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Translating from one language into another is no easy task. But to translate a divinely inspired book like the Quran — the guardian of a people’s meaning and kindler of their cultural an spiritual consciousness — can be grindingly punishing. Image Credit:

Ramadan, complete with its spiritual energy and social glitter, will shortly be upon us, giving Muslims warrant to feel truly conjoined in a communal sense of joyful reference.

“When Ramadan begins,” the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) is reported to say in the Hadith, “the gates of Paradise open”. Well, so do the hearts of believers to all that is goodly, moral and magnanimous. This is what Ramadan is to good Muslims.

And this is where I confess to my shortcoming — sin, if you wish — up front: I’m a bad Muslim. Only during Ramadan do I strive to be a good one. I fast, I pray and, above all, I read the Quran, in the cadence of whose rhymed prose I never fail to hear the echo of my native culture from the old country, which I had left as a young teen.

An here’s another confession: I’m not proficient in Arabic, thus unable to read the Book in the tongue in which it was set down. So I turn to a translated version — in my case, English — as do, let’s face it, a majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world today, who clearly are not native speakers of Arabic.

Over the years, indeed centuries, there have been many versions of our Book rendered into English. So which one do we turn to?

There are, of course, Medieval, Renaissance and Orientalist Qurans that we will — we must — dismiss out of hand because their translators actually had an invidious reason behind the task, namely, to assure their fellow Christians of the superiority of Christianity over Islam. In fact, Martin Luther, the German theologian who was the catalyst of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, encouraged his followers to study the Quran in order to “read the writings of the enemy”.

Thomas Jefferson’s choice

That genre of translation was pioneered by Robert of Ketton, an English linguist and priest who lived in Muslim Spain, and in 1143 published a complete translation into Latin (Latin being at the time the language of theology, science and literature), which paved the way for later ones in German and French, followed later still by the well-intentioned, indeed influential, 1734 English version by George Sale, a copy of which Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and one of its Founding Fathers, acquired 69 years later, one that he reportedly read avidly in the early days of the Republic.

That copy remains to this day the one that Muslim legislators like Keith Ellison, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib swear on when they take the oath of office.

It was not really till the early 20th century that authoritative English translations began to appear — by Muslims. They were virtually all from the Indian subcontinent, South Asians to whom (after British rule was imposed on India in 1875) English became a second language. Among them, in my view, only four major translators stand out: Muhammad Ali and Yousuf Ali, and then, well, Muhammad Marmeduke Pikthall and Muhammad Asad.

To be sure, Pikthall was actually an Englishman who had lived in India for decades and, after converting to Islam in 1917, became the most notable Englishman to do so; and Asad was a German national called Leopold Weiss, also a convert, who had spent most of his adult life in the East.

Translating from one language into another is no easy task. But to translate a divinely inspired book like the Quran — the guardian of a people’s meaning and kindler of their cultural an spiritual consciousness — can be grindingly punishing. Language, after all, is more than a mere currency of rational exchange. It is a living organism that has a dynamic, reciprocal relationship with the felt reality inhabited by its speakers. Active inside it are conventions of statement, of latent intent irreducibly unique to the sensibility of the people that verbalises it.

I say the Quran declares its own form of semantic being — in classical Arabic. It was in that tongue’s idiom and metaphor, not in the borrowed dress of other tongues, that the ethos of Islam struck root.

So what do I do? I do what I’ve always done when Ramadan rolled around. I instead listen to the Quran being recited. I close my eyes, momentarily blinding myself, as it were, so that, through the live friction of sound an ear, I “see” the gates of Paradise open, I see how wondrous, how enchanting, how rapturous, in its original form, the Quran, God’s divine gift to us, truly is.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.