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.


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 HĂștama

And what can tell you of the HĂștama

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: Manuscript Found In Accra by Paulo Coelho

I just finished “The Alchemist” by this same author literally about two months ago and his writing was so good that I had to go and read some more. With that said, today I’m going to be reviewing “Manuscript Found In Accra” which is the second book that I have read from Mr. Coelho.

The structure of the novel was different from most I have read in that its chapters are formatted as answers to questions that are posed to the main narrator of the book, known as “The Copt”. The backstory to the book is that what you are reading is the manuscript that the citizens of Accra compiled in the hours before they were overrun by their enemies who are waiting outside of Accra’s city gates for nightfall to attack. The citizens have little means of defending themselves from the inevitable, and so at the advice of the mysterious and wise figure of the city, “The Copt”, the citizens gather together to record not the last hours of their beloved city and the battle to come that will erase it all, but what history will truly wish to know about their civilization — their daily lives. And thus, one by one, the citizens offer the Copt their questions that he answers with the beauty and significance of answers that will never be given again and yet will eternally hold true.

The chapter that was most poignant to me was when “a man who always woke up early to take his flocks to the pastures around the city said: ‘You have studied in order to be able to speak these beautiful words, but we have to work to support our families.'” to which the Copt’s response is the articulation of an instinctive truth within me that has been skillfully put to language in Coelho’s book. Much of Coelho’s writing is like that: the transcription of a soul’s truths. It transcends all cultural, generational, religious, racial characteristics and speaks directly to the source that springs from everyone one of us. It is deeply personal, yet impersonal because it is my source, but it is also in all of you.

Although this is only my second book from Mr. Coelho, I get the feeling that his books can’t be read just once, they need to be revisited again in between the different phases of your life. When you think that you’ve forgotten the lessons in the book, you’ll have to pick it up and read it again with fresh, new eyes colored by your new experiences.