Why Everyone Should Read the Qur’an in Plain English

(This post was originally published in the Huffington Post)

I blame the moment I turned from an Allah-fearing little boy to an incurable heathen on a cockroach.

Like every kid in the Muslim world, I was raised to believe the Qur’an was uber-sacred. You did not so much as touch it without permission or performing the necessary ablutions. Mess with it in any shape or form and you are so going to hell. 

So on that fateful day, when it was my task to bring in our hefty tomes from airing out under a crisp Bangladesh sun, and the six-legged vermin scuttled out from the silky pages to make me throw all our three volumes into the air, I realised two things. 1) I’d never make the cricket team (my clumsy scramble caught but two, leaving the biggest and most precious to hit the ground with an almighty bang). 2) I was so going to hell.
I replayed this scene in my head for so many restless days that followed, I can still access the memory of it in frame-by-frame slow motion, feeling 8-years old again, staring in dismay as the big brown leather-bound edition lay sprawled on the cracked mosaic floor, its kaleidoscopic sheets of intricate patterns and dazzling calligraphy flapping in a wind that’d surely blown in straight from the gates of Jahannam.

In a frenzied bid for redemption, I gave my Mawlana the opportunity to cane me senselessly some more by insisting he teach me to read the Qur’an faster, and I soon became the youngest in my neighbourhood to celebrate his ameen ceremony. It’s the party your parents throw when you finish reading it cover to front (the Qur’an starts at the back), but the incident with the cockroach meant there wasn’t a kid in the whole land more clouded in shame while being praised for his nazra Quran khatm than me (for those who don’t speak Arabic, well, neither did I, nor does any of the hundreds of thousands of non-Arabic speaking Muslim kids who also finish – khatm – their nazra Qur’an: reading the Qur’an in Arabic without translation. The Mawlana’s job, when he’s not senselessly caning his pupils, is to correct pronunciation, not to explain a word of what you’re reading). Anyone wondering why so many Muslims seem to display a dizzying lack of understanding of the Qur’an, there’s your answer right there.

I became obsessed with trying to find a loophole that might yet salvage my soul. By the time I’d hit my teens I’d read it in a language I understood (Bengali), and a language I was trying to come to grips with (English), seeing as we were about to up sticks and move to Britain.

And so I came to lose my religion. Ultimately, my transformation from devout to deviant came down to nothing more spectacular than a young man playing god by killing his own in a flurry of Purple Oms and Nietzsche, but despite all my ungodly deeds, I never had the call to disown the Qur’an. It was a book I’d read a lot once, but like the Professor Shonku novels and Betal comics, shelved it away in the children’s section of my life.

Since 9/11, the book has come up regularly in conversation and during miscellaneous keyboard wars, but until not so long ago, Islamophobia focused chiefly on the fear and loathing of Muslims, not the Qur’an per se. Very few people laid claim to reading it, let alone understanding it, in much the same way very few people pretend to have poured over the MahabharataTorah or Dasam Granth. Unless you’re a follower or a scholar, why would you? Religious tomes are lengthy, clunky, and frankly, tedious.

But now, with Social Media Islamophobia churning up sites, blogs, groups and accounts dedicated to condemning everything the religion stands for, everyoneseems to be an authority on the Qur’an.

Think Muslims sleep with goats? Qur’an tells ’em to! Here’s a web page that proves it! I’ve learned the frustrating way that saying “but it doesn’t say that in the Qur’an” doesn’t work. Allah’s word, it would seem, is no match for what passes as gospel on the Internet.

It isn’t just the Jihadwatch style hate sites that twist and fabricate the Qur’an either. The countless transliterations by Muslims can often be just as misleading or warped. Ironic, really – sentences ripped out of their context, wildly different interpretations, and completely made up bollocks now define a book so famous for remaining unchanged. Not that I think it’s blasphemous to do any of these things; it just pisses me off when people write reviews of books they haven’t bothered to read.

Thing is, they’re not entirely wrong: there are plenty of instances of hatred, bigotry and hissy fits, but there is also much love, tolerance and, goddamit, beauty. To get it, you absolutely have to read it as a narrative rather than a pick ‘n mix of copy and paste.

Which is why I’ve decided to examine it afresh, armed with the logic of atheism but not without the inherent respect I’ve always had for the book. I’ve been to my folks’ to dig out volumes both dusty and recent, and ordered a few new ones. The plan: to put together a version that’s free from pious or bias, that doesn’t set out to paint it in a bad light nor one bathed in glory, but merely seeks to get to the crux of what’s being said, be that bad, good or weird; basically, cut the crap.

I’m presenting it as a blog, Holy Q: A Modern Reading of the Qur’an for Generation 9/11*, letting the Qur’an speak for itself, with any opinions and interpretations left to the comments section. You might want to think about reading it. Considering so much of the world’s problems seem to be in its name, why wouldn’t you? Isn’t it time to stop taking the word of the fanatics and haters and decide for ourselves?

I must admit I’m having some trepidation taking on this project. After all, you don’t mess with the Qur’an. But given that we live in a time where the Internet is heaving with parodies taking swipes at Islam, blasphemous cartoons and Facebook groups so vile they make the Satanic Verses look, well, as tame as it ever was, I daresay there’s worse I could do than to encourage more people to take a closer look at the Qur’an.

Not that any of it will do me any good. I’m still so going to hell.

(*The Holy Q website was discontinued following a few pretty unsavoury threats)


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