An approach to the translations of the meaning of the Quran into English

An approach to the translations of the meaning of the Quran into English
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The miracle of the Quran lies in its inimitable language, its beauty and eloquence of style. It was revealed to  Prophet Muhammad,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ), (may Allah exalt his mention) in the 7th century CE for all nations, people and races. Therefore, there has always been the need for translating its meanings into other languages. In this paper, I will present a brief review of some English translations of the Quran that exist upto the present day.

The first translation  was carried out by Robertus Rotensis and Hermannus Dalmata in 1143 CE,  when the Quran was translated into Latin in the interest of the convents during the time of the Crusades. This Latin translation was then translated into other languages like German, Italian and Hindi. In 1647 CE, it was translated into French by the French Consul in Egypt, Andre du Ryer. The first English translation was from the French version in 1688 CE by Alexander Ross, which was described, “as despicably unsavory and a very bad one and no better than its French origin by Sale”.

In 1689 CE another Latin translation was presented by  Maracci, that included the Arabic text as well as extracts from different commentaries of the Quran. According to Mehana (1978) these commentaries were chosen in such a way so as to give a bad impression about Islam to Europeans. The translator, who was a priest and one of the leading church members, started with an introduction which was entitled ‘Refutation of the Quran.'

It was in 1734 CE, that George Sale presented an English translation of the Quran from Latin, which was then considered the original English source for the translation of the Quran and was republished several times in Europe. From then onwards, there followed many English and other European translations of the Quran, through which the translators expressed what they believed about Islam. This was sometimes done within the core of the translated text or in the form of footnotes or comments.This led some Muslims such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall to translate the meanings of the Quran into English, in an attempt to give the reader, as far as possible the most adequate rendering of the Quran into English.

The first Muslim who tried to translate the Quran into English was Dr. Muhammad Abdel Hakeem Khan in 1905 CE. However, the first published English translation was presented in 1861 CE by Reverend J.M. Rodwell and reprinted several times, entitled The Koran: Translation from the Arabic.

In 1930 CE, there appeared another translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall entitled The Meanings of the Glorious Quran. He was a Christian Englishman who converted to Islam. In his view, the Quran cannot be translated and his work was merely an attempt to present the meanings of the Quran into English. This translation was followed in 1934 CE by that presented by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, which is most commonly used now, entitled The Holy Quran. Yusuf Ali was a Muslim scholar who had a good command of both Arabic and English languages. His translation was free from the grave misinterpretations found in other translations like those presented by the Qaadiyaani sect. Yusuf Ali also added some comments at the bottom of each page, helping the reader to comprehend the text correctly.

In 1956, another translation into English appeared entitled The Koran: A New Translation, presented by N.J. Daawood, which was published under The Penguin Classics series In his introduction, Daawood  says that the reason he presented this work was to supply the reader with a version of the Quran translated into modern English.

The translation presented by Arthur J.Arberry in 1955, entitled The Koran Interpreted was published by Oxford University Press. Arberry was a Christian professor in a British University who died recently. He was of the opinion that the Quran being a great work should not be translated. Hence he chose to name his work an "interpretation" rather than a translation. Despite the fact that Arberry was a non-Arab, non-Muslim, yet he had moderate views about Islam and the Quran.

Then there were the three translations of the Quran presented by  the deviated Qaadiyaani sect. These three translations were done by the followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed El Qaadiyaani who is known to this sect as the “Expected Christ”. The members of this sect have beliefs of their own and are so proud of them that they declare and admit to them publicly. These translations are The Holy Quran by Mawlana Mohammed Ali, first published 1918 CE; The Holy Quran by Malik Ghulam Fareid, first published in 1969 CE; The Quran by Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, first published in 1971 CE.

The last and most recent translation is presented by M.M. Khatib entitled The Bounteous Koran, authorized by Al-Azhar in 1984 and first published in 1986. Khatib is an Egyptian Muslim who has a good command of both languages and has acquired a good deal of knowledge about Islamic culture.

The aim of this paper is to discuss some of the pitfalls of these translators of the Quran, namely Reverend J. Rodwell, Arthur J. Arberryand M.M. Khatib. However, as this is just a short paper, therefore, I will select no more than two or three examples from each translation. The reason for choosing these translations lies in the fact that Rodwell’s was the first translation done from the Arabic text and being a member of Church, he was affected by Christian teachings and was against Islam. His aim was to falsify Islam as a revealed religion. On the other hand, Arberry had moderate views about Islam. He disagreed with Rodwell on many of his views, especially the belief that the Quran is not the “word of God” revealed to Muhammad,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ). The third translator, Khatib is a Muslim whose translation is the most recent one and authorized by Al-Azhar.

In the preface to his book entitled The Koran: Translation from the Arabic, Rodwell commented on the gathering of the Quran and arrangement of the chapters (Soorahs), during the time of both Caliphs Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq and ’Uthmaan bin ‘Affaan, may Allah be pleased with them. He mentioned that the Soorahs revealed in Al-Madeenah were placed in the middle of Soorahs revealed in Makkah and vice versa. Thus, to him the Quran appeared to be an “almost unreadable and incongruous patchwork”.

Rodwell is definitely mistaken here, as it is well known and documented that the Quran was dictated and written during the life of the Prophet Muhammad,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ), under his supervision.

As Khalifa states in his The Sublime Quran and Orientalism (1983 pp 38):

“Islamic history bears ample witness to the fact that Quranic revelations were recorded in writing under the Prophet’s personal supervision. His scribes, who were often with him and to whom he dictated the heavenly message, were well known to their fellow Muslims”.

Khalifa also adds on page 42:

“It so happens that there is ample evidence proving the Prophet,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ), had set a textual order for the Soorahs, both in the form of instructions to his companions and in his recitations of successive Soorahs”.

However, Rodwell carries on saying:

“…and convey no idea whatever of the development and growth of any plan in the mind of the founder of Islam, or of the circumstances by which he was surrounded and influenced”.

In the above quotation, he doubts the prophethood of Muhammad,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ) and considers him the “founder of Islam”. This main idea prevails as he carries on saying on page 8.

“The sources whence Muhammad derived the material of his Koran are, over and above the more poetical parts, which are his own creation, the legends of his time and country, Jewish traditions based upon Talmud or perverted to suit his own purposes and the floating Christian traditions of Arabia and Syria.”

Then on page 10 of his preface he contradicts himself by saying:

“We have no evidence that Muhammad had access to the Christian Scripture.”

He carries on saying:

“There is but one direct quotation (Soorah 21:105) in the whole Koran from the Scriptures and though there are a few passages, as where “alms” are said to be given to be seen of men, and as none forgives the sins but God only, which might seen to be identical with texts of the New Testament, yet this similarity is probably merely accidental.”

From the above quotation, it is clear that Rodwell is contradicting himself all the time. He first states that Muhammad,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ) has said the words of the Quran in a poetic version of his own or it could have been taken from either the Old or New Testament. Then later, he said that there is no evidence that he,  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ), could have access to these texts, but adds that it might "seem to be identical with the text of the New Testament". The use of this expression means that he is not sure and could not confirm the similarity.

Moreover, Rodwell could not comprehend the discourse of the Quran which is full of great meaning. This can easily be illustrated by the many mistakes, misinterpretations and misunderstandings which he has fallen into in his translations of the different verses of which examples are given below:

In Rodwell’s translation of Chapter Al-Ma’oon verse 5:

ÇáÐíä åã Úä ÕáÇÊåã ÓÇåæä

Which means: “But in their prayers are careless”. [Quran 107:5]

He obviously misinterpreted the meaning, for there is a great difference between "forgetting to pray" ( ( "Úä ÕáÇÊåã " and "being careless in prayers" ( Ýí ÕáÇÊåã  ). The use of the preposition  " Úä “ means that people could get oblivious or forget to pray, but it does not refer to those people who are praying and could forget to perform part of the prayer or recite part of what they should be saying during prayers. He also dropped the translation of the relative pronoun.   "åã " .

Arberry was Christian and yet unlike Rodwell and Dawood, he agrees that the Quran being a great work should not be translated. Hence the title he chose was,  The Koran Interpreted, which is to indicate that his work was merely the interpretation of the text and not its translation. However, Arberry as a non-native speaker of Arabic has fallen into many misinterpretations of the words and sometimes verses of the Quran. Thus, for example, in Soorah Al-Baqarah, Ayah 61, Arberry  translated the sentence: 

"ÅåÈØæÇ ãÕÑÇ "

as: “Get you down to Egypt”. [Quran 2:61]

This is definitely a misinterpretation as the word  "ãÕÑÇ” marked with nunnation makes it an indefinite noun, referring to any inhabited city and not Egypt. The second reason for his misinterpretation is the fact that this sentence  "ÇåÈØæÇ ãÕÑðÇ " refers to Moosaa (Moses), may Allah exalt his mention, and his people who had finally got out of Egypt safely. Therefore, how would Moses, may Allah exalt his mention, ask them to go back?

Another example of the Arberry’s misinterpretation of the Quran can be seen in Ayah 184 of Soorah “ Al-Baqarah”.

æÚáì ÇáÐíä íØíÞæä ÝÏíÉ ØÚÇã ãÓßíä

Which he translated as:

“..and for those who are able to fast, a redemption by feeding a poor man..”. [Quran 2: 184]

Here, he has used the word “able” for the word   "íØíÞæäå"  which actually means those who can bear fasting with difficulty. The word “able” used in his translation simply means  "íÞÏÑ "  which contradicts the proper meaning of the Ayah, which means that those who are not able to fast should make a redemption by feeding the poor.

It is of great importance, however, to look at the most recent translation of the Quran by M.M. Khatib entitled The Bounteous Koran and authorized by  Al-Azhar in 1984. In the preface to this work, Khatib talks about “The eternal miracle of Islam”-- the Quran -- which includes the best of moral values, the perfect guide for the happiness of mankind and a style which is most bountiful, concise , influential and having an inimitable means of expressing the “majesty and sublimity of God”. Khatib carries on explaining some of the difficulties which he had to face in accomplishing his work. He says on page VI of the preface:

“The most tangible difficulty that I faced, and that which surely faced those who have translated the Koran before me, was the omissions and additions of the figurative words that are of the beauty, eloquence sequence and rhythmic pattern of the Book.”

Then, he carries on listing more difficulties, saying:

“The second difficulty was the commitment to an extreme precision in translating letter by letter and word by word, maintaining the exact sequence and construction of the Arabic verse.”

At this point, I would like to mention that Khatib, in his title of the Book, gives a subtitle in smaller print “A Translation of Meaning and Commentary”. Therefore, how can this work be a translation of meaning and commentary while he did his best in “maintaining the exact sequence and construction of the Arabic verse”. The question, then arises as to why does he want to preserve the construction of the original Arabic text, when he is only translating the meanings of the Quran? It must be noted that these two languages originate from different families of languages: Semitic and Germanic, and it is therefore impossible to “maintain the exact sequence”.

In order to see how he has actually dealt with the translation of the Quran, it would be more illustrative to give a sample of his work. Unlike Arberry, Khatib translated Ayah 181 of Soorah “Al-Baqarah” as:

"æÚáì ÇáÐíä íØíÞæäå ÝÏíÉ ØÚÇã ãÓßíä"

As for those who can afford with hardship, (there is) redemption in feeding an indigent”. [Quran 2:181]

Khatib’s use of the word “afford” is more suitable in rendering the meaning of the Arabic word  "íØíÞæäå" ; as according to Webster's dictionary, the meaning of the word “afford” can be “to manage to bear without serious detriment”. Being a native speaker of Arabic Khatib could comprehend the meanings of the Quranic words and verses better than Arberry.

In Soorah Al-Qasas, Ayah 68:

æÑÈß íÎáÞ ãÇ íÔÇÁ æíÎÊÇÑ ãÇ ßÇä áåã ÇáÎíÑÉ

he translated it as follows:

 “As your Lord creates whatever He will and He chooses they have no choice…” [Quran 28: 68]

Khatib, similar to Rodwell, explains in a footnote the meaning of the pronoun “they” as “false Gods”. This interpretation of the pronoun  "åã" is unacceptable according to Al-Muntakhab interpretation of the Quran, which is authorized and presented by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. Al-Muntakhab interprets the pronoun to be   "ÇáÎáÞ" meaning people and this interpretation is also supported by Al-Nasafi interpretation of the Quran. Furthermore, it could be also emphasized by the Ayah following that says:

æÑÈß íÚáã ãÇ Êßäø ÕÏæÑåã æãÇ íÚáäæä

 translated as:

And your Lord Knows what their breasts conceal and what they avow”. [Quran 28: 69]

It must be noted that the use of word  "ÕÏæÑåã" translated by Khatib as “breasts”, in the above Ayah, which immediately follows the preceding one in Soorah Al-Qasas, cannot be used for God. It is only people who can have “breasts” and not God. Therefore we conclude that the pronoun   "åã"  in the above Ayah must be referring to people and not false Gods as Khatib interpreted.

It must be noted from the above discussion and illustrations that the translation presented by Khatib has, to some extent, overcome many of the misinterpretations and pitfalls which previous translators have presented. The main reason lies in the fact that Khatib is an Egyptian Muslim scholar who is a native speaker of Arabic and has a good command of English. Moreover, he has dedicated a good deal of time to reading classic and modern books on Islamic studies as well as studying many classical commentaries, which have had a great effect on his understanding of the Quran.

However, it is necessary to conclude my paper by discussing some important issues about the art of literary translation and to suggest qualities recommended for translators in general, and for Quran translators in particular.

The first and most important point is that both Arabic and English languages come from two different families of languages: Semitic and Germanic families respectively. Therefore, they have two quite different sentence structures and we would expect different kinds of problems in translation arising from the gaps between these two languages. For example, a particular word in one of these languages might not have an equivalent in the other; as the word “ar-Rahmaan” for which Khatib (1986: VI) encountered great difficulty in “finding English words that precisely match the Arabic meaning.”

Another major point that the translator must realize is that any literary text is composed of a complex set of systems in relation to other sets outside its boundaries; and thus, he must not focus on one set at the cost of the other. The translator must also observe the cultural differences between the original language and the translated language and should not ignore any cultural factor. This means that the translator must be well acquainted with the cultural and social factors in both the languages.

Therefore, the art of literary translationnecessitates that the translator be skillfully trained, have good linguistic knowledge cultural and social knowledge, a good deal of imagination and common sense. He must also work hard to reach a translation that is as close as possible to theoriginal.

The art of translating the Quran, however, requires in addition to the above qualities, that the translator must be a native speaker of Arabic as well as a Muslim who acquired deep knowledge of Islamic history, culture and tradition. These qualities being present in Khatib made his translation more adequate than the other previous translations mentioned above. However, as we have seen from the above discussion, even Khatib has some misinterpretations of words or verses of the Quran despite the fact that he is a Muslim, native speaker of Arabic.

The question that arises is: How could we allow a non-native speaker of Arabic to attempt a translation of the Quran? If native speakers like Khatib could encounter great difficulty in fully comprehending the interpretation of the Quran, what about non-native speakers and non-Muslims? It must also be noted that translation is itself a sort of judgment, as discussed by David Ross (1977). It is a judgment in the sense that the translator usually selects the word that suits the meaning he arrives at. This leads to the question: Who could possibly be a competent judge of the meanings of the Quran?



It is obvious that not many individuals would be qualified for such a daunting task. Therefore, I suggest that the translation of the Quran should not be an individual effort, but rather a team effort of Al-Azhar scholars who have reasonable command of English as well as a team of linguists who are native speakers of Arabic and have a good background on Islam and Islamic teachings. These two teams sitting and working hard together should be able to overcome most of the difficulties, misunderstandings and misinterpretations faced and presented by Khatib and previous translators. This type of translation is urgently needed today, especially when Islam is facing challenges from the West.


By: Dr. Trandil H. El Rakhway Ph.D


Safar & Rabi’ Al-Awwal 1414





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