When M.A.S. Abdel Haleem was a youngster in Egypt, all the boys in his school were required to memorize the entire Quran and were tested annually to make sure they maintained this knowledge.
The veteran University of London professor of Islamic studies says he obeys a promise to his father to read the Quran daily and the childhood training means he doesn’t need a printed text. “I can do this anytime, even when I am walking or riding the Underground.”
Haleem has put his lifelong immersion in the Quran and the Arabic language to good use the past seven years, working on a new Quran translation in English that appeared last month: “The Quran” (Oxford University Press).
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Quran, which defines the belief and conduct of a billion-plus Muslims, including a growing number of immigrants in English-speaking nations.
Unlike Christians with their Bibles, Muslims believe the Quran is Scripture only in Arabic because it existed in that form in heaven before it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Only the Arabic is literally God’s word and is always used in Quran quotations during rituals and sermons.
In times past there were debates about whether it was even proper to translate the Scriptures. Early English versions came from non-Muslims (the subtitle of the very first, in 1649, called the Quran “the Turkish vanities”). No Muslim produced an English Quran until the 20th century. But nowadays even strict Muslims promote English editions to aid dawah, Arabic for “call,” meaning missionary work.
Haleem says translations are essential so that Muslims in the West, including his own children and grandchildren, can remain knowledgeable. Georgetown University’s Yvonne Haddad says most immigrants’ children “cannot read the Quran in Arabic. They may recite it, but they don’t understand it.”
As with the Bible, there are numerous English Qurans on the market, though experts say many have limitations.
While most English Qurans retain old-fashioned, King James-style English, Haleem employs 21st century language. A reviewer for Britain’s The Economist said he transformed the Arabic “into a form of modern English which reads easily and flows smoothly without taking liberties with the inviolable text.”
The most widely distributed English Quran —- thanks to Saudi Arabian sponsorship —- is probably the 1934 edition by India’s Abdullah Yusuf Ali, as revised in 1989 at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va. Yusuf Ali’s terminology is notably fusty, for instance in this passage about the day of judgment:
“…(then) shall each soul know what it hath sent forward and (what it hath) kept back. O man! what has seduced thee from thy Lord Most Beneficient (sic)? —- Him Who created thee, fashioned thee in due proportion and gave thee a just bias; in whatever Form He wills does He put thee Together. Nay! but ye do reject Right and Judgment!” (82:5-9).
Compare that with Haleem: “…each soul will know what it has done and what it has left undone. Mankind, what has lured you away from God, your generous Lord who created you, shaped you, proportioned you, in whatever form He chose? Yet you still take the Judgment to be a lie!”
Another modern-language version by Majid Fakhry of the American University of Beirut, “An Interpretation of the Quran” (New York University Press), boasts of approval from Cairo’s authoritative Al-Azhar University. This 2002 book is costly because it includes both the Arabic and English texts, but an inexpensive paperback edition was issued this year.
Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia, who until now has favored a 1955 translation by A. J. Arberry of Cambridge University, hasn’t yet assessed Haleem’s rendition but thinks it’s “potentially very important for non-Muslims as well as Muslims.”
The Quran is cryptic, often requiring addition of parenthetical words that are not in the literal Arabic to explain the meaning. Haleem also inserts “Prophet” in brackets so English readers can distinguish between God’s directives to Muhammad and to people in general. And Haleem says the meaning of words can differ between classical and modern Arabic.
That’s only the beginning of the difficulties. Amila Buturovic of Toronto’s York University says the Quran “is so rich, so complex, that even for Arabists and literary critics it is a phenomenal challenge,” making any translation “highly problematic.”
Yusuf Ali’s edition is especially influential due to its extensive commentary. Sachedina and Haddad say the 1989 edition made unwarranted changes in both Yusuf Ali’s translation and the commentary to reflect the militant Saudi version of Islam.
Unlike Yusuf Ali, Haleem provides only brief introductions to the chapters and limits footnotes to the most essential matters. But his introduction stresses that the Quran must be understood in terms of the context of the words in Muhammad’s own time, for instance on the pressing issue of violence. Examples:
“Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191). Haleem says that meant only that Muslims had the right of self-defense, even if they were being attacked in the holy sanctuary of Mecca.
“Wherever you find the polytheists, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them” (9:5). Haleem says the context shows such action was taken against unbelievers who repeatedly broke treaties and wanted to expel Muslims or force them back into paganism.
“Fight those of the People of the Book who do not (truly) believe in God” (9:29). Haleem says this applied only to Jews and Christians who broke treaties and refused to pay taxes.
Haleem believes that in many instances, both Muslim extremists and outside opponents of Islam have seriously distorted the meaning of God’s revelation.