“We have made it an arabic qur’an”: The permissibility of translating scripture in islam in contrast with judaism and Christianity

Meir M. Bar-Asher*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

2 Scopus citations


By late antiquity, the Bible had been subject to extensive reinterpretation in Judaism and Christianity, as discussed in the preceding chapters. The ethical, halakhic and theological sensibilities of rabbinic Judaism were projected midrashically onto the Hebrew Bible - the very text regarded by Christianity as the Old Testament and interpreted through the “hermeneutical lens” of the Gospels. Furthermore, the original Hebrew language of the Bible had become foreign not only to Christians (to whom it was virtually inaccessible), but even to most Jews, who lived in the Diaspora. It was therefore translated by Jews into Greek and Aramaic before the Common Era, and the Christian Bible was rendered in Syriac and Latin, followed by many other languages within the first Christian centuries. The Qur’an and its place in Islam are different on all of these counts. It announces itself as being written in “clear Arabic” (lisān ‘arabi mubīn), an unequivocal divine message conveyed through Muhammad. In the first generations of Islam, a desire to preserve its pristine uniqueness and self-sufficiency at times seems to have generated opposition to the very act of interpreting the Qur’an. While the necessity of interpretation was eventually acknowledged, producing a vibrant tafsīr (commentary) tradition, the prospect of translating the Qur’an remained fraught with tension. Since its inception in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the religious epicenter of Islam always remained within Arabic-speaking domains. Though the religion spread widely to non-Arab peoples and the Qur’an was transplanted to new linguistic contexts, its original Arabic format held a uniquely sacred status that, for many thinkers, precluded its translation. This opposition went hand-in-hand with the doctrine of i’jāz al-qur’an, that is, the Qur’an’s miraculousness or “inimitability,” which emerged by the third Muslim century (tenth century CE), and entailed the belief that its linguistic, stylistic, and conceptual excellence cannot be reproduced.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationInterpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Subtitle of host publicationOverlapping Inquiries
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781107588554
ISBN (Print)9781107065680
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2016.


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