EDITED BY SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR ET AL.
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. As the Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr says in his introduction to this new 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.
Several years ago the publisher of Harper One approached Nasr and asked him to compile a new study edition of the Qur’an. He agreed on the condition that “this would be a Muslim effort and that . . . 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” (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 compendious new version. In addition to Nasr’s introduction, there is a full set of verse-by-verse annotations on the text, along with essays on such subjects as the Qur’an’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 a reviewer, I am limited in being neither a scholar of Islam nor an Arabic speaker. So I will restrict my comments to the extent that this edition succeeds in presenting the Qur’an to a general reader in the English-speaking world.
To turn to the translation: for the most part it is clear, though the English is far from impressive. The translators try to give the work an archaic flavor that tries 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’). 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 more successful, and the editors have highlighted the deeper and more esoteric contents of the text. I would expect that a reader who wanted to look into the mystical and esoteric elements of the Qur’an 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 Qur’anic 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 Arabic words, it lacks a glossary of basic terms. At the same time, the index is a forest of citations, with “four kinds of locator numbers” printed in two colors, that make it unusable for many purposes.
An even more glaring omission is the lack of an essay that provides a historical context. It is not possible to grasp the context of the Qur’an without at least some understanding of what was going on in the Arabia of Muhammad’s time. The editors acknowledge this point to the extent of including a number of maps that illustrate this context, but without any broader narrative that 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 Qur’an’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 “idolaters” tells us virtually nothing.
The background to this edition is best understood by grasping that S.H. Nasr is the leading living exponent of the religio-philosophical school known as Traditionalism. (For more on Traditionalism, see “Islam and Prince Charles” on page TK.) The paucity of historical material, for example, is, I suspect, the result of the Traditionalists’ relative indifference to historical fact. For them, historical fact, even when true, is merely contingent; its chief, or sole, value is to illustrate primordial metaphysical truths.
Although, to my mind, Traditionalism has serious limitations, it is not always mistaken. Although I imagine that many readers will be chagrined to see that this edition pays 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 Qur’anic ethics (including those regarding women) in terms of 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 present-day 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.
The point is that the Qur’an 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 Qur’an in the future. But I think a revised edition is necessary. The translation should be reworked by someone with a firmer command of English grammar and (one might hope) literary style. And the edition should include a glossary, an essay on the historical and sociological context of the Qur’an, and a less impenetrable index. Only then, I believe, will it take the place in contemporary culture to which it aspires.
For a longer version of this review, visit Richard Smoley’s blog, http://www.innerchristianity.com/blog.htm.