Four years ago, I began seeking answers to my questions about the Qur’an and Islam. Islam interested me long before the tragedy of 9/11 brought the Muslim world to the forefront of Westerners’ minds. But it took a friendship with three young Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim couples to prod me to actively seek answers. We spent many happy evenings discussing Islam and Christianity, and comparing the Qur’an and the Bible. They mainly talked. I mainly listened. The stress of being an Iraqi Muslim in post-9/11 America came out in their stories. I listened more. Through our friendship, I felt the need to do some solid reading on Islam and to look into the Qur’an for myself.
While I was at it, I thought I would learn a little Arabic. I love non-roman scripts. I’ll take any excuse to study a foreign language. So for fun, I bought The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read it and Write It by Nicholas Awde and worked my way through. The book is simple and clear. It doesn’t teach ligatures, Arabic grammar, or the many styles of Arabic calligraphy. That was fine with me. I only had time for a taste of Arabic. During Christmas break my senior year of college, I worked my way through the book. At the end, I wrote out the first “sura” (a “sura” is like a chapter) of the Qur’an in Arabic. I could read the sounds but could not understand the meaning without a translation.
Putting that book aside, I delved into the Qur’an itself. Previously, my friends had read several sura to me from their Qur’an and tried to explain the meaning. The only one I still remember was called “The Cow.” My friends did their best but they weren’t trained to be Qur’anic teachers. I needed to look at the Qur’an on my own. I ended up with two editions of the Qur’an. One I donated to my Bible college library and the other The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an by Abdullah Yusaf Ali, I kept for myself.
Muslims agree that the Qur’an cannot be properly translated from Arabic to another language. So, in their view, any non-Arabic version of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an proper but only a sense of the meaning of the Qur’an. Thus the title in English is The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an not just The Qur’an. Ali includes many helpful footnotes at the bottom of each page to explain concepts that are difficult to convey in English. His “translation” seems fairly strict to me, though I can’t say for sure. Other editions of the Qur’an that I’ve examined appear more dynamic-equivalent.
For whatever reason, I couldn’t get into reading Ali’s work. So I put aside The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an and decided to take a different path. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Anthony Sells helped me to wade deeper into the text without drowning myself. Sells does not examine the entire Qur’an but only those sura which are considered by Muslims to be the revelations Mohammad received earlier in his life. Sells briefly examines the theology of each sura but spends more space explaining the poetry behind them. His translations of the sura are more dynamic-equivalent because he wanted to capture their beauty and rhythm. I loved reading it.
The best part of Sell’s book was the accompanying CD. The CD contains high quality recitations in Arabic of each sura that the book examines. The same sura is repeated several times by different voices (both men and women) in different styles. The texts that seemed rather bland and odd in English have a haunting power in Arabic. The beauty of the poetry was so stunning I listened to it repeatedly and developed a taste for it that remains with me today.
The beauty of the Qur’an is truly stunning—when it is encountered in its original Arabic. The Qur’an in English did not have the same power over me. The haunting sound of the Qur’an itself inspired a sense of numinous awe in me. Of course, the sound is a lot better when played on a good stereo with a quality recording. But you can also an download Mp3s of the Qur’an free here and here.
In case, you are wondering, no, I did not convert to Islam and I don’t plan to. As I understand Islam, salvation comes by faithfully submitting to God’s will, especially through following the “5 pillars” of practice. So there is a big disagreement between my faith and Islamic faith. Yet even with this disagreement, I can acknowledge that the Qur’an is a beautiful piece of literature and I can recognize a little of why so many Muslims around the world love it so much.Powered by Sidelines