Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sura 1 - Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation - "In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds: Most Gracious, Most Merciful: Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, The way of those on whom Thous has bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath. And who go not astray."
Sura 1 - Muhammad Asad's translation - "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace: All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds, the most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace, Lord of the Day of Judgment! Thee alone do we worship; and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid. Guide us the straight way - the way of those upon whom Thous hast bestowed Thy blessings, not those who have been condemned [by Thee], nor of those who go astray.
This first Sura in the Quran is a prayer. Ali states that it teaches Muslims the perfect prayer, and that it is "rightly called the Essence of the Book." It is of supreme importance. It is a part of most prayers, and is included in almost all wedding ceremonies. So it is important; that much is beyond debate. Also beyond debate are the words of this, and every other Sura, in classical Arabic. The same is not true of English. This is illustrated by these two translations, and they only scratch the surface. Translators and interpreters of the Quran square off against each other in much the same way as interpreters of the bible, and are equally unlikely to see themselves as using the text for their own purposes. The importance of differences in translation will be better illustrated in later Suras. For this Sura, I will take a less scholarly approach.
I like the description of Allah as gracious an merciful. If I do believe in God, my God is certainly gracious and merciful. Not merciful like a slave owner, however, but merciful like a an official with a mortgage company dealing with a late payment. One translation uses only grace, presenting it as a term that encompasses mercy, compassion, and loving tenderness. Next God is described as a Sustainer or as a Sustainer and Cherisher of Worlds. This has a nice ring too, if a bit possessive for my ears. After hearing again that Allah is Gracious and Merciful, we are told that he is "Master" or "Lord" of the Day of Judgment. Apparently there is a translator's debate over whether this should be Master or King. I am not sure I care for either description. I really don't like the slave analogies. I am not sure I am down with monarchy either. I know God is supposed to be the original king, but I don't like the title any better than when it was used by his representatives on earth. I probably am missing the point, since this title is wedded to day of judgment, a notion I find to be scientifically improbable. But, if you believe in such a day, I suppose there could be worse options than having a Gracious and Merciful Master for it. Also, seeking a "straight way" (the translation I prefer is straight path), is not so bad.
The First Sura is a simple but powerful prayer for guidance, and also for a beneficent and merciful God to provide it. It is powerful and it is beautiful. It presents quite strongly the simple attractions of belief.

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