Why do we need a new translation?

“The Quran interpreter is supposed to be reporting the Quran’s meaning” (Ahmad Zaki Hammad).

The growth of Muslim populations in America and Europe has a fascinating history. After the devastating Second World War there was a scarcity of labour in Europe, and as a consequence workers were invited from Muslim-majority countries. They worked hard and settled with their families. However with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the hostage crisis followed by the Rushdie affair, hostilities began to grow against Muslims. Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting Muslims in the limelight.

Now, there is growing anti-Muslim bigotry, a dread of Muslims, and unfounded fear of Muslims as dangerous security threats. It seems as though the infamous Fukahami’s “clash of civilisations” is about to come true. Yet this has been accompanied by an increased fascination with Islam. What is this religion? What is the book of Islam about? There is a rising interest in studying and knowing more about Qur’an and Islam. That is why it is imperative that we have good literary translations of the Qur’an and books about Islam.

The vocabulary of the glorious Quran

There are approximately 1734 primary words, and the rest of the words are derived from these primary words in the glorious Quran; the rest are prepositions, particles (AZ Hammad).

Four standards for Quran translation (AZ Hammad)

  1. Faithfulness to the meanings of the Quranic words; paying close attention to the Arabic words in their broader context as explained by the classical dictionaries of Quran.
  2. A translation also involves making interpretations, but it has to be based on classical commentaries and traditional teachings.
  3. Using clear and plain English expressions, native Arabic expressions are translated by contemporary English idioms in order to communicate the original meaning to our today’s readers as it would have been understood by the prophets disciples. Arabic articles of emphasis like; Inna, Laqadd, Anna and Lam are not translated as; indeed, surely, verily and most surely. There are other mechanisms making that emphasis in English without burdening it with outdated words.
  4. Free from sectarian, parochial and personal views and ideologies. We have also been careful in translating gender words like “man”, “mankind” and “he” to avoid the misconception that they are masculine in fact they are being used in a generic sense to refer to “humanity” and “human beings”.

I entirely agree with AZ Hammad’s assertion that the translation of Quran “is more properly described as interpretation, not in the connotation of conveying a particular insight or impression, but in the substance of establishing meaning and communicating its significance within the limitations of human expression.” Therefore the translation of the glorious Qur’an is not the Qur’an, but rather an interpretation, an understanding where the translator is reporting the meanings of the sacred text. Therefore there is a distinction between the original Arabic Qur’an and the English translation. A translator can strive to convey the Qur’an’s meanings faithfully and report that interpretation of the Revealed Words only, hence it is not equivalent to the Arabic Qur’an.

What is the need for a good Qur’an translation?

Muslims believe that Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى is the Creator of the universe, and that human beings have been created with a purpose, and that their lives have a spiritual meaning. They believe that the glorious Qur’an is the word of God, which has been revealed in order to guide humanity. The glorious Qur’an is a life-changing and life-transforming Message from the Creator; it is both rational and emotional, impacting on the human mind and feelings and leading to a Holy attitude and behaviour, often expressed as “the fear of God”, “God consciousness” and “mindfulness”. There is a dire need to produce a translation that is reader friendly and accessible for the native English reader, since most of the old translations were produced by non-natives of the English language (there are forty different translations of the Qur’an in English).

Here is a brief critical analysis of some popular English translations:

Features of Pickthall’s translation:

  • difficulty of expression
  • dryness of style
  • lack of exactness in meaning
  • the Qur’anic message remains unclear
  • Shakespearean English and archaic words

Features of Yusuf Ali’s translation:

  • imprecise
  • inconsistent
  • too many brackets

Features of Mohsin Khan’s translation:

  • excessive use of brackets
  • too many insertions wedged into Qur’anic text
  • no literary style: stilted
  • skewed vision
  • too many transliterated words
  • sectarian and ideological views

Features of Mohammed Asad’s translation:

  • interpretive rephrasing
  • Shakespearean English
  • rationalistic, a lot of Freudian psychoanalysis
  • a feature of his commentary is that he often misquotes classical commentators. He often cites them, yet in many cases they mention a particular point of view, not necessarily agreeing with it or approving it but he presents it as their point of view.

For proud, practising and pious Muslims the Qur’an is very important because:

  1. The glorious Qur’an contains a comprehensive message for humanity that teaches how to live a life in accordance with the Divine Will, pleasing the Lord and leading to success – simply how to live on earth in compliance with the Will of the Creator.
  2. The Qur’an clearly explains the standards by which humanity will be judged on Judgement Day, and either rewarded or punished, encouraging and motivating people to develop the competences and skills needed to be among the “people of paradise”, and to avoid the fate of the “people of hell”.