Translations of the Qur'an have long been a battleground. Ostensibly, the purpose of translating the most sacred text of Islam is to make it accessible to those without Arabic - Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But English translations of the Qur'an have frequently been used to subvert the text as well as its real message. The most obvious point to be made about any translation of the Qur'an (and the correct spelling is Qur'an, not Koran) is that, strictly speaking, it is not the Qur'an. Literally, "qur'an" means "reading", or that which should be read. It is an epic poetic text, meant to be read aloud, whose true import can be communicated only in the original. A translation is not that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men and women to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to give the barest suggestion of the meaning of the Qur'an. This is why both classical and contemporary Muslim scholars and jurists agree that translations of the Qur'an cannot be read during daily prayers. Indeed, some scholars go so far as to argue that the Qur'an cannot be written down in letters other than the original Arabic characters.
It is not just the heightened language and poetic nature of the Qur'an that creates problems for translators. The Qur'an is not a book like any other. It cannot, for example, be compared with the Torah or the Bible, simply because it is not a book of narrative records of ancient peoples - although it does contain some stories of prophets and earlier nations. It is not a "linear" text with a chronological order or a "logical" beginning, middle and end. Its chapters can be very short or very long. It repeats stories in different chapters, often skips from one subject to another, and offers instruction on the same subject in different places. It has a specific lattice structure that connects every word and every verse with every other word and verse by rhythm, rhyme and meaning.
European thinkers have frequently used the special structure of the Qur'an to denigrate the Holy Book. The otherwise sensible Thomas Carlyle found the "Koran" to be "a wearisome confused jumble", and declared that only "a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran". The 18th-century French philo-sopher and historian Constantin Volney described the Qur'an as "a tissue of vague, contradictory declamations, of ridiculous, dangerous precepts". Given that most European translators have seen the Qur'an in this way, it is not surprising that their translations have left a great deal to be desired. Some have even gone so far as to say that the Qur'an lacks the necessary structure, logic and rationality to be thought of as a book at all.
The first direct translation of the Qur'an into English was by George Sale, in 1734; this, Sale said, provided clear evidence that the Qur'an was the work of several authors. Subsequent translators thought that the only way to make any sense of the Qur'an was to rearrange it into some sort of chronological order. The first translation to do so - by J M Rodwell, rector of St Ethelburga, London - was published in 1861. A more thorough rearrangement was attempted by Richard Bell, a noted Scottish orientalist, whose translation, published in Edinburgh in four editions between 1937 and 1939, was entitled The Qur'an, Translated, With a Critical Rearrangement of the Surahs.
Playing havoc with the structure of the Qur'an, however, was not enough. Translators also used omission, distortion and mistranslation to subvert the message and meaning of the Holy Book. Consider, for example, the most widely available translation in English, by N J Dawood, the first edition of which was published by Penguin in 1956. This translation subverts the original in several ways. Often a single word is mistranslated in a verse to give it totally the opposite meaning. In 2:217, for example, we read: "idolatry is worse than carnage". The word translated as "idolatry" is "fitna", which actually means persecution or oppression. Dawood's translation conveys an impression that the Qur'an will put up with carnage but not idolatry. In fact, the Qur'an is making persecution and oppression a crime greater than murder. The extract should read: "oppression is more awesome than killing".
At other times, Dawood uses subtle mistranslation to give an undertow of violence to the language of the Qur'an. This is evident even in his translations of chapter titles. "Az-Zumar", which simply means "crowd", is translated as "The Hordes"; "As-Saff", which means "the ranks", is translated as "Battle Array". "Al-Alaq", which literally means "that which clings", and refers to the embryo as it attaches to the wall of the uterus, is translated as "Clots of Blood". Most Muslim translators simply call the chapter "The Clot". What is intended to convey the idea of birth, Dawood projects as the notion of death. Like previous orientalist translators, he also goes out of his way to suggest that the Qur'an is a sexist text. The Qur'an demands that humanity serve God; in Dawood's translation, this injunction applies only to men. Spouses become virgins. Conjuring witches appear from nowhere. Thus, readers of Dawood's version - and most other popular translations of the Qur'an - have come away with the impression that the Holy Book sanctions violence or sexual oppression.
For those interested in getting to the heart of the holy text, the good news is that there is now a much more accurate translation available. Muhammad A S Abdel Haleem, professor of Islamic studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, has set out not only to translate the text faithfully, but also to make it accessible to ordinary English readers. He achieves this by offering a purely linguistic reading of the Qur'an. He transforms the Holy Book's complex grammar and structure into smooth, contemporary English mercifully free from archaisms, anachronisms and incoherence. The result is both accessible and compelling.
Abdel Haleem makes use of a simple but ingenious device to solve two critical problems. The Qur'an often addresses different parties - for example, the Prophet, or the Community of Believers, or the hostile Meccan tribe of the Quraysh - and switches from one to another in the same verse. Abdel Haleem inserts parentheses to make it clear who is speaking or whom is being addressed. He uses the same device to provide context: for example, when the Qur'an says "those who believed and emigrated", Abdel Haleem adds "[to Medina]". He also includes brief summaries at the beginning of each chapter, as well as judicious footnotes explaining geographical, historical and personal allusions.
Abdel Haleem's emphasis on context - the way that each verse connects with many others, and how the different parts of the Holy Book explain each other - makes this translation a remarkable achievement. For the first time, readers of the Qur'an in translation are able to see that it is a commentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. It spans a period of 23 years; and to understand what is going on in any particular verse, you need to appreciate what is happening in the Prophet's life at the moment the verse was revealed. Moreover, to understand what the Qur'an says about a particular subject in one particular verse, you have to know what the Qur'an says about the same topic in different places.
This is why, as Abdel Haleem points out in the introduction, you cannot lift a single verse out of context and use it to argue a point or to show what the Qur'an has to say about something. To illustrate the point, he refers to the oft-quoted verse "Slay them wherever you find them" (2:191). This was taken out of context by Dawood, Haleem argues, and thus used to justify the claim that the Qur'an sanctions violence against non-Muslims; and, after 9/11, to rationalise the actions of extremists. In fact, the only situation in which the Qur'an sanctions violence is in self-defence. This particular verse has a context: the Muslims, performing pilgrimage in the sacred precinct in Mecca, were under attack and did not know whether they were permitted to retaliate. The verse permits them to fight back on this - but not necessarily any other - occasion.
Yet even a translation as good as this has limitations. Despite its originality, it is very much an orthodox reading of the Qur'an. The explanatory footnotes rely heavily on classical commentaries, particularly that of the late 12th-century scholar and theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. And it does not inspire a sense of poetic beauty. But then, in a translation of a text as rich and complex as the Qur'an, you can't expect to have everything.
Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim is published by Granta Books