bruce b. lawrence

The Koran in English

The untold story of how the Arabic Qur’an became the English Koran


By Patrick T Reardon

For Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God, given directly to Muhammad at the start of the 7th century AD by the Archangel Michael in oral messages in Arabic that the prophet — the last prophet — would repeat for his followers. Only later were these words written down in 6,236 verses in 114 suras, also called chapters or signs.

For Islam, the Qur’an is untranslatable.

This, writes Bruce B. Lawrence, is why so many translations of the sacred book include, often in the title or in a subtitle, such words as “the meaning of…” or “an interpretation of…” or “an explanation of…”

Lawrence, a religion professor at Duke University, notes in his new book “ ‘The Koran’ in English: A Biography” that all translations are something other than the original work, an effort to communicate and approximate the source.

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Few scriptures have been alternately as revered and reviled as the Qur’an. For Muslims it is the actual word of God, eternal and immutable, an infallible source of truth, solace and inspiration. For many non-Muslims, and especially those who espouse what Muhammad Abdel Haleem calls “polemical readings”, it is a confused and incoherent farrago of pronouncements purloined in distorted form from earlier scriptures; for them, the Prophet Muhammad–venerated above all others by Muslims–was not only a raving heretic but an impostor. Even non-Muslims who approach the Qur’an in good faith and with open minds quickly find themselves baffled and repelled, not only by certain of its more notorious injunctions (such as “slay the polytheists wherever you find them” of surah 9, verse 5) but by its apparent lack of narrative, or even logical, structure: it is not a linear scripture, beginning with creation and concluding with apocalypse; rather, its surahs (or chapters, literally “fences” in Arabic) are arranged, more or less consistently, by length, beginning–after the majestic seven-verse prayer known as the Fatihah, or “Opening” with the longest (surah 2, “The Cow”) and ending with the briefest (surah 114, “People”).

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