In the Muslim world, great pride is taken in the fact, and on the insistence of scholars, that the original version of the Qur’an, compiled during the reign of Caliph Uthman, is still intact and uncorrupted today.
While standard practice maintains that recitation of the Qur’an is only authentic if you recite it in Arabic (Qur’anic Arabic is also different from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is more common among speakers), this also reveals another side to us: implicit in this stance of modern Islamic theology is the fact that we cannot receive the spiritual benefits of recitation through translated works.
The Holy Qur’an
The word of the Qur’an is the direct word of Allah, but the act of translating scripture is the product of human thought and motive. This is why translating the Qur’an is broadly considered an act of interpretation.
The unique, inimitable quality of the Qur’an is often talked about. A popular verse that is quoted in this line of argument is (17:88):
“Say (O Muhammad!): ‘If all the humans and the jinn were to collectively attempt to bring the like of this Qur’an’, they will be unable to.”
Historically, the first attempt at translating the Qur’an was from Arabic into Persian, in the 7th century by Al-Farsi. Persian translations of the Qur’an were available by the 10th and 12th centuries. These were driven by a need to spread the message of Islam and to make its message more available to cultures and regions where Arabic was not spoken. Today, the complete version of the Qur’an has been translated into 47 languages, while select verses are available in 114 languages.
The first systematic school of Islamic theology, the Mu’tazila school of theology, stated that the Qur’an cannot be matched by any human power in its verbal expression.
One religious scholar, A.J.Arberry, titled his translation of the Qur’an into English as “The Koran Interpreted” – to convey to readers that an adequate translation of the Qur’an is impossible. A survey of translated works also shows that translators of the Qur’an are hesitant in using the word ‘translation’ in the title.
Keep in mind the fact that the decision to translate the Qur’an from the 18th century was also a political response to what was considered the European Christian missionaries’ ‘corrupt’ translations of the Qur’an. Based on this example, we can also, and for the sake of responsible engagement, should assume that the translator or set of religious scholars approaches the text from a specific historical context and aim.
Think about the following questions:
Is the translation you’re reading oversimplified? Does it provide notes for how it has been translated? Has each word been translated from Arabic from its proper context?
In order to understand the Qur’an, tafsir is usually the best way to expand understanding and improve practice. But the problematics of translation tell us that there is space for studying the scripture and forming our own understanding by looking at not just one, but several variations.