Contextualising the Qur’an: A Translator’s Imperative

There are many meanings that can be interpreted from the Qur’an. Professor of Islamic Studies at SOAS, M. Abdel Haleem tells us what the correct context reveals — don’t miss an excerpt from his translation at the end!

LILA: Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with us through this conversation. I recently read the introduction to your translation of the Qur’an and found it to be extremely insightful and accessible to read. You have mentioned that this was one of the primary intentions with this translation. Can you tell us a little more about the need you felt to produce this translation? What led you to take up this task, and why do you think it is important today?

Abdel Haleem: When Oxford University Press asked me to write a translation, I had been feeling that previous translations were mainly written in outdated language and/or took a literalist approach in imposing Arabic sentence structures and other features on the English language, containing serious misunderstandings of the original Arabic and perpetuating concepts that I could see were wrong. I wanted the text to be structured and punctuated according to the English norms with the result that it now flows as an English text.

I asked a group of my students at London University which translations of the Qur’an they liked best and, to my surprise, they said they didn’t like any of them. They were put off by the fact that they were in a language they didn’t learn at school or now at university. I translated a page and distributed it to them, asking them to read it over the week and then discussed it with them. They said it was better but still had some odd features. We repeated this process two or three times until they felt the level was exactly what they wanted. I wanted to give a translation suited to educated people in our time.

LILA: In translating the Qur’an, you are not only working with two different languages (and hence cultural systems and linguistic ideas), but also with a temporal shift in the original language itself – from old Arabic to its modern form. Can you tell us about the methodology you followed in the translation? How important was it to keep all this in mind, and how did this understanding translate into your work?

Abdel Haleem: The important thing was to start with really understanding the language and style of the Qur’an from within the text itself. Modern Arabic dictionaries and general writing misunderstand the original meanings of many of the words of the Qur’an in its time, which can be found in classical dictionaries. Two examples are important: the word walad now means ‘son’ but at the time the Qur’an was revealed it mainly meant ‘offspring’. Some pagan Arabs believed that angels were the daughters of God, a claim that was strongly refuted by the Qur’an saying such a claim would not befit the Lord. Now many Christians and Muslims read walad as meaning the ‘son’ of God and apply the Qur’an’s strong criticism of pagan Arab beliefs to the Christian doctrine about Jesus.

The second crucial word is kafaru, which most translators take to mean ‘disbelieved’ in God. In fact, in the original language, the word covers a long list of meanings, of which ‘disbelieved’ is only one. It can simply mean ‘were ungrateful’ or ‘ignored’. The punishment in Hell for kāfirin (disbelievers in the worst sense) does not apply every time kafaru is used in the Qur’an. It is wrong, for example, to stick to this one meaning throughout. If this is done, some Muslims can condemn others or non-Muslims as disbelievers in the worst sense, which is a source of much misunderstanding, animosity and violence.

LILA: As we look at scriptures that were written centuries ago and try to find meaning in them today, do you think there is a need to contextualise and contemporarise the ideas and morals discussed in these texts – like in the case of not needing two women witnesses in matters of debt recording anymore? Can you tell us a little more about this amendment? How can this be done in other cases as well, if the need be?

Abdel Haleem: Context is crucial in reading the Qur’an. I have published an article recently in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, Vol 20:1 which proves this. Naturally the Qur’an was talking about people in a specific situation. There are fundamental things that are unchangeable, like proper belief in God and justice, but there are other situations, like writing a contract of debt, where two male witnesses are required in the Qur’an and, if not, one male and two female witnesses. The Qur’an goes on to say, ‘so that if one forgets, the other will remind her’. The intention there was to protect people’s property in that culture, at a time when literacy/numeracy amongst women was rare as compared to men, rather than to perpetually pass judgement on anyone’s ability to bear witness. Our duty is to understand the Qur’an properly in its context, before we rush to think that it is an unjust text or unfit for our time. The Qur’an is a very condensed text and has features of language and style that should first be understood properly before attempting to interpret the text or translate it into another language, which could lead to even more misunderstanding. A majority of jurists, who argued in the past that two women were needed to bear witness in such cases, now accept that women can be witnesses and even judges in their own right. It is possible to reinterpret the Qur’an for our time bearing in mind what it was talking about.

LILA: You have mentioned in the introduction to your translation a few times that the text, while being written in a generalised manner that allows for it to be used in different contexts, is also written directly in response to the context in Arab at the time – from the temperament it carries to the cultural-social ideas it bases itself on. How do cross-cultural understandings of these texts happen? Do you think all aspects inherent to a particular culture can be translated to another one, especially at a time when Islam has spread all across cultures?

Abdel Haleem: It is the duty of a translator to place himself between the two cultures, inform the second culture of the context of the first culture about which the Qur’an speaks, try his best to get them to understand each other, concentrating on the central principles, and point out that there are many important values that are shared by different cultures rather than getting stuck from the beginning in the details of either. The Qur’an tries to make people imagine themselves in another situation, to guide them in judgement and action. For example, when people are deciding about orphans, they are asked to imagine how their judgement would affect their own children if they themselves were to die:

Q. 4:9 Let those who would fear for the future of their own helpless children, if they were to die, show the same concern [for orphans]; let

them be mindful of God and speak out for justice.

When a man swore he would not continue to support another man who had participated in accusing his daughter of adultery, the Qur’an says:

Q. 24:22 Those who have been graced with bounty and plenty should not swear that they will [no longer] give to kinsmen, the poor, those who emigrated in God’s way: let them pardon and forgive. Do you not wish that God should forgive you? God is most forgiving and merciful.

LILA: Some of the most controversial verses in the Qur’an today are the verses that allow Muslims to seize, kill, slay, besiege, and ambush polytheists wherever they are found. In your translation, you have explained the context in which these verses were spoken – when the polytheistic and pagan Meccans would react violently to Muslims practicing and propagating their religion, and therefore Muslims were permitted to take up arms in self-defence. We see similar teachings in other sacred texts and religions such as the Gita and Bible as well. Why do you think these ideas are picked out in the Islamic religion and propagated in such a simplistic and twisted manner? Is there a way to avoid or counter their misinterpretation? How?

Abdel Haleem: See ‘The Sword Verse Myth’ in my book Exploring the Qur’an: Context and Impact, I B Tauris 2017. These ideas are based on a longstanding tradition of political propaganda against Islam going back to the Crusades and earlier. There are some extremists among Muslims, and anti-Muslim propagandists, who stand on the very same ground using the very same tool of wrenching a short statement out of its context and misinterpreting it to suit their various intentions. The only way to counter this misinformation is to show honestly the proper meanings of these statements in their contexts, to people who are willing to listen, see sense and honesty in what you say, and to publicise this widely. If not publicised it is of limited use.

LILA: The context in which these verses were said has also changed today. From a time when war and combat were more common solutions to conflict and dominance, we are now trying to move towards a world where it is preferred that violence be kept off the list of solutions. Do you think it is prudent to modify or amend these texts with time?

Abdel Haleem: The only two justifications for war in the Qur’an are self-defence and defending the oppressed who cry for help, and then only according to the restrictions imposed in the Qur’an. I am ready to listen to anyone who can show me there is any other reason for war in the Qur’an. It is not necessary to modify the Qur’an to express these perfectly acceptable reasons, whether now or in the past. What is necessary is to understand the Qur’an properly. How can anyone argue against self-defence? How many countries now turn the other cheek when they are attacked?

It is more honest not to modify the texts but to rather show their real meaning in their context. People, within the religion or outside it, will distrust anyone who is twisting or changing a Scripture. Besides, it is highly debatable whether war is getting any less common.

LILA: You have discussed the misinterpretation of the Qur’an towards creating the idea of women being inferior to men as well, saying the verse “husbands have a degree [of right] over them [their wives]” was written in the context of a man and a woman getting a divorce. Can you tell us more about this verse, as well as the ideas regarding gender in the Qur’an?

Abdel Haleem: ‘A degree above them’ (Q. 2:228) has been misinterpreted by many traditionalist Muslims in the past and present, each one inserting a word to define his idea of what the phrase means, some are very strange ones, disregarding the preceding words, ‘they have similar rights but the husband has… ’. One plausible interpretation is that husbands have the right to revoke the divorce they have pronounced. However, in the whole passage, reciprocal forms of verbs make it clear that all this should be done together, ‘if they both want to put things right.’ To guard against misbehaviour, this is followed by, ‘God is almighty and will judge all’. The relationship between spouses is governed by Q. 30:21, ‘He created for you spouses from among yourselves and ordained love and affection between you,’ so it is not one of war or rivalry. When the situation shows that a couple cannot really continue with each other, God promises that, if they leave each other amicably, He will give each of them something from his own bounty (Q.4: 130).

Another issue that keeps being referred to is the claim that women have half the share of a man in inheritance. This is not accurate in the way it is presented. A survey has been made (see Muhammad Imara on Islam and Women) of all possible cases of inheritance in Islamic law, which number about 30. Only in four of these do women have half the share of a man. In other cases, men and women may have the same share, or women may have more, or may inherit when a man does not. In the four cases so frequently quoted, it is not a matter based on gender but on the rights and obligations within the family system of maintenance and support. A sister may have half the share of a brother but that is all free pocket money with no other claims on it. If she is married, her husband is responsible for everything whereas her brother will maintain his nuclear family and any other needy members of the family. In fact, even a sister who had half the share, if she has no other means, may later on rely on his assistance.

LILA: It is fascinating that the same word in old Arabic could have many different meanings, changing with the context – like the examples you have given of amr, which is commonly translated as ‘command’ but could also mean ‘matter’ or ‘affair’; taqwa, which is translated as ‘fear of God’ but could also mean ‘being mindful of God’; jihad, which is commonly interpreted as ‘fighting’ but could also mean ‘struggle’. On the one hand, this has presented a potential for mistranslation, but also provides the opportunity to train the mind to read contextually and develop the ability to contain many meanings and interpretations. What do you think about these two possibilities? Is there a need to re-understand and re-look at the text in this way?

Abdel Haleem: To me, context rules supreme, even when words in themselves have more than one meaning in the Arabic language (or any other language), the context should determine the proper meaning in each different situation. In some situations where it is possible to adopt more than one meaning, and still fit the wider and narrower context, then that is acceptable and can even become desirable and enriching to the meaning of the text.

LILA: As we talk about different interpretations of the Qur’an, we are also struck by the variance in Sharia across different regions. For instance, the Sharia practiced in Kazakhstan is so vastly different from the one followed in Saudi Arabia. What is your view on this phenomenon, as well as the precedence given to Sharia over Qur’an itself in determining social and moral code of conduct?

Abdel Haleem: The Qur’anic principles, of justice and of God not imposing hardship on believers in their religion, should be the guiding factor in selecting from what different scholars have said in the past or in different countries. It has been the practice, followed in Egypt (as one example in the 20th Century), in codifying modern Islamic family law to take judgements from any of the schools of Islamic law, whichever is most appropriate, rather than just from one. This is right, since scholars from every school had their own understandings, necessarily formed by their own social contexts. We now have the advantage of being able to see all these opinions and select from them.

LILA: One of the most surprising facts I learnt from your translation is that the Qur’an encourages Christians and Jews to follow their religions and prophets. Why do you think this inclusivity and acceptance in the Qur’an is hidden from general knowledge? Other than academia and scholarly work, how else can these ideas be taken to the public space towards countering the violent interpretations taking hold of the public imagination?

Abdel Haleem: By publicising the Qur’anic views to Muslims and non-Muslims, having more interfaith discussions in the media, and social media so that people can have better understanding of the spirit of the Qur’an and see that we are all living under one God and trying to serve Him in our own ways, but that He would not approve of hostility and false propaganda against religion. One Egyptian author last century talked about those who spread false propaganda against Islam saying, ‘Such people worship God by lying about other people’s religions.’ The Qur’an cites ‘rivalry’ as the motivation for such hostility. By way of solution, the Qur’an redefines rivalry in the best way: (Q. 5:48):

We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about.

LILA: What is your take on inter-faith dialogues and the different forms of secularism followed in different countries? Do you think it is possible for any version of secularism to exist and be successful?

Abdel Haleem: Interfaith dialogue is useful – definitely better in this context than monologue. I think people should go beyond dialogue to doing useful things for society together, so that their deeds prove their intentions and dialogue is not just confined to discussion in a closed room. There are some very good examples of this happening at the moment, especially in the space of medical care and climate concerns, such as the Muslim medical services in USA, Greenfaith environmental interfaith movement, the Climate Coalition UK faith resources, Quaker UN interfaith climate action, etc.

To people of faith, the universe, as we have it, is the outcome of God having made it that way. In order to benefit from it, and deal with each other within it, we don’t have to rule out such faith, which would make us better benefit from the universe, nor do we have to put the universe at war with the idea of God. Religion should make us recognise better and benefit from the world as we have it around us. I recognise and accept that the universe is rational, as Stephen Hawking said. That to me proves God’s wisdom and increases my faith in Him. My task is to treat this rational universe in a way that is for the good of all.

LILA: Just like the Imaam, the role of a translator in interpreting the Qur’an is very important. Having experienced this yourself, what advice would you like to give to the future translators?

Abdel Haleem: I advise myself and future translators to work hard to understand the language, style and contexts of the Qur’an. I continue to make discoveries about these and will revise my translation accordingly. The weight of past ideas is so heavy on us, that we have to work hard to free ourselves from what is not right with them.

Read ‘The Life of Muhammad and the Historical Background‘ – an excerpt from ‘The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem’, published by Oxford University Press, in the series Oxford World’s Classics

Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher Oxford University Press (UK). Excerpts here are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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