabic poetic tradition including scholarship on pre-Islamic Arabic verse whose influence on Islam was something I was completely unware of.

28 March, 2009 23:38

Blogger Neena said...

Another subject which is misquoted by Islamic scholars is about wife beating and women treatment in Islam. Here is another acceptable take at it by American Scholar.

30 March, 2009 04:36

Anonymous Citizen X said...

Q6:151 Say: Bring your witnesses who bear witness that ALLAH forbade this. If they bear witness, then do not you bear witness with them. And follow not the low desires of those who reject Our messages and those who do not keep faith with the Hereafter, and they make equal with their Lord.

Do you recall "Ya Rasulullah, they do not worship them." He said "They certainly do. They make lawful what is unlawful and they make unlawful what is lawful and they follow them in that, and in doing that, they worship them."

ALLAH has not appointed anyone to make Law. He, and He Alone, makes Law, and the prophets call people to obedience to that Law, they do not themselves make any Law.

'Ulemaa certainly do not make any Law, and when some falsify or add to the Law, following them in that is worshipping them.


30 March, 2009 16:24

Anonymous Vic said...

I do not at all consider myself a student of religion, although listening to you describe some of the history is fascinating.

Still, I do know that the Bible, for instance, is a collection of writings gathered over the centuries, some historical and others allegorical, but all mostly written in languages that are pretty well dead and lost, or only 'recovered' by diligent scholarship.

The collections themselves are the work of theologists, and quite evidently arrived at over passionate and contentious debate, depending on which religion they professed, and within that, which sect they preferred.

Today, religious enthusiasts make a big deal of the fact that the people of those times had a written Book, imbuing it with a tinge of mysticism by attributing its source to revelations. Be that as it may, the forms in which it is known today are the result of multiple translations over time, and the differences often relate to the effect of those translations.

Most languages do not lend themselves to literal translations into others, and it is hard to accept that the Bible stories were not once recorded in metre and rhyme, something almost totally missing in modern English versions. What other distortions may have taken place?

Peter Hoeg's masterpiece of the icy North mentions that there are 35 or so different words to describe 'snow' (warning: I have also read that this is itself not exactly right) in Greenlandic Inuit. No English translation can capture the full meaning of the text and preserve the flow of language as the original, obviously, when the fast-moving text must also be picaresque.

In the Quaker site link you provided, Sells comments on the use of the word 'sirat', one of the many Arabic words that the English word 'path' reprises. As one of the previous commenters here points out, different translators (perhaps 'interpreters' is more accurate) have conflicting views on the exact words used in several Suras, hardly surprising, of course, but the very differences have been occasion for deep unhappiness.

Quel dommage!

01 April, 2009 09:35

Anonymous rahmat masih said...

@citizen x
stand up and identify yourself if you really believe what you wrote. why hide behind a false id?

huh? (sounds colemanballsish)

01 April, 2009 22:47

Anonymous Vic said...

@rahmat: which one exactly? or do you mean every sentence?

02 April, 2009 08:00

Anonymous Vic said...

@rahmat: I sought but to cast light (Coleman Lantern) but seemingly have struck pay dirt instead (Coleman Balls).

03 April, 2009 12:47


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