Book Review: 'What The Koran Really Says' by Ibn Warraq
“What The Koran Really Says” by Ibn Warraq is a commentary on the Koran, Islam's holy book. “What The Koran Really Says” includes detailed information on the cultural context of the book, explanations of confusing sections, translations of many common terms in the Koran and key verses.
The translator’s true identity is anonymous, due to death threats against him. “Ibn Warraq” actually means son of a paper maker, a nom de plume used in the Arab world as a common pseudonym for critical works.
The Strengths of “What the Koran Really Says” by Ibn Warraq
The author identifies verses and chapters where the meaning is unclear to anyone and everyone. At these points, experts like Ibn Kathir and others are quoted to give commonly understood meanings for the reader to choose from.
That is what gave rise to the book “The The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran”, translating the words into the related Aramaic language where many phrases did make sense and often fit into the context of the surrounding chapters. That raises the question of whether Mohammed switched between languages while speaking or spoke a dialect bridging Aramaic and classical Arabic; however, Ibn Warraq bypasses this debate entirely by showing you what multiple other sources give for those otherwise incomprehensible verses and let’s you decide.
The book “What the Koran Really Says” is thoroughly footnoted. The author identifies the Arabic grammar and vocabulary books he uses, lists biographies on Mohammed, Arabic commentaries on the Koran quoted in the book and dictionaries on notables in the Koran. If you disagree with the author’s translation or interpretation, Ibn Warraq gave you sufficient information to read those works along with the Koran and come up with your own answer.
The author’s commentary section points out the contradictions in the Koran, like the verses that say people have free will, followed by verses that say no one can change the fate Allah assigns them.
The author Ibn Warraq translates many phrases used by Muslims today, identifying those actually in the Koran and those traced to the Hadith.
The author points out those sections of the Koran that are plagiarized from the Bible and Torah, as well as identifies possible Coptic Christian sources for Suras VII.7-18 and XXXVII.72-79.
The author notes the immediate events surrounding some verses, such as the accusations of adultery by Ayesha, that led to the dictation of Sura XXIV.
The Weaknesses of “What the Koran Really Says” by Ibn Warraq
The author cites the great gift Islamic civilization gave by preserving works of the Greeks and Romans during the Dark Ages, while ignoring the relatively moribund society that has existed since then.
The explanations of many Koranic verses are several paragraphs wide. The interpretation along with justification of the interpretation makes working through an entire Sura time consuming.
Many of the Orientalist commentaries he draws upon are a century old. Given that the text itself is a thousand years old, that’s not old, but newer and perhaps better references may be available. However, many modern references are biased toward Islam, even works by liberal secularists.
Despite the title, you don’t get a word by word translation of the Koran into English. Want to read a specific Sura and verse in English? It may not be available in this nearly 800 page book. This book, is in essence, a commentary on the Koran, not a direct English translation of the Koran, though the cover may make one suppose that it is.
Why Read “What The Koran Really Says” Instead of a Different Work?
The freely available Saudi sponsored translations of the Koran into English have two major flaws. The first is that they try to retain the poetry of the language while losing much of the meaning, creating many jumbled and confusing section. The second flaw the Saudi translations of the Koran have is that they minimize the violent verses and sections that would turn off potential converts. For example, the Koran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers, conquering those who submit to second class citizenship and pay oppressive taxes and killing those who neither convert to Islam or pay the annual bounty that buys them limited rights and their lives.
The Saudi translations of the Koran into English use terms from smite to conquer, minimizing the repeated calls to kill the infidel, permission to rape women who are captured and insults against everyone from Christians to Jews to pagans. If you want an accurate translation of what the Koran truly says, without learning Arabic, the book “What The Koran Really Says” by Ibn Warraq is one of the best resources to do so.
“The The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran” by Christoph Lexenberg seeks to translate the Koran’s text into Syrio-Aramaic, a language Mohammed likely knew. The Koran is confusing even to Muslims, in part because Arabic didn’t have a standard notation until well after Mohammed lived. This book isn’t recommend because it assumes the 20% of the Koran that is completely incomprehensible is in a different language, as if Mohammed alternated between Arabic and Aramaic while dictating.
This translation resulted in the controversial statement that the virgins in heaven waiting for believers are actually white raisins. Luxenberg then justifies this translation by the context of the food and drink awaiting believers in heaven. Since much of this work relies on explanations to justify the translations, the straight translation from Arabic to English by Ibn Warraq is more accurate. On a related note, those who worked on the book “The The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran” were threatened with death just like Ibn Warraq, an atheist ex-Muslim now living in the West.
Asking a native Arabic speaker to translate the work for you is an unreliable approach, since around a quarter of the Arabic in the Koran is archaic. In that regard, it is akin to the “thee” and “thine” of the King James Bible for a modern English reader. Unfortunately, the Koran has an even greater percentage of archaic terms that many modern Arabic speakers don’t know. And believing Muslims are as likely as the translators for Islamic missionary groups to downplay the violent and oppressive passages while playing up the positive messages. Nor will you hear about the concept of subrogation, where later revealed verses of the Koran were over-ruled by newer ones.
This is why the first verses talk about peace and tolerance toward Jews in Medina, and then after they rejected Mohammed’s revelation, are the verses calling for death to the Jews. Likewise was the original call to pray toward Jerusalem changed to praying toward Mecca, and verses saying you shouldn’t get drunk to an outright prohibition on all alcohol. “What the Koran Really Says” explains this concept, as well as the timeline of various verses to explain their context.
The book “What the Koran Really Says” is a strong introduction to the context and conflicting interpretations of the Koran. The book is good starting point on understanding Islam, the culture that created it and controversies around it.
While it is not a word for word translation of the Koran into English, it is essential companion reading for those reading the Koran translated into English.