Questions of Islamic Traditions

Within Islamic traditions, there seems to be a pattern regarding the questions that each tradition seeks to answer. For example, the question that I will ask as a student in a Western university system seeking to understand Islam will be vastly different than a student learning in a madrasa system.

My question to the Professor is almost always fits into the frame of a mega-question: “What Does It Mean To Be Muslim?” This question will come in the form of “What Do I Believe?” or “What inspired _____ to act in this manner?” And, usually, the questions are framed in response to my own Islamic practices: “I pray, fast, and believe in One God and the Prophets, so why/how/to what extent does this other group believe in things that do not conform to this understanding?”

However, the madrasa-goer will ask another question of his Shaykh. It usually sounds something like, “What Does God Want of Me?” or “What Does God Want Me To Do?” The asker of this question, as is obvious, presupposes that God exists and is capable and interested of commanding humans toward certain actions. The specific questions that adhere to this model include things like,“How do I pray?” or “What does it mean to lower your gaze?” In this way, the difference between the inquirer at the university and the one at the madrasa is that the former seeks and will acquire information and then paint that information with his previous experience, and the latter seeks and will acquire transformation and will ask further questions upon the completion of this transformation.

The university student is highly critical, and treats information in the way of the empiricists: valuable in its relation to other information, dissectable, and forever subject to explication. The madrasa-goer treats knowledge as sacred: the knowledge must be practiced and applied, or else it goes to waste and, in animated form, haunt you for it.

Of course, these pedagogical categories are rough and often overlap. Also, these two types of questions are two of the many essential ones that exist in the Islamic tradition. Some other observations that I have come across when attempting to understand Islamic trends through the lens of their primary questions are:

“What am I?” – I have come across this attitude when approaching texts that deal with Neoplatonism that deals with God as the First Cause and such. If you are an emanation of God, do you actually have all those qualities that make you seemingly ‘more’ than that? This comes up with the mystics as well, who will take to addressing this question with the ultimate answer “none Other-Than-God,” to much controversy.

“Who am I?” – The idea that a person can be identified as a ‘who’ tells me that the thinker in question is dealing with questions of identity, and views the answers to these questions as important. The modern thinker deals with these questions, it seems, because the clustering of so many different cultures and ideas as is the case in the modern world creates a need to be ‘different’ than one another, and use things like race, class, culture, gender, sex, and religion to navigate these confusing waters.

“What is God?” – This seems to be the central question to the philosophers in the Islamic tradition, who, in their Hellenistic tendencies, tend to see God as more of an abstraction than anything else, and take elements of Islam that are thought of as orthodox or at least normative, and evaluate them in conformity to the reality that God is a non-emotional thing that Creates, and through its act of creation, brings all other things into a natural harmony.

“Who is God?” – The mystics love this question, because knowing God is so central to the idea of worshiping Him. Meditations, remembrances, revelations, and inspirations that are gained in the course of this quest for understanding God all seek to engage God as someone that you can love, that can love you, and all sorts of other things. Whatever the ultimate answer to this question is, it cannot be put into words, only experiences…or a single experience.

“What is a Muslim?” – The Legalists, while not being a separate group per se, see Islam primarily as rules and regulations that work in order to assist mankind to conform to the perfect example of the Prophet in the easiest way possible. All of the rulings, limitations, fatwas, edicts, and prohibitions are formed to answer to the layman what the perfect person should be like, or, to put it another way, what the perfect slave to God was like. Within this question, the subquestions that can be applied to the masters of the legal schools number in the thousands. For example, the question asked by Malik ibn Anas is essentially “What do the People of Medina Do?” while the question asked by Abu Hanifa is something more like “What is the logical extension of this matter?”

Of course, there exist hundreds of more mega-questions such as these for every last group that exists within the Islamic tradition. The above are simply my understandings of these various groups and schools.

Review of “The Qur’an: A New Translation” by Thomas Cleary

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 anClearyCoverd 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

The Translation

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.

Cited Works

1 SONSHI.COM, “Sonshi.” Last modified 2011. Accessed October 12, 2013.

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).” (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


Thoughts on Tonight’s CAIR Banquet

Can there be some form of actual distinction between the works of an organisation that render their constituents servile and their works that allow them to obtain independence? Is there legitimacy to a unified organisation that instills a sense of dependence in its constituents? And how is this reflected in leadership hierarchies in the Islamic tradition?

How does one maintain servility in a constituent group through PR? Stats, etc. Coming to the plate at every step of the way, including primarily bad happenings that can be ‘fixed’ with ‘good’ PR.

If institution building is key, how can institutions incorporate youth? Does control work in the rebellion-ethos? Maybe not. Is it avoidable? No. So, the reconciliation process must begin through addressing the youth, insofaras institution building is actually key. Is the uniting under institutions conducive to what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls a God-pleasing life? Does pleasing God require full autonomy?

How does this autonomy in fulfilling a God-pleasing life apply to women (a large portion of this population) within unifying structures? They don’t just magically obtain autonomy even in a theoretical situation where control is nullified, they must be given back that autonomy by men- or rather take that autonomy back from men. This is all assuming control-less institutions can actually exist, but also in the sphere of understanding that women simply do not have an equitable or comparable level of privilege or power OUTSIDE of these structures.

Perhaps it is most important to discuss, then, how to restore (or even create) a balance of power OUTSIDE of institutions. If we do not attempt to create a balance of power in this “real” realm, then it is impossible in this cloudy, theoretical realm of institution structures. As Dr. Sherman Jackson said, “Islam does reality.”

Let’s work on accomplishing these goals in reality, and then we can worry about their processes in the imaginary, institution realm. Until then, expect control, and expect servility to the institute.