- The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary ed. by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, almost two thousand pages of translation, commentary, and discussion of the Qur'an, is a very impressive product. It is very unusual also, since it is clearly meant to be a religious work, not a work [End Page 594] about religion. And it is a book by believers not only for believers but also for anyone interested in the topic. It has some impressive merits, and the main one to my mind is the extensive use of commentary from classical thinkers on the various parts of the text. This is most useful because it is almost never done in so systematic a way, and the text is thus made much more available to the reader who does not read Arabic or have access to a range of commentaries. It is so much better to have a variety of explanations of the text from classical commentators rather than from the translator alone, since we are given more than one person's view as well as the idea of a tradition of interpretation, rather than the suggestion purveyed by some translators that it is always obvious what the Qur'an means.
There are some problems with the book. First, the translation insists on using an archaic form of English, which can be annoying. There are lots of "unto you," "thee," and "thy" expressions here, and I wonder if that is the best way of presenting the Qur'an in English in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, the translation is first-class, once one grits one's teeth to cope with the archaisms. There are some transliteration and other errors also, hardly surprising in a book this size. At the end of the book, after the translation, there are a series of essays designed to explain different aspects of the Qur'an, and most of these are impressive and helpful. Some are rather limited, though, like the chapters on philosophy and art. In the text itself the commentators are carefully chosen, and there is little represented here from the Hanbali School and Ibn Taymiyyah. Perhaps if they are ignored they will go away? For example, Saudi Arabia does not appear, at least in the index, which makes one wonder where the editors think Mecca and Medinah are today.
This raises an interesting question, to which I shall devote the rest of the review, and that is whether the idea of presenting an account of a religious text entirely from within a religious context is plausible. On the one hand it would seem obvious that the best people to present a religion are those actually in it. Yet there is, of course, more than just one view of what a religion is, and even a variety of believers may agree on positions that are not necessarily those of the religious community as a whole. Some of these problems arise here since this is a very pious book. It treats Islam with enormous respect and entirely fails to consider any of the claims it makes critically, or indeed most of the claims made critically about the Qur'an, either. For those interested in the philosophical aspects of religion this is very restrictive. Philosophers tend to raise difficult questions for religions, and of course religions have responded in a variety of ways, often by creatively seeking ways to reconcile themselves with the sort of theoretical issues that philosophy raises. We do not get much sense of that here; the point of philosophy in this case is that it is assumed to bring out the wider aspects of the truths expressed in Islam, but here it seems to have more of a decorative than an analytical role, and everything moves on smoothly to produce more and more satisfying versions of these truths.