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Volume 31, Number 4July/August 1980

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The Koran in the Cotswolds

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Ian Yeomans

The English Cotswolds, of which it is I said, "Every road leads to a church," is not the kind of place you normally associate with the Koran - particularly the village of Northleach, where the bells of St. Peter and St. Paul peal out a popular hymn - "O Worship the King"- every three hours, day and night.

But, incongruous as it may seem, it is there, in the shadow of the 100-foot-high, honey-colored stone church tower, that the first full-length English-language version of the Koran was recently recorded - on over four miles of tape that will play for 41 hours.

The explanation, however, is simple. Northleach - once a center for medieval wool merchants, now a sleepy village nestled amidst the Cotswold Hills - boasts one of Britain's tiniest but most accommodating recording studios. A branch of a cassette-duplicating company, the studio is expert in producing special sound effects. More importantly, given the unusual nature of this project, the Northleach studio could allot the time needed to insure a meticulous and reverent recording. "None of the big London recording studios would have put up with us," says Sultan Salahuddin Siddiqui, managing director of the Wales-based Source Reliance International trading company which financed the project. "It involved an enormous amount of time and patience."

There were other, more important, problems too. One is the fact that Muslims regard the Koran as untranslatable. They believe that the language in which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad - Arabic - is inseparable from its message. Consequently, Muslims throughout the world, no matter what their native tongue, are expected to learn Arabic so that they can read the Koran and perform their acts of worship.

Siddiqui, nevertheless, was persuaded that the English-language recording was necessary. Because there are so many Muslims in Britain now (See Aramco World, January-February 1979), and because of the growing interest in Islam in the English-speaking world, he thinks the recording will be invaluable to Muslim parents whose children get little formal instruction in their faith, and to universities, colleges and libraries trying to satisfy the new interest in Islam. Furthermore, versions of the Koran do exist in other languages; they are considered "interpretations."

Siddiqui, therefore, approached the project in that spirit: he would produce an English interpretation of the Sacred Book, and to be certain that there would be no other theological problems, the firm secured permission to use the only English-language interpretation approved by Cairo's ancient al-Azhar University: that of Marmaduke Pickthall, an English aristocrat who spent most of his life in the Muslim East, embraced Islam, and later built one of Britain's first mosques at Woking.

Siddiqui's firm also took steps to ensure the accuracy of the oral Arabic - which was to be chanted first, before the English interpretation was added. This, historically, has been vital in the preservation of the authentic text of the Koran during generations of oral transmission. As traditionally authenticated pronunciation was important, as well as equally authenticated intonations and cadence, special schools were founded to be sure that those who recited the Koran did so without any variance from the traditional methods of recitation.

To maintain this tradition, the firm engaged a renowned Koranic chanter: Qari Ghulam Rasul of Pakistan, who started chanting the Koran at the age of five, and I was appointed official chanter to the Pakistan National Assembly in 1972.

Flown in from Pakistan, Qari Ghulam Rasul spent hundreds of hours closeted in a tiny recording chamber chanting the entire 6,236 verses of the Koran in Arabic while, opposite him, Dr. Ya'qub Zaki, a Scottish Muslim, recited the English version of every line and, opposite them, on the other side of a large glass partition, British sound engineers Peter Rinne and David Chandler constantly monitored and manipulated a battery of flashing dials and colored buttons.

It was, they said later, a marathon performance: 84 hours of tape which had to be letter-perfect. As Mr. Siddiqui put it, "No errors of any kind are permissible in reproducing the Koran. We had to be very careful throughout."

They were. After each recording session the tapes were driven 90 miles to London for checking by Muhammad Ahmad Ovaisi, the imam of Wembley Mosque, and Qari Abdul Rahim, a respected judge of Koranic recitation contests. Between them they heard the entire track through five times.

Next came the editing. Some 20,000 cuts and splices were required to perfect the Arabic and insert the English translation after every second verse; altogether recording and editing took about three months. "It was the biggest job we've ever done," recalls Rinne, who, most nights during that hectic time, slept in a room above the recording studios.

"The toughest problem," says Rinne, "was making it sound as though it had all been recorded at one time." There was also the difficult task of Anglicizing Dr. Zaki's voice. "We got most of the burr out of it, but there's still a faint Scottish lilt in the English translation" admits Rinne, a perfectionist.

Much of the sophisticated equipment Rinne used to record the Koran was built and installed in the Northleach studio by electronic whiz-kid James Scarlett, who founded the cassette company in his dining room six years ago. Although the company has produced educational and language material before, recording the Koran was the company's first experience with Arabic.

For Qari Rasul and Dr. Zaki, however, it was not. Rasul had already made two complete recordings of Muslim scripture; in 1974 he recorded the entire Koran in tar til (a particularly specialized style of chanting) in Lahore, and in 1976 completed a second full-length recording for Radio Pakistan. As for Dr. Zaki, he lectures on Islam frequently in such countries as the United States and South Africa and his appointments include the posts of lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies at Lancaster University and chief adviser to the World of Islam Festival in London in 1976. He is a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and worked as assistant director on a series of six films entitled "The Traditional World of Islam," which have been twice screened on BBC Television.

Despite these impressive credentials, the taping sessions were still a nerve-racking challenge: in addition to the other problems the team also faced a crucial deadline. George Allen and Unwin, publishers of Pickthall's translation, had given them six months to complete the recording before the copyright permission would be withdrawn.

This was not simply a legalism; one earlier attempt to record Pickthall's translation - by the Sharjah Islamic Center of the United Arab Emirates - had foundered on the time clause. To SRI, therefore, each three-hourly rendering of the hymn by the bells of St. Peter and St. Paul was a maddening delay - as were the daily drives to London, the meticulous checking and re-checking of each word, and each of the 20,000 cuts and splices.

Occasionally, as the tension mounted, Qari Rasul would walk the narrow streets of Northleach, where once, during the annual showing of Cotswold wool samples, almost every European language could be heard, or, in the quiet churchyard, browse among the tombstones of the rich Northleach merchants who lavished their wealth on the town's fine 15th-century church. Then, refreshed, he would return to the studio with Dr. Zaki to resume recording.

At last, however, shortly, before the deadline - at Christmas, 1979 - Siddiqui, Rinne, Chandler, Zaki and Rasul stood before a pile of 32 completed cassettes, exhausted but content. In combining technology with tradition they had produced - insofar as that is possible - an English recitation of the Koran for the English-speaking Muslims of Britain and the world.

John Lawton, a regular contributor to Aramco World, is the Editor of a new international English-language daily newspaper in London.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the July/August 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1980 images.