An Evening with the Quran – An Evening to Remember
An invitation by email to attend yet another event on Zoom has become all too familiar in the last couple of years. As many of us do, in an attempt to manage priorities at a hectic time of the year, I did not pay much attention to the email advertisement arriving in my Inbox. However, a few days later, I received a personal WhatsApp message from a friend at Swansea University. She was inviting me to the upcoming event on translating the Qur’an into English, a topic I had not seen discussed in a dedicated public event before, despite the widespread popularity of the English Qur’an. I then made the mental link between it and the email invite I had ignored earlier in the week. It turned out that Swansea Arabic Research Group (SARG), founded and led by Swansea University’s expert in Qur’anic text linguistics, Dr Salwa El-Awa, have organised an event with the catchy title; “The English Qur’an: An Evening with Qur’an Translators and Scholars”.
Having been a member of London’s multi-cultural multi-lingual community of postgraduate students for several years, before becoming a lawyer with interest in sharia and occasionally a freelance translator, I have first-hand experience with the difficulty of conveying the meaning of Islamic religious texts. Knowing also that the Qur’an is a text with many dimensions would undoubtedly be a challenge to any translator, not just in terms of its meanings but also its musicality and a strongly felt emotional impact. So, I decided to attend the online conference to hear the experts’ experience. I had hoped to benefit from a few tips directly from some of the leading experts in the field. That I did, but I was also in complete awe from the beginning of the event to the end, and here is my account of how it went and why it was so amazing.
As the organiser explained in her opening speech, the conference discusses the one Book, the Qur’an, and the “many books created by the act of translating it”. The questions of whether translating the Qur’an or praying with the translated text were permissible to start with were at the heart of the scholarly discussions of this topic some twelve hundred years ago. Today, on the other hand, the debate has moved onto different and more relatable arguments: Could the translated text accurately convey to non-Muslim or non-Arabic speaking Muslims what Muslims believe? Does the translation reflect aspects of the Qur’an’s atypical combination of orality and textuality, such as the ambiguous relation between the diverse topics of the long Qur’anic suras? Does the translation represent the meanings of God’s words? Who is to say that those are the only meanings intended by this rich and multi-layered text?
Professor Martin Stringer, Swansea University Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Professor of Anthropology of Religion, followed another brief yet fascinating welcome remark. He highlighted the difference between the Bible and the Qur’an in terms of how Christians and Muslims perceive the translated text of their holy books and the significant role it plays in their worship. He talked about developing the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, from being avid enemies to focusing more on shared human values. By the end of his speech, I had realised that the night’s event was not going to be just another academic conference full of theoretical mumbo jumbo. Instead, it was promising to be a mixture of intellectual, linguistic and spiritual content, enjoyable and rewarding to anyone who loves learning about the Qur’an or about issues translators face while trying to transfer meanings and connotations across very different languages and cultures. And it did live up to my expectation.
The conference was interestingly structured, almost equally divided between talks and discussions. Two speakers’ panels lasted for approximately two hours, a 45-minute roundtable discussion and another 45 minutes of open Q&A with the audience.
Seven scholars and Qur’an translators spoke that night about their experiences and endeavours in translating the Qur’an. They were from very different backgrounds and approached the text of the Qur’an from varied standpoints, academic and non-academic. By education and profession, some of them are linguists, while others are not; some are native Arabic speakers, others native English speakers – yet all brought together by their love and deep interest in the Qur’an. For example, the first speaker, eminent Professor of Qur’anic studies Muhammad Abdel Haleem, OBE, is the Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS University of London, and the author of the Oxford Classic, The Qur’an: An English Translation, one of the most popular English translations of the Qur’an in the West. Dr Musharraf Hussain, OBE, on the other hand, has a PhD in biomedical sciences. However, he dedicated himself to development and education within the Muslim communities in the UK; hence, now he specialises in Islamic studies and leads one of Nottingham’s most influential Islamic centres, the Karimia Institute.
Quite appropriately, the first panel, Chaired by Dr El-Awa, started with Professor Haleem’s presentation on ‘what makes a good translation of the Qur’an?’. There are five critical criteria, he explained: clarity, reliability, flow, accuracy and impact. In his talk, he also emphasised the role of context in determining the meaning of an expression. He explained that many Arabic words have more than one meaning; sometimes, one word has ten meanings. Therefore, context is a major deciding factor in translating such items. Professor Haleem’s dedication and passion for the Qur’an were unmistakable in every word he uttered during his talk and response to questions; the intentionally simplified language he used made this potentially complex topic easily understandable even to a non-specialist like me.
The second speaker, Dr Musharraf Hussain, talked of how his personal experience in teaching the Qur’an in the UK motivated him to complete the Amazon best-seller, The Majestic Qur’an. He describes his work as: “a plain and simple translation” in which he employs a thematic approach, i.e. a thematic division of each Sura into “short bite-size” pieces, to make the Qur’an more accessible to young Muslims. His is the only English Qur’an translation that systematically uses sections and sub-headings to identify the internal thematic divisions within each Sura.
The next speaker was Dr Shawkat Toorawa, Chair of Arabic Studies at Yale University. He talked about the fascinating topic of translating what he called “the Qur’anic Soundscape”. He wished to enable his colleagues in Anglophonic universities to share with their students a translation that better reflected the rhyme and rhythm and the internal musicality of the Qur’an, which produce the acoustic aesthetics of what we hear when we listen to Qur’an recitations. He wants to create a translation that did the heard aspect of the Qur’an some justice. As I listened to his talk, I felt deeply grateful to him since much of the magic (if I may so call it) and joy I find in listening to the Qur’an come from the beauty of the sound itself. Attempting to replicate this beauty in translation was, in my mind, a mission impossible. I am grateful to Professor Toorawa for proving me wrong.
The last speaker in the first panel was Dr Mustafa Khattab, author of The Clear Qur’an. He talked about his experience in translating the Qur’an for children, which was, unlike the work of the first two speakers, teamwork. He emphasised that English is an evolving language and, as a result, there is a recurring need for new translations that would be accessible to new generations and young people. Therefore, this translation was “edited by kids for kids”, as one of its sellers’ online descriptions stated. Over 50 kids aged seven to twelve reviewed the translation repeatedly before producing the final version, said Dr Khattab. The fruit of this effort, the translation published under the title: The Clear Qur’an for Kids, is now used in Islamic schools in Canada, the USA and other English-speaking countries. The audience was intrigued by the novelty of this method, as reflected in their comments in the Zoom chat.
The second panel, chaired by Dr Lloyd Davies, Honorary Professor in Translation and Hispanic studies at Swansea University, began with Ustadh Fadel Soliman, the famous Egyptian public speaker, da’iyah and Director of Bridges Foundation. Soliman talked about the translation produced by the foundation, which was also a collaborative work of a team of linguists and Islamic scholars. It is the first English translation of the Qur’an to account for ten Qira’at (the ten variant modes of recitation of the Qur’an), hence its title Bridges’ Translation of the Ten Qira’at of the Noble Qur’an. The translation focuses on translating the style of speech, not just the meanings of the words, through accommodating specific linguistic properties of the Qur’an like grammatical shifts and the different pronoun forms. As Ustadh Soliman described their endeavour, it is distinctive in terms of the elements it focuses on conveying to the reader, i.e. not just the meanings of the Qur’an but, as much as the English language allows, the linguistic qualities of the Qur’anic text.
Next, I was captivated by Professor Rafey Habib’s beautiful recitation of some Qur’anic verses, which he used to elaborate a point he was making about the rhythm-and-rhyme-based division of surat ad-Duha (Q: 93). Being a professor of English literature at Rutgers University and a poet himself, he noted that we should read the Qur’an aloud to allow the listener to hear the “versification” of the verses. Professor Habib is attempting to create the same in his forthcoming translation; to give the English listener/reader of the translated Qur’an a richer experience, one that is closer to that of listening to the original text – this he called “the Challenge of Versification”. Professor Habib is still working on his translation in collaboration with Bruce Lawrence, the Islamic studies expert and Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion at Duke University.
The last speaker, Dr Shuruq Naguib, lecturer in Islamic studies at Lancaster University specialising in Islam, tafsir and gender, raised the question of gender in translating the Qur’an. She asked: “When we read the Qur’an, to what extent is the conception of gender, as we understand it today, prevalent in our interpretation and translation?” Dr Naguib uses the Qur’anic word ‘nafs‘ as an example to explore this question. The Arabic word has no gender association in the original text or translation. Instead, it indicates the single self, single person and single soul. She moves on to ask: “what kind of translation, regarding gender do we put forward: a translation of difference or one that essentialises difference above all?”, the latter being essentially an aspect of the western civilisation and not necessarily that of the original Qur’anic text. A highly thought-provoking discussion that left everyone with much to think about concerning how the Qur’an looks at gender issues and to what extent the translations represent the Qur’anic view on the same matter.
Following the two panels, three Swansea University Qur’anic studies postgraduate researchers led a roundtable discussion with questions stemming from their various research projects. For example, they asked how translators decide to shift from the original Arabic verses to the English sentences, paragraphs and sections; to what degree were the overall coherence and structure of the Arabic text represented in the English translation. The researchers also asked to what extent Biblical stories (Israiliyat) can clarify some Qur’anic references to historical religious characters, such as the prophets and their life events, and whether such information has influenced the English translations of the Qur’an.
The unforgettable Qur’an evening ended with a very stimulating Q&A session between the audience and the eminent speakers. Throughout the session, the organising team answered many questions using the Chat function, but forty questions were directed to the speakers through the Q&A function in the Zoom Webinar. The audience was clearly engaged and keen to hear more on many of the issues touched upon in the presentations. Some questions were translation-focused, and others raised intense concerns about the multi-faith communities and the new Muslim generations born and bred in the West. My words cannot do justice to this exciting part of the conference. In a few words here, thus; I encourage everyone to go online and listen to the conference recording available on SARG’s YouTube channel. 
In her opening speech, Dr El-Awa mentioned that they had 570 registrations from around the globe, of which over 200 people did make it to the conference. Having been surprised by how profound the questions raised were and a large number of registrants, I contacted the organisers on the next day to find out more. Were all the attendees academics or specialists (was I the only poor outsider (!))? To my astonishment, his response was: the audience came from very diverse backgrounds and from around the world, many academics from universities in the UK, the US, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and Australia (quite literally from all around the world), some professional and Qur’an translators in different languages, while others were engineers, businessmen and women, NHS professionals, students and even homemakers. If anything, this speaks to the importance of the topic and what an excellent choice it was for SARG’s first Qur’an Evening, which, as announced by the organisers during the event, will not be the last (so, watch this space for announcements of SARG’s future events)!
As I mentioned earlier, the event was not what I thought it would be at first – it was much more. It offered invaluable insights into the making and objectives of the different English translations of the Qur’an, and the speakers brought to our attention new ideas to consider when we next listen to the recitation of the Qur’an or read it in a language other than Arabic. It taught us a valuable lesson about the English Qur’an. There is more to a translation than a simple transfer of meanings through the words of another language; a translation is one of many possible interpretations of the intended meaning, one that is influenced by a complexity of factors, varying from broadly cultural to a particular individual. The English translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an. It is one individual’s very hard-thought representation of what they believe the Qur’an says and how they think they should render to the specific group of readers they are targeting with their work.
Indeed, nothing is truly like the Qur’an!