Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

English Translations of the Qur'an

Unlike the Bible authorised translations of the Qur'an into English, published by a number of recognised scholars, have never been produced. Virtually every English version has been the work of only one man, whether done by Muslim scribes or by Orientalists in the West. As a result each translation to some extent reflects the bias of the writer no matter how sincerely he may have attempted to produce a text as close to the Arabic original as he can. A brief outline of the most well-known works of both Muslim and Western scholars follows.

1. Alexander Ross: The AlCoran of Mahomet.

In 1649 the first English translation of the Qur'an appeared. It was published anonymously but it is presumed that its author was Alexander Ross who added an essay at the end of the book titled A needfull Caveat or Admonition for them who desire to know what use may be made of, or if there be any danger in reading the Alcoran. Two editions of this work appeared in London in its first year and a third was published in 1688. A further four editions appeared in the United States in the nineteenth century. It was not a direct translation from the Arabic text but was based on a French edition done two years earlier by André Du Ryer titled L'Alcoran de Mahomet and published in Paris.

The text is generally defective and as Ross had no knowledge of Arabic and only a limited knowledge of French, it sometimes misses the sense of the original altogether. Nonetheless it served to introduce the Qur'an to the English-speaking world and for nearly a century it was the only translation available. It also serves to indicate the attitudes towards Islam that prevailed in Europe at that time. The Qur'an is described as an "incongruous" book "farced with contradictions", a "hodg-podge" of lies, blasphemy and ridiculous fables. The author even went so far as to defend himself against those who might accuse him of allowing the "dismall night of Mahometane darkness" to enter England through his translation.

The book concludes with a brief biography of the life and death of the Prophet. Its title page includes a statement that it is "newly Englished" for the satisfaction of those who desire "to look into the Turkish vanities" and contains an acknowledgement of the French translation by Du Ryer.

2. George Sale: The Koran.

This was the first genuine English translation of the Arabic text and its first edition was published in London in 1734. It was supplemented with Explanatory Notes, taken from the Most Approved Commentators, to which is prefixed, a Preliminary Discourse. It has been reprinted in numerous editions over the centuries both in Europe and in America. The author not only had a sound knowledge of Arabic but was also very familiar with the commentary of Al-Baidawi and his translation regularly reflects the interpretation of the text by this and other early Muslim scholars of the Qur'an. As a result it is a remarkably accurate translation considering the paucity of Arabic grammars and dictionaries available at the time. Sale was also dependent to some extent, however, on a Latin translation done by Ludovico Marraccio titled Alcorani Textus Universus which was first published in 1698.

The Muslim world has generally disapproved of Sale's work, however, mainly it seems because of its critical evaluation of Muhammad and Islam in the preliminary essay and because Sale did not attempt to translate the text to suit Muslim sentiments as many Muslim translators have done. His notes at the bottom of each page also reflect adversely on Islam and the Qur'an at times. In 1882 a more comprehensive commentary of the text of Sale's Qur'an was published in four volumes titled A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qur'an, the additional material being supplied by E.M. Wherry.

3. Muhammad Ali: The Holy Qur'an.

This was the first translation of the Qur'an into English by a Muslim to become widely recognised even though it was done by a member of the moderate Lahore branch of the Ahmadiyya Movement, a sect outlawed from Islam in Pakistan in 1974. Muhammad Ali's first edition was published in Woking in England in 1917 and numerous reprints have followed.

It is similar to Wherry's extended version of Sale's work in that the text is supplemented with copious notes at the bottom of each page. Often these reflect the Ahmadiyya bias of the author where interpretations are offered of the meaning of specific texts. Although the Muslim world has held this translation in high esteem it has only been published by Ahmadiyya sources and, more recently, in America. It was the first to be published in interlinear form with the English text produced alongside the Arabic original and most reprints have followed this pattern.

4. Abdullah Yusuf Ali: The Holy Qur'an.

This translation was first published in Lahore in Pakistan in 1934. Like Muhammad Ali's it has usually been printed as an interlinear text together with the author's comprehensive notes at the foot of each page. It is not a good translation as Yusuf Ali has taken great liberties with the text. At times the text is a paraphrase or amplified expression of the original. Nonetheless it has become by far the most popular translation of the Qur'an into English in the Muslim world. It is widely republished every year. The script is written in a very leisurely and attractive style which probably accounts for its reputation, though it is not always easy to read. The author tends to make too much use of capital letters.

Although Yusuf Ali was a Shi'ite Muslim his work rarely shows any sectarian bias. There has been opposition to it from ultra-orthodox Muslims, however, who prefer the translation of Maulana Daryabadi titled Holy Qur'an, a work which sacrifices easy readability in the interests of obtaining a more accurate direct translation of the original. Yusuf Ali's notes, in fact, are more often an endeavour to give a spiritual understanding of the text rather than a formal interpretation of it. He was obviously a man of deep religious sincerity and his work, which appears destined to survive for a long time as the favourite of English-speaking Muslims, does have a freshness and liveliness not often found in Muslim translations.

5. Arthur J. Arberry: The Koran Interpreted.

This is probably the finest English translation of the Qur'an. It was first published in London in 1955. It combines what no other seems to achieve – a direct and accurate translation written in a striking style that simultaneously renders the spirit and temper of the Arabic original. The author has largely succeeded in impressing the rhythm and sharpness of the text on the hearer. People who have only read a Qur'an in English will

rarely be able to capture the impact the Arabic text makes on a Muslim, but this particular work goes a long way towards realising a vital feature of the book.

Other prominent English translations not covered in this appendix are mentioned in the Bibliography which follows.





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First published in London in 1734, Sale's Koran went through numerous reprints. The title page here is from a two-volume set including his well-known Preliminary Discourse to the Koran. It was published in 1801 AD.