November 24, 2013 By Ziauddin Sardar

Limits of Translations

zs_0For the vast majority of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the Qur’an is only accessible  in translation. But translations have been a source of controversy throughout Muslim history. The need and desire for translations arose as soon as Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula, where the growing number of new converts to the faith did not speak Arabic. Two related questions came to the fore. Was it permissible to translate the Arabic Qur’an into another language? And was it lawful to recite the translation during prayer?

The first person to address the issue was Imam Abu Hanifa(699-765) , the great jurist and founder of the Hanafi School of thought . Of Persian origins , Abu Hanifa declared that it was permissible both to translate the Qur’an into Persian and read the Persian version during prayer .  He argued that the Qur’an is simply the meaning of the revealed Arabic text, and this meaning does not change if rendered into a different language. Indeed , from the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632 to the days of Abu Hanifa, translations of parts of the Qur’an into the languages of new converts to Islam were permitted and widely used.

But the practice did not last. The founders of the three other dominant Schools of Thought –imam Malik(-711-795), Imam As-Shafi(767-820) and Imam Hanbal(780-885) vehemently disagreed with Abu Hanifa . Imam Malik thought that it was reprehensible for a non Arab even to make an oath by God in a language other than Arabic. Hanbali jurists argued that the inimitability of the Qur’an was based not just in the meaning of the words but also the unique structure the sounds and the rhyme and rhythm of the text. As it was humanly impossible to capture this, translations could not be permitted. As- Shafi , a pure Arab , argued that the Qur’an was revealed  in the language of Muhammad’s own people to the exclusion of the tongues of non Arabs; therefore, people who did not have Arabic were duty bound to learn the glorious language of the Qur’an.

The majority consensus became the dominant position. But the controversy continued, as it was challenged, from time to time, by scholars and jurists within the dominant tradition. A seventeenth century jurist, for example , used the same argument as As- Shafi to reach the opposite conclusion: ‘if you argue that the Messenger of God was not sent to Arabs alone but to all mankind who speak different languages’, he writes, so that if the Arabs could not make any plea (of ignorance) others could, then I would say this: Either (the revelations ) could be sent in all the tongues or in one of them. But there was no need for it to be revealed in all languages, since translations make up for that…(and could be used ) to transmit it and spread it… to explain … (it) to non Arab nations…[24]

More recently, a famous fatwa against translations was issued by the Syrian jurist Rashid Ridha, in 1908(25). Concerned with an imminent Turkish translation of the Quran, Ridha’s fatwa identified three major problems with translating the Quran: a translation reflects the understanding of one person; metaphoric verses could be rendered literally and thus lead to confusion; and a translation cannot reproduce the diction, rhyme and structure of the Quran and would therefore deprive the reader of this benefits. This is why, Ridha argues, it is essential for all Muslims to learn Arabic, the only gateway to understand the true message and meaning of the Quran, the life of Prophet Muhammed and the history of Islam.

We cannot really dispute the fact that a translation, as Mohammed Marmaduke Pikthall (1875-1936) notes, ‘is not the Glorious Qur’an, that inimitable symphony, the very sound of which moves men to tears and ecstasy’(26). As such, during daily prayers, where blessings of God are being sought, nothing but the original text will do. In prayer, as some Muslim scholars have rightly argued, the true Majesty of God can be invoked only with his own words. Equally, we have to acknowledge that there are serious problems with translating the Qur’an associated with its style, non-linear order, specific lattice structure, and perhaps the most difficult, if not impossible problem of conveying its intricate, rich and varied rhythms which, to use the words of A.J. Arberry (1905-69), ‘constitute the Qur’an’s undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind’(27).

However, does that mean that no attempts should be made to translate it? Or those translations per se are unnecessary and irrelevant, as Rashid Rida and so many other theologians and jurists, have suggested? Even when it is difficult, or indeed impossible, to render all that makes the Qur’an unique in another language, would not a good translation communicate something of the meaning and essence of the Qur’an, thereby making it easy for non-Arabs to understand its message? Why such vehemence against translations?.

There are four basic reasons why the traditional scholars were strongly anti-translation. The first is related to the perception of the alleged superiority of the Arabic language. Yet, as A.L Tibawi (1910-81) notes, the classical scholars had no acquaintance with other languages, apart from Persian, to pass such a judgment. ‘They all seem so charmed at the undoubted versatility of Arabic, that they took the matter for granted and gave little or no evidence in support of their assertion’(28). It is analogous, perhaps, to the belief that the famously monoglot English maintain about ‘the language of Shakespeare’, which they sought to spread around the globe in the colonial era. There is in fact no evidence to suggest that Arabic- or indeed English- is in any way superior to any other language, even though the Qur’an is revealed in Arabic. All languages have their unique features and qualities and their strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, it would be an odd God who, having established diversity and citing different languages and people as one of his signs in the Qur’an, then proceeded to defy it by requiring that he can only be understood in a single language.

The second reason is well articulated by Mahmood Ayoub: ‘the ideal cherished by those who oppose the translation of the Quran is that of unity among all Muslim nations under the banner of one faith and one language. The natural way to bring others to Islam, they believe, is to urge those who wish to know Islam to learn the Arabic Language’ (29). Whatever the ideal, reality says otherwise. Having a common language has never united the Arabs in history or in contemporary times. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of the Arab world is its perpetual and stark disunity. In contrast, despite a range of different languages and ethnicities, Europe has been able to come together as an economic and political community: the European Union. An Islam that can only be understood through a single language is not only diminished but has a limited future: monochromatic understanding and outlooks are as doomed as monocultures in nature.

The third reason is that a translation, however good or flowed, presents an interpretation of the Quran, as suggested by the title of Arthur J. Arberry’s famous translation: The Koran interpreted. It conveys the understanding of the translator(s), an attempt to provide one possible meaning of a complex, multilayered text. Or, as Rashid Rida says, it is actually a Tafsir, a commentary and an exegesis. So, a translator is unwittingly stepping in the footsteps of those- the traditional scholars- who see themselves as the only ones with requisite knowledge and legitimate authority to write Tafsir and interpret the Qur’an. For the traditional scholars, the Quran is not just a sacred text; it is also a secret book, and they are the sole key to unlocking its secret. No wonder they are so vehemently against translations.

Finally, there is the suggestion that translations could, deliberately and consciously, subvert the meaning of the Qur’an. A translation can be used to present a distorted view of Islam and project and represent Muslims in the colors of darkness (30). Indeed, for centuries Muslims have harbored the suspicion that translations have been used by Christian missionaries to destroy Islam. This perception does have some basis in reality (31).

Some of the earliest English translations were undertaken with precisely this aim. One of the first translations to appear in English was The Alcoran of mahomat by Alexander Ross, published in 1649. Based on a French translation, the subtitle made its aim clear: ‘newly Englished, for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities’. In a note to Christian readers, Rose explains his purpose further: ‘ I thought good to bring it to their colors , that so viewing thine enemies in their full body thou must the better prepare to encounter( His Alcoran’) (32). A more scholarly translation was produced by George Sale in 1734; entitled The Koran: commonly called the Alkoran of mohammed, its main purpose was to serve as a weapon in ‘the conversion of Mohammedans’. Sale was generous enough to suggest that for how criminal so ever Mohammed may have been in imposing a fake religion on mankind, the praises due to his real virtues ought not to be denied him’ (33). But this munificence did not prevent sale from committing a few offences himself, including mistranslation, omitting part of some verses, and generally berating the structure, logic and rationality of the sacred text, which provided, he claimed, clear evidence that the Qur’an was the work of several authors.

Subsequent translators decided to do away with the problematic structure of the Quran altogether and totally rearrange it in some sort of chronological order. J.M.Rodwell, Rector of St.Ethelberga, London was the first to come up with a rough chronological order for his translation, The Koran, published in 1861. But Rodwell continued the Western tradition of both subverting the text and using it as an instrument for missionary activities. He thought Muhammed was a crafty, self-deceiving person predisposed to morbid and fantastic hallucinations. A more thorough rearrangement was attempted by Richard Bell (1876-1952), a noted Scottish Orientalist, as is evident from the title of his translations: The Qur’an translated with a critical rearrangement of the surahs, published in Edinburgh during 1937-9. Bell found ‘evidence of revisions and alterations’ in the Quran (34) but his reorganization does little for the translation. He thought Muhammed was a good poet, indeed a special one as his poetry covered the themes of religion and righteousness, but could not understand why poetry required repletion. Repletion within the Quran, he argued, was a mistake produced by inserting some verses where they did not belong.

But playing havoc with the structure of the Qur’an was not enough. More recent translations have been a bit more subtle, using a number of devices, ranging from omission, distortion and mistranslation, to project the Qur’an as a violent and sexist text. The best example is N.J.Dawood’s The Koran, which first appeared in 1956 as a ‘Penguin Classics’ and has since gone through a dozen editions. Dawood’s chapter headings themselves point to a deliberate approach. For some reason the opening chapter of the Quran universally rendered by other translations simply as ‘The opening’ is converted to the far more obscure though equivalent ‘the Exordium’. The title for chapter 39 (Azzummar) becomes ‘the Hordes’, suggesting barbarian mobs, while it is more commonly translated as ‘The Crowd’ or ‘The Groups’. Chapter 96 is translated as ‘Clots of Blood’; the word used here, ‘Alaq’, is in fact singular and literally means that which clings, and refers to the embryo as it attaches to the wall of the uterus. Most Muslim translators simply call the chapter ‘the Clot’; what is intended to convey the idea of birth Dawood projects as a nation of death. Al-saff, chapter 61, he translates as ‘Battle Array’; it actually means ‘the Ranks’ or ‘Solid Lines’.

Often Dawood mistranslates a single word in a verse to give it totally the opposite meaning. In 2:217, for example, we read : ‘idolatry’ is worse than carnage’. The word translated as ‘idolatry’ is ‘fitna’, which actually means sedition or oppression. Dawood’s translation conveys the notion that the Qur’an will put up with carnage but not idolatry. In fact, the Qur’an is making sedition and oppression a crime greater than murder. The verse should read : ‘oppression is more awesome than killing’. Similarly, a word here and a word there are rendered in a specific way to suggest that the Qur’an is a sexist text. Thus while the Qur’an asks humanity to serve God, Dawood changes that to Men, as in 2:21 which is translated as ‘Men, serve your Lord’: it should be ‘O People! Worship your Lord’. Similarly, ‘Children of Adam, becomes , Children of Allah’. Spouses become virgins. Moreover, the translation uses rather obscurantist images throughout to give the impression that the Quran is full of demons and witches. For example, in 31:1 Dawood has God swearing ‘ by those who cast out demons’, while most translators have rendered the same verse as ‘Behold the revelations of the Wise Book or wise scripture’. In 113:4, Dawood has ‘conjuring witches’ while the verse actually refers to the evil of witchcraft . Where Dawood suggests God ‘communed with Moses for forty nights’, a rather odd thought for a monotheistic faith, most translators point out that God ‘appointed for Moses forty nights’. While Dawood insists that the followers of Moses are ‘made to drink the calf into their very hearts’(2:93), more sensible translators render the verse as ‘they were made to imbibe the love of the calf in their hearts’. And so on. Not surprisingly, Dawood’s translation has been a great source of discomfort for Muslims, who see it as a deliberate attempt of malign Islam. Dawood’s translation is the one that most non Muslims cite when they accuse the Qur’an or Islam or Muslims, often with great conviction, of having no option but to be fanatical, violent and depraved.

These translations had tremendous impact on the outlook of European thinkers and society. Constantine Volney (1757-1820), French philosopher and historian , found the Qur’an to be ‘a tissue of vague, contradictory declamations, of ridiculous, dangerous precepts’ [35]. The explorer Charles doughty (1843-1926), whose Travels in Arabia Deserta was one of the most popular books of  the late Victorian world, had limited Arabic and relied heavily on translations. The totally incomprehensible and trite Quran (which he always spelled as ‘koran’ with a lower case K), he wrote, had given the Arabs ‘ a barbarous fox like understanding’ of the world[36]. In On Heroes and Hero-worship, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) denounces the lies that missionaries ,led by ‘well meaning zeal’, have heaped on Muhammad. The prophet is one of his grand heroes of humanity, a ‘great Man of him I will venture to assert that it is incredible he should have been other than true’[37]. Yet, after reading the translation by Sale (‘our translation of it, by Sale, is known to be a very fair one’), he found the Qur’an to be ‘a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness , entanglement ,most crude, incondite; insupportable stupidity, in short!’ ‘Nothing’, he declared, ‘but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran’ [38]. Across the channel, Voltaire 91694-1778) initially reached similar conclusions by reading Sale’s translation.  But further reading, and copious annotation, led him not only to revise his views but also, as Zaid Elmafrsafy shows in The Enlightment Qur’an, to use the Qur’an to shape some of the key features of the Enlightenment [39].

Of course, not all ‘Orientalist’ translations served a polemical, missionary or political purpose. Arberry’s translation, which was first published in 1955,received high praise from Muslim scholars and critics for its approach and quality. For me, it is undoubtedly the most poetic : Arberry devises rhythmic patterns and sequence-groupings to echo the Arabic, and arranges his paragraph’s as they form the original units of revelation’. Making an engaging translation does require some empathy with the text , and Arberry clearly had affection for the Qur’an, which in turn had a profound impact on him. Towards the end of his introduction, he gives a hint of what he was going through: ‘the task was undertaken, not lightly, and carried to its conclusion at a time of great personal distress, through which it comforted and sustained the writer in a manner for which he will always be grateful.  He therefore acknowledges his gratitude to whatever power or Power inspired the man and the Propjet who first recited these scriptures. I pray that this interpretation, poor echo though it is of the glorious original, may instruct, please and in some degree inspire those who read it’[40].

Despite the objection of religious scholars, and Rashid Rida’s strong fatwa, the early twentieth century saw the emergence of a number of English translations by Muslim scholars. This was a refreshing shift, from translations that were, on the whole, hostile to the subject of their study, to an approach that took Muslim appreciation of their Sacred text into account. The move was apparent in the titles that Muslim translators chose for their works: rather than use the old anglicized form ‘Koran’, Muslims adopted the new ‘Qur’an ‘, which is now accepted as the correct Arabic transliteration and pronunciation of the word.

The path was led by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), a British novelist and journalist educated at Eton. A passionate man, he supported the Ottoman Empire and was an outspoken critic of Britain’s involvement in Turkey. Pickthall, who embraced Islam in 1917 and went to India to work for the Nizam of Hyderabad ,believed,’ like old fashioned Sheykhs’, that the Qur’an cannot be translated [41]. But he was persuaded by the Nizam, who also supported the venture to accept the task. The meaning of the Glorious Koran, subtitled ‘an explanatory translations,’ came out in 1930. It is an accurate and faithful rendering in the language of the King James Bible.

Pickthall’s translation was followed, four years later, by Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’an :Text, Translation and Commentary. Born in Bombay, Yusuf Ali(1872-1953) belonged to a wealthy family of merchants. He studied English literature at the University of Leeds and travelled widely in Europe and North America , promoting the Indian contribution to World War 1. On the whole , Ali provides us with a literalist translation, although he does lean towards mysticism in some of his interpretation and commentary. Given that Ali aspired to be a Victorian gentleman, it is not surprising that his translation has the flavor and spirit of the age. He died in London, alone and unrecognized [42].

Among the Muslims, both Pickthall and Yusuf Ali served as standard translations for much of the twentieth century. Both have gone through numerous editions, and have been published in different forms worldwide. However, towards the end of the millennium, when fundamentalism was on the ascendance, both translations became a battleground over the interpretation of the Qur’an and hence the meaning of Islam in contemporary times. Even though both translations are fairly orthodox, they are not conservative and dogmatic enough for certain Muslims.

So the revised editions of Pickthall expunge the old English pronouns ‘thou’, ‘thy’, and ‘thine’ and claim to be more readable and accessible. But in the process of editing ‘ye olde’ English , Pickthall’s own opinions are radically changed to make him appear more narrow minded and anti rationalist. His skeptical approach to miracles has been replaced with conventional, conservative views. New explanatory notes highlight the ‘correct’ Islamic view points; and where Pickthall admits that the meaning of certain allegorical verses are not clear to him, the editor now tells us exactly what the ‘true’ meaning of these verses are[43].

But it is Yusuf Ali, the more popular of the two, who has been subjected to what can only be described as a truly nefarious onslaught of a revision. Ali was a humble and cautious translator. ‘In translating the text’, he writes in the preface to the first edition, ‘I have aired no views of my own, but followed the received commentator. Where they differ amongst themselves, I have had to choose what appears to me the most reasonable opinion from all points of view. Where I have departed from the literal translation in order to express the spirit of the original in English, I have explained the literal meaning in the notes’(44). But Ali’s literalism is not literal enough for some. In particular, his notes on miracles and eschatology have been a cause for concern by blinkered conservatives, as was his inclination towards mysticism.

So the revised editions of Ali [45] – brought out by Amana publications , an American conservative publisher, and the Saudi Arabian religious propaganda organization, ‘The Presidency of Islamic Researches Call and Guidance’ –set out to ‘clear any misconceptions regarding the articles of faith, varying  juristic opinions and thoughts not in conformity with the sound Islamic point of view’ (p.viii). The ‘sound Islamic point of view’, or the Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, cannot cope with allegory  or metaphors and is inimically hostile to any view other than its own. Hence, Ali’s appendices giving allegorical interpretations of the story of Joseph, a mystical interpretation of the Verse of light, and a symbolic explanation of the idea of heaven are ruthlessly cut. Ali was a Sunni, but he showed great respect towards the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad , Imams Hussain and Hassan, both of whom are revered by the Shia. The revised edition deletes Ali’s description of the two Imams. His constant references in the commentary to a Caliph or Imam to lead the Muslim world are a reflection of his time. I suspect that he was traumatized, like most Muslims at that time, by the recent collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate. All references to a caliph or pious leader have been removed. His view that insurance is not a form of gambling if it is organized on an ethical basis and is a necessity in the modern business environment has been ditched, as is his note on usury. His symbolic explanation of Muslim prayer, his references to the mystical meaning of love, indeed anything that smells of allegory or metaphors has been ruthlessly expunged. And his views on jihad, sex in heaven, and resurrection are totally changed.

It took Yousuf Ali four years to produce his translation and commentary. The numerous committees at the ‘Presidency’ took ten years to do the revisions. So even the minutest deviation from the Saudi orthodoxy is cleansed. For example, commenting on the verse ‘No reward I ask you for this except the love of those near of kin’ (42:43), Ali argues that ‘the love of kindred may be extended to mean the love of our common humanity, for all mankind are brothers descended from Adam’. But this inclusive humanity is much too much for the Saudi orthodoxy, and has thus been deleted. In explaining 45:14, ‘it is for him to recompense( for good or ill) each people, according to what they have earned’, Ali states that ‘ it is not right for private persons to take vengeance even for the cause of right and justice…nor is it permissible even to the group of persons to arrogate to themselves the championship of the right…’ The editors of the revised version have done precisely this: arrogated to themselves the right to decide exactly what is and what is not right. So out goes the part of Ali’s commentary that questions their authority.

The ‘presidency’ thinks it is right not just change Ali’s commentary, remove his preface, delete his appendices, and modify his translation, but also to remove his name from the translation itself. We learn that this is in fact Yusuf Ali’s translation from the one line mention to ‘Ustad Yusuf Ali’ in the preface to the revised edition. ‘Ustad’, a title one gives to a low-ranking scholar, adds insult to injury, suggesting that Ali, despite his monumental achievement, did not have the qualification to be a fully-fledged Sheikh. Of course, Yusuf Ali has no comeback. But we should not hesitate to state clearly that these revisions are both dishonest and reprehensible. No one has the right to change Yusuf Ali’s opinion; except the author himself.

While Muslims have constantly complained about distortions and falsification in Western translations, some of their own translations are not short on misrepresentations. A notable recent example is interpretation of the meaning of the Noble Quran in the English Language by Muhammed Taqial-Din al-Hilali and Muhammed Muhsin Khan(46). It comes complete with a certificate of approval from the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Bin Baz (who, let us remind ourselves, thought the earth was flat, and other prominent religious authorities in the Kingdom. Intended to replace Yusuf Ali, it has been distributed largely free and extensively throughout the Muslim world.

Subtitled ‘summarized version of At-Tabri, Al-Qurtubi and Ibn Khathir with comments from sahih Al-Bhukhari’, the translation ostensibly seeks to explain and interpret the Quran with the help of three classical commentaries and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammed. But the use of more puritanical and combative classical commentaries that saw the world largely in black and white terms, together with clever and selective deployment of the traditions of the prophet, enables the authors to present the Quran as a rather aggressive, authoritarian and misogynous text in conformity with the Wahhabi worldview. The rendering awkward and stilted, dry and literalist in the extreme. Certain key terms are left in the regional form and simply transliterated. The copious Hadith footnotes are quite incomprehensible to ordinary readers of English.

The aggressively puritanical tone is set right at the beginning with al-fati ,the opening chapter of the Quran. Thus the verse ‘Guide us to the straight path’ is explained as the way of not just God and his Prophet but also ‘pious preachers’, that is the scholars and religious authorities of the Kingdom. ‘The way of those who have earned your anger’ means the Jews, and ‘those went astray’ are the Christians! While no context is provided for the verse ‘kill them wherever you find them’ (2:191), an interesting twist is given to the second part of the verse. The key word here is fitna, which means social disruption or temptation to sin. Yusuf Ali translates this as ‘tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter’; Pickthall as ‘persecution is worse than slaughter’. But Al-Halali and Khan explain fitna as ‘polytheism, to disbelieve after one has believed in Allah’, suggesting that polytheists and apostates , by their very nature, have committed crimes that are on a higher plane than carnage; and hence they are legitimate targets for killing. So the next but one verse, ‘fight them until there is no persecution’ (2:193) becomes ‘fight them until there is no more disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah’. Similarly, zalimun ( literally those who commit zulm, or injustice, i.e. the oppressors) in 29:14 become polytheists and disbelievers, suggesting that the very existence of non-Muslims is a form of injustice and oppression! In 33:59, where the Quran asks the prophet to ‘tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted’, the Al-Halili and Khan translations has cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). Similar interpolations throughout the text turn the Quran into a blueprint for replicating the xenophobia and misogynist Saudi society in detail. No wonder so many Wahhabi-inspired fanatics use the Quran to justify their nefarious activities. I would suggest that in many respects this is the Muslim counterpart of Dawood’s translation; and in some respects it is even worse.

But it is not just the Saudis who seek to impose their own sectarian imprint on English translations of the Quran. Almost every Muslim sect and ideological camp has produced its own translation during the last few decades. So now we have Shia translations, Sufi translations, a translation that reflects the partialities of Turkish Islam, a feminist translation, ‘The First American Version,’ translations by ‘translation committees’ and even a bizarre translation based on the absurd thesis that words of the Quran have magical numerical values.

Most of these translations are upfront about their specific outlooks. For example, the standard Shia translation, which has gone through several permutations, revisions and editions, declares its sectarian bias in the title: The Holy Quran with English Translation of the Arabic Text and commentary according to the version of Holy Ahlul-Bait. The translation is by Mir Ahmed Ali, an Indian scholar, but the commentary is provided by Ayatollah Mirza Mahdi Pooya Yazdi, a noted Iranian scholar with strong mystical leanings. As one would expect, it is strong on Shia doctrines and ritual observances. In particular, it tries to show that the Prophet appointed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and eleven others, as his successors, with full authority as religious and political leaders for the whole Muslim community- to be obeyed unquestioningly. As such, we read in the Introduction, ‘Ali is the foremost and Topmost One next only to the Holy Prophet in the thorough knowledge of inner and outer significance of every word, sentence, passage and part of chapter of the Quran in its revealed and pre-revealed form to which the Quran itself bears testimony…’ (47). It also tries to justify other Shia practices, such as glorification of martyrs and temporary marriage (mut’a). But the translation also denigrates companions of the Prophet revered by the Sunnis , throws scorn at Sunni beliefs and insists that Shi’ism is the correct, authentic and original Islam.

Both the standard Shia and Saudi translations use Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, to argue for their particular, sometimes quite absurd and irrational, positions. In the appendix to Quran: A Reformist Translation we get a whole list of how ‘authentic’ Hadith have been used not just to justify sectarian positions, but also to promote the interests of particular class, tribe or family, justify violence and misogyny, validate superstition, prohibit certain cultural products (such as music) and to suppress dissent. But the reform that this translation seeks is not so much social and cultural as rooted in numerology, a dubious practice of little value (48). The translators, Edip Yuksel, Layth Saleh al-Shaiban and Martha Schulte-Nafey, are followers of Rashed Khalifa, an Egyptian American biochemist, who claimed in 1980 to have discovered a hidden mathematical code in the Quran: when you add the numerical equivalent of the verses of the Quran, they all add up to, or are multiples of, number 19 (49). So impressed was  Khalifa with his discovery that he began to describe himself as ‘Rashad Khalifa PhD, messenger of Allah’. Khalifa was murdered in 1990, but his legacy has continued unabated. Thus the function of his translation is to prove, by hook or by crook, that the magical number 19 is embedded in each and every verse of the Quran. There is a large worldwide Muslim movement of benighted imbeciles who swallow this nonsense.

It is quite evident that translations can sometimes create more problems than they seek to solve. Fortunately there are reliable translations that both Muslims and non-Muslims can use gainfully. The message of The Quran, ‘translated and explained’ by Muhammed Asad (1900-92), is a superb example of a non-sectarian ,rational, humane and straightforward rendering of the Quran. Asad was a scholar adventurer who, having converted from Judaism, travelled widely throughout the Muslim world, worked with various anti-colonial liberation movements and even served as the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations. He was an accomplished scholar with an intimate knowledge of classical Arabic, Hadith (he also translated Sahih Bhukhari (50) and classical commentaries. His translation, published in 1980 from Gibraltar, where Asad lived during retirement, is not only eminently readable, faithful to the original text, but also erudite. His footnotes reveal his extensive knowledge of Muslim sources, Islamic law and culture as well as the Bible. He shows that both Hadith and classical commentaries can be used objectively to delineate the pluralistic and humane message of the Quran.

On the whole, Asad’s views were quite orthodox (after all, he was a companion of King Abdel Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, as we learn from his autobiography The Road to Mecca (51), but this does not stop him from being critical. ‘The great thinkers of the past’, he writes in his foreword, approached their commentaries ‘with their reason’, and were ‘fully aware of the element relativity inherent in all human reasoning’. To disagree with them is not to show animosity but to imply that ‘differences of opinion are the basis of all progress in human thinking and, therefore, a most potent factor in man’s acquisition of knowledge’(52). So Asad sometimes respectfully disagrees with the conventional Muslim opinion on the story of Ibrahim’s attempted sacrifice of his son, provides several interpretations of the term and concept of jinn and rejects the orthodox line on the doctrine of abrogation ( that some of the earlier verses of the Quran are suspended by later ones). All of which was enough for Saudi Arabia to ban Muhammed Asad, not just the message of the Quran but also most of his books. But that is all the more reason for using and consulting Asad’s translation. I must confess that I find Asad to be an enlightened and progressive scholar and adore his translation.

Two other excellent translations have appeared recently. Both carry the same title: The Quran: A New Translation. The first to appear, in Oxford World’s Classics series, is by M.A.S. Abdul Haleem, a classically trained Egyptian scholar who is Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London. The second, by Tarifkhalidi, a Palestinian scholar who is Professor of Islamic and Arabic studies at the American University, Beirut, is in Penguin Classics (I suspect it is supposed to replace the old N.J.Dawod translation that Penguin peddled for decades). Both are published as trade books and should be widely and easily available. Together they provide a good illustration of just how different from each other translations of the Quran can be.

Abdel Haleem provides us with an accurate and highly readable translation. The complex grammar and structure of the Quran are transformed into smooth, contemporary English mercifully free from archaisms, anachronism and incoherence. Abdul Haleem uses a simple, but ingenious, device to solve a couple of crucial problems. The Quran often addresses different parties – for example, the Prophet, or the community of Believers, or the hostile Meccan tribe of the Quraysh- and switches from one party to another in the same verse. Abdel Haleem makes it clear who is speaking or being addressed in Parentheses.

Parentheses are also used to provide context: for example, when the Quran says ‘those who believed and emigrated’, Abdul Haleem adds ‘(to Madina)’, to show that it is emigration to Medina that is being described. Context also emphasized in the brief summaries that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Although footnotes are kept to a bare minimum, they are judiciously used to explain geographical, historical and personal allusions. Abdel Haleem’s emphasis on context, the connection of each verse to many, many others, and how different parts of the Quran explain each other, make this translation original and exceptionally useful. You do get an impression that you are reading a commentary on the life of Muhammed and an inkling of the social conditions in Mecca during the period of revelation: Abdel Haleem points out the cultural context of some verses, such as those relating to female witnesses. But he also conveys an appreciation that the teachings of the Quran are relevant, as he says in the introduction, to a world struggling with ‘such universal issues as globalization, the environment, combatting terrorism and drugs, issues of medical ethics and feminism’(53).

There are, as always with any translation, some limitations. Despite the originality of the translation, Abdel hakeem is a bit too conventional and conservative. He adheres strictly to orthodox doctrines in the explanatory footnotes, which rely heavily on classical commentators, particularly the late-twelfth-century commentator Fakhr al-Din al Razi. And he does not inspire a sense of poetic beauty.

Like Abdel Haleem, khalidi is not interested in providing the context of the verses of the Quran. We therefore do not always know who the Quran is addressing at various junctures or who is speaking to whom in its internal dialogues. Neither is khalidi all that concerned with providing some help to the reader: there are no footnotes or any explanation. Instead, khalidi takes a rather unusual attitude to the Quran; it is ‘a bearer of diverse interpretation’, he says; and its ambiguities are deliberately designed to stimulate thinking. Let the reader be ‘patient of interpretation’ and read at will (54). All that is needed is to approach the text with sympathy.

What Khalidi really wants is for the reader to enjoy the experience of reading the Quran. Of course, he wants to communicate the majesty of its language, the beauty of its style and the ‘eternal present tense’ of its grammar. But he aims higher: he also wants the reader to appreciate the unique structure of the Quran, how the language changes with the subject matter, how it swirls around and makes rhythmic connections. He wishes to show how each of the seven tropes of the Quran (command, prohibition, glad tidings, warnings, sermons, parables and narratives) register a change in the style of its language. It is a lofty ambition, but khalidi pulls it off with some success.

The shifts in style are presented in two ways. Linguistically, Khalidi moves between literal translation, rendered in clear prose, to the use of heightened language, to deeply poetic renderings. Physically the layout of the passage changes, so each style looks different on the page. The narrative passages, or sections dealing with social and legislative affairs, appear in a prose format. The dramatic and metaphysical sections are arranged in poetic style. An example:

In likens, they are one who lit a fire. When the fire illuminated his surroundings, God extinguished their light and left them in darkness, unseeing,
They do not repent. (2:17-18)

Khalidi also separates the dialogues and questions and answers that are the hallmark of some of the verses as separate paragraphs. So a great deal of the translation reads as conversations- ‘He said’, they said’- that have occurred, are occurring and may yet occur in the future:
He shall say: ‘ How long did you remain on earth, in number of years?’
They will respond: ‘ We remained for a day or a part thereof. Ask those who count.’
He will say: ‘ You remained only a short while, if only you knew.’ (20:112-14)

It is difficult to deny that this translation has a certain beauty and manages to capture a glimpse of the grandeur of the original. No doubt, Khalidi’s poetic efforts will be compared with Arberry. I would suggest that Arberry has a slight edge. However, both Arberry and Khalidi’s translations have a problem with numbering the verses. The verse numbers appear only sporadically, giving no indication of the specific beginning and ending of verses in between. Neither translation would help someone unfamiliar with the text if they wanted to check a reference to specific verse; so the translations are not easy to navigate.

However, navigating translations is by no means easy, as I have tried to show. Since a single translation can be very misleading, it is best, I have found, to use more than one. However, to present my reading of the Quran, it is necessary to share with the reader my best approximation of the Quran as I understand its English translation. Therefore in what follows I present my own synthesis of a number of English translations as the basis for the discussion of al-fathiha and al-baqara. To produce his synthesis I used six translations: Arberry, Pickthal, Yusuf Ali, Asad, Haleem and Khalidi. I read each verse in each of these six translations and opted for the most lucid language, shorn of archaic form, that I could to convey the sense I had accumulated from them all. Each passage of this synthesized version is followed by a discussion of meaning, which incorporates discussion of the significance of the Arabic terms used and the subjects that are addressed in footnotes. By no stretch of the imagination is my rendition a new translation. It is, however, a sincere and serious effort to convey to the reader as accurately as possible the sense I apprehend in reading the Quran, the point from which I begin to engage with its meaning, to work out the contemporary relevance of the text. In synthesizing this reading I have made personal choices. I have been hugely informed by having to wrestle with the differences and distinctions in the linguistic choices of some very notable scholars. Most of all, the process was an essential element of my personal quest. It helped to uncover new depths of meaning and implication in a text I have been familiar with since childhood. I cannot commend too highly to anyone interested in engaging with the Quran the practice of reading multiple translations in conjunction with one another. I would ask all readers not to stop and certainly not to be satisfied with my humble synthesis.

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