On several occasions in the past I have owned copies of the Qur’an, but read very little of it. This is because the translation from Arabic into English was very poor. Actually, I should note that to use the word “translation” when referring to an English version of the Qur’an is often considered incorrect by Muslims, because Muslims believe God revealed the Qur’an in Arabic and that it cannot be accurately translated. Certain stylistic nuances of the text are necessarily lost in any English translation. Muslims prefer to refer to English translations as “transliterations”, a term intended to reflect the idea that English translations will never be wholly sufficient.
Over the Christmas holidays, I was browsing online and I noticed there was a relatively new translation of the Qur’an that I hadn’t seen before. The translation was published as part of an Oxford World Classics series, and the text was translated by a person named M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. I decided to buy the Kindle version of this translation and see how I got on.
After reading the very interesting and informative introduction to the book, I began to read the text of Haleem’s translation of the Qur’an, and I was immediately struck by the clarity and power of the text. This translation, I immediately felt, is in a whole other league to the translations I had attempted to read previously. Reading the text was a joyful experience, and I felt none of the resistance I had felt when attempting to read the other translations many years ago.
The Qur’an is said to have been revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel over a period of many years. The Qur’an testifies within itself to its own authority in a very interesting way — on various occasions it challenges the reader to “produce a verse like this yourself” (I am paraphrasing) if you believe these words are not divine revelation. I have to be honest and say that the words I read were indeed very powerful, and I felt no doubt — much to my surprise — that the text is indeed of divine origin.
A few years ago I read James White’s book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an, in which White intends to discredit the text of the Qur’an. White focuses his book on what he believes to be problems with the supposed authority and inerrancy of the Qur’an. However, as I was reading Abdel Haleem’s translation, I began to feel a kind of disdain towards James White’s project because, to me, the text seemed to be so obviously divinely inspired.
I would describe the content of the Qur’an as a message about the fact that there is one true God. This message was given to the Arab people via the prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an mentions Christianity and Judaism a great deal, and in the text there are many passages referring to stories found in the Bible. It was really interesting, for instance, to read the story of Joseph and his technicolour dream coat, and many other stories from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures that were seemingly revealed to Muhammad without him actually having encountered these stories in his own life prior to receiving the revelation from the Angel Gabriel. Muslim readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems the divine nature of the Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be evidenced in the fact that Muhammad could not have had knowledge of these Bible stories aside from divine revelation.
There are certainly things contained within the Qur’an that cannot be easily reconciled with Biblical Christianity. One example is, of course, that Jesus is described as a prophet, rather than having a divine nature as most Christians believe. The Qur’an does, however, refer to Jesus’ miraculous powers. The doctrine of the Trinity is also questioned in the text, in that the Qur’an teaches one should not refer to God as ‘three’, because God is One. I made many notes as I was reading the text and I have a great many questions that I would like to discuss with a Muslim scholar, if God ever provides me with an opportunity to do so.
It seems to me that the Qur’an is a revelation given to the Arabs which is supposed to be a light to their people, in the same way at the Jews received a light in the form of the Mosaic law, and Christians received divine revelation in the teaching of Jesus. The Qur’an is intended to be a corrective text; there are repeated warnings in its pages that people must not ‘overstep the mark’ in their beliefs — for instance, by saying God has a Son, when in reality, God does not beget children. The Qur’an attempts to put right supposed mistakes made by the ‘people of the book’ (the Jews and Christians) who it alleges have strayed from the reality of who God is.
I didn’t read the whole of the Qur’an. I read about two thirds of it. The reason why I didn’t read the whole Qur’an is that I believe the revelation is not for me personally, taking into account my Christian heritage and also the role that God has given me in life — that I am to respect religious differences and help people to overcome obstacles to interfaith understanding. My decision not to read the whole Qur’an should be perceived as indicating my respect for the Muslim people; the Qur’an is their revelation and should be respected as such. I do not need to know everything about the Qur’an for the life purpose God has given me. If there are things I do need to learn about the Qur’an, I trust that God will reveal these things to me through my future interactions with Muslims.
At the centre of the teaching contained in the Qur’an is the idea that we will all face judgment from God one day. It is strongly emphasised in the text that Muslims must be charitable. I love the fact that the text is repetitive in very many places for the sake of emphasis; for instance, the phrase ‘God does whatever He pleases’ is repeated at the end of many passages throughout the Qur’an. As someone who has a very high view of God’s sovereignty, this was a delight to me.
For many people reading this article, it will perhaps seem unexpected and surprising that I should give such respect and reverence to the Qur’an. However, please do not pass judgment upon me or the Qur’an until you have at least read a portion of Abdel Haleem’s translation / transliteration for yourself. I feel that reading the Qur’an has helped cement my own passion for interfaith dialogue and understanding, as there are clearly so many opportunities for fascinating debate when comparing the Qur’an to the teaching found in the Bible and Torah.
Please note that there may well be errors and imperfections in what I have written. This post was written to share some thoughts and is not intended to be all-encompassing. I apologise if anyone of any faith is offended by anything I have written, or if I have made mistakes. I have tried to write sincerely and truthfully. Please email me via the contact page if you feel I have made any factual errors. Thank you for reading.