Translation and Exegesis: Travis Zadeh’s The Vernacular Qur’an

Translation and Exegesis: Travis Zadeh’s The Vernacular Qur’an

By Michael Pregill


The claim that Muslims do not translate the Qur’an, or rather that a translation of the Qur’an is not
 really the Qur’an at all but only a dim approximation of the basic sense of the text, has often been 
repeated by scholars. This notion has even informed the production of translations by Muslims 
themselves at times, as in the case of Marmaduke Pickthall’s famous The Meaning of the 
Glorious Koran (1930)—the title implying that the text in English represents only the meaning,
 with something substantial literally having been lost in translation. It is difficult to escape the
 conclusion that any rendition of the Qur’an into the vernacular—that is, into any language other 
than the original Arabic—should and must have a secondary and marginal status in Islamic

But there is a paradox here, inasmuch as the public recitation and explanation of the Qur’an has
played a significant role in attracting converts to Islam since the earliest days of the community’s
 expansion after the Arab conquests. Historically, the process of reciting and explaining the 
Qur’an surely involved some element of translation; the parallel with the reading of the Torah 
and exposition of targum in Jewish synagogue services is obvious here. Further, scholars have
 often asserted (at least since the time of Goldziher’s seminal Die Richtungen der islamischen
 Koranauslegung, 1920) that tafsir (Qur’an commentary) most likely originated in this context, 
built upon the most ancient understandings of the Qur’an that had circulated among the earliest
followers of the Prophet. Initially grounded in the need to interpret the Qur’an’s essential message
for converts—often with considerable mythological and homiletic expansions—this tradition 
eventually coalesced into one of the core disciplines within the ulum al-Quran or “Qur’anic 
sciences.” All of this implies that translation of the Qur’an has in fact been central to Islamic 
society, at least at times, and that such translation has been absolutely vital for the survival and
 expansion of the community at numerous junctures in Islam’s long history.

The complex relationship between translation of and commentary upon the Qur’an is explored in
 depth in Travis Zadeh’s magesterial and far-ranging study, The Vernacular Qur’an: Translation
and the Rise of Persian Exegesis (Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of
 Ismaili Studies, 2012), which specifically examines the phenomenon of translation as it lies at
the foundation of both Persian literary and Iranian Islamic religious tradition. The significance 
of this study cannot be overstated. Iran was most likely the first region or culture area outside
 of Arabia proper to achieve a Muslim majority. Further, several of Iran’s urban centers became
preeminent centers of religious learning in the ninth and tenth centuries, producing ulama whose 
works became critical for the further development of the religious sciences, especially hadith; 
and, as is well known, by the high Middle Ages, so-called New Persian came to rival—and 
eventually surpass—Arabic as the preeminent literary language of Islamic society, at least in the 
eastern regions of the Dar al-Islam.

Zadeh’s study explores the intersections between theological and juridical controversies,
 devotional practice, and an emerging Persian literary culture, informed both by an admirable command of the theoretical literature on translation and a nuanced understanding of the complex 
conjunction of factors that contributed to the misrepresentation of Qur’an translation as somehow
 inferior or illegitimate. In Western scholarly discourse, the claim of the Qur’an’s untranslatability 
originates in medieval Christian polemic, in which Muslims’ supposed insistence that the Qur’an
 can only be approached in the original Arabic was caricatured as proof of Muslim “rigidity” 
and legalism – ritual rectitude purportedly being more important in Islam than rational 
understanding. This gross oversimplification of Muslim attitudes was then reinforced by the
 misapprehensions of more contemporary (and well-meaning) scholars such as Wilfred Cantwell
 Smith, who inadvertently conflated theological assertions of the Qur’an’s inimitability with some
 jurists’ opposition to the use of verses of the Qur’an in other languages in the devotional context
into a blanket prohibition on translation that somehow applied to all times, places, and contexts.

Smith thus characterized an opposition to translation as somehow essential to Islam, but as 
Zadeh demonstrates, the translation of the Qur’an into Persian, even for devotional purposes,
 appears to have been a basic fact in the Iranian milieu; the “early pattern of wrapping the sacred 
language of the Qur’an in Persian reflects the practical hermeneutic, if not liturgical, importance
 of approaching scripture through a linguistic medium other than Arabic” (133). Moreover,
translation into Persian was not simply driven by the practical considerations of disseminating 
the Qur’an in a recently converted, and thus only superficially acculturated, population. 
Rather, Zadeh’s theoretically sophisticated approach shows that the general recognition of the
 polyvalence of scripture—for example, the idea that the Qur’an was revealed in seven ahruf 
(modes or recitations)—opened up a wide discursive space in which many scholars not only 
tolerated but even explicitly sanctioned the ongoing use of the Qur’an in Persian and other
languages for a variety of purposes.

Astonishingly, Zadeh’s treatment of his subject stretches from the period just after the Arab
 conquests of the seventh century all the way to the flourishing of Persian tafsir in the eleventh 
and twelfth centuries with figures such as Abu’l-Futuh al-Razi, Surabadi, and Isfara’ini, as well
 as discussing the later reception of this tradition in subsequent centuries. Even as the use of
 Persian renditions of Qur’anic verses was largely abandoned in specifically devotional contexts,
 the dynamic interplay between the Arab and Iranian cultural and linguistic milieux continued to 
inform the evolution of Islam in the Persian-speaking world. As their tradition matured, Iranian 
scholars continued to have a complicated relationship with Arab Islamic religious authority and
 exegetical discourse—especially the latter, as “exegesis served as a platform for the articulation
 of religious commitments” (448), particularly as attitudes towards Persian came to inform and in
 turn be inflected by sectarian considerations.

This brief notice hardly does justice to Zadeh’s wide-ranging, yet lucidly argued and eloquently written, treatment of the Qur’an in Persian and the Persianate world. We may hope that his nuanced and imaginative study draws attention to this long-neglected subject and inspires new scholarly research in this area in the future.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Translating John Wansbrough…into English

By Gabriel Reynolds

At a recent academic conference, during a dinner with a group of Qurʾan scholars, the topic of our conversation turned to the work of John Wansbrough. During the conversation one of our group asked,“But when is someone going to translate Wansbrough . . . into English?”


In fact Wansbrough’s writing is famously difficult. Almost every reviewer of Qurʾanic Studies expresses frustration with his complicated style. To this effect William Graham writes:

Because of its importance, however, it is all the more regrettable that this volume is such an exceedingly cumbersome and gratuitously difficult work, one marked by impenetrable syntax and often unintelligible sequence of ideas. It is a book laced with brilliance and insight, yet marred throughout by unusual obscurity in organization and presentation. Its subject matter is manifestly complex, but it has been presented here in such a needlessly “technicalized” fashion as to make it at all decipherable only by the most doggedly determined specialist in early Islamic materials. (Journal of the American Oriental Society 100 [1980] 138).

Now since Prof. Graham wrote this review Prometheus Press has re-published both Qurʾanic Studies (2004) and Sectarian Milieu (2006) with Forewords (by Andrew Rippin and Gerald Hawting, respectively) that summarize the arguments and influence of the work at hand, and glossaries which define the technical terms and foreign vocabulary which Wansbrough employs. This supplementary material is a significant help for students who really seek to understand Wansbrough’s thought.

But is it worth the effort to do so? In academic scholarship on the Qurʾan it is rather common to find the opinion that Wansbrough’s thought is unfounded or disproven. But how many of those who express this opinion have actually managed to understand his use of the English language? Perhaps a translation of Wansbrough into English would allow us at least to assess the importance of his work. While I have no plans to translate the entirety of Qurʾanic Studies, I thought I might have a go at the first page:

Once separated from an extensive corpus of prophetical logia, the Islamic revelation became scripture and in time, starting from the fact itself of literary stabilization, was seen to contain a logical structure of its own. Both the Qurʾan and sīra emerged from a body of traditions closely related to Jewish and Christian themes of salvation history. Some of those traditions were brought together or redacted to form a scripture and given the name Qurʾan. This scripture was then imagined to have the sorts of internal relationships of works that are intentionally composed as a single unit by a single author.

By the very achievement of canonicity the document of revelation was assured a kind of independence, both of historical traditions commonly adduced to explain its existence and of external criteria recruited to facilitate its understanding. Once this text was recognized as the Muslim community’s scripture its origin amidst a larger body of traditions—which had included also material later used by Muslim authors in order to explain how the Qurʾan came to be and what it means—became irrelevant.

But the elaborate and imposing edifice of classical Qur’anic scholarship is hardly monolithic, and discernible lines of cleavage correspond to the number of options left open to the most fundamental lines of inquiry. Yet after this initial moment at which the Qurʾan emerged as a scripture, later Muslim scholars developed recognizable genres of Qurʾanic exegesis; these genres correspond to the qualities of the Qurʾanic text.

Both formally and conceptually, Muslim scripture drew upon a traditional stock of monotheistic imagery, which may be described as schemata of revelation. The body of traditions out of which the Qurʾan emerged might be thought of as a general outline of Jewish and Christian (and other monotheistic) ideas of how God has acted in the world.

Analysis of the Qurʾanic application of these shows that they have been adapted to the essentially paraenetic character of that document, and that, for example, originally narrative material was reduced almost invariably to a series of discrete and parabolic utterances. The Qurʾan reflects a shaping of these traditions for the sake of warning or exhortation. The redactors of the Qurʾan condensed long narratives into short declarations with moral and religious implications.

An illustration is Surat Yūsuf, often cited as a single instance of complete and sustained narrative in the Qur’an. In fact, without benefit of exegesis the Qur’anic story of Joseph is anything but clear, a consequence in part of its elliptical presentation and in part of occasional allusion to extra-Biblical tradition, e.g. verses 24, 67, 77. [No translation necessary, hooray! A footnote here refers the reader to JW’s comments on Surat Yūsuf later in the work, pp. 136-37]

It may, indeed, be supposed that the public for whom Muslim scripture was intended could be expected to supply the missing detail. The Qurʾan’s elliptical style with material such as Joseph suggests that its audience was familiar with Jewish and Christian traditions.

A distinctly referential, as contrasted with expository, style characterizes Qurʾanic treatment of most of what I have alluded to as schemata of revelation, exhibited there as components of earlier established literary types. The Qurʾan does not expand on the Jewish and Christian themes of salvation history, but rather refers to them succinctly.

The technique by which a theme is repeatedly signaled but seldom developed may be observed from an examination in their Qur’anic form of those themes traditionally associated with literature of prophetical expression. Not merely the principal themes, but also the rhetorical conventions by which they are linked and in which they are clothed, the variant traditions in which they have been preserved, as well as the incidence of exegetical gloss and linguistic assimilation, comprise the areas of investigation undertaken in the first part of these studies. In part one of Qurʾanic Studies I will study four Jewish and Christian themes of salvation history as they appear in the Qurʾan: retribution, sign, exile, and covenant [see page 2]. I will also examine the Arabic formulas with which the Qurʾan introduces or connects these themes, the variant versions which the Qurʾan preserves of the same tradition, the material in the Qurʾan meant to explain other Qurʾanic material, and the manner in which the Qurʾan uses Arabic to express Jewish and Christian themes preserved in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2012. All rights reserved.