The Koran in English: Why Context Matters

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:40 AM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Bruce Lawrence, Duke University
Anna Lawrence, Fairfield University
For millions of Muslims, the Qur’an is sacred only in Arabic, the original Arabic in which it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century; to many Arab and non-Arab believers alike, the book literally defies translation. Yet English translations exist, and are growing in both number and influence. Over 100 full translations and numerous partial translations are now extant, many of them available online. They reflect diverse influences that defy easy or categorical analysis. Many of the most popular and influential were produced in South Asia during the late colonial period, and their number, as also their sales, have skyrocketed with the advent of first Independence and then, since 1994, the Information Age.

This remarkable story, with a millennium of history behind it, is the topic of my recent monograph: The Koran in English - A Biography (Princeton 2017). It documents the ongoing struggle to render the Qur’an’s lyrical verses into languages other than Arabic but specifically into English during the past 80 years; a renowned 20th century translator, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, even aspired to make English itself an Islamic language. In every instance, context - historical context and the choices it facilitates or imposes -become crucial. My intervention will explore that untold history for a sacred text which NY Times critic Holland Cotter called “the single most important, and least understood, book in the world at present".