The heroic and piercingly insightful ex-Muslim Ibn Warraq recently gave a talk consisting of a series of responses to some of the common assertions made by Islamic apologists. I am quite grateful that he has made his notes available for publication here. This is a refreshing and enlightening antidote to the usual dhimmitude we get from non-Muslim academics who engage Islam. It is lengthy, so I plan to serialize it over the next few days. Watch this space for future installments.
1. Do you know Aramaic or Hebrew?
Muslims in general have a tendency to disarm any criticisms of Islam and in particular the Koran by asking if the critic has read the Koran in the original Arabic, as though all the difficulties of their Sacred Text will somehow disappear once the reader has mastered the holy language and has direct experience, aural and visual, of the very words of God, to which no translation can do justice.
However, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs or Arabic speaking peoples. The non-Arabic speaking nations of Indonesia with a population of 197 million, Pakistan with 133 million, Iran with 62 million, Turkey with 62 million, India with a Muslim population of about 95 million, out- number by far the total number of native Arabic speakers in about thirty countries in the world estimated as 150 million. Many educated Muslims whose native tongue is not Arabic do learn it in order to read the Koran, but then again the vast majority do not understand Arabic, even though many do learn parts of the Koran by heart without understanding a word.
In other words, the majority of Muslims have to read the Koran in translation in order to understand it. Contrary to what one might think, there have been translations of the Koran into, for instance, Persian since the tenth or eleventh century, and there are translations into Turkish and Urdu. The Koran has now been translated into over a hundred languages, many of them by Muslims themselves, despite some sort of disapproval from the religious authorities.
Even for contemporary Arabic –speaking peoples, reading the Koran is far from being a straightforward matter. The Koran is putatively (in fact it is very difficult to decide exactly what the language of the Koran is) written in what we call Classical Arabic (CA), but modern Arab populations, leaving aside the problem of illiteracy in Arab countries , do not speak, read, or write, let alone think in Classical Arabic (CA). We are confronted with the phenomenon of diglossia , that is to say, a situation where two varieties of the same language live side by side. The two variations are high and low. High Arabic is sometimes called Modern Literary Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic, and is learned through formal education in school like Latin or Sanskrit, and would be used in sermon, university lecture, news broadcast and for mass media purposes. Low Arabic or Colloquial Arabic is a dialect which native speakers acquire as a mother tongue, and is used at home conversing with family and friends, and is also used in radio or television soap opera. But as Kaye points out, "the differences between many colloquials and the classical language are so great that a fallah (= farmer or peasant) who had never been to school could hardly understand more than a few scattered words and expressions in it without great difficulty. One could assemble dozens of so-called Arabs (fallahin or peasants) in a room, who have never been exposed to the classical language, so that not one could properly understand the other." 
Though some scholars do allow for some change and decay, they paint a totally misleading picture of the actual linguistic situation in modern Arabic speaking societies. These scholars imply that anyone able to read a modern Arabic newspaper should have no difficulties with the Koran or any classical Arabic text. They seem totally insensitive "to the evolution of the language, to changes in the usage and meaning of terms over the very long period and in the very broad area in which Classical Arabic has been used."  Anyone who has lived in the Middle East in recent years will know that the language of the press is at best semi-literary , and certainly simplified as far as structure and vocabulary are concerned. We can discern what would be called grammatical errors from a Classical Arabic point of view in daily newspapers or on television news. This semi-literary language is highly artificial, and certainly no one thinks in it. For an average middle class Arab it would take considerable effort to construct even the simplest sentence, let alone talk, in Classical Arabic. The linguist Pierre Larcher has written of the "considerable gap between Medieval Classical Arabic and Modern Classical Arabic [or what I have been calling Modern Literary Arabic], certain texts written in the former are today the object of explanatory texts in the latter." He then adds in a footnote that he has in his library, based on this model, an edition of the Risala of Shafi`i (died 204/820) which appeared in a collection with the significant title "Getting closer to the Patrimony." 
As Kaye puts it, "In support of the hypothesis that modern standard Arabic is ill-defined is the so-called ‘mixed’ language or ‘Inter-Arabic’ being used in the speeches of, say, President Bourguiba of Tunisia, noting that very few native speakers of Arabic from any Arab country can really ever master the intricacies of Classical Arabic grammar in such a way as to extemporaneously give a formal speech in it." 
Pierre Larcher  has pointed out that wherever you have a linguistic situation where two varieties of the same language coexist, you are also likely to get all sorts of linguistic mixtures, leading some linguists to talk of triglossia. Gustav Meiseles  even talks of quadriglossia: between Literary Arabic and Vernacular Arabic, he distinguishes a Sub-Standard Arabic and an Educated Spoken Arabic. Still others speak of pluri- or multi- or polyglossia, viewed as a continuum. 
The style of the Koran is difficult, totally unlike the prose of today, and the Koran would be largely incomprehensible without glossaries, indeed entire commentaries. In conclusion, even the most educated of Arabs will need some sort of a translation if he or she wished to make sense of that most gnomic, elusive and allusive of holy scriptures, the Koran.
You are asked aggressively, "do you know Arabic?" Then you are told triumphantly, "You have to read the Koran in the original Arabic to understand it fully." Non-Muslims, Western freethinkers and atheists are usually reduced to sullen silence with these Muslim tactics; they indeed become rather coy and self-defensive when it comes to criticism of Islam; they feebly complain “who am I to criticise Islam? I do not know any Arabic.” And yet they are quite happy to criticise Christianity. How many Western freethinkers and atheists know Hebrew? How many even know what the language of Esra chapter 4 verses 6-8 is? Or in what language the New Testament was written? Of course, Muslims are also free in their criticism of the Bible and Christianity without knowing a word of Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.
So let me summarise: You do not need to know Arabic to criticise Islam or the Koran. Paul Kurtz does not know Arabic but he did a great job on Islam in his book The Transcendental Temptation.  You only need a critical sense, critical thought and scepticism. Second, there are translations of the Koran, by Muslims themselves, so Muslims cannot claim that there has been deliberate tampering of the text by infidel translators. Third, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs, and are not Arabic speakers. So a majority of Muslims also have to rely on translations. Finally, the language of the Koran is some form of Classical Arabic  which is totally different from the spoken Arabic of today, so even Muslim Arabs have to rely on translations to understand their holy text. Arabic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic, and is no easier but also no more difficult to translate than any other language. Of course, there are all sorts of difficulties with the language of the Koran, but these difficulties have been recognized by Muslim scholars themselves. The Koran is indeed a rather opaque text but it is opaque to everyone. Even Muslim scholars do not understand a fifth of it.
1. See Appendix, Bibliography of Translations, in Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period, edd. Beeston, Johnstone et al, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.502-520.
2. In Egypt, the rate of illiteracy is placed as high as 49.8 %, see Information Please Almanac, Boston, 1997, p.180
3. Charles Ferguson, Diglossia, Word, Vol.15, No.2 pp325-340, Aug.1959; William Marçais, La diglossie arabe, L’Enseignement public –Revue Pédagogique, tome 104, no 12, 1930, pp.401-409; Alan S. Kaye,Arabic, in The Major Languages of South Asia, The Middle East and Africa, ed. Bernard Comrie, London, Routledge, 1990, p.181
4. Ibid., p.173.
5. B.Lewis, Islam and the West, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, p.65
6. It is in fact becoming more and more westernized, i.e. de-semitized under the influence of the international news agencies.
7. P.Larcher,Les Incertitudes de la Poesie Arabe Archaique, in La Revue des Deux Rives, No.1, 1999,p.129
8. Kaye, op. cit. p.183.
9. P.Larcher, La Linguistique Arabe d’Hier a Demain : Tendances Nouvelles de la Recherche, Arabica, tome XLV, 1998, pp.409-29.
10. Gustav Meiseles, Educated Spoken Arabic and the Arabic Language Continuum, Archivum Linguisticum, vol. XI, Number 2, 1980, pp.118-142;quoted in P.Larcher,see note 10 above.
11. A.S.Kaye, Formal vs. Informal in Arabic : Diglossia, Triglossia, Tetraglossia, etc., Polyglossia –Multiglossia Viewed as a Continuum, ZAL, 27, 1994, pp.47-66.
12. P.Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation, Prometheus Books, Amherst,1986
13. There seems to be some controversy as to what the language of the Koran really is, see my introduction to What the Koran Really Says., Prometheus Books, Amherst, 2002.