Arthur John Arberry’s Interpretation of the Qur’ān (1955)
No one could sum up his work better than Arthur John Arberry himself: Before the truth about the East and its people can be established in the common consciousness of the West, a vast accumulation of nonsense and misapprehension and deliberate lies will need to be cleared away. It is part of the task of the conscientious orientalist to effect that clearance1. Despite the grand and problematic claim of attaining “the truth” about “the East and its people,” this quote from Arthur John Arberry captures the spirit with which the scholar was working and the task he set for himself during his career as orientalist, namely nothing less as introducing the East to the West. The ninety or so books (editions, translations, monographs, catalogues) he published and his exceptional rapidity and skill as translator of the Arabic and Persian proved if not the validity of the claim at least the truthfulness of his commitment.
Arthur John Arberry was born on 12 May 1905. After attending Portsmouth Grammar School as a scholarship student, he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, aged 19. He specialized in Greek and Latin and took a first in both parts of the Classical Tripos (1925-1927), which is a three-year taught course consisting of language (Greek and Latin), classical literature, ancient history, classical art, archaeology, classical philosophy, and linguistics. His first years at Pembroke as an undergraduate also coincided with the presence of the Islamic scholar Edward G. Browne, who died in 1926. Browne left a durable legacy at Cambridge with the establishment of the Browne studentship. Arberry moved to the study of oriental languages thanks to this studentship and took a first in Arabic and Persian simultaneously in 1929.
His training as a classicist influenced his later career as translator of Arabic and Persian and his appreciation of rhetoric. Incidentally, even though he marked his translation of the Qur’ān as departing from all previous orientalist attempts, it must be noted that he relied on a traditional orientalist philological entry into Quranic studies, namely through the Arabic language; that he made his career at institutional places of high orientalist learning, such the India Office, SOAS, and Cambridge, as chair of the Sir Thomas Adams’s Professorship, which placed him in a long line of early-modern orientalists, from Abraham Wheelock and Simon Ockley onward; and that he dedicated a number of books to his British orientalist forebears, like British contributions to Persian studies (1942), British orientalists (1943), and, later, Asiatic Jones (1946).
Orientalist studies were then marked at Cambridge by the teaching of Reynold A. Nicholson with whom he developed a close friendship. It was Nicholson’s influence that first triggered Arberry’s lifelong interest in Neo-Platonism, mystical philosophy, and Sufism. This resulted in numerous publications, including his edition and translation in 1935 of the Mawāqif and the Muḫātabāt by the 10th century Shiite scholar and mystic al-Niffarī, the first book describing the states of the gnostic and the second the addresses made by God to the author. In 1937, Arberry published Kitāb al-tawahhum (“Book on Spiritual Purification”) by the founder of the Baghdad School of Islamic philosophy, theologian, and Sufi mystic al-Muḥāsibī, and Kitāb al-ṣidq (“The Book of Truthfulness”), a description of the moral qualities a sincere Muslim must acquire in the hope to meet his Lord by Sufi mystic al-Ḫarrāz. He published his Introduction to the History of Sufism in 1942, Sufism in 1950, and later a series of translations of the works of Rūmī: Rubāʿiyāt (1949), Discourses (1961), Tales from the Masnavi (1961), More Tales from the Masnavi (1963) and the first volume of The Mystical Poems (1968).
He married in 1932 and moved to Cairo for two years, acting as Head of the Department of Classics at the University of Cairo. It was actually while in Cairo that he published his first works of translation, including the edition of al-Kalābāḏī’s Kitāb al-taʿarruf li-maḏhab ahl al-taşawwuf (1934), which appeared in translation in 1935 as The Doctrines of the Sufis, al-Tirmiḏī’s book on the taming of the instinctual desires in human beings titled Kitāb Riyāḍat al-nafs, theatre play with Ahmad Shawqi’s Maǧnūn Laylā (1933), and also his first translations from Persian with Muhammad Iqbal’s The Tulip of Sinai (1947) and with Fifty Poems of Hafiz (1947).
On his return to England in 1934, he took the position of librarian at the India Office Library, which he kept until the outbreak of the war. This position gave him the opportunity to publish various catalogues, including a Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the India Office Library (1936) and a Catalogue of Persian Books (1937). He put his expertise to the service of Cambridge Library with A Second Supplementary Hand-List of Muhammadan Manuscripts in Cambridge (1952) and a catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts (1955-1964) and Persian manuscripts (1959-1962) for the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. During World War II, he served the Ministry of Information and returned to academic life in 1944 with an appointment to the chair of Persian at London University. He became professor of Arabic in 1946. During his tenure there, he continued to publish, including Saʿdī’s first two chapters of the Gūlistān (1945). In 1947, he left London to return to Cambridge as Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic and held the position for the remainder of his life.
As far as the Qur’ān is concerned, Arberry first published a long introduction with selected translations, The Holy Koran, in 1953. His full translated version, titled The Koran Interpreted, was published in two volumes in 1955. It was reissued in 1963, 1971, 1980 and 1986, and first published by Touchstone in 1996.
Arberry, who had a passion for music, was very scrupulous when it came to discussing the status and quality of the Quranic scripture. He was very well versed in classical Arabic poetry and praised its exceptional rhythmic richness and its rhetorical power. For him, the Qur’ān was revealed in the language of the Arabs and, by language, he not only meant the tongue but also its literary background: he subscribed to the doctrine of the inimitability (ʾiʿǧāz) of the Qur’ān – what we, in contemporary translation studies, would call its “untranslatability.” Therefore, in order to be more truthful to the nature of his endeavour, he chose the term of interpretation, rather than translation.
Arberry’s long study of Sufism and his musical proficiency proved important elements when considering his approach to the Qur’ān. Indeed, in his prefaces for the first and second volumes of the 1955 edition of The Koran Interpreted, he noted the centrality of musicality and rhythm for the transmission of the Qur’ān and for the appreciation of the beauty and depth of the text. He wrote about a “mysterious and compelling beauty”2, about “the impact which a sustained and concentrated exploration of the Koran has left on [his] mind and [his] heart”3. He also revealed on numerous occasion the emotive response the Qur’ān elicited from him and the impact it had in his choices as translator: “it is to the rhythm that I constantly return as I grope for a clue to the arresting, the hypnotic power of the Muslim scriptures”4.
This insistence on rhythm throughout his two prefaces is what allowed him to disprove the claims of detractors of the Qur’ān, amongst contemporary scholars and amongst European translators of past ages, that the text is incoherent, disjointed, and lacks unity. Arberry underlined the differences between the two different phases of Revelation, namely the Meccan and Medinan, and the shift from creed and eschatology, to the longer narrative and legislative passages. He also recognized quite rightly that such shift may occur within the same surah.
Yet, what he negated was the conclusion of Orientalists, namely that the Qur’ān was deficient. He argued that Orientalists persisted in their errors and missed the point that unity was not to be found in the themes but in the rhythm: “Rhythm runs insistently through the entire Koran; but it is a changeful, fluctuating rhythm, ranging from the gentle, lulling music of the narrative and legislative passages, through the lively counterpoint of the hymns of praise, to the shattering drum-rolls of the apocalyptic movements”5. Equally, concerning the separation between Meccan and Medinan revelation, he wrote: “The rhythm changes, admittedly; yet it never ceases. The cataract transforms itself into a softly running stream: but the broad later sweep of the waters of inspiration is no less beautiful and majestic than the tumultuous thunder of their earlier flow”6.
Arberry returned explicity to the most fundamental pillar of Islamic creed, namely the doctrine of tawḥīd, or Unicity of the Divine, and on its consequence, namely the principle of unity-in-multiplicity. He explained how Islamic mystical philosophy and theology could serve as a retroactive entry-point for the interpretation of the Qur’ān. The two principles are indeed pivotal to the science of taṣawwuf, or Sufism, with which Arberry had had by 1955 a life-long scholarly engagement. The poetry of the 13th century Egyptian mystic Ibn al-Fāriḍ (d. 1234) is on Arberry’s mind. He did not quote him but his poems evoking multiplicity-in-unity (whether one considers creations in their multiplicity as signs of the One or that the One may be apprehended in a multiplicity of attributes all referred to by a Name, such as the Merciful, the Just), are well appreciated to this day.
More generally, Arberry’s perspective was to caution readers against the indiscriminate and irrelevant use of secular frames of interpretation. For instance, he insisted that time in a revealed text is not historical time and the confusion between the two leads to gross errors: “There is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ in the Prophetic message, when that message is true; everlasting truth is not held within the confines of time and space, but every moment reveals it wholly and completely”7.
His approach marked a point of departure in the context in which he was working. In particular, he expressed great reservation concerning the school of Higher Criticism and its representatives in orientalist studies, whom he called the champions of “anatomical mincing”8. By focusing on the context of revelation as sole hermeneutic frame, they reduced the Qur’ān, according to Arberry, to a “dead body”9 and missed one fundamental aspect, namely its revealed nature: “I urge the view that an eternal composition, such as the Koran is, cannot be well understood if it is submitted to the test of only temporal criticism. It is simply irrelevant to expect that the themes treated in the individual Sura will be marshalled after some mathematical precision to form a rationally ordered pattern; the logic of revelation is not the logic of schoolmen”10.
Arberry’s approach is remarkable in the history of orientalism and indicates the complexity of orientalism itself. One could say, in anthropological terms, that he was rejecting an “etic” perspective and embraced an “emic” position, inviting his readers to engage with the Qur’ān in its own terms and not with a framework that was foreign to it. Even though Arberry never converted to Islam – he wrote in his 1953 preface to his translation of selected passages of the Qur’ān that “[he was] no Muslim”11 – it is evident that his direct experience of Islam during his years in Cairo, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria between 1931 and 1934 influenced his subsequent approach to Islamic literature. Concerning the structure of the Qur’ān, for instance, he contested the idea of a “disjointed” Qur’ān by reporting the essential point that “All truth was present simultaneously within the Prophet’s enraptured soul; all truth, however fragmented, revealed itself in his inspired utterance”12.
He enjoined the reader of his Koran Interpreted to “strive to obtain the same all-embracing apprehension”13. Even if the prophetic experience is not by definition replicable, he encouraged readers to suspend their frames of reference and “pedestrian analysis” and promised then that “the sudden fluctuations of theme and mood will then no longer present such difficulties as have bewildered critics [...] Each Sura will now be seen to be a unity within itself, and the whole Koran will be recognized as a single revelation, self-consistent in the highest degree”14.
The preface of the first volume contains a critical review of all translations by English scholars from Robert of Ketton (or “Robertus Retenensis”) in the twelfth century onwards. Arberry noted the publication of Ketton’s Koran in Latin in 1543 by Bibliander at Bale. Most of his remarks on the works of his predecessors are negative and expedite. For instance, with Ketton, he exposed how it “abounded in inaccuracies and misunderstandings, and was inspired by hostile intention”15. Alexander Ross’s translation from the French of Du Ryer marks with other translations what Arberry dismissed as the “inglorious beginning of the English interpretation of the Holy Book of Islam”16. Arberry briefly pointed at the deficiencies, misconceptions, and prejudices of predecessors, offering expedite comments such as “a somewhat monotonous and humdrum voice, but at least an honest one”17. Never did he genuinely reflect or expand on the scholarly contexts of production for instance. What is more remarkable about his critical method is that he offered systematic quotes from their translations of two specific sets of ayāt of the Qur’ān referring first to the story of Yusuf and second to the story of the Nativity. This allows readers to develop a comparative view of translations available in English, including Arberry’s own at the end of the preface.
Closer to him, Arberry mentioned Rev. J. Rodwell’s 1861 translation, taken up by the Everyman’s Library in 1909. He noted that Rodwell was not inspired by animosity towards Islam which, according to Arberry, marked him off from his predecessors, which again is a sweeping condemnation, based on insufficient enquiry, of the past tradition of orientalist scholarship. What is more interesting are the implications to be drawn from Arberry’s comments on the translations of the predecessors in question. For instance, he noted that Rodwell’s translation was influenced by the growing fashion in Victorian times to prefer Saxon terminology to Latin. He regretted that Rodwell denied the revealed status of the Qur’ān: as such, this comment sets Arberry apart from an early orientalist tradition in Quranic studies, reaching back to the Medieval period, and which denied the revealed status of the Qur’ān and caricatured its prophet Muhammad as an impostor. He praised some of his predecessors, including Rodwell and also Edward Henry Palmer’s translation for the Oxford World’s Classics, when they endeavoured to remain close to the original rhythm of the Arabic, reflecting here his own preoccupations as a translator of the Qur’ān.
Coming to the twentieth century and his near contemporaries, he focused on two translations, namely the one of the English convert Marmaduke Pickthall and the orientalist Richard Bell. Arberry judged Pickthall’s rendering, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, first translated in 1930, to be an important milestone in the long course of Koranic interpretation18. The reason for this is that Pickthall, stated that “the Koran cannot be translated” and despite rendering it “almost literally,” that “the result is not the Glorious Koran”19. Pickthall’s translation was revised by Dr Muhammad Ahmad al-Ghamrawi of Egypt and Mustafa al-Maraghi, shaykh al-Azhar but because Pickthall worked from a Turkish lithograph version that followed a different numeration this gave rise to confusions.
Richard Bell’s translation published in 1937-1939 is more fundamentally problematic to Arberry and this is where the originality of his project in relation with the context in which he was working becomes clear. Indeed, Arberry’s translation marked a significant departure from Higher Criticism in orientalist studies. Higher Criticism was a form of formalism coupled with historiography applied to sacred and revealed texts. In Arberry’s words, Bell “literally took the Koran to pieces and put it together again”20 meaning that Bell rearranged the Qur’ān chronologically, because to the orientalist and his contemporaries, it was the only way for the text to cease to be “jumbled” and “disjointed.” This method consisting of re-arranging the Qur’ān chronologically may be intellectually rewarding but it relies on a framework that is not organically derived from the text. Arberry’s condemnation was unequivocal: “I am trying in this interpretation to indicate what Muslims of all ages have known as their sacred book, and not how a handful of European scholars have latterly essayed to recast it”21.
On the contrary, Arberry’s chief reason for offering a new version of the Qur’ān was to “imitate, however imperfectly, those rhetorical and rhythmical patterns which are the glory and the sublimity of the Koran”22. In his preface to his translation of selected passages of the Qur’ān in 1953, he gave a brief indication as to his preparatory method, which was to refer to mufassirūn, or commentators of the Qur’ān, and not to previous “European interpreters”: “I have always preferred to follow traditional Muslim opinion rather than modern infidel conjecture, my purpose in this book being to illustrate the meaning which the Koran holds for the faithful down the ages”23. He also clarified his preference to avoid what he called “the ‘Biblical’ style”: “the Western reader must get rid of the assumption that the Koran is more or less like the Old Testament”24. What he meant by “Biblical style” is undoubtedly the high-style of the Kings James Bible and the Book of Common Prayers, used for Sunday Services. Indeed, he specified that “though I would willingly get away as far as possible from ‘Biblical’ style, being aware of its inappropriateness especially when taken to excess, in actual fact the Arabic original, being Semitic speech like the Hebrew Testament, dictates to the translator to no small extent how he shall go to work”25.
To this day, translators recognized his achievement. Professor Abdel Haleem, translator of The Qur’an for Oxford University Press in 2004, said of Arberry’s translation that it “is undoubtedly one of the most respected translations of the Qur’an in English” because the translator was able to show “great respect towards the language of the Qur’an, particularly its musical effects” 26. Using the language of music, Arberry analysed each Sura as “a rhapsody composed of whole or fragmentary leitmotivs, […] If this diagnosis of the literary structure of the Koran may be accepted as true […] it follows that those notorious incongruities and irrelevancies, even those wearisome repetitions, which have proved such stumbling-blocks in the way of our Western appreciation will vanish in the light of a clearer understanding of the nature of the Muslim scriptures”27.
His version based on an analysis of rhetorical
and rhythmical patterns was meant to achieve organicity with the Qur’ān. For
instance, he declared that it was wrong to presume that because the Qur’ān
contains rhymes in Arabic then it should be made to look like a rhyming poem
in translation. However, as he pointed out, “[t]he function of rhyme in the
Koran is quite different from the function of rhyme in poetry; it therefore
demands a very different treatment in translation”28. For the
narrative, argumentative, and legislative passages, instead of having a
Qur’ān in translation that rhymes like poetry, Arberry preferred to indicate
terminations and connections by rounding off each succession of loose rhymes
with a much shorter line. When changes of mood and tempo occurred in
rhetorical or lyrical passage, Arberry made corresponding variations in his
own rhythmical patterns. For instance, in the passage of the Nativity, the
pattern of terminating each surah with a shorter line appears clearly and
give an idea of what he meant by reinserting the rhyme, if only visually.
And mention in the Book Mary
when she withdrew from her people
to an eastern place,
and she took a veil apart from them;
then We sent unto her Our Spirit
that presented himself to her
a man without fault.
She said, “I take refuge in
the All-merciful from thee!
If thou fearest God ...”
He said, “I am but a messenger
come from thy Lord, to give thee a
boy most pure.”
She said. “How shall I have a son
whom no mortal has touched, neither
have I been unchaste?
He said. “Even so thy Lord has said:
‘Easy is that for Me; and that We
may appoint him a sign unto men
and a mercy from Us; it is
a thing decreed’.”
So she conceived him, and withdrew with him
to a distant place.
And the birth pangs surprised her by
the trunk of the palm-tree. She said.
‘Would I had died ere this, and become
a thing forgotten!”
But the one that was below her
called to her. “Nay, do not sorrow;
see, thy Lord has set below thee
Shake also to thee the palm-trunk,
and there shall come tumbling upon thee
dates fresh and ripe29.
Prof. Abdel-Haleem praised Arberry’s musical ear and his “careful observation of Arabic sentence structure and phraseology,” which made “his translation very close to the Arabic original” but at times “confusingly unidiomatic” in the English tongue30. In Prof. Abdel-Haleem’s translation, the passage above renders:  Mention in the Qur’ān the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east  and secluded herself away; We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.  She said, ‘I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him [do not approach]!’  but he said, ‘I am but a Messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’  She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste,’  and he said, ‘This is what your Lord said: “It is easy for Me– We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from Us.”  And so it was ordained: she conceived him. She withdrew to a distant place  and, when the pains of childbirth drove her to [cling to] the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, ‘I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!’  but a voice cried to her from below, ‘Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet  and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you.
Reading the two translations side by side, the differences, advantages, disadvantages, choices become apparent. Prof. Abdel-Haleem chose to translate in prose and his version is more idiomatic than Arberry’s. Arberry privileged concision, sometimes bordering on opacity; he preserved a sense of rhythm but at the expense of fluidity. Prof. Abdel-Haleem’s version relies more readily on expansions, which results in greater fluidity and clarity. Compare for instance the first and last ayāt: [Arberry] And mention in the Book Mary/ when she withdrew from her people/ to an eastern place,/ and she took a veil apart from them; [Abdel-Haleem] Mention in the Qur’ān the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away; […] [Arberry] Shake also to thee the palm-trunk,/ and there shall come tumbling upon thee/ dates fresh and ripe. [Abdel-Haleem] and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you.
Despite unidiomatic passages, what must be remembered of Arberry’s method as translator was that it was not a theory developed outside experience and then applied to the text. Rather, it was a method and theory that emerged from experience and praxis. He recalled at the end of the preface his time in Egypt in the early 1930s: I have been reliving those Ramadan nights of long ago, when I would sit on the veranda of my Gezira house and listen entranced to the old, white-bearded Sheykh who chanted the Koran for the pious delectation of my neighbours. […] It was then that I, the infidel, learnt to understand and react to the thrilling rhythms of the Koran […] In humble thankfulness, I dedicate this all too imperfect essay in imitation to the memory of those magical Egyptian nights31. No matter how nostalgic or romantic these final remarks may sound, it is evident that this embodied relation to and comprehension of the Qur’ān from inside-out and from the ground-up allowed for a comprehension of the Islamic Scripture in its own terms and marked the originality of his translation compared with previous attempts by non-Muslims in English.
For more information
The XML source of this edition originates from the website tanzil.net. The text was emended by Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé, who also encoded it in XML-TEI. We do not present yet the introduction and the critical apparatus. For initial bibliographical guidelines, please see:
Abdel Haleem (Muhammad), The Qur’an, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Arberry (Arthur John), The Holy Koran. An Introduction with Selections, London, Allen and Unwin, 1953.
Arberry (Ahthur John), The Koran Interpreted, 2 vols., London, George Allen and Unwin, 1955.
Arberry (Arthur John), “The Disciple”, in Oriental Essays. Portrait of Seven Scholars, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1960 [autobiographical sketch].
Homerin (Th. Emil), Passion Before Me, My Fate Behind. Ibn al-Farid and the Poetry of Recollection, New York, SUNY Press, 2011 [p. 214, for Ibn al-Fāriḍ and the concept of multiplicity-in-unity].
Lyons (M. C.), “Arberry, Arthur John (1905-1969)”, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online, pub. 23 Sept. 2004 [available here, restricted access].
Skilliter (S. A.), “Obituary: Arthur John Arberry”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 33, no. 2, 1970, pp. 364-367.
- 1 A. J. Arberry, quoted in Skilliter, « Obituary: Arthur John Arberry », Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 33, no 2, 1970, p. 365.
- 2 A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, London, Allen and Unwin, vol. 2, p. 8.
- 3 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 8.
- 4 Ibid.
- 5 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 9.
- 6 Ibid.
- 7 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 12-13.
- 8 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 12.
- 9 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 11.
- 10 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 12.
- 11 A. J. Arberry, The Holy Koran, London, Allen and Unwin, 1953, p. 31.
- 12 A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, vol. 2, p. 15.
- 13 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 15.
- 14 Ibid.
- 15 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 6.
- 16 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 7.
- 17 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 14.
- 18 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 21.
- 19 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 21.
- 20 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 23.
- 21 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 25.
- 22 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 25.
- 23 A.J. Arberry, The Holy Koran. An Introduction with Selections, Londres, Allen and Unwin, 1953, p. 30.
- 24 Ibid., p. 26.
- 25 Ibid., p. 31.
- 26 Muhammad Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. xxviii.
- 27 A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, vol. 2, p. 28.
- 28 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 25.
- 29 Sūrah Maryam, verses 16-26.
- 30 M. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, p.xxviii.
- 31 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 28.