Thoughtful translations of Quran are essential
The Kingston Whig Standard, 8/ 2/2013
Mrs Alia Hogben.
Recepient Order of Canada
Amongst Muslims, it is oft-repeated that the Quran cannot be translated, only interpreted, because it is held to be the exact words from God to the Prophet Mohammed via the Angel Gabriel. But for those of us who are not Arabic speaking, a translation or interpretation is essential, and thank goodness for some really clear and understandable versions.
Of the many translation of the Quran, I have some favourites and one of these is by Muhammad Asad. He was a remarkable mid-20th-century Islamic scholar and I find his commentary to be profound, scholarly, and with very educational explanatory notes.
Because of the blending of the spiritual and the mundane the Quran may seem confusing to non –Muslims, but for believers, the integration of the spiritual and practical teachings provide for a comprehensive way of life. Unlike the New Testament, the Quran is more like a book of speeches spanning 23 years of revelations to the Prophet Mohammad.
Although at times it seems that the Quran is full of practical directives about how to live, there is also a great deal of symbolism and allegory. This means that the whole Quran cannot be taken literally.
There are some “key phrases” which provide a clear, concise indication of what the message is and Asad says one phrase is fundamental:
“God has bestowed upon you from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves – and these are the essence of the divine writ – as well as others that are allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine write which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out what is bound to create confusion, and seeking to arrive at its final meaning in an arbitrary manner; but none save God knows it final meaning.”
Asad thinks that to fully comprehend the Quranic world-view, we have to understand the concept of a “realm which is beyond the reach of human perception.” This concept is not limited to Islam, but for understanding Islam, we have to accept that “only a small segment of reality is open to human perception and imagination, and thus by far the larger part of it escapes a person’s comprehension altogether.”
This limitation of the human mind means that God has had to use loan- images, based on human experiences and perceptions with which to explain reality beyond our comprehension. Many of the passages and expressions must be understood in an allegorical sense. Asad thinks that not every Quranic passage or statement can be taken in its outward, literal sense and doing that “would be offending against the very spirit of the divine writ.”
For example, the description of God has to be via “loan–images,” that is images human are familiar with, because otherwise we cannot understand that God is infinite, not limited by time or space, and whose qualities are beyond human understanding. So the use of images, such as that God is in heaven, or on a throne, or with human senses of seeing, awareness, is only to explain what is beyond our limited comprehension.
If God says “No human vision can encompass God” then the question is how are we to “know God” or God’s will?
There are Quranic explanations. For instance, we are told that our lives on this earth are but one stage of a journey that continues beyond the hiatus of death to lives in the hereafter, so how we live on earth has consequences beyond this life.
The hereafter is described in allegorical images which are understandable to humans – heaven will be beautiful while hell will be pain and suffering. But the Prophet explained that “God has readied for the righteous what no eye has ever seen, and no ear has ever heard and no heart has ever conceived.”
Therefore, owing to the limitations of human language and mind we need to be humble rather than literal and rigid in our understanding of many of the passages of the Quran. What God in the Quran is giving us are ethical teachings based on God’s creation and purpose for our lives.
It is clear that those of us who insist on taking every Quranic passage literally and thus to be implemented are missing the true message. Hence the need for thoughtful translations.