Muslims' holy book translated for American readers

The Qur'an: The First American Version, by T.B. Irving. Brattleboro, Vt.: Amana Books. 464 pp. $17.95 cloth. Thomas Ballantine Irving is a distinquished academician, founder of the Near Eastern studies department at the University of Minnesota, biographer of Abdurrahman I (an eighth-century Arab ruler of Spain), and translator of ``Selections from the Noble Reading: An Anthology of Passages from the Qur'an.'' But he is more than that. As this, the first American version of the holy book of the Muslims, shows, Dr. Irving is a fine translator. And his translation of the Qur'an (or Koran) appears at a time when the rise of Islam in various forms has challenged United States diplomacy and given Americans fresh reason to be aware of basic Muslim teachings.

Muslims regard ``The Opening,'' the seven verses that form the Qur'an's first chapter, as the initial expression of the divine word. ``The Opening'' is as familiar to Muslims as the Lord's Prayer is to Christians, the Shema to Jews. Many have attempted to render its sonorous Arabic cadence into English. Irving's effort stands out:

In the name of God, the Mercy-giving, the Merciful! Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe, the Mercy-giving, the Merciful! Ruler on the Day for Repayment! You do we worship and You do we call on for help. Guide us along the Straight Road, the road of those whom You have favored, with whom You are not angry, nor who are lost! (Amen.)

Every translation is an interpretation. It is also an effort to communicate, and few translators can communicate lyrical emphasis from one language to another. Irving strikes a deft balance between the inflections of Arabic and the (comparative) flatness of English. He does not retain Allah, despite its rich connotations, as the name for a uniquely Islamic deity. Instead, he renders Allah into the stark English equivalent, God. As compensatory reinforcement, he capitalizes all God's names, together with other stressed terms, though Arabic has no capital letters. He also retains the internal rhyme of two major divine attributes - rahman and rahim - by rendering them as Mercy-giving and Merciful.

The result is a book so Americanized that not a word or even a letter of Arabic creeps into its pages (beyond the explanatory introduction, a few titles, and some prefaces to individual chapters). The majestic tone and sensitive rendition of ``The Opening'' pervades the subsequent 113 chapters. It is a doubly authentic achievement, since Irving is both a scholar of Islam and a practicing Muslim.

Read this book out loud to appreciate its meaning. Qur'an means reading or reciting or chanting. Chapter 81, titled ``Extinguished!'' opens with the invocation ``In the name of God, the Mercy-giving, the Merciful!'' and then unfolds a vista of judgment day:

When the sun has been extinguished, when the stars slip out of place, when the mountains travel along, when ten-month pregnant camels are neglected, when wild beasts are herded together, when the seas overflow, when souls are reunited, when the buried girl is asked for what offence she has been killed, when scriptures are unrolled, when the sky is stripped bare, when Hades is set blazing, when the Garden is brought close, each soul shall know what it has prepared!

The Qur'anic critique of pagan Arabian society, including the above-mentioned practice of female infanticide, is brought out clearly in Irving's translation, along with the opposite message, that women are the equal of men as citizens of the divine realm. Part of Chapter 33:35 reads:

Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, devout men and devout women etc. - for (all of) them God has prepared forgiveness and a splendid wage.

This translation of ``The Qur'an'' is superbly textured. Poetry is indented. Deep font print highlights crucial words or phrases. Wide margins allow for thematic headings and verse notations by syntactic groupings and even reminders for ritual prostration.

The whole of the Qur'an is about the length of the New Testament, and for the pious the text has been divided into the traditional 30 sections that assist the reading of the word throughout Ramadan, the month of obligatory fasting.

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