The difficulty with the Quran is that it is in a sense untranslatable. To imitate its rhyme and rhythm is impossible. Its beauty is altogether in its style, and, therefore, necessarily artificial. The Bible, in contrast to the Quran has this unique quality that it can be rendered into all the languages of mankind without losing its majesty, beauty and spiritual power. The secret lies in the subject matter of the Scriptures.
There is no doubt that the chief charm of the Quran, from a literary standpoint, is its musical jingle and cadence which an English translation cannot reproduce. To the Muslim the Arabic is a wholly sacred language: “Verily we have revealed it, an Arabic Quran.” (Yusuf 12:2) Al Tabari, commenting on this verse, says: “God Most High caused this noted Book to come down an Arabic Quran to the Arabs, for their tongue and speech is Arabic. We, therefore, revealed this Book in their language that they might be wise and fully understand.” The Arabic Quran is today the one sacred text-book in all Muslim lands such as in Turkey, Afghanistan, Java, Sumatra, Russia and China, as well as in those lands where Arabic is the mother tongue. Yet to three quarters of the Muslim world Arabic is a dead language; for Islam spread even more rapidly than did the language of the Quran and in consequence the Muslim world of today is polyglot.
Can the Quran be translated?
Yet the question whether the Quran itself might be translated into other languages has always been contested by the orthodox party. It is true that Muslims have themselves prepared a number of translations, or running commentaries on their sacred text, as interlinear notes. For the sake of the rhyme unnecessary repetitions are frequently made, which interrupt the sense of the passage and sometimes even appear ridiculous in translation. The language of the Quran has the ring of poetry, though no part of it complies with the demands of Arab metre. From first to last the Quran is essentially a book to be heard, not read therefore this artificial character of the book has baffled the skill of translators, and no translation will ever satisfy those who can read the original; for did not Muhammad himself say, “I love the Arabs for three reasons: because I am an Arabian, because the Quran is Arabic, and because the language of the people of Paradise is Arabic too.”
Early translations into the languages of Europe
In almost every case translation of the Quran into the languages of Europe is the work of non-Muslims. The first translation of the Quran was due to the Christian missionary spirit of Petrus Venerabilis; Abbot of Clugny (died A. D. 1157). He proposed the translation of the Quran into Latin, and the task was accomplished by an Englishman, Robert of Retina, and a German, Hermann of Dalmatia. Although the work was completed in 1143, it remained hidden for nearly 400 years, till it was published at Basle in 1543 by Theodore Bibliander. This version was afterwards rendered into Italian, German and Dutch. A second Latin translation of the Quran was made by Father Louis Maracci in 1698 and published at Padua.
The first English Quran was Alexander Ross’s (chaplain to Charles I reigned 1625-49) translation of Du Rye’s French version (1648-1688). He was utterly unacquainted with Arabic, and not a thorough French scholar either, therefore his translation is faulty in the extreme.
Sale’s well-known English work which first appeared in 1734, has passed through many editions. He himself wrote: “Though I have freely censured the former translations of the Koran, I would not, therefore, be suspected of a design to make my own pass as free from faults; I am very sensible, it is not; and I make no doubt that the few who are able to discern them, and know the difficulty of the undertaking, will give me fair quarter.” Whatever faults may have been found in Sale’s translation, his Preliminary Discourse will always stand as one of the most valuable contributions to the study of Islam. It has been translated into Arabic with added notes under the title Makalafat fi ‘l Islam, and was eagerly read by Muslims themselves. Some say that Sale only gave the impression that he based his translation on the Arabic text and suggest that he relied on an earlier Latin translation. Sale’ s translation is extremely periphrastic, but the fact that the additional matter in italics is, in nearly every case, added from the Commentary of Al- Baidhawi, makes it the more valuable to the reader. The explanatory footnotes are very helpful, without which the Quran is scarcely intelligible.
In 1861 a translation was made by the Rev. J. M. Rodwell. In this the suras or chapters are arranged chronologically but this version also has many inaccuracies, especially in the use of tenses and particles. Edward Henry Palmer’s translation appeared in 1880 in the series, “Sacred Books of the East. “He considers Sale’s translation scholarly, his notes invaluable, but says that the style of the language employed “differs widely from the nervous energy and rugged simplicity of the original.” Although Rodwell’s version approaches nearer to the Arabic, Palmer states that in this also “there is too much assumption of the literary style.” In his own translation he has attempted to render into English the rude, fierce eloquence of the Bedouin Arabs, and has succeeded. Sometimes the literal rendering may even shock the reader as it did those who first heard the message. For example, in sura Ibrahim verse 19, Sale and Rodwell have softened down the inelegant text, but Palmer gives it fearlessly: “Behind such a one is hell, and he shall be given to drink liquid pus! He shall try to swallow it, but cannot gulp it down.”
There were also two English translations by Muslims in 1905, the Holy Koran, translated by Dr. Mohammed Abdul Hakim Khan, with short notes. This was printed in England. In 1911 Ashgar and Company at Allahabad published the Arabic text with English translation, arranged chronologically, by Mirza Abu’l Fazl. These were Indian Muslims who wrote at the time of British colonialism and intense missionary activity they were motivated by a desire to give “a complete and exhaustive reply to the manifold criticisms of the Koran by various Christian authors such as Drs. Sale, Rodwell, Palmer, and Sir William Muir.”
More recent translations of the Quran into English
There has been a blossoming in recent years of English translations. Since translators seek to convey not only text but also meaning, many rely on the interpretation (tafsir) of medieval scholars in order to conform to an “orthodox” reading. The original Arabic is not only difficult but ambiguous so many translators introduce footnotes, interpolations, introductions and appendices to not only explain the meaning but convey a particular sectarian interpretation as well as include the interpretation of medieval orthodox scholars.
The Holy Quran by Muhammad ‘Ali.
In 1917, the Ahmadi scholar, Muhammad ‘Ali (1875-1951), who later would become the leader of the Lahori subgroup, published his translation. He constantly updated his work and had published four revisions by his death in 1951. Contemporary reviewers praised Muhammad ‘Ali both for his excellent English and explanatory notes. Muhammad ‘Ali’s translation became the version used by the ‘Nation of Islam‘ in its early days. Muhammad ‘Ali’s biases show through, however. Consistent with his Lahori-Ahmadi creed, Muhammad ‘Ali sought to eschew any reference to miracles this disbelief in the miraculous and his disdain for Judaism and Christianity undercut his work in other ways. While the Quran supports the story of Jesus’ virgin birth, Muhammad ‘Ali denies it, providing a footnote to deny that the Quran was referring to anything miraculous. Despite its sectarian warp, Muhammad ‘Ali’s translation has formed the basis for many later works, even if the majority of both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims avoid directly acknowledging or using an Ahmadi translation.
The Meaning of the Glorious Koran by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall.
Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936) was the son of an Anglican clergyman who travelled to the East and acquired fluency in Arabic, Turkish, and Urdu. He was a novelist, traveller, and educator who converted to Islam in 1917. He was aided by Mustafa al-Maraghi, then-rector of Al-Azhar University, and Nizam of Hyderabad to whom the work is dedicated. Pickthall was aware of the problems of the Christian missionaries’ translations and sought to remove some of the offensive comments in their translations. He first endorsed the position of Muslim scholars that the Quran was untranslatable but maintained that the general meaning of the text could still be conveyed to English speakers. Aware that heavily annotated works detracted from focus on the actual text, Pickthall provided few explanatory notes and tried to let the text speak for itself. As much as Pickthall strove to maintain the spirit of the Quran, he was, nonetheless, heavily influenced by Muhammad ‘Ali, whom he had met in London. Pickthall’s work was popular in the first half of the twentieth century but its current demand is limited by its archaic prose and lack of annotation.
The Quran Interpreted: Arthur Arberry
In 1955 there was translation of Arthur Arberry (1905-69). He was a Cambridge University graduate who spent several years in the Middle East perfecting his Arabic and Persian language skills. His title, ‘The Koran Interpreted’, acknowledged the orthodox Muslim view that the Quran cannot be translated, but only interpreted.
The Holy Quran: Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali
The Holy Quran: Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (1872-1952) is endorsed by Saudi Arabia. It made its first appearance in 1934 and until very recently, was the most popular English version among Muslims. Yusuf ‘Ali was not an Islamic scholar in any formal sense for he was an Indian civil servant, who studied classics at Cambridge University and graduated as a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn in London. He sought to convey the music and richness of the Arabic with poetic English versification. Writing at a time both of growing Arab animosity toward Zionism and in a milieu that condoned anti-Semitism, Yusuf ‘Ali constructed his work as a polemic against Jews.
Several Muslim scholars have built upon the Yusuf ‘Ali translation. In 1989, Saudi Arabia’s Ar-Rajhi banking company financed the U.S. based Amana Corporation’s project to revise the translation to reflect an interpretation more in conjunction with the line of Islamic thought followed in Saudi Arabia. Ar-Rahji offered the resulting version for free to mosques, schools, and libraries throughout the world. While the Yusuf ‘Ali translation still remains in publication, it has lost influence because of its dated language and the appearance of more recent works whose publication and distribution the Saudi government have also sought to subsidize.
Many English speaking Muslims use Yusif Ali. He may deliberately mistranslate as he is at first an apologist. He has many footnotes where he unwittingly alerts the reader to the presence of errors and contradictions. He deliberately mistranslates the verse referring to the Trinity.
The Noble Quran: Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan.
This Sunni Saudi financed translation ‘Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Quran’ is being encouraged. It is a summarised version of At-Tabari, al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir and al-Bukhari by Dr Muhammad Taqi ud-Din al-Hilali and Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan 15th edition, Riyadh; Darussalam Printers 1996.
Now the most widely disseminated Quran in most Islamic bookstores and Sunni mosques throughout the English-speaking world, this translation is meant to replace the Yusuf ‘Ali edition and comes with a seal of approval from both the University of Medina and the Saudi Dar al-Ifta. Whereas most other translators have tried to render the Quran applicable to a modern readership, this Saudi-financed venture tries to impose the commentaries of medievalists Tabari (d. 923 C.E.), Qurtubi (d. 1273 C.E.), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1372 C.E.). It is especially problematic for American Muslims who, in the aftermath of 9-11, are struggling to show that Islam is a religion of tolerance. It reads more like a Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic rather than a rendition of the Islamic scripture. The appendix includes a polemical comparison of Jesus and Muhammad, reporting that the former had no claim to divinity. From a Muslim perspective, what Jesus did or did not do should be drawn from the Quranic text, not an appendix, and certainly not by Muslim readings of the gospels. It is at present in Sunni mosques the most popular translation probably because of its free distribution by the Saudi government.
Dr Muhsin Khan’s translation was due to a dream as he realized his responsibility towards Islam. According to the dream, he saw Muhammad in a large gathering of people. Out of love, he stepped towards him to kiss his knees; but the Prophet disapproved it. Suddenly, the perspiration began to flow from his body and Muhsin Khan drank it to his satisfaction. Then the Prophet asked him for a paper on which he wrote down that, he wanted him (to serve Islam) and stamped it with his seal. When Muhsin Khan woke up he sought an interpretation form interpreters of dreams. They indicated that he would serve the Prophet’s sayings. So, he looked for a project to serve Islam and convey its message to the English-speaking people. After much consideration, he concluded that Sahih of Imam Al-Bukhari needed to be translated into English. So, he decided to render Sahih Al-Bukhari into English. He worked strenuously completing it in twelve years. During the translation process, he consulted a number of English versions of the Quran but he found that they had ambiguity, shortcomings and dogmatic errors. Therefore, in association with Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali he undertook the task of interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Quran providing evidences from the authentic sources for clarification.
The Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad
Not every translation preaches the Saudi line. Muhammad Asad, for example, presents a rendering that is simple and straightforward. Being a Jewish convert to Islam and well-versed in the Jewish and Christian scriptures he brought this knowledge to bear in the form of erudite footnotes although he chose to interpolate material in his translation of sura 37As-Saffat to show that the sacrificial son was Ishmael and not Isaac. Indicative of the desire and drive of Saudi Arabia to impose a Salafi interpretation upon the Muslim world, the kingdom has banned Asad’s work over some creedal issues. It is considered to be one of the best translations available, both in terms of its comprehensible English and generally knowledgeable annotations.
To sum up the result of these investigations we remember that this work of translation has, with a few exceptions, been the work of Western scholars, Orientalists and missionaries, the contrast between the Arabic Quran and the Bible, the Book for all nations, is strikingly evident. And from the missionary standpoint we have nothing to fear from modem Quran translations; rather may we not hope that the contrast between the Bible and the Quran will be evident to all readers when they compare them in their vernacular?