A couple of weeks ago, I shared a train compartment from Casablanca to Marrakech with a Moroccan transport engineer, a Dutch-Italian couple, and a professor of Islamic culture back from Saudi Arabia for his summer holiday. The professor was talkative, repeatedly offering to buy everyone coffee and sandwiches. In a combination of fusha and a bit of English he went on about how people needed to know that Islam is not al-Qaeda and Da’esh, but love and friendship. At one point he asked us if anyone objected to him reciting a bit of the Qur’an. No one did, so he closed his eyes, pressed his fingertips together, and began reciting, quietly, beautifully. Afterward he asked the Dutch-Italian couple if they could feel the beauty of the language. Then, in the same voice and incantatory style, he said (in fusha) I am going to a new city. I will arrive and look for a restaurant and a place to sleep. He turned to them and asked if that felt different, but they couldn’t understand the question, and no one translated it, so we never got an answer.
But the question is constant: what of the non-semantic elements of the Qur’an? What relationship is there between sound and cadence and the message contained in it?
I’ve felt bogged down in English versions of the Qur’an that affect some kind of gravitas, as if God’s voice ought to be ponderous and pretentious — What then shall cry thee lies as to the Doom? (As Arberry’s Fig asks).
In trying to bring across a few of the short Meccan suras to English, I have tried to write simple, clear versions. And I found that in doing so, some of the rhymes and repetitions of the original almost thoughtlessly fell into place.
What do they feel like?
(For comparison purposes, the Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall’s version of the five suras are given below)
And by the fig and the olive tree
and by Mount Sinai
and this safe city
where we created people finely assessed
then echoed that they’re lower than the lowest
except the faithful and prayerful – for them an end with no obligation
so why your doubt after devotion?
isn’t God more just than the justices?
When the earthquake quakes
and earth casts out her weight
and people ask what’s with her
on that the day she’ll tell the story
that your lord evoked in her
on that day people will scatter and see what they’ve done
and those who did an atom’s weight of good see that
and those who did an atom’s weight of evil see that
Say God the only one
God the enduring
not begotten and not begetting
and like no other one
Say I seek protection with the lord of daybreak
from any evil in creation
and from the evil of spreading darkness
and from the evil of knot-spitters
and from the evil of envying enviers
Say I seek protection with the lord of people
king of the people
the god of the people
from the evil whispering demon
who whispers in the hearts of people
from the jinn and from the people
95. at-Tin: The Fig
1 By the fig and the olive,
2 By Mount Sinai,
3 And by this land made safe;
4 Surely We created man of the best stature
5 Then we reduced him to the lowest of the low,
6 Save those who believe and do good works, and theirs is a reward unfailing.
7 So who henceforth will give the lie to thee about the judgment ?
8 Is not Allah the most conclusive of all judges ?
99. al-Zilzal: The Shaking
1 When Earth is shaken with her (final) earthquake
2 And Earth yieldeth up her burdens,
3 And man saith: What aileth her ?
4 That day she will relate her chronicles,
5 Because thy Lord inspireth her.
6 That day mankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.
7 And whoso doeth good an atom’s weight will see it then,
8 And whoso doeth ill an atom’s weight will see it then.
112. al-Ikhlas: The Unity
1 Say: He is Allah, the One!
2 Allah, the eternally Besought of all!
3 He begetteth not nor was begotten.
4 And there is none comparable unto Him.
113. al-Falaq: The Daybreak
1 Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak
2 From the evil of that which He created;
3 From the evil of the darkness when it is intense,
4 And from the evil of malignant witchcraft,
5 And from the evil of the envier when he envieth.
114. an-Nas: The Men
1 Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind,
2 The King of mankind,
3 The God of mankind,
4 From the evil of the sneaking whisperer,
5 Who whispereth in the hearts of mankind,
6 Of the jinn and of mankind.