A short overview of translations of the Qur’an in English

Translations of the Qur’an

This article is from The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation.

What follows is an overview of translations of the Qur’an into English; I have tried to include a representative selection of the most influential translations within three broad categories: Traditionalist, Orientalist, and Independent.

Traditionalist translations

Muhammad Asad

Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) was an Austrian Jew. He was a journalist, diplomat and accomplished linguist who converted to the religion called Islam.

While he states in the introduction to his translation that the Qur’an can be understood independently he, lamentably, does not pursue that end. Nevertheless, his work is, for me, one of the least troubling among the Traditionalist translations. His rendering is fanciful and flighty – suggestive of a good man rather more, perhaps, than of a fastidious translator. However, his annotations are intelligent, well researched, and insightful in many places, and I have included a number of them in the notes here.

Asad was a man of letters, an intellectual, a refined man, and perhaps also a little naïve. He threw his impressive energies and talents behind the Islamic experiment in post-Partition Pakistan, but was likely more enamoured of the idea of what it might become than of what it, in fact, became.

Chastened, I suspect, by reality, he withdrew to Andalusian Spain to live out the remainder of his days.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali

Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872-1953) was born in Bombay, India, and later removed to England where he lived to the end of his life.

The impression one gains from his translation and commentary is of an intellectual, fair-minded writer, and gentle soul.

His was the first translation I read. In it, he attempts to tip his hat in the direction of King James English, with varying degrees of success.

He sets out to interpret the Qur’an in the light of orthodoxy (namely, Sunni orthodoxy) rather than to investigate or to reason. His translation is the one recommended by the Saudi authorities, which is perhaps a reason to be careful of it.

He makes some interesting points in a number of his annotations, a few of which I have included here.

Marmaduke Pickthall

Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936) was the son of an English clergyman and became a novelist esteemed by many contemporary writers, as well as a journalist and headmaster.

His translation, which followed his conversion to Islam, is subordinate to Traditionalist orthodoxy. Its style is dated and stilted to the modern ear.

Drs. Hilali and Muhsin Khan

Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din bin Adil-Qadir al-Hilali (1893-1987) was a 20th-century Islamic scholar from Morocco, and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan is a Pakistani with Afghan Khattak heritage.

If Muhammad Asad’s translation can be thought of as representing the side of contemplation, reason, compassion and intellect within the Traditionalist spectrum, the Hilali-Muhsin Khan work is firmly dug in at the opposing end. It attempts to force the entire Qur’anic narrative through a filter of ḥadīth literature and is full of interpolations and footnotes based on the same. Its value lies in the insight it provides the outsider into a vocal and dominant mindset within the church of Islam.

If the Hilali-Muhsin Khan rendition truly represented the message of the Qur’an, my own engagement with the Qur’an would have lasted no longer than a short perusal.

Saheeh International

The Saheeh International translation was produced by a small team. The idea appears to have been to bring together Traditionalist orthodoxy – presumably as intoned by a group of Pakistanis or Arabs – with native-English editing capabilities. It follows without apology or question the standard Traditionalist line and – like all other translations that I have seen – unabashedly switches values for key terms in order to achieve predetermined outcomes.

I generally use this version in the Appendix section to represent the Traditionalist position. While the reader may form the opinion that I am picking unduly on the Saheeh International translation, the fact is that I use it because it represents a consistent and fair demonstration of the Traditionalist view; a middle ground between the erudite and mystical Asad on one hand and the problematic Hilali-Muhsin Khan on the other; and because it generally indicates by means of square parenthesis where words have been inserted into the text to reach the foregone conclusions Sunni orthodoxy requires of it.

Orientalist translations

N. J. Dawood

Born in 1927 in Iraq, N. J. Dawood grew up bilingual in Arabic and English. His translation of the Qur’an describes Traditionalist orthodoxy though with a number of creative flourishes of his own. His style is economical, well-crafted and generally pleasing to read.

Since he is a Jew and not a convert to Sunni Islam, his translation tends to be snubbed by Muslims. It is, however, one of the best-selling versions among the non-Muslim population having been published by Penguin since 1956.

A. J. Arberry

A. J. Arberry (1905-1969) was a British Orientalist. His translation of the Qur’an makes no historic interpretative strides but then neither does it offend. His style is quiet and careful, pleasing in parts, and more exact in many cases than other renderings.

Independent translations

Ghulam Ahmad Parwez

Ghulam Ahmad Parwez (1903-1985) was a Pakistani, the son of a prominent Sufi, and a civil servant. He was denounced as a heretic by the Traditionalist mullahs for refuting the ḥadīth. He is incorrectly credited by some Traditionalists today with founding the movement for the Qur’an alone. He was friend and mentor to Abdul Wadud, author of Conspiracies Against the Qur’an.

His rendering of the Qur’an into English comprises a highly subjective and lengthy exposition of Qur’anic themes, one which gives voice to his view – at least as I understand it – that the Qur’an’s primary mission is to institute a form of socialism in the name of God.

Rashad Khalifa

Rashad Khalifa (1935-1990) was an Arab-American biochemist who achieved notoriety on the basis of his computational work with the Qur’an focused on the number nineteen. He rejected the ḥadīth literature entirely. He later claimed to be a messenger of God. This brought the wrath of the Traditionalist Muslims upon his head, after which he was murdered – I understand by one of their number.

His translation is unremarkable and a Traditionalist would find in it little to enrage him. Khalifa was not a native speaker of English and – without wishing to be unkind to him – his translation suffers as a result.

Edip Yuksel

Edip Yuksel (b. 1957) is a Turkish-American university lecturer. He was born in Turkey and as a young man was an active Sunni radical and imprisoned by the Turkish authorities as a consequence. While in prison, he was befriended by Rashad Khalifa by letter, after which Yuksel became convinced of many of Khalifa’s arguments against sectarian Islam.

Yuksel’s translation was written in collaboration with Layth Saleh al-Shaiban who is owner of the free-minds.org website, and Martha Schute-Nafeh.

An understandable irritation and frustration at the foolishness of the Traditionalist is evident in some of the notes, although they are frequently interesting and make intelligent connections with the Christian Bible (New Testament) and Jewish Bible (Tanakh). The work forwards alternative – more palatable – interpretations of particular words, an effort which many Westernised readers will appreciate.

As a student of Khalifa it is natural that Yuksel places a heavy emphasis on mathematical proofs. I am neither a mathematician nor temperamentally inclined to concentrate on the type of numerical patterns such as Yuksel discerns within the Qur’an; for me, such an emphasis is of limited relevance or application. However, I both admit and embrace the fact that people bring different talents to their study of the Qur’an.

I reviewed this work only in part but  was unable to identify a coherent and consistent hermeneutical system apropos key word values, and it is that which is my primary focus.

The Monotheist Group

The Monotheist Group grew out of the free-minds.org website, and members of that group created a translation called The Qur’an: A Monotheist Translation.

The foreword to the translation contains an interesting article on pan-Qur’anic exegesis. The translation itself adopts the rendering of raḥmān as almighty (as do I), but does not explain why it does so – a point which has left some readers perplexed. Its assumptions, so far as I can tell, comprise a composite of the views of Khalifa, Yuksel and perhaps one or two of the more vocal contributors to the free-minds.org site.

There is no system in the application of terms across the greater text, and the reading is as subjective as any other.

Conclusions

There exist many other translations, not all of which I have read. However, I am confident that I have presented a fair and representative selection of those translations (or, rather, translators) pertinent to my broader thesis. I will now turn to the question of motivations and results.

The Orientalist translators are easiest to deal with. They are typically unconcerned with Eternity. They are concerned with royalties, with their professional standing among their peers, and with not having to check under their cars before backing out of the garage. They have taken what they consider the safest route: to turn a Sunni orthodox reading into something digestible in English which the publisher will like.

The translators of the remaining two categories are, like myself, ideologically motivated. However, they both fall at the same fence to varying degrees in that acceptance of their readings boils down to a question of personal authority.

The authority for the Traditionalist’s translations derives from a perception of his traditions and of those who wrote and expounded upon them. The authority for what I have called independent translations – while deriving from a different historical basis – rests, in the end, upon a similar type of foundation: one must choose to believe or not believe that Parwez, Khalifa, Yuksel or the authors of the Monotheist Group are sufficiently wise, clever or competent to make their work reliable.

The point I am making here is not that these people are not wise, clever or competent. For all I know they are superlatively so. I am saying that, at bottom, the same mechanism is at work in the mind of the reader regarding the non-ḥadīth readings as with Traditionalist translations: in both cases the reader has no choice but to make an assessment based upon a perception of the personal competence of the translator.

This translation

Certainly, I have a worldview, and regard the Qur’an within the framework of that worldview. For example, I dismiss many popular coincidence theories of history and current affairs, and in terms of Realpolitik have much in common with aspects of the Patriot Movement, the Truth Movement, some historical revisionism, libertarianism and anarchism.

However, my textual approach was not actuated by my worldview. And acceptance by the reader of my findings is not contingent upon his worldview and mine corresponding. I have developed and applied a method of linguistic hermeneutics which can be picked apart or utilised by anyone prepared to take the time to do so – no matter what his worldview. This allows the emphasis to be taken off how wise or foolish I may be personally, and placed on a methodology.

While I have certain preferences, I am ultimately interested less in who is right than in what is right so I am not blindly or unreasonably protective of my efforts. If someone more talented than myself can produce a cogent and integrated demonstration of the total Qur’anic corpus – not just some small part of it – which both proves my presentation wrong and his right, I will thank him and henceforth read his translation and not my own.

But I will judge him on the basis of his achievement; I have no interest in the length of his beard, his lineage, his university, the letters he uses after his name, the media support he can generate, what people in the past supposedly said or thought about him, or anything else of that nature. I am interested only in the results he can demonstrate – his evidence.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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