Book Review: Approaching the Qur’an

It has been a while hasn’t it?

Between Ramadan, the new house, the new job, I haven’t been able to find much time to read, let alone write about what I’ve read. I’ve just settled into my a routine so I should be able to return to my usual antics. Then again, I am going to Korea in two weeks so I guess maybe not. We shall see.

Anyway, last night I finished reading “Approaching the Qur’an” by Michael Sells. You may have heard about it before as this book was at the crux of a contentious lawsuit brought forward in 2002 by three students at the University of North Carolina, whose incoming students were assigned it as a summer reading assignment. But never mind all of that. If you haven’t read it before — like me — and you are non-Arabic speaking Muslim — like me, this book will let you experience first-hand the poetry of the Qur’an.

One of my greatest goals is to be able to one day understand the Qur’an as Arabic speakers do. To listen to a recitation and be moved by the rich literature and poetry of the Qur’an is something that I so dearly want to experience. Until my understanding of Arabic and Qur’anic grammar reaches that level, I will have to settle for the English translations. While the translations may help me know what is being said, they are useless in conveying the same poetic impact that it brought upon those who heard it when it was first revealed.

This book does not cover the entire Qur’an. Sells translates Al-Fatiha, a portion of sura 53 (The Star), and then suras 81 through 114. Sells attempts translate not only the meaning of the words, but also the poetic devices of the original text. Reading Sells’ translations makes me feel as though I am reading the Qur’an for the first time. I felt moved in a way that I wasn’t before and I could understand how impactful the text could be especially in a recited format. Nevertheless, this is a translation and there is always something of meaning lost when a text a translated, so of course this will be the case with the Qur’an. However, to give you a taste of what I mean, here is a comparison of Sells’ translation and the Sahih International translation of sura 104, “The Slanderer”:

Sahih International

Woe to every scorner and mocker

Who collects wealth and [continuously] counts it.

He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal.

No! He will surely be thrown into the Crusher.

And what can make you know what is the Crusher?

It is the fire of Allah , [eternally] fueled,

Which mounts directed at the hearts.

Indeed, Hellfire will be closed down upon them

In extended columns.

Sells’

Woe to every backbiting slanderer

Who gather his wealth and counts it

thinking with his wealth he will never die

Nay, let him be thrown into the Hútama

And what can tell you of the Hútama

The fire of God, stoked for blazing

rising up over the heart

covering them in vaults of flame

stretching out its pillars

There’s a fundamental difference between those two translations. The meaning is the same, but the impact lies in not only what is said but also what is not said in Sells’ version. I so wish that Sells could come out with a complete translation of the entire Qur’an. If there are any non-Muslims out there reading this review who would like to read a translation of the Qur’an, I urge you to start with this book. It doesn’t have the whole entire Qur’an, but it gives you a hint of the power that the original text brings to its readers and listeners in Arabic. The book also contains a CD in the back that allows to you listen to the Qur’an since the Qur’an is truly intended to be recited and listened to — not read. Even the Muslims out there who depend on the English translations to understand what is being said, read this! It will bring a whole new dimension to the suras you’ve read before and possibly some new meaning to you as well.

Book Review: Mastering Arabic 1, Second Edition

I have been studying Arabic from the book, “Mastering Arabic 1”, by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar, and this morning I just completed the final lesson. I thought a review could be useful to someone planning on learning Arabic from this book so here are my thoughts. I have organized my opinions into pros and cons for ease of reading.

Pros

  • Relatively simple to follow for those planning on self-studying: The pace of learning from lesson to lesson is appropriate and while there are certain areas that I wish the book had spent more time on (more exposure to the different verb types and more grammar lessons) these are my personal areas of improvement, and they don’t correlate to any lapse in explanation or content within the book.
  • CDs and pictures: There are 2 CDs the come with the book which are extremely useful as you are learning to pronounce the language. They also help to develop your ability to understand the spoken language instead of just reading and writing, which was one of my goals. The pictures break up the text from becoming one grammar lesson after another and provide visual stimulation to those who learn well from visual aids.
  • Varied and interesting lessons: Many of the lessons in this book are actually fun to complete. They cleverly mix memorization and grammar with recordings, comic strips, diary entries, etc. There was a lot of thought put into these lessons and it shows,
  • Provides a solid foundation of beginning to early intermediate level of Arabic: The lessons are fast-paced but easy to follow. You may have to spend longer on one lesson than another to fully memorize and easily apply the information within, but after only 20 lessons you will be able to speak/read/write in present, future and past tense, count, tell time, possessives, negatives, and create plurals.

Cons

  • Spelling and grammatical errors: There were a few typos that I was able to find in the exercises as well as in the answers to exercises. This was confusing and frustrating at times because I incorrectly thought I had misunderstood something when in fact, after verifying with a native Arabic speaker, the book was incorrect. If you have someone who can verify these errors for you it may just be a minor inconvenience, but if you do not have access to such a resource, this could be very confusing,
  • “Dictionary Work”: This is a certain type of exercise that is featured in several lessons that involves the use of a dictionary. The aim of this exercise is to help the student learn to use an Arabic dictionary and also learn the plural, conjugation of verbs, meaning of words, etc. by filling in a chart. Firstly, I do not own an Arabic dictionary and I don’t intend to purchase one because of the number of free dictionaries online that look up the word for me, Also, filling in a chart is a very dull and unexciting method of learning the very dull and unexciting subject that is grammar. There are a number of great lessons in this book that can easily replace all of these “dictionary work” ones, and I hope the authors do in future editions.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you are a first-time Arabic learner. It is appropriate for self-study, but having an native Arabic speaker would be useful for clarification for some typos. The lessons are well-thought out and varied and the CDs and visual aids help keep things interesting. While, the book is fast-paced and covers a lot of different subjects in a short space of time (I finished this book in 3 months), just make sure to keep up with the lessons at your own pace as some areas will need to more self-study beyond the lessons in the book. No one language book can fit the needs of every individual, so additional study beyond the book is and will be necessary for me to feel 100% comfortable with all of the material that was covered in the book. I will be continuing my studies in Arabic and I am searching for another book to increase my vocabulary, comprehension and writing skills. If any of you have suggestions for my next step, please let me know!

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