The Once and Future Hermeneutic 

In the Name of Allah Most Merciful and Compassionate

Praise to Allah Most High, who inspired His slave Muhammad the Quran and Wisdom, as a mercy unto the worlds. Allah bless him and give him peace. This is the tale of a translation, related because the Arabic text is the Quran that shall endure as long as Allah wills, while translations are ephemera that can only last until readers’ language changes beyond understanding what they disclose, necessitating a new interpretive effort. Tomorrow’s translators and others interested in how and why the English in this work differs from previous renderings can read on, while everyone else may simply turn to the first page of the Quran below and begin.

The translator’s first encounter with giving texts their critical due was at the University of Chicago under the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He exposited readings from Hegel and later Mannheim, giving painstaking attention to key details, historical and recent attempts to place them in the context of the larger thought of each, and the implications they held for a greater understanding of Man through his language and meaning.

The next time the translator saw anything of comparable depth was a decade later in Damascus, where a traditional scholar at his home would devote up to an hour and a half per page in a single lesson teaching the magnum opus of the sapiential theosophy of Hatimi. The readings were by a man who had never entered any school or academy except as a teacher. The meanings, their relation to the book as a whole, and even the syntax itself were often baffling, and university professors would come week after week to hear the difficulties overcome. He himself had read the book with a living master for decades, through whom he had acquired a hermeneutic, or authoritative mode of proceeding through the text to uncover its intent. It meant, as with Ricoeur, belonging to a larger interpretative community.

The last was the scholar who collaborated with the translator on the present volume in Amman. A man who memorized the Quran by heart in its ten canonical recitations, his connection with its community of interpretation began with a degree in Quranic exegesis from the University of Jordan, and continued with three more years in Yemen, a year and a half on his own with sheikhs in San‘a in north Yemen, then another year and a half in the halaqat or ‘circles’ of the Ribat at Tarim, Hadramawt, in south Yemen. The translator found he exemplified the received wisdom in lands of the Quran that the task of understanding it requires tafsir or ‘uncovering’ of the Arabic text, the privilege of those who truly know the Quran—described by Allah as “A momentous Book whose verses have been clearly expounded, a pure Arabic Quran, for a people who truly know” (41.3).

What do they know? For one thing, the Arabic language. Not merely as it is written and spoken today, but the words of its lexicon with their original meanings, cognates, tone, nuances, and distribution, and how they interact with various prepositions and other particles; then its grammar; then the shades of meaning implied by the various tenses and moods of its verbs; the rhetorical force of the several plurals of various nouns, in paucity, plenitude, and other implications; its rhetoric, with its many emphatics (ta’kidat) found both in the syntax, and through the range of semantic meaning, morphology, and sound—and much more, both in the ancient language itself and above and beyond it, as for example needed historical details about the revelation. Most of these were second nature to the first hearers, imbibed with their mothers’ milk as it were, or lived out—while mastery of these things today requires a native or near-native fluency in literary Arabic, indomitable energy, perseverance, hundreds if not thousands of hours of reading, a working familiarity with the corpus of both general and specialized standard exegetical reference works—to say nothing of, but especially in the case of the Quran, leave of its Author. The translator believes such knowledge is unlikely to be found in a single individual also endowed with an English aesthetic that might convey it, and that for one person to try is to underjudge the job.

For this reason, the meanings of this Book were taught to the translator by the traditional method of talaqqi or ‘personal word-by-word instruction’ by Sheikh ‘Ali Hani Yusuf, a scholar trained in Quranic exegesis and the lexicology, grammar, rhetoric, and other sciences of Arabic just mentioned. The translator found him an excellent philologist, who could spend days researching the inflection of a single word to answer a question. To impart the understanding the translator has tried to convey in this volume, the two went over every word, letter, preposition, inflection, and case-ending in the Quran from beginning to end for seven years, the sheikh teaching on his low table of open books, and the student writing the translation in pencil in tiny letters in the margin of his Quran, asking questions about possible ambiguities or misunderstandings, then later typing and polishing up the text. They gave preference, among viable nuances and meanings of the text in places that bear more than one, to the most convincing positions of its greatest Imams, whose works they compared and discussed in some detail for many a verse: Tabari, Zamakhshari, Abu Su‘ud, Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Raghib al-Asfahani, Biqa‘i, Razi, Alusi, al-Samin al-Halabi, Baydawi, Qunawi, Ibn Kathir, Abu Hayyan, Sheikh Zadah, Ibn al-Munayyir, Suyuti Wahidi, Qurtubi, Zajjaj, and others familiar to those who know the literature, or would care to peruse the biographical notes appended immediately after the main body of the translation.

When they finished, the translator saw that his acquired facility and Sheikh ‘Ali’s knowledge and skill had increased to the point that repeating the whole procedure might well improve the result. This was effected in another eight years. Sheikh ‘Ali worked full-time, as before, in preparation and research without his previous notes. His thirst for exhaustive detail, tenacity for the research required, and even the tone of his delivery of the text and commentary, evoked in the translator something of what it evoked in him, and materially helped. The translator retranslated from scratch everything he heard a second time on the other margin of his Quran’s pages. The translator made audio recordings of nearly every lesson with the sheikh over the fifteen years, which covered one page at a time, as well as many of the follow-up questions finalized in subsequent lessons. During the period of the final revision, the translator’s wife Umm Sahl re-listened to the recorded sessions of the second round as she had to the first, checking the English text word for word and giving corrections and advice, with the translator returning to Sheikh ‘Ali for further research on points requiring it.

For the sake of thoroughness she returned to six previous translations—something the translator had purposely abstained from during the whole period of his own work to keep it free of ‘received English renderings’—three for the beauty of their English, and three for comprehension of the meaning from Arabic, but she found little to take from them, and that all six had missed a number of key areas of the Arabic essential to its meaning, most of them falling in the traditional curriculum of Quranic Arabic under the heading of balagha or ‘rhetoric,’ which Sheikh ‘Ali had been accustomed to point out to the translator in virtually every verse. That is, the difference in the translator’s hermeneutic, by talaqqi or ‘personal instruction, questions, and answers,’ led to substantive differences from previous translations on many verses. These differences on questions of meaning do not arise from rarities, but from ubiquitous features found throughout the Quran, the very warp and woof of its mighty language, as shown by the number of times, cited below, that they appear in its text.

Now, the six translations chosen had been among the best, but wanting to know how general such gaps in meaning were in previous translations of the Quran, the translator contacted professor of Islamic studies and history Ahmad Khan at the American University in Cairo. He was preparing an article for journal publication covering the whole sweep of previous English translations, from George Sale’s in 1734 through the end of 2021, and had acquired copies of all of them from various lands, numbering some 129 works, excluding only partial translations, and translations from languages other than Arabic, such as Urdu to English. The translator told him of the number of crucial areas of meaning missed by all six major translations his wife had examined. He replied that these, and likely more, were absent from the entire collection of previous translations his article would cover. If true, this means the present volume’s interpretive methodology has uncovered matters of Arabic meaning in the Quran that no previous English translation has seriously incorporated. We now turn to a number of the most significant to show their importance in understanding the original text.

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