by A.R. Kidwai
Despite the historical fact that the early Muslim
community's stand on the translation of the Arabic text of the Quran was ambivalent, as
indeed, the general Muslim attitude remains so to this day, the act of translation may be
logically viewed as a natural part of the Muslim exegetical effort. However, whereas the
idea of interpreting the Quran has not been so controversial, the emotional motives behind
rendering the Quranic text into languages other than Arabic have always been looked upon
This is obvious as the need for translating the
Quran arose in those historic circumstances when a large number of non-Arabic speaking
people had embraced Islam, and giving new linguistic orientations to the contents of the
revelation - as, for instance, happened in the case of the 'New Testament' - could have
led to unforeseeable, and undesirable, developments within the body of the Islamic
religion itself. (For a brief, though highly useful, survey of the Muslim attitudes
towards the permissibility of translating the text of the revelation to non-Arabic
tongues, see M. Ayoub, 'Translating the Meaning of the Quran: Traditional Opinions and
Modern Debates', in Afkar Inquiry, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Ramadan 1406/May 1986), pp.34 9).
The Muslim need for translating the Quran into English arose mainly out
of the desire to combat the missionary effort. Following a long polemical tradition, part
of whose goal was also the production of a - usually erroneous and confounding - European
version of the Muslim scripture, Christian missionaries started their offensive against a
politically humiliated Islam in the eighteenth century by advancing their own translations
of the Quran.
Obviously, Muslims could not allow the missionary effort - invariably
confounding the authenticity of the text with a hostile commentary of its own - to go
unopposed and unchecked. Hence, the Muslim decision to present a faithful translation of
the Quranic text as well as an authentic summary of its teaching to the European world.
Later, the Muslim translations were meant to serve even those Muslims whose only access to
the Quranic revelation was through the medium of the European languages. Naturally,
English was deemed the most important language for the Muslim purpose, not least because
of the existence of the British Empire which after the Ottomans had the largest number of
The same rationale, however, applies to sectarian movements within Islam
or even to renegade groups outside the fold of Islam, such as the Qadiyanis. Their
considerable translation activities are motivated by the urge to proclaim their
Although there is a spate of volumes on the multi-faceted dimensions of
the Quran, no substantial work has so far been done to critically examine the mass of
existing English translations of the Quran.
Even bibliographical material on this subject was quite scant before the
fairly recent appearance of World Bibliography of the Translations of the Meanings of
the Holy Quran (Istanbul, OIC Research Center, 1986), which provides authoritative
publication details of the translations of the Quran in sixty-five languages.
Some highly useful work in this field had been done earlier by Dr.
Hamidullah of Paris. Appended to the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature Volume 1, Arabic
Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period (Cambridge university Press, 1983) is a
bibliography of the Quran translations into European languages, prepared by J.D. Pearson,
as is the latter's article in the Encyclopedia of Islam. It is, however, of not
much use to the Muslim.
Since none of the above-mentioned works is annotated, the reader gets no
idea about the translator's mental make-up, his dogmatic presuppositions and his approach
to the Quran as well as the quality of the translation.
Similarly the small chapter entitled 'The Quran and Occidental
Scholarship' in Bell and Watt's Introduction to the Quran (Edinburgh, 1970, pp.
173-86), although useful in providing background information to Orientalists' efforts in
Quranic studies, and translations, more or less for the same reasons, is of little value
to general Muslim readers. Thus, studies which focus on those aspects of each translation
of the Quran are urgently needed lest Western scholars misguide the unsuspecting
non-Arabic speaking readers of the Quran. An effort has been made in this survey to bring
out the hallmarks and shortcomings of the major complete translations of the Quran.
The early English translations of the Quran by Muslims stemmed mainly
from the pious enthusiasm on their part to refute the allegations leveled by the Christian
missionaries against Islam in general and the Quran in particular.
Illustrative of this trend are the following translations:
(i) Mohammad Abdul Hakim Khan, The Holy Quran:'with short notes
based on the Holy Quran or the authentic traditions of the Prophet, or and New Testaments
or scientific truth. All fictitious romance, questionable history and disputed theories
have been carefully avoided' (Patiala, 1905);
(ii) Hairat Dehlawi, The Koran Prepared, by various Oriental
learned scholars and edited by Mirza Hairat Dehlawi. Intended as 'a complete and
exhaustive reply to the manifold criticisms of the Koran by various Christian authors such
as Drs. Sale, Rodwell, Palmer and Sir W. Muir' (Delhi, 1912); and
(iii) Mirzal Abu'l Fadl, Quran, Arabic Text and English Translation
Arranged Chronologically with an Abstract (Allahabad, 1912).
Since none of these early translations was by a reputed Islamic scholar,
both the quality of the translation and level of scholarship are not very high and these
works are of mere historical interest.
Later works, however, reflect a more mature and scholarly effort.
Muhammad Marmaduke William Pickthall, an English man of letters who
embraced Islam, holds the distinction of bringing out a first-rate rendering of the
Quran in English, The Meaning of the Glorious Quran (London, 1930).
It keeps scrupulously close to the original in elegant, though now
somewhat archaic, English. However, although it is one of the most widely used English
translations, it provides scant explanatory notes and background information. This
obviously restricts its usefulness for an uninitiated reader of the Quran.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali's The Holy Quran: Translation and Commentary (Lahore,
1934 37), perhaps the most popular translation, stands as another major achievement in
this field. A civil servant by vocation, Yusuf Ali was not a scholar in the classical
Muslim tradition. Small wonder, then, that some of his copious notes, particularly on hell
and heaven, angels, jinn and polygamy, etc. are informed with the pseudo-rationalist
spirit of his times, as for instance in the works of S. Ahmad and S. Ameer Ali.
His overemphasis on things spiritual also distorts the Quranic
worldview. Against this is the fact that Yusuf Ali doubtless was one of the few Muslims
who enjoyed an excellent command over the English language. It is fully reflected in his
translation. Though his is more of a paraphrase than a literal translation, yet it
faithfully represents the sense of the original.
Abdul Majid Daryabadi's The Holy Quran: with English Translation and
Commentary (Lahore, 1941 - 57) is, however, fully cognate with the traditional Muslim
Like PIckthall's earlier attempt, it is a faithful rendering,
supplemented with useful notes on historical, geographical and eschatological issues,
particularly the illuminating discussions on comparative religion. Though the notes are
not always very exhaustive, they help to dispel the doubts in the minds of Westernized
readers. However, it too contains inadequate background information about the Suras
(chapters of the Quran) and some of his notes need updating.
The Meaning of the Quran (Lahore, 1967), the English version of
Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdud'i's magnum opus, the Urdu Tafhim al-Quran is an
interpretative rendering of the Quran which remarkably succeeds in recapturing some of
the majesty of the original.
Since Mawdudi, a great thinker, enjoyed rare mastery over both classical
and modern scholarship, his work helps one develop an understanding of the Quran
source of guidance. Apart from setting the verses/Suras in the circumstances of its time,
the author constantly relates, though exhaustive notes, the universal message of the
Quran to his own time and its specific problems. His logical line of argument, generous
sensibility, judicious use of classical Muslim scholarship and practical solutions to the
problems of the day combine to show Islam as a complete way of life and as the Right Path
for the whole of mankind. Since the translation of this invaluable work done by Muhammad
Akbar is pitiably poor and uninspiring, the much-needed new English translation of the
entire work is in progress under the auspices of the Islamic Foundation, Leicester.
The Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad (Gibraltar, 1980) represents a
notable addition to the body of English translations couched in chaste English. This work
is nonetheless vitiated by deviation from the viewpoint of the Muslim orthodoxy on many
counts. Averse to take some Quranic statements literally, Asad denies the occurrence of
such events as the throwing of Abraham into the fire, Jesus speaking in the cradle, etc.
He also regards Luqman, Khizr and Zulqarnain as 'mythical figures' and holds unorthodox
views on the abrogation of verses. These blemishes apart, this highly readable translation
contains useful, though sometimes unreliable background information about the
Quranic Suras and even provides exhaustive notes on various Quranic themes.
The fairly recent The Quran: The First American Version (Vermont, 1985)
by another native Muslim speaker of English, T.B. Irving, marks the appearance of the
latest major English translation. Apart from the obnoxious title, the work is bereft of
textual and explanatory notes.
Using his own arbitrary judgment, Irving has assigned themes to each
Quranic Ruku' (section). Although modern and forceful English has been used, it is not
altogether free of instances of mistranslation and loose expressions. With American
readers in mind, particularly the youth, Irving has employed many American English idioms,
which, in places, are not befitting of the dignity of the Quranic diction and style.
In addition to the above, there are also a number of other English
translations by Muslims, which, however, do not rank as significant ventures in this
They may be listed as:
1. Al-Hajj Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar, Translation of the Holy Quran (Singapore, 1920)
2. Ali Ahmad Khan Jullundri, Translation of the Glorious Holy Quran with commentary (Lahore,
3. Abdur Rahman Tariq and Ziauddin Gilani, The Holy Quran Rendered into English (Lahore,
4. Syed Abdul Latif, Al-Quran: Rendered into English (Hyderabad, 1969)
5. Hashim Amir Ali, The Message of the Quran Presented in Perspective (Tokyo,
6. Taqui al-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Explanatory English Translation of
the Holy Quran: A Summarized Version of Ibn Kathir Supplemented by At-Tabari with
Comments from Sahih al-Bukhari (Chicago, 1977)
7. Muhammad Ahmad Mofassir, The Koran: The First Tafsir in English (London, 1979)
8. Mahmud Y. Zayid, The Quran: An English Translation of the Meaning of the Quran (checked and revised in collaboration with a committee of Muslim scholars) (Beirut, 1980)
9. S.M. Sarwar, The Holy Quran: Arab Text and English Translation (Elmhurst, 1981)
10. Ahmed Ali, Al-Quran: A Contemporary Translation (Karachi, 1984).
(In view of the blasphemous statements contained in Rashad Khalifa's The
Quran: The Final Scripture (Authorized English Version) (Tucson, 1978), it has not
been included in the translations by Muslims).
Even amongst the Muslim translations, some are representative of the
strong sectarian biases of their translators.
For example, the Shia doctrines are fully reflected in accompanying
commentaries of the following books: S.V. Mir Ahmad Ali, The Holy Quran with English
Translation and Commentary, according to the version of the Holy Ahlul Bait includes
'special notes from Hujjatul Islam Ayatullah Haji Mirza Mahdi Pooya Yazdi on the
philosophical aspects of the verses' (Karachi, 1964); M.H. Shakir, Holy Quran
York, 1982); Syed Muhammad Hussain at-Tabatabai, al-Mizan: An Exegesis of the Quran,
translated from Persian into English by Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi (Tehran, 198~). So far
five volumes of this work have been published.
Illustrative of the Barelvi sectarian stance is Holy Quran, the
English version of Ahmad Raza Khan Brailai's Urdu translation, by Hanif Akhtar Fatmi
As pointed out earlier, the Qadiyanis, though having abandoned Islam,
have been actively engaged in translating the Quran, Apart from English, their
translations are available in several European and African languages.
Muhammad Ali's The Holy Quran: English Translation (Lahore,
1917) marks the beginning of this effort. This Qadiyani translator is guilty of
misinterpreting several Quranic verses, particularly those related to the Promised
Messiah, his miracles and the Quranic angelology.
Similar distortions mar another Qadiyani translation by Sher Ali, The
Holy Quran: Arabic Text with English Translation (Rabwah, 1955).Published under the
auspices of Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, second successor of the "Promised
Messiah" and head of the Ahmadiyyas, this oft-reprinted work represents the official
Qadiyani version of the Quran. Unapologizingly, Sher Sher Ali refers to Mirza Ghulam
Ahmad as the "Promised Messiah" and mistranslates and misinterprets a number of
Zafarullah Khan's The Quran: Arabic Text and English Translation (London,
1970) ranks as another notable Qadiyani venture in this field. Like other Qadiyanis,
Zafarullah too twists the Quranic verses to opine that the door of prophethood was not
closed with the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The obtrusion of
similar obnoxious views upon the Quranic text is found in the following Qadiyani
(i) Kamaluddin and Nazir Ahmad, A Running Commentary of the Holy Quran (London, 1948)
(ii) Salahuddin Peer, The Wonderful Koran (Lahore, 1960)
(iii) Malik Ghulam Farid, The Holy Quran (Rabwah, 1962)
(iv) Khadim Rahman Nuri, The Running Commentary of the Holy Quran with under-bracket
comments (Shillong, 1964)
(v) Firozuddin Ruhi, The Quran (Karachi, 1965)
Apart from the Qadiyanis, Christian missionaries have been the most
active non-Muslim translators of the Quran. As already noted, origins of this inglorious
tradition may be traced back to the anti-Islamic motives of the missionaries.
Small wonder, then that these ventures are far from being a just
translation, replete as they are with frequent transpositions, omissions, unaccountable
liberties and unpardonable faults.
A very crude specimen of the Orientalist-missionary approach to the
Quran is found in Alexander Ross's The Alcoran of Mahomet translated out of Arabique
into French, by the Sieur Du Ryer...And newly Englished, for the satisfaction for all that
desire to look into the Turkish vanities (London, 1649).
In translating the Quran, the intention of Ross, a chaplain of King
Charles I, was: '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.'
In the same rabidly anti-Islamic vein are the two appendices in the work
entitled as (a) 'A Needful Caveat or Admonition, for them who desire to know what use may
be made of or if there be danger in reading the Alcoran' (pp. 406 20) and 'The Life and
Death of Mahomet: the Prophet of the Turks and author of the Alcoran' (pp. 395-405).
George Sale, a lawyer brought out his The Koran, commonly called The
Al Koran of Mohammed (London, 1734), which has been the most popular English
translation. Sale's exhaustive 'Preliminary Discourse', dealing mainly with Sira and the
Quran, betrays his deep hostility towards Islam and his missionary intent in that he
suggests the rules to be observed for 'the conversion of Mohammedans' (q.v.).
As to the translation itself, it abounds in numerous instances of
omission, distortion and interpolations.
Dissatisfied with Sale's work, J.M. Rodwell, Rector of St. Ethelberga,
London, produced his translation entitled The Koran (London, 1861). Apart from
hurling all sorts of wild and nasty allegations against the Prophet and the Quran
Preface, Rodwell is guilty of having invented the so-called chronological Sura
order of the Quran. Nor is his translation free from grave mistakes of translation and
his own fanciful interpretations in the notes.
E.H. Palmer, a Cambridge scholar, was entrusted with the preparation of
a new translation of the Quran for Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East series.
Accordingly, his translation, The Quran, appeared in London in 1880. As to the
worth of Palmer's translation, reference may be made to A. R. Nykl's article, 'Notes on
E.H. Palmer's The Quran', published in the Journal of the American Oriental
Society, 56 (1936) pp. 77-84 in which no less than 65 instances of omission and
mistranslation in Palmer's work have been pointed out.
Richard Bell, Reader of Arabic, University of Edinburgh, and an
acknowledged Orientalist produced a translation of the Quran with special reference to
its Sura order, as is evident from the title of his work, The Quran
with a critical rearrangement of the Surahs (Edinburgh, 1937-39). In addition to
describing the Prophet as the author of the Quran, Bell also believes that the
its present form was 'actually written by Muhammad himself' (p. vi). In rearranging the
Sura order of the Quran, Bell, in fact, makes a thorough mess of the traditional
arrangement and tries to point out 'alterations substitutions and derangements in the
A.J. Arberry, a renowned Orientalist and Professor of Arabic at the
Universities of London and Cambridge, has been, so far, the latest non-Muslim translator
of the Quran.
Arberry's The Koran Interpreted (London, 1957) no doubt stands
out above the other English renderings by non-Muslims in terms of both its approach and
quality. Nonetheless, it is not altogether free from mistakes of omission and
mistranslation, such as in Al' Imran 111:43, Nisa' IV: 72, 147 and
157, Ma'ida V: 55 and 71, An'am VI: 20, 105, A'raf VII: 157, 158 and
199, Anfal VIII: 17, 29, 41, 59, Yunus X: 88, Hud XI: 30 and 46 and Yusuf
N.J. Dawood is perhaps the only Jew to have translated the
English. Available in the Penguin edition, Dawood's translation, The Koran (London, 1956)
is perhaps the most widely circulated non-Muslim English translation of the Quran. The
author's bias against Islam is readily observable in the Introduction. Apart form adopting
an unusual Sura order in his translation, Dawood is guilty also of having mistranslated
the Quran in places such as Baqara II:9 and A'raf VII:31, etc.
No doubt, the peculiar circumstances of history which brought the
Quran into contact with the English language have left their imprint on the non-Muslim as well
as the Muslim bid to translate it. The results and achievements of their efforts leave a
lot to be desired.
Unlike, for instance, major Muslim languages such as Persian, Turkish
and Urdu, which have thoroughly exhausted indigenous linguistic and literary resources to
meet the scholarly and emotional demands of the task, the prolific resources of the
universal medium of English have not been fully employed in the service of the
The Muslim Scripture is yet to find a dignified and faithful expression
in the English language that matches the majesty and grandeur of the original. The
currents of history, however, seem to be in favor of such a development. Even English is
acquiring a native Muslim character and it is only a matter of time before we have a
worthy translation of the Quran in that tongue.
Till them, the Muslim student should judiciously make use of Pickthall,
A. Yusuf Ali, Asad and Irving, Even Arberry's stylistic qualities must not be ignored.
Ultimately, of course, the Muslim should try to discover the original and not allow
himself to be lost in a maze of translations and interpretations.
(Originally printed in The Muslim World Book Review, Vol. 7, No. 4