Study Bibles were all the rage when they first became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Evangelical Protestants popularized this trend, but it wasn’t long before there was an Orthodox Study Bible, a Catholic Study Bible and a Jewish Study Bible.
But a study Quran?
How do you study a work said to have been dictated by the Angel Gabriel to Mohammed between AD 610 and AD 632 and passed along to his followers who, it’s assumed, memorized his words perfectly? Judaism and Christianity have survived critical scholarship about their holy books, but Islam has resisted such questions.
And so I was intrigued by a recent Daily Beast piece about why a new Study Quran is riling the Islamic world. It starts thus:
A new translation of the Quran, with commentary, is causing a stir—and maybe something of a revolution -- in the world of English-speaking Muslims.
Why’s that? Because Salafists -- adherents of a very conservative brand of Islam -- have dominated the world market for Qurans for decades.
Funded by the oil-rich royal family in Saudi Arabia, which has an especially rigid Wahhabi branch of Islam, the Salafis have exported their teachers, their mosques, their audio and video productions, and religious texts across the Arab world and into Pakistan, Europe, and North America, quashing alternate interpretations that don’t fit their narrow views…
Seeing this new translation as a challenge to their orthodoxy in English-speaking countries, Salafis are none too pleased. In online discussions and reviews, influential Salafis are panning the volume, called The Study Quran, as a soft-bellied facsimile that might be fine for academia, but not fit for following…
The Study Quran, setting the record straight, may come as something of a revelation to Muslims and anyone else interested in Islam who speaks English. It is a formidable academic endeavor, and since it was published in November, it has been flying off the shelves in a massive hardback edition.
As I’ve stated before, the Beast is a journal of news mixed with opinion with the opinion part often overshadowing the news part. Here, the writer has come up with a very astute piece about why this new translation is riling all the traditionalists and why its take on certain verses used by ISIS to justify things like beheading differs from the radicals. The news-value factor here is quite high.
There’s a school of thought that says one can only understand the Quran by reading it in the original Arabic, so a work that makes it easier for the world’s English speakers to skip the Arabic altogether is going to rattle some cages. Like the writer, I too own an Ali translation of Islam’s holy book, as that was the most readable translation I could find, plus it had notes that explained the text. This new study Quran has a whole different set of commentaries.
Also, a study Quran might appear differently than a study Bible. People who own the latter often mark them up with notes, various markers and such, whereas there's quite a debate among Muslims as to whether one can scribble notes in the margins at all. My Ali version has lots of notes around the text, done before I had any idea that some would forbid it. Then again, there's a school of thought that notes are OK in an English-language Quran but not in one with Arabic text.
I wish the article had included some examples of how this new translation differs from others. Is their take on the famous wife-beating verses in Sura 4:34 and 38:44 the same as the Ali translation or different? Or Sura 5:51 on not taking Jews and Christians for friends? Or calling Jews “apes and swine” in Sura 5:60?
I was also curious as to why funded this translation. As the article points out, the Saudis fund so much in the Islamic world, but this book came from outside of their influence. HarperOne published it; an intriguing selection of a secular publisher. HarperOne does Bibles as well.
Do take a look at this piece for a glimpse of varieties of thought in the Islamic world. I'd like to see more of this sort of writing on things outside of politics that Muslims care about. It’s a shame there are no comments posted, as I would have liked to have seen what ordinary Muslims are saying about it.