The Qur’an : Lost in Translation

Secularism creates an authoritarian structure by placing itself above all other ideologies, writes Ziauddin Sardar in his latest book.

Extracted from Breaking the Monolith: Essays, Articles and Columns on Islam, India and Terror; Ziauddin Sardar, imprintOne, Rs. 895.

Translations of the Qur’an have long been a battleground. Ostensibly, the purpose of translating the most sacred text of Islam is to make it accessible to those without Arabic — Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But English translations of the Qur’an have frequently been used to subvert the text as well as its real message. The most obvious point to be made about any translation of the Qur’an (and the correct spelling is Qur’an, not Koran) is that, strictly speaking, it is not the Qur’an. Literally, “qur’an” means “reading”, or that which should be read. It is an epic poetic text, meant to be read aloud, whose true import can be communicated only in the original. A translation is not that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men and women to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to give the barest suggestion of the meaning of the Qur’an. This is why both classical and contemporary Muslim scholars and jurists agree that translations of the Qur’an cannot be read during daily prayers. Indeed, some scholars go so far as to argue that the Qur’an cannot be written down in letters other than the original Arabic characters.

It is not just the heightened language and poetic nature of the Qur’an that creates problems for translators. The Qur’an is not a book like any other. It cannot, for example, be compared with the Torah or the Bible, simply because it is not a book of narrative records of ancient peoples — although it does contain some stories of prophets and earlier nations. It is not a “linear” text with a chronological order or a “logical” beginning, middle and end. Its chapters can be very short or very long. It repeats stories in different chapters, often skips from one subject to another, and offers instruction on the same subject in different places. It has a specific lattice structure that connects every word and every verse with every other word and verse by rhythm, rhyme and meaning.

European thinkers have frequently used the special structure of the Qur’an to denigrate the Holy Book. The otherwise sensible Thomas Carlyle found the “Koran” to be “a wearisome confused jumble”, and declared that only “a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran”. The 18th-century French philosopher and historian Constantin Volney described the Qur’an as “a tissue of vague, contradictory declamations, of ridiculous, dangerous precepts”. Given that most European translators have seen the Qur’an in this way, it is not surprising that their translations have left a great deal to be desired. Some have even gone so far as to say that the Qur’an lacks the necessary structure, logic and rationality to be thought of as a book at all….

The western fixed scale of measurement, secularism, is replaced in Hinduvta discourse by an equally rigid, and totally fabricated, notion of Ram. Secularism creates an authoritarian structure by placing itself above all other ideologies; it presents itself as an arch ideology that provides the framework within which all other ideologies can exist. Truth thus becomes secular Truth: other notions of truth must prostrate themselves in front of secular absolutes. Secular man thus not only knows the Truth, he actually owns it. The new Ram of Hinduvta politics is a similar linear construction: devoid totally of multilayered complexity and richness of traditional concept of Ram, the newly constructed deity now appears as a flat, singular projection that allows for no deviation, no alternative visions, no compromises. The tender and tolerant Ram of traditional Hindu religiosity, the figure that inhabits the memories of traditional Hindus, is replaced with a intolerant, violent Ram hell-bent on war against Muslims. This Secularist Ram now defines Truth solely in terms of his attitudes to the Other: he is the yardstick by which one determines who is an insider and who an outsider in the Indian Nation. But this Ram has not only been secularised; he has also been commodified: those who know Ram, know the Truth, also own the Truth: Ram is a property, a corporation that can take over the ‘disputed sites’ of the outsiders. Just as secularism is totally disdainful of all religion, so too Hindu chauvinism is quite contemptuous of Hindu religiosity. This is a direct result, argues Purushottam Agrawal, of the ‘cultural inferiority complex suffered by the colonial literati. This literati was anxious to replace traditional religiosity (of which it was disdainful) with a muscular “national” religion capable of embodying the aggressiveness latent in their sense of political and cultural inferiority as a colonised people. Thus popular religiosity became a recurring object of disdain in the writings of Dayanand Saraswati, and in a more subliminal fashion, in the writings of Savarkar and Golwalkar.

Ziauddin Sardar is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, City University, London. He has been described as “Britain’s own Muslim polymath.” He is the author of over 40 books, including The Future of Muslim Civilization, Why do People Hate America? and his autobiography, Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim.

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