Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980)
has ever been used in Arabic to denote anything but the title of this particular divine writ and each of its sections or “chapters”, respectively: with the result that it would have been of no benefit whatsoever to the reader to be presented with “translations” of these two terms.5
Apart from these linguistic considerations, I have tried to observe consistently two fundamental rules of interpretation.
Firstly, the Qurʾān must not be viewed as a compilation of individual injunctions and exhortations but as one integral whole: that is, as an exposition of an ethical doctrine in which every verse and sentence has an intimate bearing on other verses and sentences, all of them clarifying and amplifying one another. Consequently, its real meaning can be grasped only if we correlate every one of its statements with what has been stated elsewhere in its pages, and try to explain its ideas by means of frequent cross-references, always subordinating the particular to the general and the incidental to the intrinsic. Whenever this rule is faithfully followed, we realize that the Qurʾān is – in the words of Muḥammad ʿAbduh – “its own best commentary”.
Secondly, no part of the Qurʾān should be viewed from a purely historical point of view: that is to say, all its references to historical circumstances and events – both at the time of the Prophet and in earlier times – must be regarded as illustrations of the human condition and not as ends in themselves. Hence, the consideration of the historical occasion on which a particular verse was revealed – a pursuit so dear, and legitimately so, to the hearts of the classical commentators – must never be allowed to obscure the underlying purport of that verse and its inner relevance to the ethical teaching which the Qurʾān, taken as a whole, propounds.
In order to bring out, to the best of my ability, the many facets of the Qurʾanic message, I have found it necessary to add to my translation a considerable number of explanatory notes. Certain observations relating to the symbolism of the Qurʾān as well as to its eschatology are separately dealt with in Appendix I at the end of this work. In both the notes and the appendices I have tried no more than to elucidate the message of the Qurʾān and have, to this end, drawn amply on the works of the great Arab philologists and of the classical commentators. If, on occasion, I have found myself constrained to differ from the interpretations offered by the latter, let the reader remember that the very uniqueness of the Qurʾān consists in the fact that the more our worldly knowledge and historical experience increase, the more meanings, hitherto unsuspected, reveal themselves in its pages.
The great thinkers of our past understood this problem fully well. In their commentaries, they approached the Qurʾān with their reason: that is to say, they tried to explain the purport of each Qurʾanic statement in the light of their superb knowledge of the Arabic language and of the Prophet's teachings – forthcoming from his sunnah – as well as by the store of general knowledge available to them and by the historical and cultural experiences which had shaped human society until their time. Hence, it was only natural that the way in which one commentator understood a particular Qurʾanic statement or expression differed occasionally – and sometimes very incisively – from the meaning attributed to it by this or that of his predecessors. In other words, they often contradicted one another in their interpretations: but they did this without any
5 Etymologically, the word al-qurʾān is derived from the verb qaraʾa (“he read” or “recited”), and is to be understood as “the reading [par excellence]”, while the noun surāh might be rendered as “a step [leading to another step]” and – tropically – as “eminence in degree” (cf. Lane IV, 1465). It should be noted, however, that when the noun qurʾān appears without the definite article al, it usually has its primary meaning of “recitation” or “discourse”, and may be rendered accordingly.