Highlight: Dr. Tarif Khalidi on translating the Qur’an

This week, we turn to the third of the three papers published on December 16th, 2013: Dr. Tarif Khalidi’s “Reflections of a Qur’an Translator.”

Dr. Tarif Khalidi

Khalidi (American University of Beirut) provides a personal reflection on the challenges and nuances of translating Scripture, and the Qur’an in particular. He speaks of the distinct burdens that come with translating the Qur’an:

[W]e do not, it seems to me, make enough allowance for the Qurʾan’s often deliberate mystification: the self-referential epithet “mutashabah” enshrines the mystification…. This is a text which, while claiming manifest clarity, is at least partially meant to make the flesh creep—somewhat like the “shudder” in T.S. Eliot (cf. Kermode 2010). Or else we might call it the “mysterium tremens”: that which causes you to tremble and to be awed by the divine unfathomable. The mystery is thus quite deliberate and meant to be just that: a mystery which causes a “shudder.” And that “shudder” is so culture- and language-specific that it often defies translation.

The second burden is “what one might call a Sisyphean activity…. No matter how well you fancy you have captured a meaning, there is always a sense of regret as you surrender the manuscript to the publisher. It is as if, having said goodbye to someone you love, you will always regret that your goodbye was not more eloquently expressed.”

Khalidi speaks of other obstacles, comments on his various “companions” in the translating process (other translators such as Tabari and Suyuti, plus commentaries and dictionaries), and touches briefly on his own translation. Read the paper in full here.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Highlight: Dr. Alain George on an early Qur’anic palimpsest

Last week, IQSA published three scholarly papers online and highlighted that of Dr. Aziz Al-Azmeh. This week, we move to the paper by Dr. Alain George (University of Edinburgh), which has also been revised since it’s initial posting.*

The paper, “On an early Qurʾanic palimpsest and its stratigraphy: Cambridge Or. 1287,” begins:

A century ago, Agnes Smith Lewis and Alphonse Mindanao published a short book about a group of very early Qur’anic leaves. The parchment of these fragments, together with that of others written in Syriac, Greek and Arabic, had been reused to create a new book in the ninth century by Christian Arabic scribes, who thereby unwittingly preserved it for later generations.

As George explains in his introduction, “The stratigraphy of this complex book—its intertwined and juxtaposed layers—can yield something of rare value: scraps of evidence about the context of some of the oldest Qur’anic leaves in existence.”

One of the "large Qur'anic leaves," with Qur'anic lower text and Christian Arabic upper text. Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Or. 1287, fol. 89v. Copyright: Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

One of the “large Qur’anic leaves,” with Qur’anic lower text and Christian Arabic upper text. Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Or. 1287, fol. 89v. Copyright: Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

He adds that “it is only in the last decade that people have started getting interested in Or. 1287 again…. My own focus has been on its Arabic scripts, both Qur’anic and Christian, and on the palimpsest as a historical ?document.” This specific analysis provides an overview of the palimpsest followed by discussions of both the large and small Qur’anic leaves, the Christian Arabic upper texts, and the historical context of the manuscript.

The vast majority of extant leaves in the Hijazi tradition (the modern name for the earliest Qur’anic fragments) were discovered among thousands of other Qur’anic folios in repositories of great historical mosques, such as Damascus, Fustat, and Sanaa. In the palimpsest, this context is reduced to about a hundred leaves, which is small enough to provide the basis for a historical reflection. The manuscript straddles two key eras and milieux, Muslim and Christian, between the seventh and ninth centuries (and more if one takes into account the Biblical and secular Arabic leaves). One key question will be: how did a Christian community living under Abbasid rule come to own very early Qur’anic leaves?

For a detailed exploration of this and many other pertinent questions, read the full paper at this link. (It is, in turn, a shortened version of an article by George published in French with full references and illustrations, found here).

* Note: This revised version of Dr. George’s paper was uploaded to IQSAweb on December 23rd, 2013. Visitors who downloaded this paper before this date should discard the previous copy and replace it with the current document, here.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

New Book: The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions

A new book by Emran El-Badawi on The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions has been published this month. This book is the thirteenth of the Routledge Studies in the Qur’an series, edited by Andrew Rippin.




This book is a study of related passages found in the Arabic Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospels, i.e. the Gospels preserved in the Syriac and Christian Palestinian Aramaic dialects. It builds upon the work of traditional Muslim scholars, including al-Biqa‘i (d. ca. 808/1460) and al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505), who wrote books examining connections between the Qur’an on the one hand, and Biblical passages and Aramaic terminology on the other, as well as modern western scholars, including Sidney Griffith who argue that pre-Islamic Arabs accessed the Bible in Aramaic.

The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions examines the history of religious movements in the Middle East from 180-632 CE, explaining Islam as a response to the disunity of the Aramaic speaking churches. It then compares the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the Aramaic text of the Gospels under four main themes: the prophets; the clergy; the divine; and the apocalypse. Among the findings of this book are that the articulator as well as audience of the Qur’an were monotheistic in origin, probably bilingual, culturally sophisticated and accustomed to the theological debates that raged between the Aramaic speaking churches.

Arguing that the Qur’an’s teachings and ethics echo Jewish-Christian conservatism, this book will be of interest to students and scholars of Religion, History, and Literature.

Table of Contents

  1. Sources and Method
  2. Prophetic Tradition in the Late Antique Near East
  3. Prophets and their Righteous Entourage
  4. The Evils of the Clergy
  5. The Divine Realm
  6. Divine Judgement and the Apocalypse
  7. Data Analysis and Conclusion

Author Bio

Emran El-Badawi is Director and Assistant Professor of Arab Studies at the University of Houston. His articles include “From ‘clergy’ to ‘celibacy’: The development of rahbaniyyah between Qur’an, Hadith and Church Canon” and “A humanistic reception of the Qur’an.” His work has been featured on the New York Times, Houston Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor.


  1. Islam
  2. Scriptures of Islam
  3. Biblical Studies

For complete product information on El-Badawi’s book please go here.

* Accessed from the publisher’s product page.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

IQSA Presents: Papers on Qur’anic Origins, an early Qur’anic palimpsest, and Qur’anic translation

Today, IQSA is proud to announce the online publication of three papers by top scholars:

  1. “Implausibility and Probability in Studies of Qurʾanic Origins,” by Dr. Aziz Al-Azmeh (Central European University)
  2. “On an early Qurʾanic palimpsest and its stratigraphy: Cambridge Or. 1287,” by Dr. Alain George (University of Edinburgh)
  3. “Reflections of a Qurʾan Translator,” by Dr. Tarif Khalidi (American University of Beirut)

Aziz Al-AzmehAll three papers are viewable in PDF format in the Publications & Resources section of our website, at this link. This week, we will briefly highlight the content of Dr. Al-Azmeh’s paper, proceeding on to the latter two in the coming weeks.

Al-Azmeh’s paper is a longer version of the keynote address he delivered at IQSA’s inaugural meeting on November 22nd, in Baltimore. In it, he discusses recent trends in Qur’anic studies

in so far as . . . they contribute to the development and cumulative growth of explanatory models for Qurʾanic genesis that might contribute to an historical and verisimilar understanding (hence: probability); or that might, for all the charm of their erudition, inhibit such an understanding (hence: implausibility).

Al-Azmeh analyzes “two contrasting lines of research” in search of a healthy approach to the Qur’anic text, as he provides a highly detailed account of the current state of the study of Qur’anic origins and the methodologies at work. He writes:

Ultimately, historical sources need to be judged on intrinsic criteria, plausibility, and verisimilitude relating to what they seek to establish; rather than hold up one’s arms in despair and adopt a boundless hermeneutic of suspicion, one might rather work from a reasonable judgement of overall verisimilitude in a number of well-defined domains, and then pursue the cumulative compulsion of detail confirmed directly or indirectly.

Click here to read the paper in full. For those who couldn’t join us in Baltimore, this posting is a renewed opportunity to “hear” from a top scholar; and for those who did attend, it is a chance to expand on the dialogue that was sparked during our inaugural meeting. Enjoy!

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Video lecture: The Influence of the Qur’an on Western Literature

A lecture on “The Influence of the Qur’an on Western Literature,” by Robert Irwin—given at the Centre for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe (CHASE) at the University of London’s Warburg Institute—can be viewed in its entirety here.

Robert Irwin is a widely-published author of both fiction and non-fiction works on the Arab world. He taught Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews and also lectured on Arabic and Middle Eastern History at the universities of London, Cambridge and Oxford.

The conference during which the lecture took place last year was titled “Translating the Qur’an” and was organized by Charles Burnett, Alastair Hamilton, and Jan Loop.


Stay tuned next week for a special web event: IQSA’s online publication of three papers by Drs. Aziz al-Azmeh, Alain George, and Tarif Khalidi.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Recently released – Le Coran: Nouvelles Approches

By Gabriel Reynolds

On November 28th, French publisher CNRS Editions released Le Coran: Nouvelles Approches, the fruit of a colloquium of leading francophone scholars of the Qur’an that took place at l’Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (Paris, 2009).

The work presents thirteen studies divided into three sections: L’histoire du texte (“history of the text”), Le contexte d’émergence (“the context of the Qurʾan’s origins”), and L’analyse littéraire (“literary analysis”). In a detailed introduction, Mehdi Azaiez—editor of the work, along with Sabrina Mervin—presents an insightful analysis of the complicated state of Qur’anic studies, along with an overview of the work’s articles. [See below for the full Table of Contents listing].

Le Coran: Nouvelles Approches includes articles from leading francophone scholars—along with a contribution by Angelika Neuwirth on the Qurʾan and Late Antiquity, translated into French—on topics of significant interest at the current moment in Qurʾanic Studies. It will thus serve readers as a guide to the most important work of contemporary French language research in the field. Le Coran: Nouvelles Approches is dedicated to the memory of Mohammed Arkoun, and fittingly so. The conference on which it is based took place at the institute which Prof. Arkoun founded, and the level of the scholarship in Le Coran: Nouvelles Approches does justice to his memory.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Mehdi Azaiez

Première Partie : l’Histoire du texte

1. Contrôler l’écriture. Sur quelques caractéristiques de manuscrits coraniques omeyyades
François Déroche

2. Le Coran silencieux et le Coran parlant. Problématique des sources scripturaires dans le shi’isme ancien
Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi

3. Le Coran des pierres : statistiques et premières analyses
Frédéric Imbert

Deuxième partie : le contexte d’émergence

4. Le Coran – Un texte de l’Antiquité tardive
Angelika Neuwirth

5. Le Coran avant le Coran : la piste syriaque. Nazaréens et Nazaréisme dans le Coran et chez les anciens exégètes
Claude Gilliot

6. La possibilité du Coran
Jacqueline Chabbi

7. L’abrogation selon le Coran à la lumière des Homélies pseudo clémentines
Geneviève Gobillot

Troisième partie : l’analyse littéraire

8. Le Coran : l’écrit, le lu, le récité.
Pierre Larcher

9. Le contre-discours coranique : premières approches d’un corpus
Mehdi Azaiez

10. Métatextualité et autoréférence dans le texte coranique
Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau

11. La question de l’abrogation dans son contexte rhétorique. (Une analyse des versets 2, 87-121)
Michel Cuypers

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.