Reading the Qur’an – Part 2 – Interpreting and Translating

Finally, I’m getting around to writing the second part of my three part post on Reading the Qur’an. (Parts 1 and 3) The catalyst for this event was this post by Abu Dilbert (yes, that Scott Adams).

Part one of the series talked about the Arabic of the Qur’an and scholarly apparatus of the Sunni community that developed to deal with interpreting the word of God. The idea that God’s word is not necessarily clear to humans should come as no surprise, and when you introduce translations, the problem is further compounded. Most Muslims view any translation as actually an interpretation, although in my opinion, the translation simply makes the interpretation concrete. Even reading the Arabic and thinking of the meaning is an act of interpretation.

I’ve already discussed the problems with the Arabic of the Qur’an, and the difference between the specific Medinan verses and the universal Meccan ones. Within the interpretative framework developed by Muslims, several tools are used to help clarify the message, two of the most salient ones are reasons for revelation (asbab al-nazl) and abrogation. Let me start with the latter: simply put a latter verse can replace an earlier verse. Most often, outsiders view this as proof that the text is not from God as God cannot make a mistake and that abrogation is an admission of a mistake. However, most abrogated verses are abrogated for clarity, so that believers do not try to play lawyer with God’s word. A good example is the prohibition against drinking. The first revelations are mild rebukes against certain types of alcohol, and the verses get more severe until all intoxication is banned. (See for example, 4:43, 2:219, 5:90-91, in that order since that’s the chronological order of revelation). The other verses that are abrogated are from the Medinan period that are superseded by the verses of the second Meccan period. This, of course, reflects the changed material circumstances of the believers, not God; people remain temporally bound.

The reasons of revelation are exactly what they sound like. It is this tool that has allowed Muslim scholars to look at universal revelation verse specific revelation. Many of the verses relating to veiling, for example, relate to the Prophet’s wives, and not to other women. We know this from recorded actions and deeds of the companions of the Prophet, and what was said about the reason for revelation. The verses requiring four witnesses for an accusation of adultery, shamefully used against rape victims, is generally considered relevant only to the Prophet’s wife Ayesha. And so the list goes on and on.

What these two tools highlight is that verses of the Qur’an CANNOT be read in isolation, whether they say kill the Jews, or that the Christians are our brothers. There are reasons and approaches to reading the text. However, since the reformation has already hit Islam (see the first post in the series) and everyone who criticizes Islam for not having a reformation has contributed to the likes of OBL – with no apology forthcoming – the methodology has fallen apart.

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Let me switch gears for a second to the Hebrew Bible, and we can see some of the issues of taking verses out of context. The following is a letter purpotedly written to Dr. Laura (although Snopes has dismissed the claim):

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. … End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Law and how to follow them.

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. The passage clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed,including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die? I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,

You may pick the selected verses apart as you wish. However, you can hopefully see the problem with cherry-picking verses out of scripture. Without understanding the context of revelation, how can it make interpretive sense?

Now, let’s look at this issue with respect to translation in Qur’an 4:34 (the oft-cited wife beating verse). I’ve included several translations below:


Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.

Yusuf Ali:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For God is Most High, great (above you all).


Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.

Sher Ali:

Men are guardians over women because ALLAH has made some of them excel others, and because men spend on them of their wealth. So virtuous women are obedient, and guard the secrets of their husbands with ALLAH’s protection. And as for those on whose part you fear disobedience, admonish them and keep away from them in their beds and chastise them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely, ALLAH is High and Great.


The men are made responsible for the women, and GOD has endowed them with certain qualities, and made them the bread earners. The righteous women will cheerfully accept this arrangement, since it is GOD’s commandment, and honor their husbands during their absence. If you experience rebellion from the women, you shall first talk to them, then (you may use negative incentives like) deserting them in bed, then you may (as a last alternative) beat them. If they obey you, you are not permitted to transgress against them. GOD is Most High, Supreme.


Men stand superior to women in that God hath preferred some of them over others, and in that they expend of their wealth: and the virtuous women, devoted, careful (in their husbands’) absence, as God has cared for them. But those whose perverseness ye fear, admonish them and remove them into bed-chambers and beat them; but if they submit to you, then do not seek a way against them; verily, God is high and great.


Men shall have the pre-eminence above women, because of those [advantages] wherein God hath caused the one of them to excel the other, and for that which they expend of their substance [in maintaining their wives]. The honest women [are] obedient, careful in the absence [of their husbands], for that God preserveth [them, by committing them to the care and protection of the men]. But those, whose perverseness ye shall be apprehensive of, rebuke; and remove them into separate apartments, and chastise them. But if they shall be obedient unto you, seek not an occasion [of quarrel] against them; for God is high and great.


Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful, during the husband’s absence, because God hath of them been careful. But chide those for whose refractoriness ye have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourage them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is High, Great!

You can see the wide variety of interpretation. The one word I wish to focus on is the one translated as “beat,” or “admonish.” It comes from the root D-r-b, which depending on its form, does mean to hit, although usually in the context of a drum. The particular form here is derived from the fourth form (idriba), and it does possess a certain violent quality to it. However, I would argue that the best translation would be the English idiom “break from them.” It implies that strong violent, hitting motion, without actually hitting, which is what the verb in Arabic is structured to convey. It is more than a verbal scolding, but it is not real violence; it is a sign that the relationship must end.

The problem of translation is a minefield, and perhaps one of the worst “translations” I have read of the text is put out by the Saudis. It is more commentary than text, and in my opinion should not even be called the Qur’an. Unfortunately, it is freely distributed (because it is free) in mosques, prisons, schools, etc.. I highly recommend Khaled Abou-Fadl’s piece “Corrupting God’s Book,” in The Conference of the Books, as a good starting point on understanding the issues involved. To me, this version is doing more to destroy Islam than anything the Saudis claim the US is doing.

The third article suggests some ways to approach reading translation and some good secondary, including similarities between the Qur’an and the Bible, written by a Jesuit (Inquiring of Joseph). No plans for a fourth part in the series, but you never know.

5 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an – Part 2 – Interpreting and Translating

  1. Wow. Thank you for this terrific post. At some point I will read it far more closely and will try to offer more cogent commentary, but for now I just wanted to say thank you! This is fascinating and I’m really glad you posted it.
    (What you say about translation and its challenges is, unsurprisingly, familiar to me as someone who loves the Hebrew Scriptures — and often gets frustrated by how they are mistranslated or taken out of context… 🙂

  2. Great post—thank you for sharing this. I’ve added The Conference of the Books and Fr. Kaltner’s book to my wish list. Also went ahead and just bought the Ahmed Ali translation and “Approaching the Qur’an” since you recommend it so highly. 🙂
    I’m particularly sympathetic to your admonition about a reformation in Islam. I follow the Muslim world as closely as a “dilettante” can through just mass media and the Muslim blogosphere (not having read anything serious or scholarly), and the picture I have is that it’s just as complex and multi-faceted as the Christian world. One wonders how the grand narrative of Islam as a medieval, ethnic religion has gotten fixed so quickly in the minds of non-Muslim Americans.

  3. Dear Blogkeeper,
    I’ve just discovered this place thanks to several posts in the world of Catholic blogs and I have one thing to say:
    You don’t post nearly enough. I’ll be enjoying your archives as I await the next post; thank you for what you’ve done so far, but please hurry up!

  4. a good read here. the quran is made easy to understand, as it states. however, this may only be possible if read in context of the text.

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