Ramadan Nights

Robert Irwin

  • The Koran translated by N.J. Dawood
    Penguin, 464 pp, £7.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 14 044920 5

Back in the 1960s, when I was studying to become a Sufi saint in North Africa, my Sheikh told me to read the Koran again and again, stopping only for prayers, meals and sleep. At that stage in my life I had only the most elementary knowledge of the background to the Koran. Equally crucially, I had no knowledge of, or access to, the vast body of exegetical literature developed over the centuries to explain it. The only sort of training I had as any kind of exegete or glossator was being taught for A-level how to read Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens. In the circumstances, the repetitive reading of the Koran day after day was a curious experience. The book is quite short – shorter than the New Testament – so I found it possible to read the whole thing in a day. My reading in the broiling sun became a kind of fever. The powerfully rhythmic text was full of enigma, menace and (not surprisingly, considering my environment) mystical promises. Attempts to read it as a story, in the way that one can read a Gospel, were doomed to failure. Faced with obscurities in the Koranic text and true to the intellectual world I had grown up in, I tried to supply my own explanations, based partly on my reading of Sufi masters, but also on a half-baked knowledge of existentialism, Zen Buddhism and the ethos of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Only slowly over the decades was this exciting approach to reading a major religious text replaced by more academic strategies. (I comprehensively failed all parts of the exam to become any kind of saint.)

The context in which one reads the Koran and the expectations one brings to that reading are crucial to one’s understanding of it. In the 1960s, most of those in the West who thought about Islam at all expected that it could soon be relegated to the dustbin of history, though few would have put it quite so brutally. In order for Islam to survive, it would have to accommodate itself to scientific and democratic ways of doing things and the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Koran would have, accordingly, to be fudged. Islam was one of the most prominent victims apparently doomed by the Triumph of the West.

Faced with the challenge of modernity, many Muslims today, rather than accommodate themselves to the age-old fudges that have prevailed in so many Muslim societies, have resorted instead to a kind of textual Puritanism. Instead of referring to the way things were done in, say, colonial Morocco, or Ottoman Turkey, or, much further back, under the Abbasid caliphs, they prefer to return to the ‘simple truths’ of the Koran. The Koran, however, is not simple, and in many centres in Britain, Pakistan and elsewhere the standard of training in the basic tenets of Islam, including the meaning and context of the Koran, is staggeringly poor. Naive literal readings are soldered onto modern preoccupations with the menaces of Zionism, globalisation and feminism, and this third-rate religious education is one of the things that fuels fundamentalist violence. I have a sense that for some hapless, underemployed and spiritually ill-schooled young Muslims, the Koran is a style accessory that goes hand in hand with martial arts training and watching videos of aeroplanes being blown up. On the other hand, there are those Western infidels, whose reading background is mostly in fiction, who pick up an English version of the Koran expecting to be shocked by its exotic barbarism. There have been many, like Fay Weldon at the time of the Rushdie affair, who have read an English translation and are just as shocked as they expected to be.

Because the Koran is not a free-standing text, a great deal of glossing and contextual knowledge is required, and this is as true for Muslims as for non-Muslims. Over the centuries, exegetes have produced vast and detailed commentaries, setting out the context, explaining obscure words, adjudicating between divergent readings and determining which verses abrogate others in cases of apparent conflict. Even so, mysteries remain. Some of the problems and controversies derive from the circumstances of its compilation in a written version. Muhammad did not write the Koran; according to tradition, he was illiterate. Most Muslims believe it is the uncreated and eternal word of God and that its verses were revealed to Muhammad in the Hejaz in the years 610-32. For some years after the Prophet’s death, there was no authoritative text, but only scraps that had been memorised or written down. When, around 650, the Caliph ‘Uthman decided that a text should be compiled, the verses had to be copied ‘from scraps of parchment and leather, tablets of stone, ribs of palm branches, camels’ shoulder blades and ribs, pieces of board and the breasts of men’. Even then there were problems, as the earliest manuscripts of the Koran were not only unvowelled, but also lacked the diacritical points that distinguished certain consonants from others. There are minor divergences among Sunni exegetes about how it should be read. More substantial doubts have been raised by Shiite commentators, who allege that the true Koran was tampered with and some verses suppressed in order to conceal the exalted status of Ali and the special role of the Imam as leader of the Muslim community.

Western scholars have addressed a different range of questions. From the 19th century onwards, they set about applying to the Koran source-critical techniques that had first been developed in studying the Old and New Testaments. Here, as in most fields of Orientalism, it was the Germans who took the lead. Gustav Weil and Theodor Nöldeke attempted to fix the chronological order of the revelation and determine which verses were revealed to Muhammad in Mecca and which came later, after he had been driven into exile in Medina. Orientalists took it for granted that the Koran was not the word of God, and therefore hunted for Jewish and Christian influences. They also discovered Syriac and Greek loan words in the text. They read it looking for insights into the mind of Muhammad. Although Weil, Nöldeke and most of the Orientalists who came after them assumed the Koran to be a purely human document, they didn’t seriously question the traditional story of Muhammad growing up in a pagan Mecca that had waxed fat on the profits of the transit trade in spices, and where he preached Islam to the polytheistic Arab tribe of the Quraysh, before retreating to Medina, where he found a more welcoming audience for the revelation he had received.

More recently, since the 1970s, some Western academics have taken a much more radical approach and have questioned the historicity of the traditional story. It has been suggested that rather than being something that was revealed to one man in the Hejaz in the early seventh century, the Koran was compiled over at least a century, in large part as a product of inter-confessional disputes among Christians, Jews and other monotheists, perhaps in Iraq and Syria. Although the Quraysh, to whom the Prophet is held to have preached, are supposed to have been masters of a profitable trade route in spices, there is little or no good evidence for this spice route in the seventh century and Mecca would not have been well placed to control it in any case. Moreover, though the Quraysh and other Arab tribes are supposed to have been pagans, if one reads the Koran carefully there is oddly little polemic against paganism. Instead, there is much that is addressed to Christians and Jews and much also to ‘associationists’ (mushrikun). These last appear to be inadequate monotheists, whose affirmation of the oneness of God is judged to be insufficiently absolute, rather than outright, idol-worshipping polytheists. This sort of deconstructive approach got under way in the second half of the 20th century, when John Wansbrough, the author of Quranic Studies (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu (1978), was a pioneering figure in the attempt to revise the received story.

Apologetic and more literalist readings competed for the support of Muslims. Reconciling the surface meaning of the text with the powerful orthodoxies of modern science, democracy and feminism was a primary aim of much of the apologetics. As far as the science was concerned, did the sun circle the earth, as the Koran seemed to imply? Sheikh Baz, the Chief Mufti of Saudi Arabia, has insisted that there can be no question but that the sun does go round the earth. Or what about Sura II, in which it is asserted that some fishermen were turned into apes for not observing the Sabbath? Pre-modern Muslims took this literally, but more recent commentators argue that the apehood was a metaphorical reference to the beastliness of those who do not heed God’s commands. Not all the apologetics has been in the defensive mode. Some Muslims have argued that the Koran anticipated modern discoveries in such matters as embryology and the Big Bang, but one certainly needs the eye of faith to discover the supporting texts for that sort of thing.

The Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb rejected the weak-kneed manner of confronting the threat of the modern. In his lengthy commentary, Fi Zilal al-Koran (‘In the Shadow of the Koran’), he stated that if there was a conflict between science and Holy Writ, science had to give way. God’s revelation stands in no need of being checked by astronomers or embryologists. Fi Zilal al-Koran is an accessible, vigorously written commentary that consistently pays attention to the way the Koran achieves its literary and psychological effects. It is poetry rather than strict thematic logic that makes many of the Suras cohere. Qutb’s commentary also repeatedly stresses the absolute necessity of resistance to tyranny and the duty of waging jihad against unbelievers. As a youth, he had frequented literary circles in Cairo before he experienced a conversion to Islamic rigorism and became associated with the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood. His influential commentary was written in prison and Nasser had him hanged in 1966. Although Qutb was a fervent Muslim, he did not favour an unduly literalist reading of the text. Metaphors could be identified as such. Other Muslims, however, particularly those aligned with Wahhabism, have favoured a narrow, rather pharisaical adherence to surface meanings. Even so, a narrow reliance on the text is not without its problems. For example, Wahhabis and other Islamicists insist that the penalty for fornication is stoning, even though the Koran prescribes no such penalty. (Flogging is ordained instead.) Again, the Koran does not actually prescribe the veiling of women’s faces, it only ordains that their bosoms should be covered. (So the dress code is no more strict than that currently enforced at Harrods.)

This background needs to be borne in mind when considering translations of the Koran. The first thing to note is that Muslims believe that it is inimitable (the doctrine of i’jaz) and therefore strictly impossible to translate. Thus, as far as Muslims are concerned, there are no translations, but only versions of its meaning. Marmaduke Pickthall gave his version the title The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (1930), while Arthur Arberry called his The Koran Interpreted (1955). N.J. Dawood, however, unflinchingly calls his a ‘translation’. Dawood, who was born in Iraq, first published it in 1956. In the early editions, the order of the Suras was rearranged so that the English reader could start with some of the shorter and more accessible ones before going on to the longer and more obscure. This procedure, as well as a number of errors in translation, attracted criticism from Muslim scholars. Over the decades, the errors have been corrected and the present Penguin edition presents the Suras in their traditional order. Dawood has not attempted to mimic the verse of the original, but instead striven for plain, modern prose.

There has always been a strong demand for English versions of the Koran, particularly on the Indian Subcontinent. It is, after all, probable that more Muslims speak English than Arabic. Recently, however, demand has soared and the Englished Koran has found new readers. In the three months after 11 September, Penguin has estimated, sales of the Dawood translation went up 15-fold. Dawood’s version in fact has to compete with approximately forty other translations into English (setting aside such antiquated versions as those by Alexander Ross in 1649 and George Sale in 1734). Some of the most popular have been done by Muslims and vetted by the scholars of al-Azhar in Cairo. Pickthall was a convert to Islam and, under the patronage of the Nizam of Hyderabad, he worked on a translation that was specifically aimed at Indian Muslims. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali’s The Holy Quran: An Interpretation in English was first published in Lahore in 1934-37 and was aimed at the same market, but has since been distributed throughout the Muslim world. Both these translations are reliable and reflect the majority Sunni opinion about the meaning of the text. But other translations give a different spin to key passages in order to support their own agendas – whether Shiite, Ahmadi, Baralewi or Wahhabi. The Ahmadis believe that Muhammad was not ‘the Seal of Prophecy’, but was succeeded as prophet by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908. The Baralewis, who are mostly to be found on the Indian Subcontinent, accord Muhammad near divine status as the Pre-Existent Light. Wahhabi rigorists tend to place heavy stress on the duty of jihad against the infidel. A Wahhabi sponsored translation is likely to have an uncompromising feel (so that, for example, disobedient wives are to be ‘scourged’ rather than merely ‘beaten’, and the kafirun are ‘infidels’ rather than ‘unbelievers’). On the other hand, there are translations that seem to be trying to broker a deal between the Koran and modernity.

Early translations of the Koran into English and other European languages inevitably had a polemical slant. Later translations by Muslims have often been painfully literal and inelegant. Dawood’s is, for my taste, rather flat, though much more readable than most of the Muslim ones. There is a fairly broad consensus among academics that Arberry’s translation (currently in Oxford World’s Classics) is the best, and it is the one I admire the most. Arberry, a professor at Cambridge, was a fervent Christian, but steeped in Sufi literature. He found nostalgic solace in his work on the translation: ‘All through this welcome task I have been reliving those Ramadan nights of long ago, when I would sit on the veranda of my Gezira house and listen entranced to the old white-bearded Sheykh who chanted the Koran for the delectation of my pious neighbour.’

Though somewhat archaic, Arberry’s version preserves the verse arrangement and with it some of the rhythm and rhetorical effect of the original. He stuck to the emphatic repetitions of the Arabic, whereas Dawood tends to weaken the effect by opting for elegant variation. It is in the Arberry version that the majesty and mystical power of the Koran is most fully apparent. English readers should not have to endure the drabness and suspect agendas that accompany the fundamentalist translations which are currently fashionable. There is a long and honourable tradition of reading the Koran in other, more open-ended ways. The Mathnawi, a lengthy verse work in Persian by the 13th-century Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi, which is crowded with allegories, epigrams and teaching stories, can and should be read as an extended commentary on the Koran. Rumi, like other medieval Sufis, read it for enlightenment on ultimate spiritual matters, rather than having recourse to it as a talisman that might protect a believer from the supposed threats posed by modernity.

It is in Arberry that one gets the strongest sense of something speaking to us from beyond the visible world – something transcendent, yet very near:

We indeed created man; and We know
what his soul whispers within him,
and We are nearer to him than the
jugular vein.


God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)