Muslim Student Association
George Mason University
Understanding Islam has become a growth industry on the web, especially in light of current events. Of the many sites that promote understanding of Islam for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, however, few provide primary sources online. This site, sponsored by the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is an exception. Founded in the 1960s, the MSA is a national organization whose aim is to provide religious guidance to Muslim students on U.S. university campuses. Founded and no doubt funded by the Wahhabi Sunni sect (one of four Sunni and three Shi’ite sects in Islam, and the official sect of Saudi Arabia), its guidance is informed by that sect’s doctrinal and legal posture, which is fundamentalist, socially conservative, and evangelical in outlook. The MSA has multiple branches nationwide, many of which, in turn, have websites offering advice on religion, moral and social issues, and information that Muslims need on prayer times, ritual obligations, holidays, etc. The University of Southern California MSA website additionally provides an online translation (actually three translations) of the Qur’an (or Koran), which is linked to many other MSA websites.
The purpose of providing an online Qur’an in translation stems from the Wahhabi orientation. According to Wahhabi Sunnis, Muslims must have knowledge of fundamental Islamic texts such as the Qur’an and the Hadith (or reports about the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and experience, which together constitute the Sunna). However, the meaning of these 7th - 9th century texts is not always easily accessible, especially to non-Muslims. Therefore, for explanation on the nature and conventions of the Quranic text teachers should also refer to the Islamic Studies website created by a University of Georgia Religious Studies Professor, which offers explanatory articles on the Qur’an, Hadith, and many other topics. In short, such articles will explain that the Qur’an is considered the direct word of God, is a record of oral sermons on a variety of topics, and is not thematically organized. (Its chapters, which range from very short collections of five verses to long collections of more than one hundred verses, are organized chronologically depending on whether they were revealed in Mecca or Medina.) The language of the Qur’an will thus appear arcane, the context of issues it raises obscure, and topics will be repeated throughout the text. Topic and word searches will result in numerous chapter and verse citations from various parts of the Qur’an.
The Noble Quran’s main page includes creedal statements regarding God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Qur’an. It offers links to articles on transliteration of the original Arabic of the Qur’an, a topic index, search engines for topics and words in the Qur’an, as well as a database on fundamentalist explanation of chapter titles, time of revelation, and topics of each chapter of the Qur’an. Additional materials include two essays on the miraculous nature of the Qur’an and its scientific insights, an essay on the time of the Qur’an’s compilation in its present form, and a guide to the memorization of the Qur’an (considered a meritorious act for Muslims). These are followed by caveats concerning the use of the Qur’an in translation and a table of contents of the Qur’an’s 114 chapters; the table of contents islinked to three line-by-line translations of the Qur’an. Further links are provided to reference materials such as five Hadith collections online, a glossary of terms, and five other Muslim websites offering information on Islam from the Wahhabi perspective.
Two issues inform the inclusion of three translations of the Qur’an on this website. First, the general Muslim belief that the Qur’an is literally God’s word means that translating it subjects the perfection of God’s word to the limitations of human understanding and the fallibility of human expression. (For this reason, for example, Muslims must learn the Qur’an in the original Arabic, and only use the original Arabic for prayer.) In keeping with this understanding of the inadequacy of translation, The Noble Qur’an website includes multiple translations, so as not to grant any one translation authority over others. Second, differences in translation, while they exist, are usually stylistic. Newer translations generally use more current English expressions to translate the original Arabic, and more contemporary language to describe the events and situations that occasioned the revelation of certain verses, in their notes. This obviously makes them less significant for non-Muslims than for Muslims, for whom the Qur’an is binding. The three translations included on this site are by Muslims: Yusuf Ali, M. Shakir, and Marmaduke Pickthall (a convert to Islam). Like many other translations, they are considered solid and scholarly, but have presumably been selected over others (especially those by non-Muslims, or non-Sunni Muslims) because of the acceptability of their authors’ religious orientation. Pickthall’s translation is the oldest, dating from the early 20th century, while Ali and Shakir are newer; however, there is little difference in the actual language used in all three, reflecting again the faith-based anxiety over compromising the original Quranic text.
While it should be remembered that explanatory material on this website derives from a particular religious perspective, the translations of the Qur’an nevertheless make it an important tool for teachers and students. The website’s layout is clear and easy to navigate; one can either access whole chapters of the Qur’an from the table of contents, or use the two search engines to search by topic or keyword. A topic search on “women,” for example will yield 17 references in the Qur’an to the prescribed spiritual and social obligations of women in Islam, and should reveal to students the many rights women are guaranteed in Islam’s original and most important text. These can then be contrasted with general perceptions of Muslim women. Similarly, controversial topics such as jihad can be explored and contrasted with their understanding by Muslims and non-Muslims today. Juxtaposing such verses in the Qur’an with similar passages from other religions’ scriptures can be a useful classroom exercise in better understanding current events. Continuity between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions can also be demonstrated by searching for mention of biblical figures such as Abraham, Noah, Moses, Mary and Jesus, many of whom are dealt with at length in the Qur’an and even grace some of its chapter titles. The obvious continuity in monotheist heritage can help dispel notions that Islam is entirely distinct from the previous monotheisms of Judaism and Christianity.