By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi
Though the Qur’an was sent down in Arabic, its message is universal. This is very clearly stated in the Qur’an itself: ‘Say: O humankind! I am God’s Messenger to you all.’(al-A‘raf, 7:158 ) ‘We have not sent you save as a bringer of good news (hope) and as a warner to all humankind; but most people do not know.”(Saba’, 34:28) ‘Say: I do not ask you for any reward for it.It is nothing but a reminder to all the world.’(An‘am, 6:90)
The Prophet, upon him be peace, was made aware of this, and he informed his Companions about it. Jabir ibn‘Abdillah narrates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Every other Prophet was sent only to his people, whereas I have been sent to all humankind.’(al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, K. al-Tayammum)
The Qur’an urges the believers to affirm that it is God’s speech, conveying His will and His commands. Among His commands is that the believers must ponder His words, reflect upon them, and reason with them: ‘We sent it down to you that they may ponder its verses.’(Sad, 38:29) ‘Do they not then ponder the Qur’an?’(al-Nisa’, 4:82; Muhammad, 47:24) ‘We sent it down, a recitation in Arabic, that perhaps you may reason.’ (Yusuf, 12:2)
Thinking and understanding are necessary before any information or instruction can be acted upon. The Qur’an is a guidance that believers must strive to live by; they cannot do this well if they do not understand it. Because the guidance of the Qur’an is intended for all humankind, it must be conveyed to believers and non-believers so that they may reflect and ponder, understand and be guided.
Let us be very clear that the Qur’an is God’s speech in its original Arabic. In no other form, in no other language, can it have this dignity. So it has always been, and as God wills, always will be, preserved and recited in Arabic. Reverent, accurate, beautiful recitation of the Qur’an is an essential part of Muslim devotion to it, and the effort is rewarded with increased love of it, and heart’s peace. Millions of people all over the world have committed the entire Book to memory; and there are millions of copies of it printed and accessible all over the world. In His Book God promised to preserve it. His promise is relied upon as it is necessarily true.
In our time, God’s speech in its original Arabic can be difficult even for native Arabic speakers, since their Arabic has changed, to different degrees in different parts of the Arab world. Yet, for them, it is easier compared to the situation of the great majority of believers who are not native Arabic speakers. For them, the best practice is to present the Qur’an in Arabic side by side with a translation. In this way, they can recite the Qur’an and be rewarded for that; and they can, through the translation of its meanings, reflect and reason and understand it, and be rewarded for that. There has long been consensus among Muslim scholars that it is permissible to translate the meanings of the Qur’an so that they may be conveyed to those believers who do not understand it directly. This is part of the duty to teach, to share the knowledge that is necessary for guidance, and there is no salvation without following the guidance.
As for those who are neither believers nor know Arabic, it is preferable – in order to convey the guidance to them– to present the meanings of the Qur’an in translation, without the Arabic. Now, some people are fearful that, if the translation is presented without the Arabic, it is copying the ways of the followers of other religions. But the scriptures of the other religions do not exist in their original languages; it is not even known for certain that they existed as scripture, as writing, in those languages. Rather, their history is a history of translations of translations, with no way of knowing which translation is more faithful to the original and which is less. So the translations cannot be checked, disputes about them cannot be resolved. This is not the situation of the Qur’an.
Any fear that the original of the Qur’an may be lost or fall into disuse is not based on reality. By the mercy of God, the Qur’an in its Arabic original is preserved in millions of printed copies, and in the hearts of millions of the believers. If there is any doubt or any dispute about a particular translation, people can easily check against the original and resolve the dispute and/or respect difference of opinion as to ‘the right translation’.
The important thing is to ensure that, if we give printed translations of the Qur’an to non-believers, we do so only if we have good reason to think that the translation is accurate and reliable. And we can be certain that if Muslims themselves do not prepare and print good translations, the ever-growing demand will be met by inaccurate and misleading ones.
In sum: we should not be fearful that the existence of printed translations without the Arabic original next to them will diminish use of the Arabic original, or diminish its dignity, or diminish the love of it in the hearts of the believers. Rather, we should be fearful lest hifz (preservation) of the Qur’an is only embodied in memorisation of its words and their beautiful sound. For the best hifz, following the example of the Prophet, upon him be peace, and of his Companions, is to practise the guidance of the Qur’an, and that is only possible when we strive to recite and understand it, to love and live by it.