My first Quran was the 1934 translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. With English and Arabic text side by side, plus ample commentary, it was a good introduction to the Muslims’ holy book. However, I didn’t find it an easy read. I could not get a sense for its structure, and the verses seemed unorganized and fragmented. I struggled to complete reading its 114 chapters with over 6000 verses and felt, at the end, that I needed to start over again. So I found a different translation and started over. The new translation was different from Ali’s literary style, and featured only the English text, which made it difficult to cross-reference a verse or phrase with an Arabic speaker. By the time I finished reading the last verse, I realized that the Quran was not like any other book. Being of divine origin, it naturally exceeds human conceptions of organization and begs to be read, studied, reflected upon and discussed.
There are dozens of translations of the Quran, and each translator brings to light the meanings he understood through his research and experience. The more translations I read, the more frustrated I became. Wanting to both understand its meaning more deeply and experience the oral recitations in Arabic, I decided to study the single Arabic version available – the original words of God dutifully preserved since its revelation 1450 years ago. I undertook my study in stages. My first goal was to get a gist of the meaning so that I could follow the Arabic recitation in the mosque or over the radio. Having accomplished that, I studied the words, one by one, and penciled in my translation on the pages. By then, I had a fair understanding of the basic meaning in Arabic. My next goal was to read the Arabic text and so I would listen to recordings while moving my finger along the Arabic script, which was later followed by the study and practice of pronunciation. After years of study, I had surpassed my original goal and was able to understand, read and recite the Quran.
My experience with the Arabic Quran was vastly different from the English translations I had read. The Quran is an Arabic-language literary masterpiece both technically and aesthetically, making it impossible to translate the rhythm, rhyme, depth of denotation and subtlety of connotation. The oral recitation is deeply moving, often bringing the listener to tears for its beauty and impact. With regular reading, I began to experience a pattern of different emotions as I progressed through the Quran. The first third is tiring to me and demands my focused attention to detail. The second third is easier to read and appeals to my philosophical, contemplative nature. Gradually, the text becomes more powerful. The sentence structure grows increasingly short and terse, the vocabulary more rich, the rhyme more obvious. The intensity of expression lends a sense of urgency to the text and evokes strong emotions like awe, humility, tension, anxiety, hope and longing. My turbulent emotions peak near the end, which is followed by a calm resolution that stems from three commands that set me again on a clear and tranquil path. This pattern of emotions intrigued me, which led me to a more in-depth study of the Quran’s subject matter.
The first third has long chapters and long verses, but the structure is simple and clear. It is first and foremost a call to pure monotheistic faith and declares in very clear terms that there is only one God, the Creator of all. It outlines the main acts of worship – strict monotheistic belief, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage – and gives a blueprint for building an Islamic community. It includes instructions related to marriage and family life, diet, spending, inheritance, and caring for vulnerable sectors of society. It emphasizes justice and moderation. This section also discusses principles of war and peace, peace and defense treaties, and jihad, which is the ongoing struggle to remove obstacles to justice and peace. The first third is an indispensable handbook for balanced personal and communal life.
The second third of the Quran seems to focus more on natural, historic and spiritual phenomena that build faith in God’s power, control and wisdom. My attention was drawn to natural phenomena such as the origin of the universe and the significance of water in creation, (21:30), the creation and development of the embryo (23:14), the properties of milk and honey (16:66,69), the underground structure and purpose of mountains (16:15), the language of ants and birds (27), deep seas and interior waves, barriers between fresh and salty water (24:40, 25:53) lightning, and sleep (30), all of which point to a Single Creator and Lord of the universe. Among the familiar things of this world, an unseen reality is also described, including angels, devils, Paradise and Hellfire, things we realize are not beyond the ability of an all-powerful Creator. Here the purpose of our earthly life is outlined – a test of faith and deed – and the inevitability of judgment and recompense is emphasized.
This section also mentions many miracles, such the story of Mohammad’s night journey to Jerusalem and ascension to the Heavens, the story of several youth who slept for 300 years. It describes the miracles of Moses – the staff, his hand, the Red Sea – as well of those of Jesus, including his immaculate conception and his ability to cure the sick and raise the dead, all by God’s permission. All of these subjects, which range from history to the Hereafter, from natural phenomena to nature-defying miracles, from the purpose of this life to what awaits us in the next, call me to faith and goodness.
The last third of the Quran, like the first, has prescriptions for the faithful but they lean toward personal behavior rather than family, commercial or military matters. For example, chapter 49 forbids slandering others, looking down on others, spying on one another, backbiting, defamation and suspicion. Many verses urge us to refine and perfect our character and behavior, and remind us of God’s justice, which manifests when we face the consequence of our own choices. Key verses are “No bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burdens” (53:38), “On that day you will be exposed; not a secret of yours will be hidden” (69:18) and “Shall we treat those who believe and do good works as those who spread corruption in the Earth; or shall we treat the pious as the wicked?” (38:29). Complementary verses describe in alternation the punishment of ingrates, unrepentant sinners and those heedless of God’s warnings, and the relief and reward of those with firm faith and wholesome work. Descriptions of Paradise are particularly enticing.
When I read the Quran as a whole, I am taken on both a rational and emotional journey that is not unlike the experience of a being engrossed in a skillfully crafted novel, or a beautifully orchestrated symphony, or a brilliantly produced film. The integrity, meaning and nuance of the verses impact me each time in similar ways and yet differently, depending on my frame of mind or current events in my life. Awestruck at its brilliance and beauty, I am thankful for the privilege of my journey with the Quran. Every step on the path, whether reading a translation of the meanings, or delving into a dictionary in painstaking study, or donning headphones for enraptured listening, is an experience with the Divine Speech. I have found nothing in life as enriching, as satisfying, as beautiful. It’s the discovery of a lifetime.