Academic Books

The Vernacular Qur’an by Travis Zadeh

How studying the vernacularisation of the Qur’an could undermine assumptions that the Qur’an is untranslatable

Travis Zadeh’s ambitious study of Persian exegesis and translations of the Qur’an appeared in 2012. It is an ambitious work that traces the “socio-linguistic process of vernacularisation as it relates particularly to the Qur’an” (Zadeh 2012, xviii). A more robust description would be something like that: a socio-linguistic study of the intellectual, institutional, and codicological movement behind the vernacularisation of the Qur’an in Persia.

The book is vast, lengthy, and undoubtedly extensive in scope and depth. It consists of twelve chapters presented over two parts with a long introduction and conclusion. The introduction situates Zadeh’s project within the broader scholarly context of translation studies and within the historical context of Late Antique and Medieval Mediterranean practices of translating sacred texts. It sets the major themes of the book, and the most important of which is that studies on Qur’an translation treat translation as a replacement of the original text entirely. Persian translations instead were not “designed to be autonomous or independent. They succeeded in conveying the meaning of the Qur’an while guarding the sacredness of the Arabic” (Zadeh 2012, 20). Zadeh discusses Persian versions that appear as complementary to the Arabic Qur’an, making clear that the question of translatability had exercised scholars but was bypassed entirely. Scholars of Islam translated and interpreted the Qur’an with extreme voracity but also with extreme caution to preserve the unique status of the original Arabic.

Part I, entitled “Theoretical Background”, offers detailed insights into such debates. It consists of five chapters (1–5). Chapter 1 demonstrates that discussions on Qur’an translation “centred almost entirely on whether or not it was permissible for Muslims to use translations for recitation during the performance of ritual prayer” (Zadeh 2012, 53). Jurists actually allowed the translation of the Qur’an for comprehension and propagation, and even as scholars forbade the use of translation for prayer, there is ample evidence showing that this was bypassed in practice. 

Chapter 2 further engages with the ensuing periods. Hanafi jurists were the most lenient on the use of translation for prayer, but not necessarily exceptional in their “restricted acceptance of liturgical translations of the Qur’an” (Zadeh 2012, 131–32). Shafi, Imami, and Zaydi jurists held the same view, and those who deemed the Qur’an to be inimitable appreciated the pragmatic value of translation—al-Zamakhshari is an example. 

Chapter 3 demonstrates that the Hanafis’ position on translation was the product of the broader set of Hanafi ideas on the role of scripture in the formation of the Islamic community, ideas initially appeared as Persians gradually converted to Islam. Recitation of the Qur’an, for the Hanafis, was an essential part in the formation of the Islamic community, and the rise of non-Arabic speaking converts required, therefore, recitation in Persian. This demand for translation grew stronger as the Persian dynasties governed Persian learning, with the Persian ulama creating a Persianized system of Islamic education. 

The last two chapters of part I explore the relationship between Qur’an translation and the theological issues about God’s eternal speech and human language and inimitability. The question of how Persian could express the meanings of the original Arabic text was essentially an extension of the fundamental question of how God’s eternal kalam could be expressed in Arabic, a question much debated by al-Ashari, who held that kalam was not composed of letters or sounds, thereby seeing Gabriel as a translator between the kalam and the human language of Arabic. But these debates, as well as debates on inimitability, actually managed “to isolate Qur’an Arabic as a sacred language” (Zadeh 2012, 245) and hinder the practice of using Persian for both translation and exegesis. 

Overall, Part I is full of redundant materials and is lavishly verbose. It could have thoroughly been condensed into a single chapter or written as a separate monograph on the history of Qur’an translation in Persia and its accompanying debates.

Part II, entitled “Models of Translation”, offers a solid exposition of the practice of Persian translation and exegesis. This part consists of seven chapters (6–12). Chapter 6 suggests that the extraordinary volume of Persian translations attest to their normative status on the easter frontiers (Zadeh 2012, 265). This translation movement began with early preachers, such as Musa b. Sayyar al-Aswari (fl. 120/738), who informally interpreted the Qur’an in homiletic situations. The earliest interlinear Persian translations appear in a smaller script than the Arabic in the hope to preserve the pride of the original text. These translations could take complex forms, such as the exegetically expanded and rhyming translation like that of Abu Hafs al-Nasafi (d. 537/1142), a Hanafi scholar from Samarqand, whose translation was not intended to replace the original, but “serve to enwrap the Arabic of the Quran in the melodious cadence of Persian language” (Zadeh 2012, 293) and to introduce readers and listeners to its accepted meaning. 

Chapter 7 analyses a Persian exegesis, illusively suggested to be a translation of al-Tabari’s Jami’ al-bayan, draws on al-Tabari’s vast historical work and, in so doing, stresses the centrality of pre-Islamic Persian dynasties in the advent of Islam. This work appeared in the Samanid court, which created the conditions for the Persian ulama to challenge Arabic as the language of learning and prestige. The ensuing two chapters examine another Persian commentary in even greater detail, that of Abu al-Mazaffer al-Isfar’ini’s Taj al-tarajim, based on al-Tha’labi’s celebrated Arabic commentary. 

Chapter 8 describes the connection of this work with “a clearly defined Shafi’i-Ash’ari community” (Zadeh 2012, 353), its circulation in educational institutions and its interest in spreading a Sunni orthodoxy in Persia.    

Chapter 9 describes Isfara’ini’s approach to exegesis, where he offers the readers a group of verses accompanied by an interlinear Persian version exhibiting “signs of exegetical or paraphrastic expansion” (Zadeh 2012, 391) as well as a commentary proper with analysis and little concerned with purely Arabic linguistic issues, such as ‘I’rab and qira’at. As a whole, this Persian style of tafsir “staged foremost in the context of religious education” and exalts the ulama’s power in Persia (Zadeh 2012, 418).

Chapter 10 emphasises the role of the Persian exegesis in a variety of sectarian settings. While the bilingual al-Ghazali opposed the use of Persian, others, such as the Shafi’i, Maybudi, and al-Razi, favoured the use of Persian to disseminate particular understandings of Islam. Indeed, in placing these exegetes alongside Isfar’ini, the Shafi’i-Ashari, and Surabadi, one sees how the use of Persian in Qur’anic study crossed all divides within Persian Islam.

The last two chapters focus on the work of Surabadi, whose Persian tafsir is, argues Zadeh, an attempt to include Karrami into the Sunni mainstream. For instance, he offers a Karrami reading of the Qur’an devoid of any anthropomorphism of which the whole Karramiyya is accused. This version of Islam appeared in a commentary and circulated well beyond Karrami circles and the Persian world.

Overall, Part II hardly discusses the abstract models of translation, but the complex socio-religious contexts in which Persian ulama took up translations and exegesis of the Qur’an and their impact on the courtly or educational networks. Thus, the use of “models” in the title may not be Zadeh’s best choice.

The conclusion summarises Zadeh’s account of the “sustained acts of translation” in a Persian world “far removed from the historical, geographical and linguistic origins of the Qur’an” (Zadeh 2012, 584).

The main insight of the book is that scholars overlooked Qur’an translation praxis, preferring otherwise to focus on the legal debates on Qur’an translation. Though a focus on these debates is useful, the exclusion of translation praxis has major implications, such as that Muslims have a static attitude towards the Qur’an and Islam, that they don’t translate the Qur’an, and that translation ought to replace the original. These implications are repeated thoughtlessly even by specialists, conflating at the scholastic level whether to translate the Qur’an or to use translation for ritual purposes and de-homogenising Muslims at a broader socio-political level. These implications are dangerous and ought to be carefully deconstructed.

Zadeh’s The Vernacular Qur’an is an enormous book of 674 pages. Though many sections and redundant materials could have been shortened or completely cut, Zadeh’s topic merits such amplitude. The book is indeed nicely written based on a vast range of sources, offering fresh insights on whether the Qur’an can or ought to be translated and on the widespread practice of translating it in the lands of Persia.


Zadeh, Travis. 2012. The Vernacular Qurʼan: Translation and the Rise of Persian Exegesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[Friday the 4th December 2020, Durham]

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