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Richard Smoley's Blog

The Study Quran: A Review

The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. Edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner E. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom.
San Francisco: Harper One, 2015. lix +1988 pp., hardcover, $59.99.

The Qur’an (or Koran, or, in this edition, Quran), as is well known, is the holy book of Islam. It occupies a place in Islam that surpasses even that of the Bible in Christianity.

As the Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr says in his introduction to this new, annotated translation, although the Prophet Muhammad was the instrument through which this text was revealed, “its Author is God.” In Muslim belief, the very sound of the words of the text — in the original Arabic and only in the original Arabic — is a divine transmission. This text is central to the life of Islamic civilization and of the individual Muslim as well. “The Quran is the constant companion of Muslims in the journey of life. Its verses are the first sounds recited into the ear of the newborn child,” Nasr writes. “It is recited during the marriage ceremony, and its verses are usually the last words that a Muslim hears upon the approach of death.”

Nasr was approached several years ago by the publisher of Harper One (then Harper San Francisco) and asked to compile a new study edition of the Quran. He agreed on the condition that “this would be a Muslim effort and that, although the book would be contemporary in language and based on the highest level of scholarship, it would not be determined or guided by assertions presented by non-Muslim Western scholars and orientalists who . . . do not accept it as the Word of God and an authentic revelation. Rather it would be grounded in the classical Islamic tradition” (Emphasis Nasr’s). It would also exclude “modernistic or fundamentalist interpretations that have appeared in parts of the Islamic world during the past two centuries.”

The result is a substantial and compendious new version. In addition to Nasr’s introduction, there is a full set of verse-by-verse annotations on the text, along with a series of supplementary essays on such subjects as the Quran’s influence on art, science, and Islamic law, as well as its views on other religions, ethics and human rights, war, and death and the afterlife.

As for the translation itself, Nasr writes, “We have sought to make use of the full possibilities of the English language without the pretext of wanting to be so up-to-date in word usages that our rendition would soon become out-of-date. We have also sought to be as eloquent as possible, in an effort to reflect something of the inimitable eloquence of Quranic Arabic.”

As a reviewer, I am limited in being neither a scholar of Islam nor an Arabic speaker. So my comments will be restricted to the extent that this edition succeeds in presenting the Quran to a general reader in the English-speaking world.

To turn first to the translation: for the most part it is clear, though the English is unimpressive. The translators try to imbue the work with an archaic flavor that attempts to do justice to the grandeur of the original but does not succeed. It is dangerous to use an archaizing style unless you are a master of prose in a way that these translators are not. Thus we get “And naught prevents men from believing when guidance comes unto them, and from seeking forgiveness of their Lord, save that [they await] the wont of those of old to come upon them, or the punishment to come upon them face-to-face” (18:55; the bracketed insertion is the translators’) — which is neither eloquent nor, for that matter, comprehensible without the annotations. Sometimes the translation is simply ungrammatical: “Whosoever Thou shieldest from evil deeds on that Day, upon him hast Thou had mercy” (40:9). If you are going to use the archaizing “whosoever,” it would behoove you to stay the course and get the case right with “whomsoever.”

The annotations seem (to a layman) more successful, and the editors have taken pains to feature the deeper and more esoteric contents of the text, as with 2:189, which enjoins believers to “come into houses by their doors.” The annotation says: “This verse is interpreted spiritually . . . to mean that everything should be approached properly and in conformity with its essential nature.” The note goes on to speak of three “houses”: the shari’a, the law; the spiritual path, or tariqa; and haqiqa, “Truth” or “Reality.” I would expect that a reader who wanted to look into the mystical and esoteric elements of the Quran would prefer this edition over most others.

The essays in the third section are a mixed lot. Probably the most successful is Hamza Yusuf’s “Death, Dying, and the Afterlife in the Quran,” which gives a clear and succinct view of Islamic eschatology. William C. Chittick’s essay “The Quran and Sufism” is also helpful, although it avoids the awkward question of forms of Sufism that ignore or bypass Quranic norms. Others, notably Toby Mayer’s “Traditions of Esoteric and Sapiential Quranic Commentary,” are couched in an academic terminology that will be unappetizing to all but the specialist.

This edition is marred by some notable omissions. In the first place, although it is laced with words that are taken directly from the Arabic, it lacks a glossary of basic terms. At the same time, the index is a forest of citations, with “four kind of locator numbers” printed in two colors, that make it unusable for many purposes. Say, for example, you want some kind of clarification of the term jinn, the name for spirits that are, according to the Quran, created from “smokeless fire.” If you turn to the index entry, you will get a barrage of Quranic citations that are subdivided in only the most perfunctory way. If you want some basic explanation of what jinn are, you will probably end up turning to Google or Wikipedia.

An even more glaring omission is the lack of an essay that provides some kind of historical context. Jean-Louis Michon’s essay “The Quran and Islamic Art” refers to architectural elements such as the “Byzantine dome” and the “Sassanid arch.” This is all very well, but there is no place the reader can turn to that will explain just who and what the Byzantines and Sassanids (ineptly also spelled as “Sasanids”)were. The Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires were the great powers in the region, and it is not possible to grasp the context of the Quran without at least some understanding of what was going on with them and their relation to the Arabia of Muhammad’s time. The editors grasp this point to the extent of including a number of maps that illustrate this context, including a couple of crucial battles mentioned in the text, without any broader narrative that will enable one to make full sense or use of them.

Similarly, Hamza Yusuf’s essay points out that “the Arabs of the day . . . did not believe in an Afterlife.” This is extremely useful to know: it explains the Quran’s heavy emphasis on the resurrection and judgment on the Last Day. But what else did the Arabs of Muhammad’s time believe? Who were the people he was preaching to? To leave us with little more than the idea that they were mostly “idolaters” tells us very little.

As an entrance point into the Quran, this edition thus lacks some major and necessary elements. Nor am I suggesting that the editors should have made this a Quran for Dummies: I can easily imagine a learned and thoughtful Jewish or Christian cleric, or a specialist in another academic field, who would find much in this edition baffling and opaque.

At this point one faces the question of what this edition was really designed to do. If it is not an entirely adequate introduction to the Quran, what is it for? In essence, it is a polemical edition that is, as Nasr suggest, designed to counterweigh secular and fundamentalist approaches to the Quran.

This is all very well a up to a point, but I find myself wondering what this approach excludes. Take the mysterious figure of Dhu’l Qarnayn in 18:83–98. Like many other versions, this edition tells us the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars identify Dhu’l Qarnayn with Alexander the Great and that “much speculation and legend surrounds the meaning of his name or title,” which literally means “he of the two horns.” The editors give a series of possible answers, just about all of them improbable and fanciful.

To answer this question, all you have to do is Google “Alexander the Great Jupiter Ammon,” and you will find any number of images portraying Alexander with horns. The reason? He was, even in his lifetime, identified as the son of the Libyan horned god Ammon, identified with Zeus, or Jupiter, by the Greeks. (I am not the first one to make this suggestion: George Sale propounds it in a note to his 1734 translation.) Are Muslim scholars so ignorant of classical antiquity that they overlook this well-known fact? Or is it rather that the identification of Alexander with the god Ammon brings polytheism a little too close to home for comfort?

The background to this edition is best understood by grasping that S.H. Nasr is the leading living exponent of Traditionalism, a religio-philosophical school founded by the French esotericist René Guénon (1886–1951). The Study Quran is, for better or worse, a Traditionalist exposition of the Quran, a fact that explains many of its features, including its defects.

The paucity of historical material, for example, is, one suspects, the result of the Traditionalists’ relative indifference to historical fact. For Guénon, historical fact, even when true, was merely contingent; its chief, or sole, value was to illustrate primordial metaphysical truths.

Although, to my mind, the Traditionalist approach has some serious limitations, it is not always mistaken. Muzaffar Iqbal’s essay “Scientific Commentary on the Quran” is wisely skeptical of attempts to “prove” the truth of the Quran by reference to science. As he notes, the famous line in 23:13, in which God says that he made man from a “blood clot,” is not exactly a prefiguration of present-day embryology. Nor is the verse in 21:30, in which God says that he “rent [the heavens and earth] asunder,” corroborated by the Big Bang theory (which, in any event, may eventually be discarded by scientific cosmology). Iqbal concludes that the Quran’s “anchoring of the physical cosmos and all that exists in it in a realm beyond the physical is utterly lost in modern science, where the physical cosmos and its contents stand independently by themselves, utterly disconnected from anything higher than their own existence.”

Similarly, although I can imagine that many readers will be chagrined to see that this edition pays comparatively little attention to the status of women, Maria Massai Dakake’s essay “Quranic Ethics, Human Rights, and Society” avoids the pitfall of trying to justify Quranic ethics in reference to those of the modern West. In her discussion of 4:34, which reads in part, “The righteous women are devoutly obedient” to their husbands, she warns against contemporary Muslim attempts “to reinterpret this verse in ways more acceptable to modern conceptions of women’s rights,” adding that “the fact remains that this verse is clearly at odds with contemporary Western views of appropriate spousal relations in marriage.” That is the plain sense of this verse, and one may as well face it. Dakake then proceeds, appropriately in my opinion, to explore the “full implications” of this verse, which, she says, “sheds much light on Quranic social ethics and the underlying principles involved in Islamic marriage.”

The point is that the Quran and the civilization that is based on it cannot be crammed into a box of Western preconceptions.

In the end, there is much that is useful in this edition, and I would expect to turn to it first when delving into the Quran in the future. But I think that a revised edition is necessary to overcome some of its major faults. The translation should be worked over by someone with a firmer command of English grammar and (one might hope) literary style than these authors are. And the edition should include a glossary, an essay on the historical and sociological context of the Quran, and a less impenetrable index. Ideally it would provide a list of the suras in chronological order as well. Only then, I believe, will it take the place in contemporary scholarship to which it aspires.
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