Certain Orientalists have described the sacred Book as filled with “obscure sentences and strange words.” Its text was also dubbed as “of perplexed state”, “a wearisome jumble, crude and incondite” and its “very words were inherently and perniciously defective.”
A recent Orientalist also asserted that the Qur’anic style was: “mechanically repetitious, of limited lexical range, filled with clumsy syntax, unjustifiable pleonasm and rhetoric embellishment in many parts …”
The Cambridge Professor Arthur John Arberry (1905-1969) advises the reader on how to approach the Qur’an:
Bad translation is not the whole story by any means. In fact the Qur’an has not been unlucky in its English translators; Sale and Palmer were talented writers… No, the fault lies not so much in the manner of translation as in the manner of reading the translations. The root of the trouble is that the ordinary reader, and for that matter the extraordinary reader as well, has not been sufficiently advised how to read the Qur’an.
In the first place, the Western reader must get rid of the certain assumption that the Holy Qur’an is more or less like the Old Testament. The misapprehension is natural enough, when the first casual glance picks out the names of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jonah, Joseph, Jacob… the Biblical style of the popular translations does not furnish exactly a corrective.
Misled by these early impressions, the reader makes the fatal mistake of trying to take too much at once; he opens at a likely place, the beginning of a sura (chapter), and is lulled into suspicion by the familiar layout of chapter and verse; he finishes his first sura and goes on to several more; he is bewildered by the rapid and seemingly illogical changes of subject, and he quickly wearies of the frequent repetitions of themes and formulas, he misses the homely straightforwardness of Kings or Samuel, the sustained eloquence of the Psalms or Isaiah.
Having no clue to the Qur’an’s own excellences he compares it unfavourably with what he has known since childhood, and is now ready to concur with Carlyle.The Qur’an, like the poetry which it resembles in so many ways, is best sampled a little at a time; and that little deserves and needs meditation… He (the reader) will become gradually familiar with the Qur’an’s claim to be a confirmation of earlier scriptures. He will observe how the Qur’an assumes a knowledge of the contents of those scriptures, and only later expands the individual narratives into something like connected stories. He now follows step by step the gradual unfolding of the full prophetic power; and when he comes to the polemic and legislation he is readier to receive and understand them.
He, the uninitiated enquirer, however, strenuous and sincere his purpose, will always be denied participation in the believer’s joy because he is screen from it by the double veil of a printed page and a foreign idiom. Yes, a foreign idiom, for the Qur’an is God’s revelation in Arabic, and the emotive and evocative qualities of the original disappear almost totally in the skillfullest translation.
When appreciation rests upon these foundations, the charges of wearisome repetition and jumbled confusion become meaningless. Truth cannot be dimmed convincingness at every repetition; and where all is true, inconsequence and incomprehensibility are not felt to arise.”
From A.J. Arberry, The Holy Qur’an, An Introduction with selections, London, 1953, p17 and pp. 25-27.
Arthur John Arberry, as Head of the Department of Classics at Cairo University, acquired a firsthand knowledge of literary and social conditions in the Islamic Middle East. Between 1947 and 1969 he served as Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University. He published some twenty books in Islamic studies during his lifetime, many dealing with mysticism and poetry. Professor Arberry died in England in 1969.
S. A. Skillitee (1970). Arthur John Arberry. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 33, pp 363-367. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00103441.
A.J. Arberry, The Holy Qur’an, An Introduction with selections, London, 1953.