By Gabriel Reynolds
Perhaps the most obvious way in which studying the Qurʾan in the internet age differs from that of ages past is the ease of accessing numerous translations of the Qurʾan. In his 1953 article “Some Minor Problems in the Qurʾān,” Franz Rosenthal analyzes 46 different translations of the term al-ṣamad (Q 112:2). One imagines that his office must have been quite a mess of open books and tattered pieces of paper serving as bookmarks.
Today a single website – islamawakened.com – offers 41 different English translations of each verse with a single click (and tomorrow there may be more). These websites (of which there are a number; maktabah.org, for example, has translations of the Qurʾan in 66 different languages, and al-quran.info into 40 languages) are undoubtedly useful, but in using them a few cautionary notes might be kept in mind.
First, it often seems that the multiplication of verses has a diminishing rate of return; that is, a scholar interested in understanding a difficult Qurʾanic passage (say, Q 3:3-4; 12:110; 13:33; or 108:1), will usually not learn much more about it by consulting 40 different translations, as opposed to 4.
Second, many of these websites categorize translations in religious terms. Islamawakened does so as follows:
1. Generally Accepted Translations of the Meaning
2. Controversial, Deprecated, or Status Undetermined Works
3. Non-Muslim and/or Orientalist Works
The editors of the website put Yusuf Ali’s original translation under category 2, but the later (Saudi-sponsored) edited version of this translation under category 1. Evidently philological rigor may not always be the standard for privileging certain translations. It should also be noted that under “non-Muslim translations” most websites tend not to include those translations generally seen as standard in the academy. Thus George Sale’s outdated English translation is found on most sites, but those current in the academy like Blachère’s French translation and Paret’s German translation are almost never found (this is the case, for example, with both maktabah.org and al-quran.info).
The case of translations suggests that studying the Qurʾan in the internet age can be tricky in its own way. Other cases, however, are more auspicious. Websites with other tools for the study of the Qurʾan — such as tanzil.net and corpus.quran.com — are exceptionally useful, although an explanation of their usefulness will have to wait for a future post!
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2012. All rights reserved.