The Qur’an: A New Translation by Thomas Cleary

Finally completed a seventeen year mission: to read the Quran.

The Opening:

I am no expert on the Quran.  Any statement about the Quran is in danger of inviting disputation.  With respect, I offer here the modest fruits of my studies in case they prove useful to you.


The first thing to know about the Quran is that like Shakespeare, it is not intended for you to read it.  It’s intended for you to hear it.  In Arabic.

The first word of the Quran is often translated as “recite.”  (Good Quora post about the first word).

About the meaning of the term `Quran`, there are two famous opinions:

1) it is driven from al-Qar` meaning `to collect`.
2) It is driven from `Qara` (to recite).

So says Ask the Sheikh.

The idea of whether the Quran can even be translated is a question with centuries of discussion and commentary and argument on it.   

Regrettably, learning Arabic at this time proved not practicable for me.

The problems surrounding the nature of the Quran are so many that this guy:

barely even gets to the content of the book.  This book focuses on the unique place of the Quran within Islam, and the sort of meta-questions of the Quran itself.  And I’m told Prof. Michael Cook is a leader in the field of English language Quranic interpretation.

This one I found more useful for basic setup:

A monologue

The Quran is a sort of monologue by Allah delivered through the angel Gabriel (Jibril).

In the Bible God doesn’t actually talk that much.  Nor is He (Bible God) quite as firm as Allah on the importance of getting His exact words right.

Allah put forth this monologue in seventh-century Arabic.  Even if I spoke Arabic like a native 2022 Saudi, Quran Arabic would be difficult for me to understand.

To put it mildly, a lot of thinking has gone into translating the Quran.  Here is a sample of some the various translations for 6:32:

Some translations of the Quran are so stiff as to be almost incomprehensible.  I cannot think this is correct, because the sounds and rhythms of the Quran from the time of its first recitings convinced so many.

Reciting it is the key.  So the Quran must flow, right?

But what do I know, maybe Allah wanted to sound stiff.

Cleary’s translation

The translation I chose is done by the mysterious and astounding Thomas Cleary.

source, cannot confirm this is really him

from the only interview I can find of Thomas Cleary: According to a recent LA Times story, you were with the Dalai Lama. The news reporter incorrectly described you as a Harvard professor. Could you tell us more accurately what happened?

Cleary: I am not a Harvard professor, as the LA Times article says. All the other representations and their implications are likewise fictitious. I was not onstage with the Dalai Lama, and did not flank him at any time. I was not among those sporting the silk scarf he bestows. My work is not connected to any personal, political, or sectarian associations or alliances. My message that day had no relation whatsoever to the Art of War, and I was not introduced or identified that way.

As I have already translated both Buddhist and Islamic scripture from their original Sanskrit and Arabic, I was requested to address that assembly. I just recited some scripture as an amicus mundi, friend of the world.

These are the passages I presented.


The Age

By the age, man is indeed at a loss, except those who have faith and do good works and take to truth and take to patience.

The Atheists

Say, “O atheists, I don’t serve what you serve, and you don’t serve what I serve. And I won’t serve what you serve and you won’t serve what I serve. You have your way, and I have my way.”


Do you see the one who repudiates religion? That is the one who rebuffs the orphan and does not encourage feeding the poor. So woe to those who pray yet are inattentive to their prayer: those who put on the appearance and yet are withholding assistance.

Good enough for the Dalai Lama, good enough for me.

Wolfgang H. Wörderer took this one

I found Cleary’s translation comprehensible and approachable.  As far as I can tell he is a serious scholar with respect for the tradition.  Here’s a very thoughtful review by a Muslim.

Don’t make fun of the Quran.

That’s one of the big messages in the Quran.

But there are some people

who vend amusing tales

to lead astray from the way of God

in the absence of knowledge,

making a joke of it;

there is a degrading punishment

in store for them.

My intention is not to make a joke of the Quran.  For the most part it’s not funny.  Much of it is very beautiful and clear-sounding.

People, an example is set forth:

so listen to it:

those to whom you pray instead of God

could not create a fly,

even if they all cooperated at it.

And if the fly should snatch anything from them,

they would not recover it from it.

The seeker is weak, and so is the sought.

Is it a sacrilege to compare the Quran to a series of long raps?

Several times in the Quran, 11:13 for example, Allah challenges anyone who doesn’t believe in the Quran to try and produce their own verses.


And We have divided the Recital

so you could recite it to people

in segments, with logical stopes:

We have discharged it

by sending down inspirations.

Say, “whether you believe in it or not, those to whom knowledge was given before you

fall on their faces humbly

when it is recited to them”

The Quran is organized from longest chapter to shortest.  I can think of no other book organized this way.

Controversial passages

I can’t top this list.  If you’re reading the Quran looking to condemn it, you might be disappointed.  I find nothing in it that’s much worse than stuff you can find in the Bible.

62:5 says that “those who were charged with the Torah but then did not carry it out were like a donkey carrying books” which is a funny phrase.

Top quote?

So hard to pick.  I won’t.  I do like The Family of Imram:92 or 3:92:

You will not attain righteousness

until you give of what you care for

33:53 is funny, discusses how too much chatting annoys the Prophet.

How about 13:26:

God expands the provision

of anyone at will, and limits

Yet they delight

in the life of the world.

But the life of the world

is but a utensil

in respect to the hereafter.

Bold mine.

There’s the Quran, and then there’s the sayings of the Prophet

Whole other story.

I like this one.

Not sure what to do with this.

There’s the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet and then there are the interpreters

The Quran has had thirteen centuries of people interpreting it.

Graeme Wood’s surprisingly (?) entertaining book about the rise of ISIS is, in a way, about how study and interpretation and interpretation of interpretation of the Quran can lead to wild and wildly different outcomes, with ISIS being a no bueno example.  Conversation with Graeme Wood much improved my Quranic studies.

Not scoffing

The Quran several times warns “scoffers” or disbelievers.  Let me be clear: the Quran is nothing to scoff at.

Or do they say, “he made it up!”?

They simply don’t believe

Let them come up

with a story like it

Peace be upon the Prophet.  I am happy to have had Thomas Cleary’s help in taking the first step towards understanding the Quran and recommend his translation.

2 Comments on “The Qur’an: A New Translation by Thomas Cleary”

  1. Mariam says:

    Engaging reflection. Thanks for sharing your thoughts/journey, and for sharing the passages you found most interesting. The photos you included are fun too. I’ll have to check out Dr. Cleary’s translation. I’ll send this blog post to anyone interested in exploring the Qur’an.

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