Rhyming Translations of Qurʾanic Sūrahs

Rhyming Translations of Qurʾanic Sūrahs

by Devin Stewart*

A curious fact has recently come to my attention, and I suppose it may be news to most readers of this blog. I was surprised to learn that the Austrian Orientalist Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), best known for his voluminous and detailed history of the

Lithograph portrait of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, by Josef Kriehuber, 1843; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Lithograph portrait of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, by Josef Kriehuber, 1843; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Ottoman Empire, translated forty surahs of the Qur’an in 1811 [Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, “Die letzten vierzig Suren des Korans. als eine Probe einer gereimten Uebersetzung desselben,” in Fundgruben des Orients 2 (Vienna: Anton Schmid, 1811-12): 25-46.] The evidence of his profound engagement with the Qur’an in addition to his other variegated interests is worthy of note, but the most curious feature of his translations are that they rhyme, endeavoring to represent the original Arabic rhyme in German. It is well known—to Germans, at least, perhaps less so to others—that Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), an extremely talented polyglot scholar, poet, and translator, produced a rhyming translation of most of the Qur’an (published posthumously, in 1888). We can compare both scholars’ translations of Sūrat al-ʿĀdiyāt:


Die C. Sura. Die Wettrenner

  1. Bey den Pferden, die im Wettlaufe rennen!
  2. Unter deren Hufen die Kiesel brennen,
  3. Die sich am Morgen wetteifernd zum Laufe drängen,
  4. Die in Staubwolken daher sprengen,
  5. Und die feindlichen Geschwader trennen,
  6. Der Mensh ist gegen seinen Herrn undankbar!
  7. Er selbst bezeugt es als wahr.
  8. Er liebt zu sehr Reichtum und Pracht,
  9. Weiss er denn nicht dass am Tag, wo erhellt wird der Gräber Nacht,
  10. Und wo, was in dem Busen Schlägt, wird an Tag gebracht;
  11. Weiss er den nicht dass an jenem Tag der Herr har auf Alles Acht?

Friedrich Rückert:

  1. Sure, “Die Jagenden”

Im Namen Gottes des albarmherzigen Erbarmers

  1. Die schnaubenden, die jagenden,
  2. Mit Hufschlang Funken schlagenden,
  3. Den Morgenangriff wagenden,
  4. Die Staub aufwühlen mit dem Tritte,
  5. Und dringen in des Heeres Mitte!
  6. Ja, der Mensch ist gegen Gott voll Trutz,
  7. Was er sich selbst bezeugen muß,
  8. Und liebet heftig seinen Nutz.
  9. O weiß er nicht, wann das im Grab wird aufgeweckt,
  10. Und das im Busen aufgedeckt,
  11. Daß nichts von ihnen ihrem Herrn dann bleibt versteckt?

With the exception of Shawkat Toorawa’s recent rhyming translations of surahs into English, I am aware of no rhyming translations in any other European languages. I have several questions for the readers of this blog:

  1. Which of the above German translations is more successful? Why?
  2. Are there any other rhyming translations of the Qur’an out there in French, Italian, Spanish, etc.? (There is another German one, by Martin Klamroth.)
  3. Why might German translators be more apt to pay attention to rhyme than translators working in other European languages?
  4. Why do English translators tend to be so reticent about rhyme? Pickthall, for example, cannot even bring himself to use the word “rhyme” in his introduction:

    There is another peculiarity which is disconcerting in translation though it proceeds from one of the beauties of the original, and is unavoidable without abolishing the verse-division of great importance for reference. In Arabic the verses are divided according to the rhythm of the language. When a certain sound which marks the rhythm recurs there is a strong pause and the verse ends naturally, although the sentence may go on to the next verse or to several subsequent verses. That is of the spirit of the Arabic language; but attempts to reproduce such rhythm in English have the opposite effect to that produced by the Arabic. Here only the division is preserved, the verses being divided as in the Qur
    ʾan and numbered. 

    Are attempts at “rhythm” in English translations of the Qurʾan really so doomed to failure as Pickthall suggests? Is there something about the English language that makes it especially ill-suited to rhyming translation? Or are Pickthall and the others simply being obtuse or myopic?

    * Devin Stewart is Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University.© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Understanding Meaning in the Sound of the Recited Qur’an

By Lauren Osborne

The following is a brief synopsis of my recent work on the recitation of the Qur’an. The topic of my dissertation is central to the Qur’an’s self-presentation as an oral text and to its role in the lives of believers, yet one that has for the most part been overlooked by scholarship. The vast majority of Muslims cultivate an experience of the Qur’an that is based less on the text as a written object than on the sound and practice of its recitation. Indeed, native and non-native speakers of Arabic devote considerable time and energy to learning to recite and to appreciate the Qur’an’s recitation. Learning to recite the Qur’an is the foundation of Islamic education worldwide, making the sound and experience of the sacred text the first point of contact for most believers. Popular reciters have also attained worldwide fame, as their recordings have circulated via nearly every form of audio media. Today, a simple search online will return innumerable sites devoted to discussion of recitation and to circulation of audio files. Yet despite the significant role played by the sound and practice of Qur’an recitation, scholarship does not have a vocabulary or way of understanding the oral form of the text in relation to its literary or discursive meanings.

 While a purely aesthetic experience of the sound of the Qur’an has devotional and experiential value in itself—as shown by the popularity of the practice of recitation and the spread of recordings among Muslims who do not understand Arabic—the Arabic words still bear their meanings even when they exist as sound. It is possible that the sound of recitation may reflect the meanings of the words in different ways; at other times, the sound of the words and their discursive meanings may simply be coexisting. The meaning and the aesthetics are always interrelated, but they may interact in a variety of ways.



In order to address the diversity in these modes of meaning that characterize the recitation of the Qur’an, I propose that the practice may be described according to the following four-part scheme. First, the Qur’an presents its own textual meaning and literary features: vocabulary, subject matter, modes of perspective and address, and literary form on the level of units of verses or Suras. Second, the sound of the text is often characterized by systematic rhyme and rhythm. Sometimes this is in conversation with or resembles the Arabic literary tradition of prose characterized by rhyme and rhythm (saj`). Furthermore, the sounds of the words themselves generate certain affective charges through repetition and assonance. Third, the sound of the text is shaped by pitch and melody, often characterized by the modal system of Arab music, the maqām. The melodic aspect of reciting is a skill studied specifically by individuals working to become professional reciters, and participants in competitions are judged in this aspect of their performance. Finally, the feelings of the listener may be characterized by affective experience: emotional states that may or may not be directly tied to the discursive understanding of the text, or these other aspects of its sound.

Using this descriptive framework, in my dissertation I seek to bring these modes of meaning into conversation with one another. With reference to specific recordings, performances, or data collected through fieldwork, I note when I hear any particular aspect of the sound either corresponding with the meaning of the text (or other aspects of the sound, or perceived meaning on the part of the listener) or when these things seem to be simply coexisting. Just as multiple modes of meaning exist on a range from text to sound to perception, I argue that a range of relationships between these modes is also possible. At times the discursive meaning of the text may align with the poetic or melodic meaning, and at times any of these modes may simply coexist but have no direct relationship.

Most recently, I have been working with recordings from Sheikh Mishari Rashid Alafasy, an imam of the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City and an extremely popular reciter of the Qur’an today. His personal website provides not only basic information about his life and career, but also a wealth of media material: photographs, videos, and sound material ranging from anāshīd (religious songs) to hadith to Qur’an.  At the moment I’m working with two recordings of Surat al-Furqan, and using these examples to raise questions on how the meanings in words and sound may or may not relate to one another. I do this through analysis of the literary shape and features of the Sura itself—how it conveys its meanings to us in language; discussion of its use of rhyme; and finally, Alafasy’s use of the maqām and other sound-related aspects, such as vocal register or vocal quality. The first of these recordings is available on Sheikh Alafasy’s personal website, listed as being recorded in California in 1430 A.H. (2008 Gregorian); the second was available on his previous site, but can still be found through archive.org. While the overall moods of the recordings are extremely different, they also show us a range of possibilities for shaping the sound of a single text, and even further, the different ways in which the sound and the words may or may not relate to one another.

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