In this article, we will take a look at some excerpts from the prefaces of Arthur John Arberry’s two volume translation of the Quran, titled: The Koran Interpreted. The work was published in the mid-twentieth century, yet the author’s prefaces to each of the two volumes are still nevertheless inspiring and remaining relevant to our appreciation of the Quran in the modern day.
So without further ado, let us turn to the following quotations, which emphasise the lack of common appreciation for the rhythmic eloquence of the Quran. Selections from his preface to the first volume are as follows:
Pickthall claimed special attention for his work in words that deserve respectful study:
‘The aim of this work is to present to English readers what Muslims the world over hold to be the meaning of the words of the Koran, and the nature of that Book, in not unworthy language and concisely, with a view to the requirements of English Muslims. It may be reasonably claimed that no Holy Scripture can be fairly presented by one who disbelieves its inspiration and its message; and this is the first English translation of the Koran by an Englishman who is a Muslim. Some of the translations include commentation offensive to Muslims, and almost all employ a style of language which Muslims at once recognize as unworthy. The Koran cannot be translated. That is the belief of old-fashioned Sheykhs and the view of the present writer. The Book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Koran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Koran — and peradventure something of the charm — in English. It can never take the place of the Koran in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so. Before publication the work has been scrutinized word by word and thoroughly revised in Egypt with the help of one whose mother-tongue is Arabic, who has studied the Koran and who knows English; and when difficulties were encountered the translator had recourse to perhaps the greatest living authority on the subject. Every care has thus been taken to avoid unwarrantable renderings.’
In choosing to call the present work The Koran Interpreted I have conceded the relevancy of the orthodox Muslim view, of which Pickthall, for one, was so conscious, that the Koran is untranslatable. Some of the implications of that doctrine are sketched out in the preface to my The Holy Koran: an Introduction with Selections (Allen & Unwin, 1955), and it is not proposed to repeat the same argument here. Briefly, the rhetoric and rhythm of the Arabic of the Koran are so characteristic, so powerful, so highly emotive, that any version whatsoever is bound in the nature of things to be but a poor copy of the glittering splendour of the original. Never was it more true than in this instance that traduttore traditore. My chief reason for offering this new version of a book which has been ‘translated’ many times already is that in no previous rendering has a serious attempt been made to imitate, however imperfectly, those rhetorical and rhythmical patterns which are the glory and the sublimity of the Koran. I am breaking new ground here; it may therefore be thought appropriateto explain in short my intentions and my method.
There is a repertory of familiar themes running through the whole Koran; each Sura elaborates or adumbrates one or more — often many — of these. Using the language of music, each Sura is a rhapsody composed of whole or fragmentary leitmotivs; the analogy is reinforced by the subtly varied rhythmical flow of the discourse. If this diagnosis of the literary structure of the Koran may be accepted as true — and it accords with what we know of the poetical instinct, indeed the whole aesthetic impulse, of the Arabs — it follows that those notorious incongruities and irrelevancies, even those ‘wearisome repetitions’, which have proved such stumbling-blocks in the way of our Western appreciation will vanish in the light of a clearer understanding of the nature of the Muslim scriptures. A new vista opens up; following this hitherto unsuspected and unexplored path, the eager interpreter hurries forward upon an exciting journey of discovery, and is impatient to report his findings to a largely indifferent and incredulous public.
During the long months, the dark and light months, of labouring at this interpretation, eclectic where the ancient commentators differ in their understanding of a word or a phrase, unannotated because notes in plenty are to be found in other versions, and the radiant beauty of the original is not clouded by such vexing interpolations — all through this welcome task I have been reliving those Ramadan nights of long ago, when I would sit on the veranda of my Gezira house and listen entranced to the old, white-bearded Sheykh who chanted the Koran for the pious delectation of my neighbour. He had the misfortune, my neighbour, to be a prominent politician, and so in the fullness of his destiny, but not the fullness of his years, he fell to an assassin’s bullet; I like to think that the merit of those holy recitations may have eased the way for him into a world free of the tumult and turbulence that attended his earthly career. It was then that I, the infidel, learnt to understand and react to the thrilling rhythms of the Koran, only to be apprehended when listened to at such a time and in such a place. In humble thankfulness I dedicate this all too imperfect essay in imitation to the memory of those magical Egyptian nights.
We further read in his preface to the second volume of this work:
This volume contains the second half of a new version of the Koran; it thus marks the completion of one phase of a labour which is in the nature of things unending. Over a period of many months the Koran has been my constant companion, the object of my most attentive study. Though many can certainly claim to have read the Koran, indeed over and over again, and to know it Well. I think it may be reasonably asserted that their understanding and appreciation of the book will always fall short of what may be attained by one who undertakes to translate it in full and with all possible fidelity. I had myself studied the Koran and perused it from end to end over many years, before I embarked upon making a version of it; assuredly the careful discipline of trying to find the best English equivalent for every meaning and every rhythm of the original Arabic has profoundly deepened my own penetration into the heart of the Koran, and has at the same time sharpened my awareness of its mysterious and compelling beauty. For this reason, if for no other, I think it is justifiable to adopt the unusual procedure of adding a separate preface to the second instalment of a two-volume work. I suppose I shall never again recapture the freshness and excitement of the experience just now completed; the passing months and years will inevitably blur the image; this is the moment, or never, to attempt to record the impact which a sustained and concentrated exploration of the Koran has left on my mind and my heart.
The mystic’s experience, attested as it is by a cloud of witnesses, surely provides the key to the mysterious inconsequence of the Koranic rhetoric. All truth was present simultaneously within the Prophet’s enraptured soul; all truth, however fragmented, revealed itself in his inspired utterance. The reader of the Muslim scriptures must strive to attain the same all-embracing apprehension. The sudden fluctuations of theme and mood will then no longer present such difficulties as have bewildered critics ambitious to measure the ocean of prophetic eloquence with the thimble of pedestrian analysis. Each Sura will now be seen to be a unity within itself, and the whole Koran will be recognised as a single revelation, self-consistent in the highest degree. Though half a mortal lifetime was needed for the message to be received and communicated, the message itself, being of the eternal, is one message in eternity, however heterogeneous its temporal expression may appear to be. This, the mystic’s approach, is surely the right approach to the study of the Koran; it is an approach that leads, not to bewilderment and disgust — that is the prerogative of the Higher Critic — but to an ever deepening understanding, to a wonder and a joy that have no end.
InshaAllah, I intend, with my humble efforts, to explore with you some examples of the rhythmic eloquence of the Quran in an attempt to acquire a better appreciation for the word of Allah ta’ala. May Allah make it easy for us to both learn and convey such means of appreciation for His revelation to man.