the Qur'an is in difficult, classical Arabic, and must be read and recited during Muslim prayers in that language only, a surprisingly large number of those who identify themselves as Muslims have scant acquaintance with what it actually says. (p. 43)According to Spencer, for Muslims this applies not only to the classical Arabic of the Qur'an, but to modern Arabic as well--and the Qur'an is often memorized by rote without having any clear idea of what it actually says.
That last point is substantiated by the New York Times in an article about the Muslim Center of New York, where students from 7 to 14 years old spend the entire day from 8am to 5pm, including the summer, just memorizing the Qur'an. Ann Althouse points out this arrangement violates the laws of compulsory schooling. But the article also points out one of the things that makes the memorizing so challenging:
Making the work even more difficult, the students, for the most part, do not understand what they are reciting. Muslims believe the Koran was spoken to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in Arabic. Because it is seen as the literal word of God, the use of translations is frowned upon. Students know how to pronounce the words but mostly do not know what they mean.Going one step further, Raphael Patai, in The Arab Mind, writes that the difficulty in understanding the Qur'an extends not only to the non-Arab Muslims, but to Arabs themselves:
The unschooled, who form the majority in most Arab countries, speak a local, colloquial dialect which is so different from literary Arabic as to make it appear almost a foreign language...They have their own language, which is adequate for all their needs and which is the only tongue they know, apart from a few verses from the Koran which are in literary Arabic, and which make them aware of the existence of a literary language that is greatly different from their own idiom (p.196)As far as the educated Arabs who can understand the classical Arabic of the Qur'an:
Even among the educated Arabs, the knowledge of the literary language is primarily a passive one. they know it well enough to understand it, enjoy it, come under its magnetic influence; but they do not know it well enough to speak it with any degree of fluency.Keep in mind that according to Patai, the uneducated Arabs who do not understand the Qur'an make up 90% of the Arab population. (p. 198)
Michael Cook writes in The Koran: A Very Short Introduction, on the options on how to deal with the Arabic barrier:
There are only two clear-cut solutions to this problem: either the believers have to learn Arabic, or the Koran has to be translated...mass literacy in a foreign language is not a very realistic educational project...[and] the non-Arab Muslim world shows little sign of adopting the idea of a vernacular scripture in the manner of sixteenth-century Protestantism or twentieth-century Catholicism. (p. 26-7)That is not to say that the Qur'an has not been translated.
In Why I Am Not a Muslim, Ibn Warraq writes in his introduction:
The majority of Muslims have to read the Koran in translation in order to understand it. Contrary to what one might think, there have been translations of the Koran into, for instance, Persian, since the tenth or eleventh century, and there are translations into Turkish and Urdu. The Koran has now been translated into over a hundred languages, many of them by Muslims themselves, despite some sort of disapproval from the religious authorities.So, bottom line is--so what? What does it matter whether Muslims can read the Qur'an in the original Arabic or have to read it in translation?
For one thing, Ibn Warraq writes that some Muslims claim that outsiders are not qualified to critique what is written in the Qur'an until they are actually able to read it in the original. In light of the fact that a majority of Muslims themselves cannot read and understand the Qur'an in the original, such a counter-argument falls short.
More importantly, as alluded to by Robert Spencer, the difficulty of the language of the Qur'an to some degree has allowed for some level of moderation with Islam by keeping some of it's more extreme statements out of the limelight. So what happens now that the number of translations and their availability is on the rise?
According to Andrew Bostom, author of The Legacy of Jihad, in a response to an email:Crossposted at Israpundit
The Koran is now available in translation to local languages on an unprecedented scale in history...This, in my humble opinion, fuels Islamic fundamentalism...