In the weeks after September 11 2001, several American friends asked me: “Which translation of the Koran should I read?” It was a good question, if a bit naïve. Would anyone ask which translation of the New Testament they should read in order to understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland? If my friends got as far as the ninth surah (or chapter) of the Koran, they would have read: “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them, arrest them, imprison them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every site of ambush.” This is how Tarif Khalidi’s new translation, The Qur’an (Penguin, 556 pp, £25), has it. The verse is much quoted by al-Qa’eda spokesmen; it is reputed to be one of Osama bin Laden’s personal favourites.
My friends might also have noted the eerily apposite verse in surah 4:76: “Wherever you may be, death will overtake you, even if you live in loftiest towers,” or felt a shiver of belated premonition at surah 74:30, with its mention of the 19 “scorching” angels who stand at the brink of hell, eternally stoked for “unbelievers”. But doesn’t the Koran also say, in a justly celebrated verse (2:256): “There is no compulsion in religion”? Puzzled as they might have been to find themselves lumped with polytheists, my friends would also have noted that the Koran contains many sublime passages, such as the beautiful “light verses” of surah 24:35, again in Khalidi’s translation:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
His light is like a niche in which is a lantern,
The lantern in a glass,
The glass like a shimmering star,
Kindled from a blessed tree,
An olive, neither of the East nor of the West,
Its oil almost aglow, though untouched by fire.
Light upon light!
At least four new translations of the Koran into English have appeared since 2001. These include the superb, if rather staccato, version of M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (now available in Oxford World’s Classics), and — in 2007 alone — The Sublime Quran (Islamicworld), a feminist translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, touted as “the first English translation of the Quran [sic] by an American woman”, and The Qur’an (Gibb Memorial Trust), a magisterial version by Alan Jones, professor of Arabic at Oxford and a leading authority on early Arabic; his translation is to be followed by a commentary volume next year. (Incidentally, Jones is the only one of the three translators who transliterates the title correctly as “The Qur’?n” with a long final “a”. To avoid confusion, I use the long-accepted English form “Koran” here.)