The Quran, Arabic, and Translations
Muslims generally have been reluctant, even resistant, to translating the Quran into other languages—a notion known as the doctrine of the inimitability (i‘jaz) of the Quran.1 The usual explanation for this hesitation has been that the meaning cannot be fully transferred from the Arabic into other languages. For example, Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr referred to the Quran as “the verbatim Word of God in Islam.”2 Consequently, it is claimed, “no translation has been able or ever will be able to render the full meaning and ‘presence’ of the text.”3 Pickthall announced in the preface to his translation of the Quran: “The Koran cannot be translated. That is the belief of old-fashioned Sheykhs and the view of the present writer…. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Koran.”4 These declarations betray what J.I. Packer labeled an almost “superstitious regard” for the Quran.5 Indeed, they manifest an unjustified reverence for the Arabic language.
Of course, this claim is unfounded and indefensible—for at least two reasons. While misunderstanding and misinterpretation certainly can occur, all linguists know that the accurate transference of meaning from one language to another is achievable. Millions of people who speak differing languages are able to communicate with each other every day. The United Nations and governments around the world regularly engage in political and economic interaction, fully capable of grasping each other’s intended meanings. The fact that misunderstanding sometimes occurs does not negate the fact that correct meanings may be conferred from one language to another, and that the participants can know that they have understood each other correctly. Was God incapable of providing the world with His Word in such a way that its meaning can be transferred into the thousands of human languages that exist? Of course, He could. If we can understand each other by overcoming language barriers—surely the originator of human language can communicate His message through multiple human languages! The claim that the Quran cannot be fully comprehended unless one reads it in Arabic is a claim that demonstrates ignorance of linguistics and the science of translation.
Additionally, the claim stands in conflict with the nature of God. The one true God would not insist that His Word remain in one language—let alone Arabic. He would not require the whole world to learn Arabic.6 In fact, this claim stands in contradiction to the Quran itself. Since it speaks favorably of the Bible, the Quran implicitly endorses the fact that God previously conveyed His will in three languages (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).7 Yet, no Greek-speaking person was required to learn Hebrew or Aramaic, and no one whose native language was Hebrew was required to learn Greek. Jesus, Himself a Jew, often quoted from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Indeed, the Septuagint translation--though imperfect--was, in fact, the primary translation of the Old Testament used by the apostles and the early church.
What’s more, the first century phenomenon of tongue-speaking in the New Testament church demonstrates that God does not favor one particular human language or expect His communication to be confined to a single language. On the day of Pentecost, Jewish Arabs were present in Jerusalem who spoke Arabic (Acts 2:11). The apostles did not expect those gathered to give priority to the Arabic language but, in fact, accommodated the wide variety of languages spoken by the pilgrims (vs. 8).8 In the church at Corinth, both the miraculous ability to speak a foreign language as well as the gift of interpretation of other languages is implicitly endorsed by God (1 Corinthians 11-14).
The very nature of God’s communicative activities militates against the notion that He would suddenly lock His Word into one language and then require everyone to learn how to understand and read that fourth language. In fact, the fixation—even obsession—that the Quran manifests toward “Arabic” (Surah 12:2; 13:37; 16:103; 20:113; 26:195; 39:28; 41:3; 42:7; 43:3; 46:12; cf. 41:44) implies a human author—one who was overly influenced by, enamored with, and subject to his restricted, limited linguistic environment.9
1 Fazlur Rahman (1979), Islam (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), second edition, p. 40.
2 Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2003), Islam (New York: HarperCollins), p. 3.
4 Mohammed M. Pickthall (1930), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor), p. vii.
5 J.I. Packer (1958), “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1976 reprint, pp. 89-90.
7 Though Muslims now claim the Bible has been corrupted, the fact that God originally transmitted the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek is not disputed.
9 NOTE: Though the Quran repeatedly claims to have been given in “pure and clear” (Surah 16:103) Arabic speech—“in the perspicuous Arabic tongue” (Surah 26:195)—the fact is that it contains several foreign, non-Arabic words. For example, Syriac words occur in the Quran, including masih (Messiah) in Surah 3:45, furqan (salvation) in Surah 2:50, and istabraq (silk brocade) in Surah 76:21. Cf. Alphonse Mingana (1927), “Syriac Influences on the Style of the Koran,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, :77-98, available on-line at: http://answering-islam.org/Books/Mingana/Influence/index.htm; D.S. Margoliouth (1939), “Some Additions to Professor Jeffery’s Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (London):53-61; Anis A. Shorrosh (1988), Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab’s View of Islam (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), p. 199.