Monday, November 30, 2015

Quran Commentary by Maryamis

A new Quran translation and commentary has just been published by HarperOne, the fruit of a ten-year project headed by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, financed by King Abdullah II of Jordan and the El-Hibri Foundation, and carried out by "students" of Nasr, notably Joseph Lumbard. It seems that in this context "students" means followers, and that what we have here is thus a work of primarily Maryami scholarship. Not all those involved with the project, or endorsing the result, are Maryamis, however.

The work is entitled The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, the phrase "Study Quran" following the example of "Study Bible," meaning an edition of the Bbible with extra material designed to support serious study. The emphasis is on commentary, with far more words devoted to commentary than to the actual translation. This is in keeping with the approach of classical Islamic scholarship, which did not just "read" the Quran as a text in isolation, but interpreted and understood it in the light of intratextual and intertextual references and other sources. The intratextual references are, of course, to other parts of the Quran; intertextual references are mostly to the hadith; and the other sources are primarily other commentators. The Study Quran generally follows this approach, though there are occasional comments that go beyond it, as when it is noted that "the right is associated with righteousness and blessedness... in Arabic, as in numerous other cultural-linguistic systems." In general, however, modern non-Muslim scholarly interpretations and discussions are ignored.

The Quran is a complex text that cannot be just "read," even in Arabic. Understanding almost any part of the Quran involves interpretation, which has to be based on something, whether a reader realizes this or not. What is true of the Arabic is even more true of a translation, as a translator needs to interpret before translating. A translation thus represents one particular interpretation, not the multiple interpretations that are possible on the basis of the Arabic text.

A translation and commentary, then, allows a reader to understand different possible interpretations. The difficulty, however, lies in deciding which interpretations to include, and which views to favor. The commentaries used in The Study Quran include the major Sunni classics, as might be expected. Modern or Salafi interpretations are generally ignored, though reference is sometimes made to Sayyid Qutb. Many Sufi commentators are included, as are some notable Shi'i commenters. On this basis, then, the commentary might be described as "traditional Sufi" and "Shi'i-Sunni," an unusual combination. Sometimes the commentary lists alternative understandings, and sometimes it cites particular commentaries. Sometimes, however, it merely gives the views of "most commentators," without identifying them or the dissenting views. This makes sense, as The Study Quran is already 2,048 pages long. It does mean, however, that in the last resort this commentary, like all commentaries, reflects the positions of its composers.

Perhaps inevitably under current circumstances, The Study Quran was reported by CNN not as a massive work of scholarship involving some unusual perspectives, but as a tool in the war against extremism. Some critics therefore responded to it in these terms, asking how terrorists were to be persuaded to use The Study Quran. This, of course, is not the real point.

A sample of The Study Quran may be downloaded here and another sample may be read on the work's dedicated website.

My thanks to JP for bring this translation to my attention.

Apologies for the long silence

Apologies to everyone for the long silence. This was while I was finishing a new book. More details in due course.