Q. Questions about the translation of the Qur'an:
1) Some commentators have stated point blank that the Qur'an cannot be translated. What is your view on this statement.
2) Some commentators have advanced the view that a "translation" of the Qur'an is not the Qur'an and that only the Arabic Qur'an is the Qur'an. What's the correct view on this issue?
3) Does any Arab nation (or any people in the Middle East or elsewhere) today "speak and write classical Arabic," that is, the Arabic of the Quraysh, in which the Qur'an was transmitted and written?
4) Is there a uniform and universal Arabic language spoken and written throughout the Middle East?
5) It has been stated that the Arabic language has remained "unchanged" for the past 1,400 years, and this has contributed to the "stability" of the Qur'an itself and the Message overall. What's is your take on this?
6) In connection with Question 5, I read that over the last two to three decades, the Arabic language is being "bastardized" by Western words which are being added to the language. For example, "telephone," "hotel," and a host of others, are simply added "as is" without going through the technical linguistic protocol of adding news words to a language. Is this correct?
I know that the French grammarians and linguists are having the same problems with "American slangs" being added to the French language; e.g. "la-hamburger," "la-hot dog," etc. What's the story regarding the Arabic language?
A. What we need to know is that a lot of these statements are made by people who have what they consider to be the so-called preservation of the Qur'an's integrity in their hearts, which dictate their brains' assumptions. Therefore, the conclusions are often based more on absurdity than scholarship. Now if the Qur'an cannot be translated, we have a problem. For God has said that: "We cannot punish until we send a Messenger." So how can we claim that Islam is a world wide religion? Or are we supposed to Arabize the entire world? Every thinker, every linguist agrees that no language can be translated verbatim. We therefore have functional translations. Indeed, even within the same language we have problems, which brings us to one of my favorite maxims of the fuqaha: "Language is by context and usage, not by literalness and lexicality."
The meaning of the Qur'an lies in its philosophy more than its every letter, for it was designed for the world -- or if we want to place it in an academically defensible light -- for a tribal society that had many sub-groups, and therefore could not aim for one specific group. It focuses on its Arabic, an umbrella term for the tongue of the various tribes, not a particular dialect for a particular group. Had it done so, it would have faced the same criticism as Judaism, a tribal religion for a specific group. In accepting the Hebrew Prophets and their teachings, in telling us to go to the ahl al dhikr for info, it shows that it does not focus on one language only. That the scholars should have come up with this joke about it being revealed in seven dialects shows that there was no one reading known.
Yet, in some ways we have to thank this jealous guardianship, for it has influenced the history and preservation of the Arabic language. For its written form, and classical spoken (I mean for a speaker to be considered truly eloquent), form are still that of the first century. And the Saudis and Yemenis, the ulama still follow this classical form. When Ibn Baz speaks, it is as if you are hearing a companion. And since most West Indians and foreigners who have studied in Saudi Arabia learn this method, unless they start picking up street Arabic, their Arabic is the same. I jealously guard mine, for it is a source of pride. Bilal Philips is at home with both, classical and street, perhaps the most accomplished Westerner in this regard (let us forget for now his credal positions). This has occurred because the ulama are concerned about losing touch with the classical language of the Qur'an. As such, calls for reformation of the language are always put down, but such calls manifest themselves in the spoken language. It is sometimes difficult for me to understand those jokers who try to reform the Arabic. It has proved functional, and there is no reason why it should not in the future.
In fact, the verbatim importation of foreign vocabulary has aided in this preservation, for a foreign word can be easily recognized -- televaaz or television (French pronunciation). It we tried to Arabise it, we would have something like "raa'i or ri'yat." Two centuries from now, these words could cause confusion for those who will see similar words in the hadith literature or the Qur'an. Even though it is farfetched, I can see some joker claiming that the night vision was actual in that the Prophet saw a television image, for it is possible that space aliens had created this for him, etc. Having had access to at least one book on the life of the Prophet by a Bangladeshi, I cannot see my fear as being farfetched. There is a uniform Arabic throughout the Middle East in the language of the scholars. The sectarian sciences are less stringent.
Yet another problem presents itself, language or no language preservation, perceptions change with time. Now within a century after the Prophet's death, Arabic underwent such a massive change that as early as that, people could not understand some words of the Qur'an, and came up with all sorts of stupid theories to defend their ignorance, instead of admitting the simple truth. This is another indication of the Qur'anic message not being focused on its letter but rather its general message, for our focus now is on understanding what it meant, what it may mean, what it may have meant, and trying to fashion something out of that. All of these are undertakings of the intellect, and is the reason why there is no need for any other Prophet, since we have completed our evolution as far as cerebral development in a spiritual light is concerned. We can grow further, but need no Messenger. I hope that I have addressed all of your questions.
Posted April 27, 1999