It is common knowledge among many Muslims that the Qur’an cannot be translated into any language other than Arabic, for then the original, intended meaning of the verses may be lost. Therefore, any attempt to translate the Qur’an is, first and foremost, an attempt to interpret it. Because people have multiple lenses and frameworks from which they visit the Qur’anic text, we have at our disposal, a wide breadth of translations. The themes in these can range from being concerned highly with spirituality and philology, such as the translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, to modern conceptions of the message that deal with individual chapters as united entities, such as the translation I shall be dealing with in this review, The Qur’an: A New Translation by Thomas Cleary. I shall be dividing this essay into three sections: a section on the biography and background of the translator; a section on the individual examples of what makes his translation peculiar, interesting, and flawed; and a discussion on the matters that arise as a result of poking at those individual examples.
Cleary’s Life and Career
Thomas Cleary was born in 1949. Within the next two decades became highly interested in Buddhism. He began translating books at the age of 18, primarily with the intention of learning more about his new found interest. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. His eighty works of translation are a library in and of themselves, and include the one of the world’s best-selling interpretations of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Avatamsaka Sutra, Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings, and Zen Master Dogen’s Record of things heard. He is not affiliated with any type of Engaged Buddhism, and he is not part of any academic cliques. This is due to his disenchantment with academic setting, stating himself that “There is too much oppression in a university setting.”1
Cleary’s translation of the Qur’an is relatively recent, published in 2004 under the Starlatch publication company. His translation, as described in the foreword of the book, is presented primarily as an opening of the Arabic language to English speakers who would otherwise be unable to catch the subtlety and sublimity of the Arabic language through means of writing long interpretive passages.2 For this reason, he does not include in his translation any footnotes, descriptive denotations, or glossaries. In fact, the translation itself contains nothing except the text in English. The author takes small but tactful poetic liberties, including slight structural alterations, in order to maintain the evocations that the Arabs of old would experience through reading the text themselves. Therefore, this is not a literal work by any means, and does not delve into the linguistic exactness that other Western translations are known for.
It is quite possible to gauge the entirety of this translation for its connections to Eastern scriptural works, for much of the translation tends to follow the trend of his previous ones: the text is concerned with spirituality, and the sanctity and depth of each verse. Cleary’s translation contains a set of notable points that stand out as interesting when compared to previous translations. For one, the way the author navigates around word usage and jargon is by completely demolishing the noun-focused structure of previous translations; nowhere in this translation are Arabic words left transliterated. For example, his translation of the word jinn, which, in many other works is left alone given the specific quality of the word, is the word sprite,3 which may be more familiar to an English-speaking audience given the Western world’s popular contact with ‘magic culture’ and fairy tales. The implications of using a word with heavy connotations shall be discussed later in this essay.
Words such as ‘peacemakers’ in other translations are replaced with something more familiar, as well: ‘reformers.’4 This is quite possibly done in the name of evocation. While the word ‘peacemakers’ is antiquated in itself, it also carries the popular connotation of pacifism and mediation. To evoke something more like ‘a group of people attempting to change the social and religious landscape to improve conditions’ he uses a word more familiar to the present, as reform is plentiful in the modern era, and can often carry a more sinister tone of rapid change without heed as opposed to stable conservatism.
The mystery letters are treated with a familiar reverence, as they are left as individual capitalized letters rather than interpreted.5 This in particular shows the lengths that the author goes to in order to resist giving a pointed structure when translating the Qur’an. While many other interpreters have attempted to explain these elusive verses of the Qur’an, the author leaves them as-is in order to allow the reader to organically come across them as mysteries. This places power upon the reader and elevates them somewhat to the level of interpreter, the way the Qur’an would to anyone reading it. Of course, the efficacy of allowing anyone to be in the position of interpreter is a subject of debate, but no one can dismiss the fact that a copy of an Arabic mushaf today would have the same effect upon the reader, leaving alone the mystical implications of the Arabic text in and of itself.
While the above points may seem trivial, they are of great importance through their implications. The larger points, however, are forthcoming. Note that the smaller points, especially the use of more modern terminology to evoke a sense of the original meaning of the words, lead into the larger structural points.
Implications of This Translation
The most obvious structural feature of this work is that the entire Qur’an is organized into a poetic format, with line breaks arranged where they would, by the author’s discretion, logically appear in an English reading. While the ayah format is intact, the additional line breaks are present for a poetic styling. This can be rightly compared to the organization of Beowulf, a story that is at once a lengthy poem and a work of fiction. This is an epic format. The heavy connotations of this are staggering; the Qur’an is being presented as a coherent, straightforward book, with chronological skips and vivid details in its stories, and lessons to be learned from its Author’s messages to His emissary, all for literary engagement. That is, the Qur’an is presented as not only a Divine work, but also a work of literature. This is further exemplified by the author’s use of chapter-sections in many of the surat.
The chapter-sections, are placed where, again, at the author’s discretion they would logically appear. This is usually at the end of a section of an account related to a prophet or other figure, or at the end of a set of laws or rules concerning the Prophet Muhammad or his community. The effect of these sections is that they focus the text into a set of narratives, making it easier for the intended audience to resonate with the message being presented. The other effect of these sections can be understood as the sura being framed as a unity. Verses that could be understood as individual entities on their own, not necessarily having to connect to the verse before or after them, let alone to an entire section of verses, can now be linked and associated with an overarching theme. Examples of this are everywhere in Cleary’s work, but a very good example can be found in Sura 63: The Hypocrites.6
There are two sections in this chapter, and they have very clear messages and goals. The first section of the relatively short chapter is about how to identify the munafiqun, or the hypocritical people during the life of the Prophet Muhammad who claimed to be Muslim but were secretly plotting against the Muslim polity, especially in Medina. To readers in general, it has the likely lesson of how to identify people who are disloyal, and how to refrain from disloyalty themselves. The second section of this chapter concludes it with a warning to the believers, as is often encountered in the Qur’an, about trusting completely in God and spending (whether money, time, or toil) in His way, and not allowing property or feelings of entitlement to bar you from this process. The way that the sections are presented in relation to the chapter at large, and to the entire translation, is that the two sections are somehow related to each other. It is difficult to determine for the average reader the exact relation between the two sections, but the mystery of how the themes intersect is likely meant to allow room for interpretation on the reader’s part.
Another major (and possibly controversial) issue that the author brings up in his translation is his usage of the word ‘atheist’ in order to singularly describe the word kafir.7 This is mainly controversial because the word ‘atheist,’ especially now carries the connotation of a person who does not believe in any divine entities. It seems that, according to the Oxford American-English dictionary, the actual definition by which much of the world uses this word is of similar purport: “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.”8 This is a strange way to define the word kafir, but it is not the first time this has been proposed by modern exegetes and interpreters. I personally find this perplexing because it is used generally, as if all people who are labeled kuffar in the Qur’an are committed materialists and do not believe in any deities, when this is generally understood not to be true. The pre-Islamic Arabs were pagan, after all, and did worship at least a base of three goddesses, more than three hundred gods of various rank and idol form, and acknowledged some form of belief in the Supreme Deity, translated into Arabic as Allah, but were unconvinced of His commitment to the world. To assert that these people were ‘atheist’ must come with another, subtler understanding of the word, though this seems to go against the plan for this translation to encompass the feeling of the original text by means of modern word usage.
It seems that the word ‘atheist’ is accompanied occasionally by the word ‘atheistic’ in various places in the Qur’an. It is difficult to ascertain what this word means when applied to a person rather than an action or set of actions. When applied to a set of actions, this word could mean that they were inspired by the lack of belief in deities, or even that the action was the logical conclusion of lack of belief in general. However, when applied to a person, some possibilities open up as to the meaning of the word. Does it mean that a person is an atheist? Perhaps, but then the word would more accurately be penned as ‘atheist.’ Atheistic here may mean ‘exhibiting the traits of an atheist,’ in which case the use of the word ‘atheist’ throughout the translation may be a harsh means of describing the superficiality of belief the Arab pagans had when dealing with their gods. It may also be purporting that belief in an ‘inauthentic religion’ such as the Arab paganism, roughly equates to believing in nothing at all. Either way, the usage of this word raises some questions as to whether the author intended to cater to Western audiences in political correctness in addition to word usage, as well as to which spiritual background the author assumes the audience is coming from.
What effect does the author’s spiritual and academic background have on the text? I find that a good gauge of the presence of an Eastern philosophical lens can be found in the translation of the sura Ikhlas, the 114th chapter of the Qur’an.9 This chapter summarizes the entire basis of belief in one God, the Islamic concept of ‘Tawhid,’ strict monotheism, that requires the Muslim to abandon any associates he or she places with God, as well as reinforcing the belief that God cannot have equals and is utterly self-sufficient. While most translations see this chapter as essentially painting God as completely separate from His creation, certain interpreters, especially those of a background in Eastern religions and philosophies, view creation as an intra-God10 emanation, so that God is utterly and completely Existant, and that nothing else exists but Him. This view also skirts around the concept of God associating with His creation. The translation for the word ahad in the Qur’an is usually translated as ‘One’ but through this mystical lens is sometimes translated as ‘Unique’ instead, referencing the concept of God as The Unity, by which all other things are able to exist through logical necessity. This is how Cleary translates the word.
The existence of this lens is further reinforced by Cleary’s choice to use ‘It’ for the Arabic hua, almost always translated as “He.”11 This also points to a modern understanding of the ‘gender’ of God, and this may well be translated as such in order to emphasize that Arab society simply did not have a concept of ‘It’ whereas ours does, and ‘It’ fully captures the essence of the term for our purposes. I do not believe this is an accurate way of translating the word, and perhaps that is a reason to look into the question of if it is actually possible to convey the intended or previously understood meaning of a word without any context or notes, all in another language. There is a connection of the Qur’an to Arabic that renders translations ‘incomplete’ versions of the Qur’an.12
The author seeks to remedy the discrepancy between the modern connotations and usages of words and the intended meaning by relying on his verse structure and the flow of his translation. By arranging stops, pauses, shortened and elongated words, and section-endings, he controls the emotional output of the verses, allowing the engaged reader to get a feel for the verses. Does this structure, though undoubtedly painstakingly arranged and authored, betray a feeling of open-endedness rather than pragmatism or practicality? There are areas in the Qur’an that are focused completely on laws, inheritance, divorce, war, and government that are highly practical in nature and essentially allow believing readers to specifically follow guidelines12. There are many others that are evocative and vivid. It seems as though the poetic structure of the entire translation downplays the seriousness of the former, while preserving the spiritual benefit of the former to an extent. This, ultimately, is best left to preference, because no particular instance in his translation opposes the original meaning of the Qur’an as read in Arabic, it simply guides readers into frames of thinking.
The Qur’an: A New Translation by Thomas Cleary is a masterful translation that generally captures the essence of the Qur’anic verses in Arabic while maintaining a poetic consistency and modern, thought-provoking use of sectioning and unifying chapters and verses to establish a cohesiveness about the scripture. It is a feat that no words are left transliterated, and the author’s academic lens is applied to the spiritual concepts presented in the text subtly and tactfully. However, several verses and word usages are problematic, and this is likely the result of catering to a specific audience with long-standing issues with religious authority and heavy connotations placed on words having to do with belief and spirituality. Also, the goal of the translation as being to preserve the original meaning without any contextual clues or footnotes may be a bit far-fetched, as the English language is far too structurally incompatible with Qur’anic Arabic to fully convey the intended meanings, at least without significant explanation and partial exegetical attachments or glossaries.
1 SONSHI.COM, “Sonshi.” Last modified 2011. Accessed October 12, 2013. http://www.sonshi.com/cleary.html.
2 Thomas Cleary, The Qur’an: A New Translation, (Starlatch, 2004).
3 Qur’an 72:1-28
4 Ibid. 2:11
5 Ibid. 7:1
6 Ibid. 63:1-11
7 Ibid. 109:1
8 Oxford English Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. s.v. “definition of atheist in Oxford Dictionary (British and World English).” http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/atheist?q=atheist (accessed October 11, 2013).
9 Qur’an 114:1
10Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989), 11.
11 Qur’an 114:1
12 Ingrid Mattson, The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life, (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 142.
12 Ibid. 215