Notes on Quran Explanations & Translations

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Since the Quran is the final Revelation from God in the line of prophets from Abraham to Mohammad, including Solomon, Moses, and Jesus, it would follow that this book, sent with Prophet Mohammad to “al-aalameen” or “all the worlds,” is one we should attempt to understand. And since it is also the only revealed Book that still exists in the original language, in this case Arabic, it is also important to preserve the original and the understanding of its meaning. But there is a conflict here…

Not a conflict arising from the Quran per se, but a conflict between the need to preserve the original, and the need to make the Quran understandable to people who do not understand the original language, Arabic. The answer should be simple: make translations available in all languages possible, careful to present meaning as close to the original as possible; and make sure all Arabic-speaking Muslims frequently read and study the Quran in the original and share their studies with one another in a cooperative way.

“Cooperation.” Sometimes this seems to be an impossibility, hindered by incessant argument and fierce competition over the most seemingly trivial of details. Always quick to accuse one another of “Kufr” or disbelief and rejection of faith, there is a belligerent attitude between Muslims that poses a threat to both mutual cooperation and understanding the very book that binds them, the Quran.

It often seems there can be no hearing out of opposing views in peace and patience. Some say the Quran must be translated and the meanings can be made clear and correct in any language. Others say it should be prohibited to translate the Quran at all. To get around that one, most translations are called “tafseer” or “explanations of the meanings.”

That is, in fact, reasonable, since the Quran is no ordinary book, but a revelation from the Almighty. Certainly the Almighty (Al-Rahman) would choose words in a precise and powerful way that would be impossible to imitate. But not, with equal certainty, impossible to understand, but eminently understandable. So “tafseer” or “explanation” would describe translation: not an equivalent book, but a book to assist understanding. Disputes regarding accuracy of explanation, which are inevitable, can be resolved to some extent by those whose grasp of the original language runs deeper and more extensively. But those same knowledgeable ones are often at odds with one another, or, sometimes worse, in agreement over a point that can be proven false by an honest examination of the Quran on its own terms. Yet to even suggest such a thing can be controversial.

Translations can sometimes assist native speakers in obtaining a newly energized grasp of the text. Even the Arabic language itself has evolved over time. Thus it is Quranic usage, the way the Quran serves as its own reference point for explanation, that ultimately can resolve disputes over understandings of the meanings. And since all Muslims agree that he Quran is Allah’s revelation to humankind, and is unimpeachable, it follows that by using the Quran as guide would bring about more right guidance than using any other source, including Hadeeths, some of which contradict the Quran, although this point is inexplicably unexamined by most mainstream Muslim scholars. (As far as I’ve read, that is. And by “mainstream” I mean Sunni Muslims, but in some respects also Shi’a Muslims, who are “mainstream” in certain countries and locations. Both groups have the same problem with interpretation.

And this problem can appear glaringly in the translations, especially when read by converts from other cultures unfamiliar with the whole mindset and cultural/historical set of preconceptions about what the Quran means. Such converts take the meanings as they read them without the filter of scholars, and examine them as they would anything else, by their minds and logic.

Thus, the first passage about the moon splitting in Surat al-Qamar (54:14) would logically seem to be a reference to the approach of Judgment Day (actually stated as such in this aya/verse), a sign like other signs that the Day of Resurrection is imminent. But many books of “tafseer” actually claim that this was a supposed “miracle” of Prophet Mohammad, when the moon was seen split in two, half over one mountain and another half over another mountain. Using logic, this is ridiculous on its face, and contradicts the Quran itself, which states that Mohammad was not given any miracles to prove his prophecy other than the miracle of the Quran itself. This idea also lends to a depiction of the Prophet as false, a magician or illusionist, as obviously the moon exists whole now, so that must have been a temporary illusion. Such “tafseer” is patently false, yet many so-called scholars accept it. This is an example of how converts or others unfamiliar with the “literature” outside the Quran see the Quran for what it says unequivocally instead of allowing a long set of erroneous traditions to interfere and impose falsehoods on the truth.

Another example is the story of Jesus’ supposed “second coming,” about whose veracity many Muslim scholars concur. The fact that this story also exists in Christian mythology/literature adds another monkey wrench to the path of logic. Here even the convert could be confounded, since s/he already has this idea in their own culture as well. Therefore we need to examine it in the light of what the Quran actually says, not what we think it says. And not to add any interpretation based on hearsay, such as the moon splitting myth mentioned above.

The Quran states that Jesus (Aissa) died. (Quranic reference!!!) And that Prophet Mohammad is “the seal of the prophets,” an expression stronger than “the last of the prophets.” A seal cannot be broken, but closes up completely the line of prophets. Period. So there is no prophet who will come after Mohammad. Period. But here we have the idea that Jesus, a prophet, will return. After already being dead. Surely such a momentous occasion would be mentioned in the Quran. But it is not. Instead, we have Prophet Mohammad as the “seal.” So to claim another prophet such as Jesus will come again contradicts the Quran directly and obviously. How then is it that no one dared come out and say this? Or maybe even think it? Why are all in agreement that this lie is truth?

That question must be answered in another discussion. But there is an answer, and it is a very important one. So if translation is tafseer, then we must recognize that even tafseer in the original language can be misleading, hence the translation can impose this wrong understanding in its wording. In these two examples above, that is not the case, but there are many examples where one translation gives one meaning and another gives a different one. Our guide through this must be the original. Another reason to interpret the Quran using the Quran itself, not outside literature. And logic. Subject to discussion in a cooperative and honest way without seeking to put down or overwhelm the other party.

And understanding how the Quran makes things clear will assist greatly in this endeavor. Including examination of what I call Quranic architecture, or placement of words and ideas in a way that illuminates the deeper meaning. More on that later.

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