The Name of Allah, the
Compassion, the Compassionate
READING THE MEANING OF THE QUR’AN
By Ibrahim AbuNab
God created the universe, we used to be told when we were children. My story with interpreting the meanings of the Qur’an may have started very early in life, at the traditional school where I was learning to read the Qur’an. One day as I was about to go home for the day, a question came into my mind: If God created the Universe, then who created God?
It was blasphemous, I thought. How could such a question creep into my mind. But I couldn't get away from it. As I walked the streets of old Jerusalem, going to my grandmother’s, I felt sinful, like someone hiding a guilt. I looked at the faces of people milling around to see if they saw what was in my breast. They were oblivious to me and to my question. I could not help but feel that they also were troubled by the same question. Each one of them was hiding the question in his own way or hedging it. The shopkeeper was busying himself in order to keep away from it, and so was the buyer. When they finish their business, they slip to the nearby mosque to pray. Their work and prayer seemed to me as nothing more than a child evading the question.
I was about seven years old then. I went home and sat alone in a corner thinking. I was in a very pensive mood feeling dejected. My grandmother came to me and was perturbed. She asked me what was amiss with me. I did not answer. Having lost my mother some three years earlier, my grandmother was particularly sensitive to my feelings. She thought that an orphan required special care and she sought to compensate for the loss of my mother in whatever way she could. And though I liked her special attention, I resented her ascribing every odd behavior of mine to being an orphan. I thought that my question about God had nothing to do with the loss of my mother.
When I finally blurted out to her my blasphemous question, she took me with great concern into her lap, visibly taken aback, and started to invoke the mercy of God on me. Then, she prayed with deep emotion that I be one of God's chosen men of good faith. Nothing could have been more comforting to a troubled child. The simple faith of an old woman, God bless her soul, was like a cool aid to a heated soul. For as I look back at it, I can see that the problem was not so much an intellectual one for a child as it was emotional. For the feelings of uncertainty which grip an orphan, give rise to many questions and lead him or her to grope instinctively for the certain. The loss of the unquestionable and the certain, leads one to wade in the marshland of questions trying to reach a more solid ground to stand on.
My situation was compounded later by the loss of the homeland, Palestine. The original question did not fade away, but it lurked, as it were, and kept coming back in different forms and more sophisticated ways as I grew older. And so I continued to ask myself: If God had not created the Universe, what else would He have done and what else there have been? And if there was no God at all, would the Universe be a God unto itself? And where do we, as humans, go from here and what is our place in this context? And last, but not least, why does the Lord make it so difficult for us to know him?
The Way of the World
By the time I went to college in the US, in the early Fifties, I had become what you might call an agnostic. The question of God had ceased to trouble my mind and I was now going for the world. I wanted to become an engineer and make lots of money. The American poet sounded right in saying: "Let your eyes not the skies to scan. The proper study of man is man." And it followed that the proper study of the Universe is the Universe itself and the proper study of anything is the thing itself. It would be better, I thought, to learn how to build a bridge or a school than to keep wondering about the whole creation.
But God, as it turned out, had another plan for me. By sheer coincidence, I found myself in 1950, in a very fundamentalist Christian college in the farm State of Iowa which produced only teachers and preachers. There was no engineering to be had in the college and they were right to think that I was God-sent to them as a challenge to their faith. Their preacher told them in chapel that in the whole history of Christianity, only three Muslims were converted to Christ; one was old and feeble, the second was sick and needed assistance and the third was feeble-minded! "Think," he exhorted them, "what it would be for a small college like this one to save the soul of a young and intelligent Muslim. Out of all the colleges and universities in the United States, the young man chose this college. God has sent him hither to challenge your ways in saving souls. You prepare yourselves here to go out and preach the word of God. But God has sent to you the soul that is to be saved at your own doorstep. And if you can save it, then you will have been told of what is awaiting you.”
I was in the college chapel to hear all that. I thought he was speaking the truth to them as much as to me. I was a test for their faith as much as they were to mine. They played music, sang and confessed their love of Jesus. And when I confessed in that meeting to the love of Jesus, they all rejoiced and sang Halleluiah. But when they discovered later that we Muslims do love Jesus indeed and honour him as a prophet and that I, in fact, did not become Christian as they might have thought, they were greatly disappointed in me and they grew despondent. The loneliness I had to suffer for it was a test of my patience.
My roommate, Bob, would come into the room late at night, kneel at bedside and start praying for my soul until I was awakened. Many others would then start trailing into the room to talk to me about God and their experience of Him. And I used to tell them that it was great to have a faith and to be a true Christian or a true Muslim. One would only have to be true in his religion and his search for God. As for myself, I told them, I could not call myself a true Muslim yet I aspired to be one. To become a true Muslim was not an easy task. I still had my honest to God questions which had not yet been resolved.
While the Christian students of theology listened and confessed to their own doubts, nevertheless they would insist that I accept Christ as my own personal Saviour and see then how well that will work for me in this world! The most beautiful girls on campus would be only too willing to have a date with me and I will not have to work for my living on campus or for my tuition fees. Islam for them was a “backward” religion responsible for all the backwardness and poverty of the Muslims. I tried through a history class term paper, to refute their argument and to explain how Islam was the cause of a great renaissance from which they themselves had benefited. But I was strangely rewarded with an “ (A) for your thesis and (E) for your ethics!”
I decided, then, to study psychology to find out perhaps what made those people tick. For I could not understand how a self-confessed atheist like Miss Sally, the history professor, could sit in judgement of my inner ethics while she approved my argument. As I could not understand how those students of religion prayed and read the scriptures all day, and made love and doubted God all night. The permissiveness I saw in their treatment of God and their treatment of man and knowledge, raised all the more questions for me about the nature of man, for which I sought to find an answer in psychology. I took out psychology books for Christmas and while everyone enjoyed Christmas dinner, I dined with Freud! The old coop and his disciples told me : “You have nothing to worry about . You are as much sick as they are, because you are all driven by a suppressed sexual urge and the problem is only one of a breakdown of signals between you.” I said: “ What do you say old man. What does sex have to do with soul-saving?” He said: “ It is what I say. In trying to capture your soul, they are only trying to prove their virility!”, “ And what about me?” I said. “You were also trying to prove that you were as virile if not more,” he said.
I took more courses of psychology when I returned to school for the second term. But it only proved to be more futile. The alienation was only growing greater between them and I. I felt mentally and physically ill. Psychology only made things worse by painting sex organs on the eyeglasses. I left that college by the end of the school year and went to work in a flour mill. Hard physical labour seemed like therapy. But it was during that dull and depressing summer that I saw how love can save. Extremely depressed, I stood one night on a bridge looking down a river below in search of rest and a bit of fresh air. Suddenly an irresistible urge to jump over the bridge into the river gripped me. It invited me like an impending need for release and freedom. The deep rushing water, I thought, would take me silently in, have mercy on me and take me away. Nobody would even know how I disappeared from the face of this earth.
But just as soon as I realized that it could happen any moment now, I saw the face of my grandmother zooming in from the far distance in the darkness as if she had just arrived from Jerusalem. There were tears in her eyes and her lovely face was so real I could almost touch it with my own hand. “I love you”, she said. “I love you my son for nothing but the love of God and whatever you are and what you will be in His good grace. I have trusted in Him and He will not forsake me in you. Would you leave me to suffer for the rest of my life and make Satan spit in my face? How much did I pray for you. Would you my son insult my prayer? Come now into my arms and sit in my lap.”
Seeing this, I started to run towards my single rented room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I went as quickly as I could run and slumped into bed as soon as I entered the dark lonely room. I fell into deep sleep immediately. The next morning I was awakened by chirping birds. And when I opened my eyes, I saw the most beautiful thing in the world. It was the light of the sun coming gentle and benign behind the curtains. The shadows of birds and trees behind the curtains swimming in the light, made the scene out of this world. I could see the face of my grandmother happy and content. I felt as if I had been born anew and full of strength.
My attitude to life became different. Overnight, I seemed to have lost that burning ambition to become what I aspired to be and felt so restful at being just alive and going back to myself. The earth, the sun and the river seemed to me content and joyful at being what they were. Whatever I may gain or lose in this world was not mine in the first place. So, why should I be sorry for the gain that I had missed as if I had a right to it. One should learn to appreciate the invaluable things that he is getting for free and taking them for granted. And then he would see how trivial everything else is.
That was my new philosophy. But such a vision does not hold for long in America, where one is forced into the stampede as soon as he leaves his solitude and joins the crowd. So, when I went back to the new college to which I had transferred in Cedar Rapids, I took up economics. It was as if I were seeking the help of Adam Smith and Carl Marx to answer my questions. My grades were excellent, but I was starting to feel sick again. I found that Marx was not much more helpful than his coreligionist Freud. Both were reductionists. Freud had reduced man to an animal driven by sex and Marx reduced him to an animal driven by food. The need for God was the need of a higher animal who is driven by reason and noble emotions.
Throwing myself into economics, I discovered, was not very much different from having thrown it into the river. The feeling was one of sinking.
Coming Up for Air
It is said that God will show His kingdom unto whom He chooses. And so I was being taken on a grand tour. I dropped all classes of Economics and took Art instead for the following term. I was very lucky to have Professor Marvin Cone for a teacher. He was one of America’s finest painters. He was not a teacher, in fact, as much as he was a learner and a reader in colour of the world around him. The farmland of Iowa came through in his paintings as glowing with light as an earthly garden of bliss different only from the heavenly garden in the tinge of work. The gothic faces of the farming men and women looked as if doomed in Cone’s paintings to an everlasting purifying labor.
Marvin Cone seemed to explain in his art some of what I had read in the Qur’an. I would call his art today as Islamic and consider him a Muslim in his own way. For Islamic art is not only the abstract but also that kind of art that conveys the truth and makes one contemplate and glorify the Lord on high. It puts you at rest and confirms you in the true belief. The sinful art is the art which distracts your mind and soul from the truth and takes your mind away from God and the truth. It lies unto man and God.
Cone had a few words to say at the beginning of every class, and when he had said them, he would set us loose on the canvas to swim in the colors of creation and to discover and create for ourselves. The indigenous and the exogenous are at work in the artist’s studio while he is in the act of creation. As Mr. Cone moved around among students glimpsing at what they were up to, he would stop every now and then and blurt something, a quotation or a chance idea. He would ponder some of his ideas with the tip of his spectacles at the tip of his tongue, and then he might say :”But I am not so sure”, like Muslims when they say: “But God knows best.”
Cone and I became friends. He showed interest in my paintings and used to describe it as free and mystical. I painted free figures lost in a maze of barbed wire or in a network of roads leading to nowhere. Cone stopped suddenly and asked as if taken aback: “Is this your condition or is it man’s condition?”. I nodded my head saying nothing. “But the light is tricky,” he continued. “And you have placed it well or rather played with it well.” He turned to the students and started to lecture: “Our use of light in the West is a display of the obvious. That is why it is external and has no depth. It is just a reflection of what we see by our eyes. The light of the insight is more difficult to catch or to portray.” He turned to me and asked: “Do you try to give a meaning to the location of light in relation to your figures? As if they are struggling for light and it is evasive.” I said: “ I don’t know actually what I am doing Mr. Cone.” He laughed. “Maybe you should specialize in the exploration of light”, he said . “But,” I said, “I am not so sure!.” And we all laughed.
Now with reserved relaxation, Mr. Cone asked if I were a Mohammedan. I said I was a Muslim. “What is the difference,” he inquired. “A so-called Mohammedan is one who takes Mohammad unto himself for a God as Christians do with Christ. I suppose there might be some Muslims who do it that way, even with Ali who was Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. But true Muslims take Jesus and Mohammad as prophets who witnessed to God and they consider both as Muslims”, I said. Cone became greatly interested. “Is Christ a Muslim?” He inquired earnestly. I said: “Yes he is, because anyone who accepts the one and only God and does not deny Him is a Muslim.” He pondered the matter in his usual manner of held spectacles and lowered ear and then he raised himself up saying: “That is where you get your light from. Maybe we should all become Muslims.” Each student lifted his or her brush and said in unison: “But I am not so sure!”, as they all laughed.
Art classes were more refreshing than anything else I met with in America, including the back-breaking work at the flour mill. But they were not more useful or educational than the classes of Professor Chen in journalism. In spite of all of Mr.Cone’s flattery, I was really no painter but a tramp at God’s banquet of learning. I became interested in sociology and biology before I finally settled in English and journalism. My professor of journalism was a Chinese who had fled communism in China and came to the States to be a Tolstoy. He was more interested in writing his “war and peace” than in teaching. We would sit for hours and talk. I talked and he giggled. America is an endless circus, he would say, why did you come to study in America? Have you learned anything so far?
“When you think about it, no I did not learn much,” I said. “In fact I have lost some of the light that I came with from home.” And Mr.Chen giggled again. “What light, what light,” he would say, “maybe it was an oil flare!”. You couldn’t talk with Chen while he was giggling and laughing. All that mattered in the world to him was China. Nothing else deserved any serious talk. His work seemed like a ticket for return to China. His home looked, smelled and sounded all Chinese. And I suppose he taught me journalism in America the Chinese way!. “Look,” he finally said before graduation, “there is no use learning journalism at school because it is the profession of a philosopher who takes to the street to find out what was in the minds of men and how they were saying it or hiding it from the public. That is all. You now go home and find out.”
I left for home on a ship without ever looking back at my four years of aching bones in America. The last thing that Mr.Chen told me was the thing that made me remember my first big journalistic question at seven years of age, for which I was trying to find an answer in the faces of people. And it may have been then that I thought of myself as a born journalist and went on to live and work in the world as a journalist. The only trouble was that journalists in my part of the world were no philosophers taking to the streets to find out what was in the minds of men and how the people in power were hiding the truth. I found a host of beggars, sycophants, jugglers, informers and tin-pan-alley handlers, all sitting in the tent of journalism. The road I chose in the so-called media ended me in self-exile in Cyprus with a wife and seven children to feed, in the late summer of 1976, after having survived over two years of dodging bullets and missiles in the blistering civil war in Beirut, Lebanon.
One night I awoke at 2 a.m. and went straight like a sleep-walker, to the kitchen of a rented apartment in Nicosia, flicked on the light and started to translate the meanings of the Holy Qur’an into English. I had no preconceived idea nor did I come to the new job from a theological seminary. My life was full of questions for which I could not find answers in books or in men’s words. I did not ask any questions now, but kept working until 9 a.m. as if under a strict deadline without ever stopping to ask myself why and what for. When I finally stopped at the sight of my family moving about in the apartment, I asked myself why?
The answer did not come immediately, but it came and kept coming as no other answer did. The flow of endless answers was like a river to a thirsty land of endless questions. Many years later, when I was telling an Arab lexographer of my attempt to translate the meanings of the Holy Qur’an into English, the man advised not to do it unless I be commissioned by some official organization. “Otherwise,” he said, “they’ll burn you at the stake or you’ll go hungry.” “But I have been commissioned”, I said over the telephone, and his voice came back with a sudden surge of interest: “By whom?” he asked earnestly. I said : “By God,” and he let go a big rolling laugh as if he had just heard the funniest joke in a long time. Before his laughter died down, the clever man said to me righteously: “But my dear Ibrahim, do you not know that God writes no Checks!?.”
Indeed He writes no Checks, nor does He deal with banks. But my first inkling of his commission came when I went that morning in March 1978 to the public library in Nicosia to fetch whatever I could lay my hands on of English translations and renditions of the Qur’an. I was then to learn that I may have been the first Arab Muslim to receive that commission from God. The first translation that I read, in fact, said that an Arab Muslim was needed for the job.
A Thick Wall Melts Down
Translators of the Qur’an came in three waves at times of confrontation between the East and the West. The understanding of it seemed to be colored by that confrontation. The first translation of the Qur’an was done at the instance of Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Clunny. It was rendered into Latin by the English scholar Robertus Retenensis and was completed in 1143 A.D. It enjoyed considerable circulation in manuscript until it was published exactly four centuries later under the editorship of a bookman, Theodor Bibliander Buchmann of Zurich. Professor Arthur J. Arberry, who published his translation of the Qur’an into English in 1948, described the translation of Retenensis as “abounding in inaccuracies and misunderstandings” and “inspired by hostile intentions”. This is not surprising since the translation came at the high time of the Crusades when Christian Europe was pitched in battle against Islam.
At the time of another confrontation between East and West, a Frenchman trading with the Levant, Andre du Ryer, published in a no less ill-intentioned translation in French which was published in English two years later. Because of the Turkish ascendancy at the time, the Prophet Mohammad was presented as “the Prophet of the Turks” and held responsible for what they called “Turkish vanities.” The introduction to the English version of the French translation makes an amusing reading:
“The Alcoran of Mahomet, translated out of Arabick into French by the Sieur du Ryer, Lord of Malazair and Resident for the French King at Alexandria, and newly Englished for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities, to which is prefixed the life of Mahomet, the Prophet of the Turks, and auther of the Alcoran, with a needful caveat, or admonition, for them who desire to know what Use may be made of, or if there be danger in Reading the ALCORAN.”
I found that the modern western translators of the Qur’an did not do much better than their ancestors because they could not break with the same old prejudices in spite of all the new learning and secular freedoms that they have been afforded. They admit now to a certain admiration of Mohammad, whose name they pronounce now more correctly, but they go on from there to repeat the same old cliches in more subtle and not so subtle ways. One modern translator, Mr. J. M. Rodwell puts it this way:
“There is a growing opinion among students of religious history that Mohammad may in a real sense be regarded as a prophet of certain truths, though by no means of truth in the absolute meaning of the term. The shortcomings of the moral teaching contained in the Koran are striking enough if judged from the highest ethical standpoint with which we are acquainted; but a much more favorable view is arrived at if a comparison is made between the ethics of the Koran and the moral tenets of Arabian and other forms of heathenism which it supplanted.”
Rodwell goes on to say that :
“From the first flashes of prophetic inspiration which is clearly discernible in the earlier portions of the book he, later on, frequently descends to deliberate invention and artful rhetoric. He, in fact, accomodated his moral sense to the circumstances in which the role he had to play involved him.”
Such sweeping statements without supporting evidence, do not in the least bit make Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) any lesser than what he is. Such statements only degrade those who write them. Mr. Rodwell fails to explain what role had Mohammed involved himself in, other than the role of a Prophet-Messenger of God in which he was deeply involved indeed. If Mohammad had accommodated his moral sense to the circumstances of that role, then he would have done nothing immoral. The moral sense itself is derived from that role and would not need Mohammad to intervene. If Mohammad had a higher moral sense which had to be accommodated to a lower role, then Mr. Rodwell does not tell us anything about where would the higher moral sense come from and what the lower role is.
The Qur’an, however, offers a more objective view of Mr. Rodwell and other translators like him, than they were capable of viewing the Qur’an or Muhammad. For in the Surah of the Nocturnal Journey (Israa, No.17, Aya 45-47), we read the following :
“When thou receivest this Reading, the Qur’an, a thick wall rises between thee and the people who do not believe in the Hereafter. As if their hearts were fortified against insight and their ears were clogged. For when thou speakest in the Qur’an of Allah, the One and Only God, they turn their backs in flight. We know better what they choose to hear by it when they listen to thee, and how they use it to listen to their own voices of ill. So whenever those unfair people get together they say amongst themselves: “If ye are to follow this man, ye will only be following a mental who is nothing but under a spell.”
As I compared translations of the Qur’an, I came to remember the old American poet with his “Let your eyes not the skies to scan, the proper study of man is man.” It became: “Let your eyes not other books to scan. The proper reading of the Qur’an is in the Qur’an.” To be sure, not all of the translators of the Qur’an and its exegetes were ill-intentioned or negatively prejudiced. Some had all the good intentions in the world and some were, as in the case of the Indians and Pakistanis, positively prejudiced towards it. But they all seemed, in one way or another, reductionists. The Qur’anic word was stripped of its light, colors and music and was reduced to a linear meaning in another language. The word of God lost its many dimensions and became linear flat like the word of man. One would therefore read some nonsense like the following in Arberry’s translation :
“As for those who disbelieve in God’s signs, for them awaits a terrible chastisement: God is All-Mighty, Vengeful”!
Theories of Translation
Aware of the deep gap between the clumsiness of their translations and the glowing language of the Qur’an, some made very amusing theories concerning the translation of the Holy Book. They said that the Qur’an, being neither prose nor poetry according to Muslim scholars, but the very word of God, renders it untranslatable. While these translators were not Muslims themselves, they nevertheless pretended to subscribe to the Muslim scholastic theory. Their translations of the Qur’an, they claimed, were therefore translations of meanings and not of words. But what they did in fact, perhaps in the name of professional courtesy, was to translate the Qur’an word for word, because it was the word of God. What a contradiction!.
I grappled with the theological problem of the translatability of the Qur’an from the first day. Common people of very limited learning, I said to myself, may be forgiven to think that God’s words are untranslatable into any other language other than His own, because they think that God only speaks one preferred language. They have little knowledge about the origin of languages and the development of human connectivity. But learned people should know better and should look for the answer to this very question in the Qur’an.
The language of God is, of course, different from the language of man. It is infinite, while the language of man is limited. God speaks to all peoples, each in its own language, to animals, plants, angels and everything else. According to the Qur’an, they also speak to Him and glorify Him “but ye do not understand their language or the way they glorify.” It follows that a word in English or Chinese can be just as much a God’s word as an Arabic one. “No divine messenger was sent to a people who was not speaking their language.” God would not send to Arabs a prophet who did not know Arabic but knew only Chinese for instance!. The Qur’an made fun of those who wanted a prophet speaking in unknown tongues or those who demanded supernatural miracles to be performed in front of them.
Mohammad, according to the Qur’an, is distinguished from all other prophets and messengers in that he was sent “to all peoples’’ while each prophet was sent only to his own people. Moses was sent to the Children of Israel only and so was Jesus. So, if the Qur’an is for all peoples and all times, it follows that either all peoples must disown their languages and speak Arabic or that the Qur’an must be imparted to all peoples in their own languages. The first option is definitely out of the question because it is explicitly stated in the Qur’an that had God wanted it, He would have made only one nation on earth speaking only one language. “Ye were made different nations and tribes that ye may seek to know each other and become aware that the best among you are those who know God better.”
Seeking to learn another human language or the languages of animals and plants, is an act of worship. It is like seeking to know God better. For the more one knows of God’s languages, the more he knows of Him and his infinite wisdom. Each language is a culture of its own, a stream of consciousness and a way to God, the Supreme Consciousness. It goes without saying that a word of God, in whatever language it may be, is translatable to any other language and should be translated. In the case of the Qur’an, the verdict is crystal clear. It is all the more obvious for one more very important reason: The Qur’an, “the ultimate truth” is the word of God because it is a miracle of speech. Because it is the word of God, it must be imparted to all nations.
A Miracle of Speech
Why is the Qur’an the very word of God even though it is put “in the language of an honest messenger”? How can this be proved? The Qur’an has challenged humanity to make a Surah of its like. And no doubt, many have tried and failed miserably. For had Mohammad tried to invent something and ascribe it to God, his “power line” would have been cut off and he would not have been able to convince anyone. The imitators, such as Musailimah the Lier and Mutanabbi the poet, failed not so much because they could not imitate its outer music and tempo, but because they failed to sustain their consistency and to bring a truth which is anywhere near the truth in the Qur’an. For while the Qur’an, which means The Reading, is a real consciousness which grips one to the bones and makes him feel alive to everything in him and about him, the imitations are no more than hollow words empty of any light.
One cannot possibly understand the Qur’an without understanding the full meaning of the word. It certainly is not a book like the Old or New Testaments. The Qur’an is the continuous reading, meaning and consciousness put together. It is narrated in this respect, that when the Qur’an was first collected in writing at the time of the custodianship of Khalifah Abu Bakr, bless his soul, he asked that the new book be given a name. That was, of course after the death of the Prophet. The scribes suggested the word “sifr” for a name. Abu Bakr rejected the idea, since “sifr” which means a book was an Arabic word used by jews to denote their own holy book. Someone else suggested “Al-Mushaf” for a name. He said that the word, meaning a scripture was being used in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Abu Bakr accepted the name .
It is not surprising that they did not call it the Qur’an, then. For the word “Qur’an” meant to them what it meant. It was too fresh to be used in the sense that it is used by some today as “the book.” From the first word read which came as a divine injunction to Mohammad, the message became a continuous reading, a continuous consciousness and a growing understanding which did not stop growing even with the death of its courier twenty three years after the commencement. Muslims lived through that awareness and grew with it enough not to call it a book. Awareness is something, while the book which contains its words is something else.
The subtle difference becomes clear when you read the Ayah in the Qur’an which says: “If we bring this Qur’an down on a mountain, it will fall down on its knees in deep submission from awareness of God”. People of ignorance and little faith may try to lower Al-Mushaf from a helicopter down to a mountain to see if something as described in the Qur’an would happen to the mountain. The only thing that may happen of course is that the book would be torn by the elements. On the other hand, if the mountain were to be made conscious like humans are made conscious by The Reading, it would of course kneel down as humans should.
Al-Mushaf is only a book, with a small (b), and the small (b) grows into a capital (B) only with awareness when The Book becomes Qur’an. This is how also a muslim, with a small (m) grows with the awareness and becomes a Muslim with a capital (M). I have seen such words as muslim in the book and how they grow in the Qur’an from the anonymous to the proper. The word starts with a small letter in a certain Surah and then keeps developing in other Surahs until its meaning is fully grown and defined. The word is very much a living creature. Thus, every creature whether he likes it or not, is a Muslim submitting to the laws of nature as God created it. A Muslim in Arabic means having no will of one’s own. Man, animal and plants are Muslims. As man moves in consciousness and awareness towards God from the neutral point of m to the right, his will starts to grow in God’s will and so does his m until he is consciously a Muslim.
This is part of the so-called “I’jaz of the Qur’an”, its miraculousness and certain impossibility of man to make anything like it. The word in the Qur’an is not just a word. It is a Surah and an Ayah. These two words, Surah and Ayah, are keys to the understanding of the Qur’an. The Ayah is taken by many as a sentence (or a verse) and the Surah as a chapter in the book. That is true when the Qur’an is a book. But when the Qur’an is the Meaning and Consciousness of the Universe, then every word of it and every sentence are part and parcel of that meaning. They do not stand apart, because the meaning of anything is indivisible. When the words come together to form a sentence in the Meaning, it is as if a miracle has just taken place, which is what an Ayah is. Thus, an Ayah is not just a sentence in the Qur’an. It also means a miracle, an evidence, a proof , a sign, a manifestation, a signification and all of these put together. And just as words grow in meaning in the Qur’an and develop, and so do the Ayahs. This is to explain why some key Ayahs in the Qur’an are repeated in various Surahs which makes the ignorant impatient and bored .
The Qur’an itself is an Ayah as well as every Surah. But what is a Surah then? I have wondered long about it and consulted many men of learning and many books. There was no clear answer to be had. They have all come to take it as a chapter in the Qur’an, no more no less. It is said that it means an enclosure. And that could well be. But how can you make an enclosure in an ocean or an enclosure in space, and how can you make an enclosure in a stream of consciousness? Surah in Arabic sounds identical with Ssurah, which literally means Picture. The only difference in sound is that the second one is differentiated by the heavier Arabic letter S. The Qur’anic Surah may well be likened to an image in a mirror or a reflection in still water but with a great difference. For while the picture is a linear two-dimensional affair which stands apart from the object it portrays, the Surah is a multi-dimensional awareness describing all aspects of the object, from the seen to the unseen. This concept can only be understood in the context of the book, not being a book but a whole stream of endless consciousness. In this sense, man himself is an Ayah of God and he is also a Surah. When Jesus and other prophets had said that God made man in His image, they meant in His Surah and not in His literal image. The translators and exegetes had incorrectly reduced man from a Surah of God on earth to a two-dimensional Picture.
I may now understand why earlier learned men of Islam were arguing about whether the Qur’an was before the Universe was created, or did it come after. In a way it is like asking whether God, the Consciousness of the Universe, had been there before the Universe was created or did the Consciousness come into its own after creation. The Qur’an, however, as Consciousness is not independent of God, nor is it separate from Him. So is the Surah which is a part of the Reading, but also the whole. This is not incompatible with the findings of modern science which tell us that the whole is in the part and the part is in the whole.
The Qur’an “cannot be faulted in any way, nor fault can befall it up front or from behind, consistent unto itself, lucid and clear like the mirror of motionless water in a lake and yet ever flowing like the ever flowing rivers in the gardens of bliss. The style of language this river of consciousness is couched in is no ordinary prose written with intellectual intent to deal with a certain subject or a theme where each word is confined to the meaning it stands for. Nor is it poetry which comes with a sudden flash of inspiration and rush along with images conveying man’s feelings and conception of his condition at a certain time on earth.”
The inspiration of it does not come to man, as in poetry, all of a sudden dawning upon him like a flash which is consumed by the time it is committed to words and to paper and left alone to lead a life of its own. An idea in the Qur’an occurs and keeps recurring in different words and forms, with the word itself, like a tune shaping various melodies of different songs, taking on different colors and shades of meaning as it grows like a seed bursting into a seedling and shooting up to become a full blown tree with buds, each of which is bursting to become a fruit-bearing flower. It is more like a word symphony with all the outer forms and music in words and the inner music and ellipticity of poetry. That is how the inexpressible was expressed, in the expressive Qur’an. And yet no one meaning is ever enclosed in just one enclosure and stamped with the seal of finality. The Qur’an is a “Book in which some Ayahs neat and pronounced and other Ayahs similar or might be taken to mean many things. The sick at heart take up the similar with an aim of fixing its final meaning to suit them. But no one shall know its meaning with any finality save God. Those who are steeped in learning and cognition will say: We believe in it whole, it being from the Lord our God and to Him we submit as Muslims.”
In this sense, the Arabic Qur’an is untranslatable. For how can you freeze such a flowing river and fix the meanings of its words and Ayahs in any one language beyond any doubt. In fact, exegetes cannot do the same to it in Arabic. So the question might be not of whether one can translate it or not. It is how to translate or interpret. It requires ability and honesty of the highest order. It requires rigorous self-application, and most importantly it requires inspiration and the intervention of the Will of God. In reading the Qur’an or listening to it, one has to put himself in a state of meditation and contemplation like that of listening to a symphony, and he has to be conversant with the medium in order to converse with its meaning and with God. He will find, in this word-symphony, that when a note is struck, a theme occurs. And then with the various movements and the variations on the theme, the notes are recreated to make the variations with subtle differences at times which result in a big difference in meaning.
For instance, the theme of children can be caught at one point with their inception as part of another wider theme. Then it grows as the whole revelation unfolds: how they should be reared and brought up, how they should be handled with care and how they should be guarded against deviations. One has to read the whole Qur’an in order to know all about children. But as for their provision for instance, the Qur’an says: “Do not kill your offspring for fear of want, for We will provide for them and for yourselves.” The same idea is repeated in another context, but with a subtle difference: “And do not kill your offspring because of want, for We will provide for you and for them.” There is a difference between being afraid of poverty and being in it. The killing of children is motivated by a different motive in each theme. Fear of poverty is the first one, and poverty itself is the second. The love of God for children is the cure for the first malady and the love of Him for the grownups is the cure for the second affliction. People have only to be conscious of His love to get the benefit.
Non-Muslim critics of the style of the Qur’an, could have learned more about it and from it by applying themselves more to understanding it than giving ignorant and rash judgments like that of Mr.Rodwell. One should take more time to meditate and contemplate it instead of seeking quick results, motivated by fleeting political motives. The Qur’an as consciousness was inspired to Mohammad over the last twenty three years of his life. If it were a book, as books go, it would have taken Mohammad no more than one or two years to write. But then it would have been at best a best-seller, which could be read in one long sitting and be done with.
Some say that they have read the Qur’an in a month. Many Muslims read it during the month of Ramadan. It would take a lifetime to Read and not just read. This would entail taking a word of an Ayah and applying it to every day living and growth. Translators who take a word or an Ayah and translate it as literally and as quickly as they can, are like listening to playback of a symphony at high speed or like cutting down an apple tree for wood before it gives apples. The good word has been likened in the Qur’an to a good tree whose roots are firm in the soil and boughs up in the sky giving fruit in every season without cease. The Qur’an presents translators and exegetes with a dilemma. They cannot stay aloof and detached from it if they are to do their job properly. I shall tell the story of trying to tanslate the first Ayah that I ever translated which consists of only four words, and why it came out so much different from all other translations.
In The Name of Allah
The essence of it all is the belief in the oneness of God. Within that frame of mind, one has to think about the triangular relationship between man, God and society. As I pondered the “Basmalah”, which is the first Ayah before every Surah, I could not help but think more and more about God. The Ayah is composed of four words, all relating to God and His name. My first ever question about God, which came into my mind when I was seven years of age, was now being answered in the first Ayah .
The infinity of God, I thought, and the infinity of the Universe could not run counter to each other. The limitlessness of God would be limited by the limitlessness of the Universe if they were both limitless and independent of each other. One of them would occupy a time-space or spaceless timelessness unoccupied by the other. If so, an unthinkable contradiction would be created which is more difficult to imagine than the infinity of the uncaused cause of all being. The Universe would end somewhere where God begins, and the relationship between the Creator and the created would not be as dialectical as it is described in the Qur’an. For Allah, the God, is described in the Qur’an as “The light of heavens and the earth” whose light is unequalled by any other light and is indescribable. God is also described as “The First and the last, the Beginning and the End and the Visible and the Invisible” who is unlike anything else.
Our kind of reason cannot make out of this anything else but that God and the Universe are one and the same limitless whole. I do not know how some Muslim thinkers can say and think otherwise and get away with their glaring contradiction of being unitarian and henotheistic at the same time. Ali Ben Abi Taleb, bless his soul, had said: “There will come a time when all that will remain of Islam is only its name, and all that will remain of the Qur’an (The Consciousness) is the appearance. The mosque will be full of people and empty of light.”
We have to recognize, however, that we are prisoners of the human condition. We are apt to project on the limitless our own limited concepts. The concept of God is thus dictated by the degree of cultural development. He is seen and interpreted by the backward as a backward God and by the progressive as a progressive one while He is, in fact, neither. The Lord-slave concept of God is borne out of a backward society living in the throes of master-slave relationships. The true concept of God the Limitless seems to be the only way to true freedom and the progress of society.
We are prisoners of time-space conditions, which impose limits on our perception of the whole Limitless one. Nonetheless, no limits can ever be imposed on Him whose “seat encompasses the heavens and the earth” and nothing is to be excluded from His sway. One day of God’s time, according to the Qur’an, is equal to one thousand years of the days we count, or maybe fifty thousand years as mentioned in another context. The two parables, however, are not contradictory as the literalists may think. They are only to remind us that God’s time, as it were, is different from our time. It is the difference between the absolute and relative. God is absolute, while we live in a lower world of relativity.
If limitlessness is difficult to comprehend by the limited, it is because of its immensity and the outward and inward endlessness of it from our standpoint. And there we come to see man on earth in his human condition, a finite being between two infinities, but also a part of the whole, the visible and the invisible. He did not come from nowhere or nothing, nor will he be going to nowhere or to nothing. The only way to comprehend God, according to the Qur’an, is to feel Him while you are thinking of Him. He is the Consciousness of the Universe. Allah, being the All Conscious, the only other name for Him in the first Ayah of the Qur’an is All Compassion. It is out of His Limitless Compassion that the unimaginable absolute is rendered comprehensible to us by relativity, and by His being also Compassionate. Thus the act of creation is not only an exercise by God in relativity, but also in compassion. Atoms coming together to start life is an act of compassion.
The limitless compassion of God has been made felt by His being Compassionate. To be Compassionate therefore, is to know what the Absolute Compassion is like and to be nearer to Him. It is through our awareness of Him that we start to grow and become aware of His Compassion. And it is therefore, in the Name of Allah, the Compassion, the Compassionate that the whole Reading, the Qur’an, begins, and keeps going. Without the reasoning behind it, I could not have understood the meaning of the first Ayah in the Qur’an, nor could I have been able to render it as I did.
As I was contemplating the first Ayah of the Qur’an, God came through as the Limitless Consciousness of the limitless Universe. I could not in any way conceive of God as being separate from the Universe or the Universe as being dead without consciousness. For death, as we know it, is not absolute, but is a created experience in relativity:
“We have instituted death amongst You where none had done it before. It was to replace your kind and Recreate you in other forms which ye do not know.”
As I compared my rendition of the first Ayah with other English renditions, I could not help but feel that something very important was missing in the other renditions. They seemed to miss the significance of the words “Rahman” and “Rahim” coming together as they do in the original Ayah without a hyphen or any sign that would make them separate. Some renditions seemed to treat the two words as two synonyms with only a slight difference. Take for instance the following renditions by some well-known translators:
1. In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent.
2. In the Name of God, the All Merciful, the All Beneficent.
3. In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace.
4. In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
By the use of the “Most”, God the Absolute is reduced to relativity. It is as if there were many gods, and this one is the most merciful among them. And by the use of the word “All”, God is rendered absolute only without His exercise of creation. The rendition is deprived of that delicate balance between the absolute and the relative, the visible and the invisible and their indivisibility in Him. Though my rendition is far from perfect, it may be said that it is the most painstaking human attempt yet to come close to conveying the spirit of the Qur’an in English.
Many have described my rendition as being “inspired” and that “it sparkles with insight”. They said that it had “preserved the beauty of the original Arabic and its music.” If so, I must admit that I have had no will in it of my own. It came from God according to His Will. From that remarkable day of 21 March 1978, when I was awakened to do it, I have grown in consciousness and humility to believe in the Qur’an whole, it being from God who is the Consciousness of the Universe. I have since reflected on all the questions that I had and found their convincing answers in the Qur’an. Scientific Islam became for me more scientific and encompassing than the so-called scientific Marxism, Freudian psychology or Darwinian evolutionism.
As you read this rendition of the Qur’an, my only prayer is that it provides you with a sparkle that inflames your love for Him. My prayer is that you find your own key that unlocks the jewels of compassion and understanding of this universe. I pray that this work maybe the beginning of a new renaissance in interpreting the Qur’an and translating it into our daily lives. The only reward I seek is forgiveness from God and His gardens of bliss, after serving my time on this earth.