The most widely used English translation of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, employs an antiquated prose replete with “thees” and “thous.” Yet another popular translation uses colloquialisms so much that Allah tells Adam and Eve to “clear out” of Paradise.
Declaring that previous translations “have fallen far short,” the president of the Islamic Society of North America this month formally launched a unique project to produce a more relevant Koran complete with commentary.
Finding Scripture that hits a reverential but readable middle ground has been resolved in recent decades for most U.S. Christians and Jews, who can choose from a flood of new Bible translations.
But the problem is relatively new for the 4 million or so Muslims in America, who want the Koran, usually spelled Quran by Muslims, accurately translated yet rendered comprehensible for a younger generation.
Ahmad Zaki Hammad of Bridgeview, Ill., who will reduce his Islamic Society duties in order to serve as project editor in chief, said dozens of top Muslim scholars around the world have agreed to serve as advisers. The nonprofit Quran Project, which has a $460,000 budget for the first year, has set 1996 as the publication goal.
Hammad, 47, who holds a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago and did graduate study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said he and four assistant editors in this country will do the basic work. “I will do most of the translating,” Hammad said.
“It needs to be done,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, the India-born director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. “The times and needs of people change, and the Koran has to be interpreted repeatedly,” said Siddiqi, an adviser to the project.
Some Muslim scholars say that an updated, collaborative translation could contribute to greater unity among North American Muslims of different ethnic back grounds. Nearly every English translation of the Koran has been done by individuals--both Muslims and non-Muslims--who lived in Europe, the Middle East or the Pakistani-Indian subcontinent.
The proposed new translation and commentary come at a time when American interest in Islamic beliefs has grown, spurred most recently by the Persian Gulf War.
“A lot of American people tend to educate themselves, so when they ask for information about Islam, we want to refer them to the Koran, which is the primary source,” said Jamal Badawi of St. Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian scholar is another adviser to the Quran Project.
The Koran is not easy to read without historical knowledge. Muslims believe the Koran was dictated to the Prophet Mohammed over a number of years in the early 8th Century through the Angel Gabriel. Although Muslims say the Koran carries a universal message to humanity, the divine admonitions speak often to Mohammed’s struggles to establish a monotheistic faith on the Arabian Peninsula.
Rather than a chronological order to the suras, which are roughly equivalent to chapters, the Koran was arranged by length--the longest suras coming first.
A newly revised translation published this month by Viking-Penguin seeks to strike a balance between Shakespearean English and everyday language. Translator N. J. Dawood, who was born in Baghdad and lives in England, updated his 1956 version that sold more than 1 million copies.
“It’s a good literal translation and in contemporary English,” said Frederick Denny, who teaches courses on Islam at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
But it has drawbacks, Denny said. The Arabic text accompanying each page of translation is “small and not easy to read” and the verses are numbered only intermittently--making the edition of limited use for serious students, he said. For the person who knows little about the Koran or Islam, the edition is handicapped by the lack of introductory essays and a paucity of explanatory footnotes, Denny said.
One of the best introductions to the Koran, according to Denny and others, was written by A. J. Arberry in “The Koran Interpreted,” published in 1955. However, Arberry concocted a numbering system for verses different from the Islamic standard.
It may take a while for any translation to unseat the most popular translation by A. Yusuf Ali, a native of India who died in 1948.
The latest edition (which does not bear Ali’s name) was produced by Saudi Arabian authorities, who kept Ali’s translation but reworked the copious commentaries accompanying the text. (The last U.S. edition, which credits Ali as editor-translator, was published in 1983 by Amana Corp. in Brentwood, Md.)
The Ali translation retains words such as “ye,” “hath” and “thy"--language that Christians would compare to the King James Version of the Bible.
Some U.S. Muslims want to get away from the antiquated prose, but Siddiqi and others insist that is not necessarily a good idea.
“Many new converts, about half of them, prefer the older style. Apparently many were conditioned to that in churches that used the King James Bible,” he said.
Dr. Nazir Khaja, a Los Angeles physician who is president of the Islamic Information Service, said he agrees that translations that are too adventurous and less traditional-sounding may not gain wide acceptance.
“If it is loosely translated, it doesn’t give believers a sense of reverence for the words,” Khaja said.
Islamic scholars say that no one is talking about producing a “non-sexist” translation of the Koran that would avoid terms such as “mankind” and “man” when both sexes are meant--an approach that some new Bible translations have adopted.
However, Khaja said that American Muslims are delighted with their right to pick and choose among various editions. In some predominantly Muslim countries, he said, certain translations of the Koran are banned or otherwise unavailable.
“We have a great freedom in America to learn all we want about Islam and to study any translation,” he said.