The Qur'an, English translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford University Press, 2004)
In the most important sense, a holy book cannot be subject to review. It matters little whether or not I consider it holy; the fact that others do puts it in a different category of book. For one thing, one must take greater care than normal to be respectful; that is merely good manners. It also means that as a non-Muslim, I cannot adequately judge the Qur'an on the basis for which it was intended, that is, as spiritual guidance and inspiration for Muslims. And yet, just as there is value in reading the Bible as literature, I believe the Qur'an may profitably be read in the same way. Not to mention that it might be valuable to have at least some familiarity with a book that is so important to the two and a half billion or so Muslims around the world.
There is also the problem of reading a translation. To Muslims, as I understand it, the Qur'an is a holy book in a much more literal sense than the Bible is to Christians. That is, the book itself is holy, not just its contents. What's more, it is the Qur'an in Arabic that really matters, in contrast to the Christian idea that the Bible speaks best to everyone in his native tongue. While it is certainly instructive—essential for seminary students and scholars—to read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, that is not considered a necessary skill for most Christians. For Muslims, however, you're not really reading or reciting the Qur'an unless it is in Arabic. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, it's a great unifying factor, as when Latin was essential in the Catholic church, when priests all over the world could understand each other, and the Mass was basically the same wherever you went. But there's no doubt that true understanding is difficult (impossible?) in a foreign tongue.
The Qur'an itself makes the point repeatedly that it is an Arabic revelation—though I can't resist mentioning that the point being made at the time was that it was in a language the ordinary people understood.
I don't have anything to compare it with, but I will nonetheless give high marks to this particular translation. It is not beautiful English, but it is easy to understand, and the translator has provided just the right amount of commentary, that is, enough to provide historical context and explain certain idioms and literary conventions, while not interrupting unduly the flow of the writing.
Despite all the above caveats, I'll share some of my observations, based on a single read-through:
- The chief effect of reading the Qur'an was to give me an increased appreciation for the Bible and the main tenets of the Christian faith. Clearly, it won't have that effect on everyone, but I do highly commend the effort to Christians. It would be more valuable, however, to have a good familiarity with the Bible and an understanding of the above-mentioned tenets first.
- As I read, I wished I had a better knowledge of what else was going on in the world, and especially in the Church, between the time of Christ and the time the Qur'an was written (early 7th century).
- While the polytheists of Mecca, who were opposing Mohammed, were the chief target of the Qur'an's repeated admonitions not to "assign helpers to God," it's possible that the Qur'an anticipated by almost a millennium the Reformation's reaction to the Church's sometimes excessive adoration of Mary and the saints.
- The Qur'an makes much of several people it calls prophets; among the familiar are Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. While the persons are clearly those noted in the Bible, many of the stories are different. Moses' encounter with Pharaoh contains more details of dialogue, for example, and Pharaoh's wife turns out to be a righteous person, while Lot's wife's sins are greater than merely looking back in the direction of her former home. Some of the stories, such as Abraham's tumultuous relationship with his father, parallel extra-Biblical Jewish stories. The highly doubtful and extra-Biblical but ancient tale of the boy Jesus making birds of clay and then breathing life into them also makes an appearance.
- I knew that Islam calls Jesus a prophet, but I had not known that the Qur'an clearly states that his was a miraculous birth. But instead of the Christian version, in which the Holy Spirit of God interacts somehow with Mary's human DNA, resulting in a being that is simultaneously divine and human, the Qur'an's story is that Jesus was created as Adam was, though within Mary's womb. This view of Jesus, though not necessarily the same particulars, has been held by more than just Muslims: the Arian Heresy some 300 years before Mohammed inspired the Nicene Creed and its assertion that Jesus was "begotten, not made." Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, "What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God, just as what man creates is not man."
- Do you think Christians are obsessed with hell? The Bible actually says very little about it. The Qur'an, on the other hand, is filled from beginning to end with the horrors that "disbelievers" will face at the final judgement. The images of fire are fitting for the hot desert country in which the Qur'an was written, but the idea of being forced to drink scalding liquid is a new one to me.
- In the Qur'an there is great emphasis on the Last Judgement and the life to come, e.g. "The life of this world is merely an amusement and a diversion; the true life is in the hereafter" (Sura 29, verse 64). Again as befitting a desert culture, Paradise is pictured as a garden with flowing streams. The descriptions are physical more than spiritual, involving comfort, good drinks (that don't leave you with a headache), lots of fruit to eat, young servants, and beautiful, modest women. No mention of the infamous "72 virgins" that I could find, though.
- Not intending any disrespect to those for whom every word of the Qur'an is sacred, but I have to agree with the person who sighed that Mohammed could have used an editor. C. S. Lewis said something similar about St. Paul—without any less respect for what Paul said—wondering why God, in giving Paul so many good gifts for the edification of the church, did not also give him the gift of clarity in his writing. In the case of the Qur'an, however, I find clarity less of a problem than repetition. The same things are said over and over and over again—in that sense it's worse than a Presbyterian sermon, and I do not say that lightly. (It is my belief that preachers of the Presbyterian persuasion, along with others who call themselves Reformed with a capital R, could make their sermons much more effective by cutting them by about two thirds. Obviously I'm not of the "tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; tell 'em; then tell 'em what you told 'em" school.)
- Repetition is not the only thing the Qur'an has in common with the Calvinist branches of Christianity. The Qur'an holds simultaneously the precepts (1) that God is merciful and eager to forgive—every Sura (chapter) but one begins, "In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy"—and (2) that God predestines each to his own fate, saving those he intends to save and damning those he does not. And yet as disbelievers are cast into hell they will know and acknowledge that they have only themselves to blame. Believers are told to harden their hearts against disbelievers even amongst their dearest family and friends, reminding me of the Calvinist preacher (extreme, but very popular) who announced that while he would readily die for his children, he would not quarrel with God should God not have predestined them for salvation.
- At the same time as I was reading the Qur'an, my chronological Bible reading program had me reading Old Testament history and prophets. The juxtaposition highlighted just how radical the New Testament message really is, how different from both what came before (Old Testament) and what came after (Qur'an): God as the Judge whose focus is on punishing people for their sins vs. God as the Father whose focus is on saving people from their sins; vengeance on one's enemies vs. loving one's enemies; good deeds and right behavior as prerequisites for earning God's favor vs. good deeds and right behavior as responses to God's favor freely given to the undeserving; emphasis on God's distance and "otherness" vs. emphasis on God's nearness and complete identification with human beings.
- Another great difference between the Qur'an and the Bible I want to call "believeability," but that's only a poor attempt to express what I feel. Obviously, people "believe" the Bible, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, the New York Times, and a whole lot more. But what I love about the Bible is that it reads like the collection of ancient documents that it is: history, poetry, prophecy, preaching ... I can feel the real lives of real people in their historical context from beginning to end. The Qur'an, being a series of revelations, feels isolated and unanchored, even though this version does a good job of explaining the historical context of many otherwise confusing verses. I imagine that if the Bible were nothing but the Book of Revelation, I'd feel the same way about it.
- It's tempting to say that the Qur'an also lacks the beautiful language of the Bible, especially the King James Version, but that would be knocking down a straw man. Even the best Bible translation cannot capture the Hebrew poetical forms, for example, and since I'm not fluent in Arabic, whatever beauty is in the language of the Qur'an is completely lost on me.
- Just as much in the Bible is open to different interpretations, so in the Qur'an. I can see where the burqa came from, and equally how others interpret the same passage quite differently.
- I found it interesting to discover that I was somewhat shy of reading the Qur'an in public, obscuring the cover when leaving it in a parked car, and wondering if it was the wisest choice of reading material to take with me on an airplane. Was I afraid of radical Muslims or of radical anti-Muslims? Both, I think. On the airplane I was mostly worried about scaring other passengers. In any case, it made me more aware of the stresses ordinary Muslims must feel as they travel.
- Interesting fact: The first printed version of the Qur'an (Latin translation) was made in Basel, Switzerland, and included a preface by Martin Luther.
I can't say that reading the Qur'an was a particularly enjoyable exercise—actually, it was at first, before I tired of the repetition—but it was profitable. The book has earned its place on my reference shelf. To all those who would like to gain some familiarity with the book that is so important to so many people, I commend this translation. Unless you are already fluent in Arabic.