Sandow Birk, "American Qur'an" (Liveright, 2015)


Could the Qur'an--understood, according to Muslims, as the verbatim word of God in Arabic--acquire a nationality? Specifically, could it be American? And written in English? Contemporary visual artist Sandow Birk's American Qur'an (Liveright, 2015) raises these questions and many more. The groundbreaking and subversive project draws on multiple English translations, which Birk synthesizes to produce his own hand-written American graffiti-style translation. On top of that, every single page of the over-sized coffee table book contains meticulous illustrations of everyday American life, ranging from celebration to tragedy. As a commentary on both the Qur'an as well as American culture, moreover, the provocative visuals offer the reader a way to connect a book from 7th-century Arabia to 21st-century American cities, landscapes, challenges, and humanity. Given the herculean task that Birk accomplishes, it perhaps comes as no surprise that it took him nearly a decade to complete. Beyond the illustrations and translation, American Qur'an also contains essays from Reza Aslan (UC Riverside), Zareena Grewal (Yale), and Iftikhar Dadi (Cornell), which help to contextualize the project. As for Birk himself, he offers no commentary aside from a brief acknowledgements section; this lack of explanation thus challenges the reader to draw conclusions based on the primary source itself. Additionally, because many of the illustrations have no ostensibly straightforward connection to the text, readers have the opportunity to search for meaning in the pictures, which typical translations of the Qur'an cannot present. At the end of the day, American Qur'an is sure to spark conversations and make waves among a wide variety of people, including artists and academics (within Islamic studies and beyond), as well as other curious minds wishing to know more about the Qur'an.

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