Academy for Learning Islam

Understanding the Qur’ân, Assignment

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HOLY KORAN* Arthur .John Arberry "There are," says Dr. Johnson, "two objects of curiosity — the Christian world, and the Mahometan world: all the rest may be considered as barbarous." That such is the case, most persons, probably, will admit. Then why is the Koran so much neglected in this country, while we possess a translation of it in our own language, celebrated for its great accuracy, and enriched with an abundance of learned and curious notes? To this it may be answered: — First, the arrangement of its contents perplexes and fatigues the most patient of readers by a real or apparent want of connexion. Secondly, the book abounds with passages unintelligible without explanations which are not given in Sale's version. — Thirdly, to a large class of readers it is a book absolutely prohibited; for, being a code of ritual, moral, civil, and criminal law, as well as a rule of faith, it is unfit for the perusal of a modest female who does not regard it as the word of God." I make no apology for introducing this selection of translated passages from the Qur’ân with the foregoing quotation, which constitutes the opening paragraphs of the preface of a little remembered early work by Edward William Lane, that splendid English Arabist who gave the world such diverse masterpieces as The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, The Thousand and One Nights, and An Arabic-English Lexicon. It happens that Lane's Selections from the Kur'an was published a little over a hundred years ago; to be exact, in 1843. It also happens that when I conceived the idea of writing a book in which I would try to make the study and understanding of the Qur’ân easier for the general English reader, I drew up a sketch of topics and an arrangement of contents which agreed remarkably with the scheme devised by Lane, though it was only after making this preliminary survey that I laid Lane's book, with many others, on my worktable. I mention these small details because they seem to show how little further, relatively speaking, our Western appreciation of the Qur’ân has progressed in all these intervening years, despite the accumulation meanwhile of a weighty bibliography. Though the second of Lane's answers to his own questionnaire has long since become dated by the appearance of several successors to Sale's pioneer translation, first published in 1734, and his third observation is now merely an amusing commentary on a bygone age, his first point is undoubtedly still must pertinent, as all who have ever taken in hand a complete translation of the Koran will have discovered. Lane's Selections, which was subsequently revised and enlarged by his nephew Stanley Lane-Poole, the great numismatist and historian, in 1879, certainly served a most valuable purpose in its time, and may still be read with profit as well as a rather austere pleasure. But the ordinary English reader who may entertain the whimsical notion of looking into the Qur’ân, and applies for advise to his local library, will scarcely be directed to Lane’s Selections, original or revised. The odds are very heavily on his (or, in these less delicate days, her) being recommended to sample E.H. Palmer's
Extracted, by permission, from A.J. Arberry, The Holy Koran: An Introduction with Selections, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953, Ethical and Religious Classics of the East West, no. 9), pp. 5-33.
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towards the end of his remarkable career." he allows himself a strange under-statement." he begins. the crudity of this dogma is tempered.Academy for Learning Islam 2 Understanding the Qur’an.M. the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. "that the harmony of expression which the Arabs find in the Qur’ân contributed not a little to make the early disciples relish the doctrine therein taught. Pickthall's second main point is that the Qur’ân is untranslatable. were not conscientiously and worthily rendered into English by scholars who professed and called themselves Christians. Assignemnt translation. and the nature of that Book. as though the Old Testament. I shall therefore return to it later. and almost all employ a style of language which Muslims at once recognise as unworthy. and think to ask for an English rendering made by a confessing Muslim. Rodwell in Everyman's. "the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. and it would be disgraceful if the pages which follow these initial remarks were not something of an advance on the old master. That is the belief of old-fashioned Sheikhs and the view of the present writer. and that on many counts. it is an invalid argument. and he will get much help from it." he writes. that Hebrew Bible. with implications unsuspected at first sight. But the result is not the Glorious Qur’ân. "The aim of this work. conveniently republished in the World's Classics. which I will abstain from enumerating here. not very convincingly. The Qur’ân cannot be translated. though untravelled in Muslim countries. does not neglect the matter in his "Preliminary Discourse. He was certainly a most earnest convert. or rather the tenet. for all its merits. that the Qur’ân cannot be translated is very ancient in Islam." Here again he touches lightly on a most remarkable fact. The uninitiated reader still needs a guide." "It is probable. though it is not quite an article of faith. Marmaduke Pickthall's Meaning of the Glorious Koran may well be suggested. When he adds that "this is the belief of old-fashioned Sheikhs. "is to present to English readers what Muslims the world over hold to be the meaning of the words of the Qur’ân. or the version of the Rev. Some of the translations include commentation offensive to Muslims. and every orthodox Muslim assents to it. I have already mentioned Marmaduke Pickthall's book. or alternatively one of the several versions made by Indian scholars. and very effort has been made to choose befitting language. The Book is here rendered almost literally. had they been nakedly . the first edition of which appeared in 1930. was after all compiled when Qur'anic studies in Europe were still in their infancy. and one little apprehended in the West. if he wishes and can find it. J. It is a fanatical argument. The first proposition. Should the applicant be of a more adventurous turn of mind." is that it takes a Muslim to translate the Qur’ân honestly. He may try Lane's. because of the bizarre arrangement of the material in the original Arabic. It is a large and interesting idea. somewhat naively put forward as a "reasonable claim. unjust to the integrity of not a few who have laboured honestly in the field of Qur’ânic interpretation. to quote only one example to the contrary. it is an insulting argument. and the little I knew of him I respected and loved. that inimitable symphony. Pickthall refers to the emotive quality of the Qur’ân. unworthy of a serious enquirer." These disingenuous sentences are built around a scaffolding of three main and very interesting ideas. but Lane's Selections. with a view to the requirements of English Muslims. and gave an efficacy to arguments which. in not unworthy language and concisely. with the rider that it is only one example of a universal rule. or rather assertion. Thirdly. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qur’ân — and peradventure something of the charm — the English. Now let us take a different approach. But I will hazard the conjecture that the broad impression will still be one of bewilderment. I knew Pickthall a little. The theory. though to be sure Sale himself so long ago.

"il est le style personnel d'Allah. threats. that several of his opponents thought it the effect of enchantment. "The Koran admittedly occupies an important position among the great religious books of the world." [It is the personal style of All_h. As a book it was published after the prophet's death. To illustrate a third type of approach. lay in the mind which produced it. a kind of wild authoritative proclamation.3 proposed. before the emergence of Pakistan and the Indonesian Republic. Comme le style est l'essence de l'être. at first not a book. whose chief title to fame is that he translated the Arabian Nights into twelve volumes of unexpurgated French. and then proceeded to create the vast politico-religious organisations of the Muhammedan world which are one of the great forces with which Europe and the East have to reckon to-day. Et. Son emprise est encore telle sur les trois cent millions de musulmans du globe. wellexpressed. In Muhammad's life-time there were only disjointed notes. in introducing Rodwell's version to Everyman. into the witness-box. intolerable to the Muslim. a series of admonitions. practically the same as speaking of Muhammad. de fait. en ont subi la fascination.] 1 . it yields to hardly any in the wonderful effect which it has produced on large masses of men. que guère pu produire jusqu'aujourd'hui un seul cas avéré d'apostasie musulmane. in fact. of course. before two great wars shifted the balance of power in the world. without this rhetorical dress. Tant il est vrai que le verbe bien conduit est la seule vraie 1 magie. was the author of the Qur’ân. It has created an all but new phase of human thought and a fresh type of character. which deserves investigation. even the most skeptical writers have experienced its fascination." says this authority on erotic literature.S. But I will content myself for the moment with the voice of Dr. Very extraordinary effects are related of the power of words well chosen and artfully placed. proceeded to develop further this unremarkable idea. This did not keep his hands off the Qur’ân. Margoliouth.-C." It would be possible to quote various instances of this phenomenon. they are words even truer to-day than forty years ago. All of which proves that the word. and in trying to appraise the religious value of the prophet himself. promises. il ne saurait être ici que divin. therefore. in fact. which are no less powerful either to ravish or amaze than music itself. Such was the impression produced on the minds of his audience by Mohammed's recitations of the Koran." Even the appalling banality of these remarks does not diminish the validity of their more serious substance. As style is the essence of being. "The secret of the power exercised by the book. Mardrus. speeches. It was. and incidentally broke up the Ottoman empire into number of now independent Muslim succession-states. is the only true magic. and the retentive memories of those who listened to them. "Though the youngest of the epoch-making works belonging to this class of literature. but a strong living voice. after Lane and Pickthall let us call D." he begins. that eminent polymath. of which he published a volume of translated chapters in 1926. here it can only be divine. who accepted the view that Mohammed the Arabian prophet. It would indeed be difficult to find another case in which there is such a complete identity between the literary work and the mind of the man who produced it. To speak of the Qur’ân is. and instructions addressed to turbulent and largely hostile assemblies of untutored Arabs." These words were written in 1909. J. and not any divine agency. Its influence on the world's three hundred million Muslims is still such that to the present day scarcely a single known case of Muslim apostasy has occurred. les écrivains même les plus sceptiques. wherefore as much has been ascribed by the best orators to this part of rhetoric as to any other. It first transformed a number of heterogeneous desert tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into a nation of heroes. might not have so easily prevailed. "Quant au style du Koran. And. Margoliouth.

is a sufficiently serious charge. "In the earliest period of his preaching. which has been echoed in varying degrees of acerbity by many." Finally. a wearisome. and felt by all. published in 1949. He. but I hope in the course of these pages to demonstrate. If a book comes from the heart. beginning with the first chapter. touched on by Lane as already quoted.R." R. a farrago of long-winded narratives and prosaic exhortations. Carlyle's dictum on the Qur’ân: 'It is a toilsome reading as I ever undertook. often obscure and sometimes preceded by one or more formal oaths. in fact. But years of close study confirm his further judgment that in it 'there is a merit quite other than the literary one. crude. and that in turn at Medina into legislation and topical addresses. For this and other reasons his style gradually loosened out into a simpler but still rhetorical prose. and find but a few passages of genuine enthusiasm to relieve the prevailing dullness. such boldness. frequently descended to deliberate invention and artful rhetoric. the question of literary merit is one not to be judged on a priori grounds but in relation to the genius of the Arabic language. tiresome. in brief. however. "The preposterous arrangement of the Koran. There is the additional difficulty. Assignemnt This. though Margoliouth conceded that "there is a growing opinion among students of religious history that Muhammad may in a real sense be regarded as a prophet of certain truths. now anything from ten to sixty words long." Margoliouth's successor in the Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford. and it is not surprising that Mohammed's opponents should have charged him with being just another such kahin. Gibb. This style is admittedly that of the ancient kahins [or Arabian oracle-mongers]. Professor H. peruse the greater part of the volume. that it is a judgment upon not the Qur’ân itself. One may. indeed. but the inadequate renderings which have been widely canvassed as faithful translations. here is a striking paragraph from R. confused jumble." Even this sop to open-mindedness. incodite. and no man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep-toned instrument with such power. From the first flash of prophetic inspiration which is clearly discernible in the earlier portions of the book he.Academy for Learning Islam 4 Understanding the Qur’an. and as social denunciations and eschatological visions passed into historical narrative. is not allowed to pass without further qualification. uninteresting." Carlyle's stricture. "The method followed by Muhammad in the promulgation of the Qur’ân also requires to be treated with discrimination." It is unnecessary to quote further from Everyman's introduction. though by no means of truth in the absolute meaning of the term. the most recent French interpreter of the Qur’ân. is the contention that Mohammed consciously composed the elements collected by his followers and issued them as a deliberate fraud. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any impression of any reader. to round off this brief anthology of Western comment. accommodated his moral sense to the circumstances in which the role he had to play involved him. Nicholson remarked in his Literary History of the Arabs. "Mohammed's utterances were delivered in a nervous oracular style cast into short rhymed phrases." he writes in his Mohammedanism. also takes the view that Mohammed was the author of the Qur’ân.A. whose first volume of three was . "is mainly responsible for the opinion almost unanimously held by European readers that it is obscure. all art and authorcraft are of small account to that. it will contrive to reach other hearts. later on.' Though to be sure.A. and such range of emotional effect as Mohammed did. Blachère. little was left of its original stylistic features but a loose rhyme or assonance marking the end of each verse. quite unworthy to be named in the same breath with the Prophetical Books of the Old Testament. so far as demonstration is possible. enough has been reproduced to explain why Pickthall should have animadverted on "commentation offensive to Muslims.

is a book of comparatively modest size — just 500 pages in the Everyman edition of Rodwell's version — consisting of 114 chapters called Suras of extremely variable length. in the year 651 A. and the bosoms of men." "As toilsome reading as I ever undertook. a favourite prayer of the Prophet's being prefixed. Othman's predecessor Abu Bakr. incondite. confused jumble. This arrangement paid no heed to the chronology of the revelations. par ces thèmes de prédication. be explained but by the intrinsic quality of the Qur'anic Word? Even the European listener. n'offraient plus l'attrait de la nouveauté? Cette émotion. and it is obviously no easy task. is reported to have commissioned a similar enterprise in 633 A. chez les fidèles. the pictures of the Last Judgement. or at least of those who were not blinded by hatred?"] 2 . this "poetic state". The Qur’ân as it comes to the modern reader in the original Arabic. these chapters are divided into verses.D. and several others made by various immediate disciples and relatives of the Prophet. Attempts have been made by modern European scholars. concerning which unanimity has by no means been reached. that Mohammed at widely varying times. nearly twenty years after Mohammed's death. Rodwell's version is a conservative and comparatively cautious adaptation of Nöldeke's theories. It is generally accepted. unacquainted with Arabic is sensitive responsive to the recitation of certain s_ras. the admonitions. crude. only not so long. A quoi était dû l'émotion esthétique provoquée. leafless palm-branches.. This arrangement however dates not from the Prophet's lifetime. The first outward appearance is therefore calculated to persuade the reader that he has in hand a book regularly composed and methodically ordered. and in the great majority of translations. thin white stones.. In the Vulgate the general procedure is to arrange the Suras roughly in order of their length. as Valéry would say. following the notable lead of Theodor Nöldeke. that inimitable symphony. and seeks to put it together again. Some translations reflect the results of these researches. these edifying legends many of which no longer offered. comment les expliquer sinon par la qualité intrinsèque du verbe coranique? Même l'auditeur européen ignorant l'arabe est sensible à la récitation de certaines sourates. Que penser des contemporains de Mahomet. ces admonestations. but is due to a recension undertaken at the order of Othman. the translation of Richard Bell takes the whole book to pieces section by section and verse by verse. ces légendes édifiantes dont beaucoup." How is one to reconcile the verdict of believing Pickthall with that of infidel but not unsympathetic Carlyle? Such. il est difficile de se représenter l'enthousiasme soulevé par la prédication coranique. pour certains. What are we to think of Muhammad's contemporaries. cet `état poétique. R. What was it that caused the aesthetic emotion provoked in the faithful by the themes of preaching. ["For a Westerner more or less impregnated with Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian influences. the attraction of novelty? How can this emotion. the third caliph of Islam. "Pour un Occidental plus ou moins imprégné de culture gréco-latine et d'influences judéo-chrétiennes.' comme dirait Valéry. is the task which I have set myself in this book." This earliest edition. perished when Othman's Vulgate was propagated. the first caliph.D. for some. a wearisome. to reconstruct the original order in which the different revelations were received. in very brief. something like the Old Testament. though modern researchers claim to have recovered considerable information about the contents of the lost codices. the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. and the Arab historians speak of his collection being made "from bits of parchment. even by early Muslim writers. and the verses are usually numbered. tout au moins de ceux que n'aveuglait point la haine?"2 "The Glorious Koran. ces peintures du Jugement Dernier. it is difficult to imagine the enthusiasm aroused by Qur'anic preaching. beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest.5 published at Paris in 1947. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.

Thereafter the revelations succeeded each other at regular intervals. it was felt that the authentic text had an excellent chance of being preserved intact and unadulterated. Assignemnt Blachère has done almost the same thing. It has been frequently observed by European scholars that there is a marked change. the Arabs were already long accustomed to hand on their profane literature. It has long been debated whether Mohammed was able to read and write. eternal and uncreated. if not certain that all the revelation received by Mohammed were spoken by him in the first instance. I now turn to a preliminary discussion of the literary style of the Qur’ân.") After an interval of silence the Prophet was summoned a second time." As indicated in some of the quotations reproduced above. and continued through all the vicissitudes of his heroic career until almost the end of his life. though not so drastically. committed in Arabic to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel. the poetry of desert and town. was the brief "Victory. and it is implied that this change is a deterioration. by defect of eye and hand. to "recite" the divine message to be entrusted to him. the orthography available to him would have differed considerably from that in which Arabic came to be written later on. but to the Muslim this is a serious and sacred matter. as many Arab scholars would contend. and wholly remembered by his immediate disciples. the last. more reliable method of transmitting the sacred text in those remote times was by word of mouth. and they were unquestioningly felt to be reliable. The parts of the Book received by the Prophet during the first years of his apostleship are characterised by short sentences with frequent rhymes. and if so.Academy for Learning Islam 6 Understanding the Qur’an. or very nearly the last. and the balance of probabilities now seems to incline towards a positive answer to this obscure question. the occurrence of strange oaths and mysterious words. by memory. If he was in fact able to write. and rarely affect to a dramatic degree the moaning of the received text. received under conditions very like what is called trance. and the nature of his commission was slightly more defined. according to the consensus of Muslim authorities. the talented and conscientious rhapsode would not err. But the catastrophic confusion which might have been supposed reasonably enough to result from these circumstances was actually almost completely avoided by the remarkable and exceedingly important fact that the principal and. in similar circumstances. but these are in large part comparatively unimportant. this was a simple command to Mohammed. the scribe could slip. (The literal meaning of Qur’ân is "recitation. "le style personnel d'Allah" in Mardrus' unparalleled parlance. he would have lacked the devices subsequently invented to indicate the short vowels. and we know that many of their most esteemed ancient poets were what is nowadays miscalled illiterate. was the short piece entitled "The First Call" in the present selection. The spoken word did not have to depend upon a defective orthography for its accurate transmission. and have been preserved in considerable numbers. for Islamic orthodoxy believes the Qur’ân to be literally the Speech of God. Attention . and to distinguish from each other certain letters of identical shape. It is extremely likely. Having no laborious penmanship to intervene between the original composition and its ever-widening audience. The selection contained in this volume is representative of the first two of these three classes. the contents of these messages to mankind ranged from earnest exhortation to flee the wrath to come. in the style of the later revelations as compared with that of the earlier Suras. through narrations of the careers of former prophets. The earliest revelation. Variants certainly existed. to religious and legal prescriptions for the organisation of the believer's life and the society of the faithful. and a general atmosphere of tension and the supernatural. whether he himself inscribed any part of the revelations which make up the Qur’ân. Their memories were at Othman's disposal when the Vulgate came to be established. but leaves aside the third.

Jonah. Job. the "Biblical" style of the popular translations does not furnish exactly a corrective. even Rodwell's rendering is. The misapprehension is natural enough. although this quantitative analysis is certainly most pertinent. No. has not been sufficiently advised how to read the Qur’ân. to my taste at all events. The root of the trouble is that the ordinary reader. In the first place. namely the rhyme-endings which run through the text like a bright ribbon. Carlyle's disgust with the Qur’ân is so dramatically at variance with Pickthall's enchantment. quite apart from his natural horror at the suggestion that he himself was the author of the message which he sincerely believed to be divine. that we need to search somewhat carefully for an adequate explanation of this varied reception of one and the same book. and that the element of stress also played an important part in heightening the excitation of the discourse. when the first casual glance picks out the names of Adam. Rhyme and assonance are characteristic of oracular utterances. It was not without good cause that Mohammed protested vigorously against the accusation of being a poet. it does not give by any means a complete picture of the situation. and to render the phraseology more memorable. Sale and Palmer were talented writers. Joseph. From mechanics we turn to appreciation.It is interesting to think of these rhythms in terms of drumming. as in the manner of reading the translation. there can hardly be any other book in the literature of mankind about the merits of which such completely divergent opinions have been so earnestly and responsibly expressed. he would realise like any true Arab the further insulting implication that he was a bad poet. and can in the main only conjecture from modern practice. the fault lies not so much in the manner of translation. When the rhythms of the Qur’ân have been analysed. The original intention seems to be twofold: to impress the hearer with a sense of finality and inevitability. he opens . and Pickthall's enchantment is so typical of the experience of countless millions of believers down the centuries. Abraham.7 has been called to the rhythmical nature of these utterances. because judged as poetry his utterances broke all the rules of metre and form. the reader makes the fatal mistake of trying to take in too much at once. Solomon. It is hazardous to press this point too far. and not only in Arabic. David. using poetry. and it has been suggested that the productions of Mohammed's later life are less emotional and correspondingly less emotive. when this is admitted and discounted. Moses. but it gratifies that urgent instinct for sound repetition which lies at the roots of rhymed verse. they have been analysed quantitatively. and it might be profitable to consider how far the excitative properties of the Qur’ân correspond with emotional effects of drum-rhythms.. is any superior as reading matter. following the rules for scanning Arabic poetry. more tolerable. gathering together the scattered discourse. because we know very little for certain about how Arabic was enunciated so long ago. Let it be allowed that faith moves mountains. they are also a distinguishing feature of proverb and oratory. It is now appropriate to say something on the second rhetorical peculiarity of the original. Bad translation is not the whole of the story by any means. It may be that the dramatic quality of these utterances was greatly augmented by the conflict between quantitative and accentual stress. Now I propose that. Misled by these early impressions. the Western reader must get rid of the assumption that the Qur’ân is more or less like the Old Testament. which however varies considerably form region to region. only the looseness of the rhythms prevents it from being definable as poetry in its own old-fashioned right.. and for that matter the extraordinary reader as well. and not only in Arabic. "A stitch in time saves nine" we say. and that unbelief chills ardour. It cannot be said that Pickthall's version for all that it was the work of a Muslim and had the blessing of the Azhar. In fact the Qur’ân has not been unlucky in its English translators.

Academy for Learning Islam 8 Understanding the Qur’an. one has as much and as little cause to scold the entire race of painters when. whose chronological rearrangement. the sustained eloquence of Psalms or Isaiah. It is ancient Muslim doctrine that the Qur’ân is untranslatable. the Crucifixion. though not perfect. and the emotive and evocative qualities of the original disappear almost totally in the skilfullest translation. incondite. and will not be satisfied by the part such as the present selections offer. in his impatient misunderstanding of the Qur’ân. crude. having persevered to read the book form end to end. That is in a sense a corollary . and dozens of representations of the Annunciation. and when he comes to the polemic and the legislation he is readier to receive and understand them. he will do well to make his first essay with Rodwell. or that his appreciation and comprehension of it resemble in the least the appreciation and comprehension of the faithful. but only gains in clarity and convincingness at every repetition." So might a savage speak. he compares it unfavourably with what he has known since childhood. He now follows step by step the gradual unfolding of the full prophetic powers. in his ignorant inappreciation of the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Raphael and Titian. He will become gradually familiar with the Qur'an's claim to be a confirmation of earlier Scriptures. so did a savage write. equal in all its parts. the believer does not need to read it. in the sense that a Muslim knows it. and orthodoxy has always maintained it is. To the Muslim the Qur’ân is what Mohammed felt it to be. he finishes his first Sura. and is lulled into un-suspicion by the familiar lay-out of chapter and verse. for the Qur’ân is God's revelation in Arabic. because he is screened form it by the double veil of a printed page and a foreign idiom. the beginning of a Sura. reads the text. he will progress through the apocalyptic visions of the Dies Irae. inconsequence and incomprehensibility are not felt to arise. He. a foreign idiom. an eternal Arabic expression of God's final message to mankind. and that whereas he. Truth cannot be dimmed by being frequently stated. the Temptation. and that little deserves and needs meditation. one finds oneself surrounded by dozens of representations of the Madonna and Child. Yes. and goes on to several more. the Resurrection. like the poetry which it resembles in so many ways. When appreciation rests upon these foundations. having it securely in his heart. being in a great picture gallery. Assignemnt at a likely place. that he now knows it. Having no clue to the Qur’ân’s own excellences. and where all is true. He should be stopped from such a presumption by reflecting that the good Muslim has committed the whole Qur’ân to memory during his early years. confused jumble. To use a false analogy. its parts being equal to its whole. He will not suppose. If the reader is ambitious to peruse the whole. the uninitiated enquirer. he is bewildered by the rapid and seemingly illogical change of subject. will always be denied participation in the believer's joy. He will observe how the Qur’ân assumes a knowledge of the contents of those Scriptures. he misses the homely straightforwardness of Kings and Samuel. one has as much and as little cause to dismiss the whole exhibition as "a wearisome. After the earliest hesitating half-coherencies. however strenuous and sincere his purpose. gives a fair enough idea of the order in which the revelations were received by Mohammed. the unbeliever. and he quickly wearies of the frequent repetitions of themes and formulas. and only later expands the individual narratives into something like connected stories. The Qur’ân. one whole and indivisible divine book. but one which approaches nearer to reality than the canons Carlyle and those of his way of thinking are pleased to employ. the charges of wearisome repetition and jumbled confusion become meaningless. and is now ready to concur with Carlyle. is best sampled a little at a time.

yet see what he did when he tried to mimic the rhymes of the Qur’ân. The King of the day of Fate." the challenge was taken up during Mohammed's lifetime. and it is recited at the beginning of all public ceremonies and private occasions in the Islamic world. In making the present selection I have planned the material under a number of heads. Of course it is true in a general sense that nothing can be adequately translated from one language into another. to the Abyss he shall descend. as in his version of Sura CI. and realised how utterly impossible it would be to communicate the flavour of those bantering remarks to another not familiar with French! Having spent many years in studying the problems of translation. Not those on whom is hate. and the . despite its brevity. if Arabic could and can never again be spoken as it was spoken in the Qur’ân. I do not think if the Qur’ân had spoken like that. the language is highly idiomatic. among them eminent authors. How frequently one has read even a paragraph in a French newspaper. The first section represents the Qur’ânic teaching on God. R. I begin with Sura I. Nor they that deviate. His attributes.9 of the proposition. certainly the Arabic of the Qur’ân defies adequate translation. if it possesses the slightest artistic merit and emotional appeal. What that is. even older. no piece of fine writing has ever been done full justice to in any translation. Amen. Guide us to the path that is straight— The path of those to whom they love is great. a pleasing life he shall spend." not because it is by any means among the earliest revelations. that the Qur’ân is an inimitable miracle. it has its own extremely individual qualities. within my own experience. The Qur’ân undeniably abounds in fine writing. yet for the most part delusively simple. I know all too well that. The Qur’ân in many passages challenges its disbelieving critics to "produce any other Sura the like of it. One whose Scales are heavy. In the Name of Allah. who the three worlds made. and these are indeed inimitable. it therefore seems to me most suitable for opening the selection. The Smiting! What is the Smiting? And how shalt thou be made to understand what is the Smiting? The Day when Men shall be as flies scattered. The Merciful. His unity.A. and none would charge him with deficiency of literary appreciation. the Compassionate! Praise be to Allah. and the surviving specimens of emulation do nothing to undermine the Qur'an's claim to inimitability. but it stands first in the Qur’ân. and of thee alone do we ask aid. the rhythms and rhymes are inseparable features of its impressive eloquence. neither do the crude parodies put out by later writers. how shalt thou be made to comprehend? Scorching Fire without end! Burton of the Arabian Nights was scarcely more successful in his rendering of Sura I. who feigned to rival the unique beauty of the Muslim Scriptures. it would have shaken the world. the Merciful. "The Opening Prayer. And the Mountains shall be as shreds of wool tattered. Nicholson was as experienced a translator of Arabic as the English world has produced. an ironic. Thee alone do we worship. But one whose Scales are light. the Compassionate. half-amusing comment upon a passing event.

"The Bounties of God. or rather a few of those parts of the Qur’ân which recount the experiences of earlier prophets. and also. by varying the indention of the lines. This explains. the new dispensation. and give scope to the ingenuity of European interpreters." in which the reader has his first taste of Qur’ânic narrative. "The Clatterer. the most moving and dramatic of the entire book. In dealing with such passages I have as always preferred to follow traditional Muslim opinion rather than modern infidel conjecture. introduces a selection of the eschatological Suras. would usher in a golden and incorruptible age of perfect attunement to God's purpose. whose shattering impact upon their auditors has been testified to in many a story. It is in this series that we find the greatest number of strange or ambiguous words. dictates to the translator to no small extent how he shall go to work. and my personal view is that it has been much exaggerated. a feature not infrequently found in the Qur’ân. the Arabs became the first people in history to be fully aware of the life and death of civilisations. The second group collects together some of the personal experiences of the prophet. introduces him to the refrain. Mohammed felt intensely his position as a member of the great company of God's chosen messengers. Similarly. my purpose in this book being to illustrate the meaning which the Qur’ân holds for the faithful down the ages. being aware of its inappropriateness especially when taken to excess.Academy for Learning Islam 10 Understanding the Qur’an. Though aware that there is a considerable subjective element about this interpretation. and was able to comprehend the whole history of God's business with man as being present and re-enacted simultaneously in his own life. for example Sura LVI "The Terror. in some instances for the first time. being Semitic speech like the Hebrew Testament. whose elucidation has exercised the commentators from earliest times. and for like reasons." instead of reflecting European theory that sees them as patchwork compositions made up of fragments revealed at different times. Whatever the truth of this theory may be. Though I would willingly get away as far as possible from "Biblical" style. We do well moreover to remind ourselves that the Qur’ân was revealed at a time when the Greek and Roman civilisations were plainly dead. in actual fact the Arabic original. Thanks to the teaching of the Qur’ân. The third and longest section comprises those parts. to suggest the patterns of thought and expression. something of the artistry of the Qur’ânic rhetoric. rebellion against the divine will and arrogant forgetfulness of man's place in the universe. and there is also no doubt that the English mind has during these centuries become so conditioned as to what constitutes the religious style. and all is recalled by the least passing reference to the part. I have chosen to present Suras as complete wholes." Sura CI. in making the translations I have endeavoured to indicate something of the rhythmic qualities of the original. I feel confident to have demonstrated. by avoiding the fatal errors of the past. that was by definition nothing new but rather the restatement of what was always true. When the Qur’ân relates the story of Abraham or Moses or Joseph. and to have sketched the broad lines on which a fuller investigation could be conducted. and others silently taken for granted." Sura LV. why certain incidents only are mentioned. This section terminates with "The Creation of Man. what is otherwise puzzling to the European reader. that one appears more eccentric in writing deliberately otherwise than by . In making these translations I have experimented very freely with various possibilities of treatment. and Judaism and Christianity appeared to be defeated faiths. from literal unemotional prose to different sorts of stress verse. it is without significance when one seeks to understand how believers have been affected by the traditional text they hold in so high reverence. Assignemnt evidences of His existence to be seen in nature. and only lost through human failing. all is familiar. the intention is not to tell a new tale but to recall familiar histories. and offers fine examples of rhetorical artistry.

" though near-contemporary monumental evidence gives us a fair idea. We cannot say for certain what kind of characters those were in which the sacred text was first committed to "bits of parchment. gradually becoming more rounded and supple. in spite of the psychologists. if the public interest provoked by this tentative essay should prove sufficiently encouraging. that I am no Muslim. for his obiter dicta have been preserved in great abundance. These extremely ancient documents. not what it suggests to the clinical mind of the infidel. to transcribe the Qur’ân as beautifully as they knew how. I have not written this book for them. that whereas the faithful claim the source of the Prophet's inspiration to be divine. I confess myself unable to say what might have been its origin. to mark the . and are naturally content to leave it at that. as Margoliouth said. We know quite well how Mohammed spoke in his normal. as was Shakespeare or Raphael or Bach. and am equally content not to guess at it. the sayings of Mohammed recorded in the books of Traditions as substantially authentic. believing where they cannot prove. I would later attempt a complete translation of the Qur’ân. It is therefore only on this point that I find myself standing apart from the faithful. I will not conceal from them. they are devoid of ornament. taking the form of gold bands of illumination stretched between the end of one Sura and the beginning of the next. leafless palm-branches. The faithful have delighted in all ages. what they will not in any case imagine. they may be assured that I am not ignorant of the ingenious literature that has gathered around Qur’ânic studies in the West. until these days when penmanship is almost as neglected in the East as in the West. which as an ornamental script beautifies the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and early Muslim coins. thin white stones. To scholars I would say this. in that it bears all the marks of being the discourse of exaltation. it would be more reasonable to say that it would be difficult to find another case in which the literary expression of a man differed so fundamentally from his ordinary speech. as Margoliouth supposed. this being so. nor could ever be. As the eighth century wore on. Our earliest copies of the Qur’ân are all written in varieties of the stiff Kufic hand. to use the undefining definition of creative activity commonly employed in discussing great artists. yet I have endeavoured to be fair. everyday moods. It is simply untrue therefore to say. as their advice would greatly assist the more ambitious project. so it seems. It may be that. As for the faithful. and supposing. I make appeal to my readers to communicate to me freely and frankly their reactions to the different methods I have employed. whatever that phrase may mean. by making the effort always to approach and apprehend these Scriptures as if I believed them to be divinely inspired. Mohammed certainly had moments when his controlled consciousness was submerged by that curious phenomenon called possession or inspiration.11 conceding at least a minimal obedience to tradition. that "it would be difficult to find another case in which there is such a complete identity between the literary work and the mind of the man who produced it. are in that primitive period always of vellum. the first decoration began to creep in. Thereafter various marginal ornaments were introduced. and if they are shocked by my inattention to the Higher Criticism. as we have good reason to accept. in those moments he was as much an original genius. dating back to the end of the seventh century onwards. that the Qur’ân was Mohammed's conscious production. only here I am trying to show what the Qur’ân means to the unquestioning soul of the believer. Pickthall's definition would therefore exclude me from being a fair interpreter." Accepting. and rely for their splendour — and they are indeed splendid — upon the symmetry and majesty of the writing. and their width is greater than their height. for I do not doubt at all that the Qur’ân was a supernatural production. Whatever that phrase may mean. not only philologically but also imaginatively.

the eighth. the parts of the thirtieth. Meanwhile the Kufic script began to give way to the more fluent naskh. the end of every single verse. the thirtieth. This is the Book which to-day is accepted by nearly four hundred million human beings as containing the Creator's final message to mankind. It is a most moving experience to inspect a large collection of fine copies of the Qur’ân. and will as obviously continue to be extremely great. the vowels. can afford to regard lightly. and to see how century after century the faithful in all parts of Islam devoted their skill and their substance to the fitting commemoration of God's Word. it becomes usual to contain the whole codex between end papers in full illumination. the Book that is called the Qur’ân. As the panels between the Suras increase in complexity and refinement. or in Mr. Assignemnt divisions of the Qur’ân as presently devised. No man seeking to live in the same world as Islam. the quarter. the third. vast power. the sixth. and the opening and closing pages of the text are brilliantly ornamented. I hope and trust. the twelfth. and further orthographical devices were invented to facilitate recitation. or to judge ignorantly. The Qur’ân was the prime inspiration of a religious movement which gave rise to a civilisation of wide extent. the tenth. Qur’âns of breathtaking beauty are created by superb artists working for the glory of God and the satisfaction of wealthy and pious patrons. and profound vitality. . It is among the greatest monuments of mankind. the majestically flowing river is joined here and there by tributaries running into it from neighbouring civilisations. and. such as that assembled in the exhibition hall of the Egyptian National Library. the binders vie in skill with the penmen and the illuminators. every tenth verse. in all humility. Its influence on the course of history has obviously been immense. but it remains to this day the same river as that which welled up thirteen and a half centuries ago in the dry land of Arabia. that this introduction will contribute a little towards that end. and to understand the affairs of Islam. acquired other symbols. the fifth. formerly marked by red dots above. in or under the bearing consonants. the half. within the written area itself. Chester Beatty's private museum in Dublin.Academy for Learning Islam 12 Understanding the Qur’an. every fifth verse. It surely deserves and demands to be more widely known and better comprehended in the West. The literatures and fine arts of all the Muslim peoples spring from this fountainhead.