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One Verse in the Qur'an

I admit I did not read the Koran in the original Arabic. But I didn’t read it in English either. The only copy I owned was a French translation (Le Coran, trans. Kasimirski, Paris: Garnier-Flamamarion, 1970), so I read it in French. Later, as I started writing my review of the Koran, I realized I needed to reference an easily available English translation since my readers would probably not have any access to or understanding of the French translation I read.

To my surprise, the numbering of the verses in my French translation did not precisely match the numbering in the English translations. I wondered why. Even more shocking was that many interesting verses I had underlined in the French translation did not say the same thing in the English. Sometimes a verse was hardly recognizable because the meaning had so radically changed.

Consequently, I did a little checking into these matters. Here is what I found.

The numbering of the verses is different because there are two systems of numbering. Up to the 1930s, western scholars of the Koran used the numbering found in an edition of the Koran by Gustav Flügel, Corani Textus Arabicus (1834). This numbering system has been supplanted by the one used in what is called the Standard Egyptian Edition (1928). Hence, older translations use the old numbering system while more recent translations use the newer official system.

The marked difference in the translation of certain verses is a thornier issue. Although I don’t read Arabic, I do read a bit of Hebrew, which is a related Semitic language. I know that translating the Hebrew Bible is more difficult than translating the Greek New Testament because of the nature of the Hebrew language.

We simply don’t know for sure what certain ancient Hebrew words actually meant in their time because these words occur only once in the Bible, and the context gives no clear indication as to what they might have signified. Outside the Bible, there are no other ancient Hebrew texts from which to draw further information. Furthermore, questions about spelling, verb tenses, poetic syntax, and idiomatic usages create uncertainty in various places.

All of this applies to medieval Arabic as well. As one scholar has written, “Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand.” I take it that, for the average Arab, reading medieval Arabic is a bit like reading Chaucer in the original would be for the average American, or even worse. What is more, the Koran alludes to stories and events that seem to have confounded even the earliest Muslim scholars.

To illustrate what I mean, I have chosen part of one verse in the Koran, sura 4:34a (new system) or 4:38a (old system), to serve as an example. The differences in translation are striking, and I wonder if this is owing to the obscurity of the language or to the controversial content.

In the tenth edition of The Glorious Quran by Muhammad Pickthall (Des Plaines, IL: Library of Islam, 1994), the verse reads as follows: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.”

Here’s how N. J. Dawood’s translation, The Koran with Parallel Arabic Text (London: Penguin Books, 2006), goes: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them.”

In The Noble Qur’an (1993), a translation published in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one reads, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g., their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.).”

Contrast these three translations with that of The Qur’an by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford UP, 2004): “Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husband’s absence.”

Consider the same verse in Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton UP, 1993): “Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). So women who are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it.”

The French translation I read says (in my own rather literal translation), “Men are superior to women because of the qualities by which God has raised the former above the latter, and because men use their goods to provide for women. Virtuous women are obedient and submissive; during their husbands’ absence, they carefully guard what God has ordered [them] to preserve intact.”

Which of these translations most accurately conveys the true message of the Koran? I leave it to you to decide, but I personally suspect it is the one that sounds the most medieval and the least politically correct.

Comments (1)


“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.” -- Pickthall
Men are head of the household, because Allah made one physically stronger then the other, they are able to work harder and earn living, and because they spend this wealth (to support their women). So good women are dutiful they support each other in secret (their property and respect themselves) which Allah has guarded.
My own translations and Allah knows best. Salam!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 8, 2008 10:26 AM.

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