Why it’s difficult for non Muslims to read the Qur’an

“Given the blank slate of sheer unfamiliarity with the Quran among Americans and Europeans, it is perhaps inevitable that certain cultural habits have become obstacles to an understanding of it. In the mood of anxiety and fear of the post-9/11 era, it is perhaps understandable that one of these habits would be the temptation to find quick answers in this ancient text, to provide simple solutions to an urgent modern political problem. Unfortunately, nervous haste all too readily leads to serious problems or misrepresentation, as isolated phrases are made to stand in for a whole text, a single text is made to stand for an entire religion, and extremist individuals magnified by the media are taken to be representative of hundreds of millions of people in dozens of different countries. These are not trivial mistakes; weighty and unfortunate consequences flow from any distorted prejudice that substitutes real knowledge.”

How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations by Carl W Ernst, published by Edinburgh University Press 2012.

Carl W. Ernst is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations.



Categories: Anti-Islam, Islam, Islamophobia, Life in the West, Qur'an, Scholars

5 replies

  1. While I don’t neccessarily disagree with Ernst analysis that people will read what they want (as noted by the trolls on this blog) I do believe there is a simpler approach for genuine curious people as I researched this while translating the Quran myself. I came across this interesting study called “Reasons for the Possible Incomprehensibility of Some Verses of Three Translations of the Meaning of the Holy Quran into English”


    If you want to try the test for your self start at pg 122 to see what I mean

    The main issue mostly had to do with sentence structure which made the text sound alien for example:

    “Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst command me to say…”

    Now while this is closer to Arabic it makes more sense to translate it:

    “I never said anything to them except what you told me to…”


    “Oh, Messenger. Let not those grieve thee, who race each other into unbelief…”

    Instead, say:

    “Messenger don’t let those who are racing one another in disbelieving sadden you…”

    This simple alien structure ended up causing a 5% comprehension rate! It’s quite fascinating and I think these simple changes in contemporary English would end most of this.

    • good points. Call me perverse but I prefer the Yusuf Ali translation.

      • @ Paul

        That was Yusuf Ali lol. But seriously? I hate “thou and thee”. Admittedly it sound more eloquent but I care about comprehension of the audience and I don’t think a lot of people “get it” when you have it in classical prose. (However I do have to concede you do have that evangelical background and I’m sure were using KJV so your mind might have just gotten use to it) If I had to pick one personally I like Abdel Haleem’s translation.

  2. “This is the Book about which there is no doubt, …”
    Not difficult to read and understand that this statement is wrong.

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