The History of the English Translations of the Holy Qur’an

How does one translate the profound word of God? The personal nature of religion calls for the necessity of an accessible approach to sacred texts.

Introduction

How does one translate the profound word of God? The personal nature of religion calls for the necessity of an accessible approach to sacred texts. Though in the 21st century this is the norm, this has been a long controversial discussion. Sacred texts in almost all religions are believed to be the revealed word of God and if not revealed, at least inspired by divine guidance. Whilst the Holy Qur’an is no exception, the translation of this revealed text has not faced the same controversy as that of the Torah or the Bible. In fact, we have to look no further than the Qur’an itself to validate this; the dissemination of the literature has been foretold in the words

‘And when books are spread abroad.’ Translated by Maulvi Sher Ali ra, published in Holland 1955 by Islam International Publications Ltd.

The Holy Qur’an (81:11)

Though this quote is often correlated to the printing press, one must evaluate its relevance to the task of translation. In essence, it addresses the spread of knowledge. Islam teaches that each Muslim must make efforts to understand his religion in order to be able to follow it with sincerity and genuine belief. Therefore, it is imperative that the Holy Qur’an be translated into the vernacular, so that we may be genuine believers of the perfect religion.

Despite its necessity, it is no facile task- as no human mind nor language can compare to the wisdom of the Almighty. The pages of history echo the varying intentions as to why Holy Scriptures have been translated. It has been used as both a futile attempt to depreciate the value of the holy words or to spread the holy words as a beckoning for man to return to his creator. This essay will attempt to map out the history of the English translations of the Holy Qur’an in the West, as well as consider the social, historical, and linguistic difficulties. The covered topics:

  • The Need for translations despite the Perfection of the Arabic language
  • First English translation and the history of Ahmadiyya translations
  • Impact of the translation on the West

Exploring such topics enables one to evaluate whether or not mere mortals are worthy enough to translate the words of the Perfect Being. Can we ever have the perfect translation? To answer this in short, no. There is no alternative to the words of God, He is the Almighty, and no man can conceive a set of combinations of English letters that will ever come close. That being said, the necessity of it presents a relentless task that will be iterated through history.

The Need for Translation

As aforementioned, the Qur’an foretold about the spread of knowledge and literature. It is no doubt that the words of the Holy Qur’an are the unaltered words of God. The Qur’an is a complete book, and God testifies to it in the words

“Alif Laam Meem( انا الله اعلم: I am Allah, the All-Knowing) this is a perfect Book; there is no doubt in it; it is a guidance for the righteous”. Translated by Maulvi Sher Ali ra published in Holland 1955 by Islam International Publications Ltd.

The Holy Qur’an (2:3)

Consequently, the ultimate question arises, why should we translate it? Is that not a fundamental flaw in the essence of its ‘perfection’? It opposes the dogma of the Holy Scripture. Nasr Abu Zayd, an academic from the American University of Cairo, suggests a phrase that in its entirety iterates the dilemma of the literary approach towards the Qur’an. Stating:

‘A literary text is a composition of human imagination while the Qur’an represents the word of God that should not be compared to any human discourse.’ “The Dilemma of the Literary Approach to the Qur’an” P9, by Nasr Abu Zayd. American University in Cairo published in Holland 1955 by Islam International Publications Ltd.

However, the Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" clearly asserts an argument in Essence of Islam vol.2 regarding the spread and evolution of languages. After thoroughly illustrating the fact that Arabic is the perfect language, The Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" hones into the fact that it is an ‘illusion’ to think that languages are evolved by the ‘influence of man’; indeed he suggests that every language is divinely guided by the Almighty. Though evolution does take place through man, it is only an agent by which God can express His Supreme powers, indeed it is Him that is guiding the evolution of language. Stating:

“The praise of God offered by His humble creatures in a variety of languages is in itself a most attractive spectacle”“Essence of Islam” Volume II, Chapter “Arabic, the Mother of All Tongues”, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as of Qadian, Translated by Chaudrey Muhammad Zafrullah Khan (ra), Published in 1979 at the London Mosque

This poses one argument in rebuttal to the posed question ‘whether the need for translation is a flaw in the perfection of the book?’ The Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" concludes that the variety of languages is a catalyst by which God’s creatures can praise him.

Furthermore, the Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" emphasizes that Arabic, being the mother of all languages, is the perfect language for the Almighty to bestow his holy words so that each and every language can have a relation to the word of God. Thus can it be argued that translating the Qur’an is unlawful in any way? It is as though God is destined for its translations. Hence the language of Arabic acts as a root by which other languages can branch off. The Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" writes:

‘…a revealed language which should be the mother of tongues so that it should have a natural relationship with every language and the speakers of every language’

Thus, to translate the Qur’an is not a flaw in the criteria of it being ‘perfect’ in the slightest. Rather it just testifies to God’s original words ‘I am Allah, the All Knowing’. We can see that indeed He is the All-Knowing, that the evolution of languages is all His plan. That it is only by His divine guidance that man is able to translate the word of God. However, this is not to say that though, there is a variety of languages, this diminishes the power of Arabic as a whole. It must be remembered that Arabic was the original language in which God chose to reveal his sacred words, and thus, however profound one’s translation is, it does involve human bias- which Arabic does not. In fact, one may draw a correlation between the practice of translating and the game of Chinese Whispers. In the sense that you can never draw the true form of the words unless and until you attain it from the original source. Likewise, one can simply not attain the true spirit of the Holy Qur’an.

Of course, one must be wary when translating the Qur’an, as mentioned bias can infiltrate the mind when doing so, and therefore can lead to a harmful doctrine propagated when followers read translations. A German edition from 1616 which was set out to present the religion of Islam as a false religion had a title page with the words: ‘Alcoranus Mahometicus’, which is that the Turks’ Qur’an, religion and superstition- from which can be learned where and how their false prophet Muhammad originated, to what occasion he invented and composed his tales and his ridiculous and foolish doctrine’.“Early Printed Qur’ans: The Dissemination of the Qur’an in the West” P137 by Arjan Van Dijk published in Holland 1955 by Islam International Publications Ltd. Thus let it be clear that the practice of translation may contain ulterior motives.

This should not in any way present the fact that people have altered the word of God, however. The Holy Qur’an is a book that is promised to never be altered as God says

“Verily We Ourself bought down this Exhortation, and most surely We will be its Guardian”. The Holy Qur’an (9:10) – Translated by Maulvi Sher Ali ra published in Holland 1955 by Islam International Publications Ltd.

However, as we are but mere mortals, many will misinterpret in different ways. Hence again I repeat that the Arabic language is the most complete and beneficial form in which to read the Holy Qur’an.

History of English Translations of the Holy Qur’an

It was not until the mid-1600s that the Qur’an was first translated into English, over 1,000 years since the initial revelation.Wikipedia: Quran Translations. Subsection: English, Date Accessed: 14 October 2019 However, as I previously correlated the practice of translations akin to a game of Chinese Whispers, this could not be more evident than the story of the first English translation. The first English translation was done by Alexander Ross, Chaplain to King Charles I. However this was done by translating an already translated copy in French. Hence it is only natural that meanings would be biased and perhaps flawed. Ross wrote from an anti-Islamic perspective, his role as a chaplain to the King almost compelled him to do so. It was not until 1734 that George Sale translated it directly from Arabic, thus one school of thought may argue that this was the first-ever English translation of the Qur’an.

Alexander Ross
Alexander Ross

Interestingly, however, there is much speculation that Ross has been wrongly accredited for translating the Qur’an, and in order to evaluate a debate whether he did or not, one has to look at both the time and sources by which he is stated for doing so. As stated, Ross was the Chaplain of the time, and King Charles I is the only British Monarch to be executed. Moreover, after his execution, there was a time of great political unease and by extension a great religious unease too. This was a time in which the House of Lords and the Privy Council had both been abolished and now the Holy Qur’an served as a threat to the new state. Hence Ross’s role as Chaplain would serve as to depreciate any text that Alexander Ross Chaplain to King Charles I was not the Bible, hence serving as reasoning as to why it was written from an anti-Islamic perspective. Therefore, it can be argued it was Ross who translated it, however, it must be noted that there was no mention of the name of the translator upon publishing. George Sale did mention him in his translation though- accrediting Ross almost 100 years later.

The reason why the name failed to be on the published book was that this was against the law. Translating the Qur’an was not allowed and thus Alexander Ross was not mentioned. However Nabil Matar, publishes in ‘Journal of Islamic Studies’ that though the name was unmentioned, Alexander Ross was held accountable for doing so, Nabil further narrated the incident by saying:

‘the Committee called in Mr Rosse. No other persons were summoned after him and on 4th April 1949, the Committspee ordered that “Mr Rosse shall be dismissed of attendance, he having a monition to meddle no more with anything of that nature”’ “Journal of Islamic Studies” P78 by Nabil Matar, Accessed from Jstor.com, Date Accessed: 14 October 2019

On the contrary, modern-day historian Thomas Burman from the University of Notre Dame challenges this and looks to suggest that it was not Ross at all and that Ross has been wrongly accredited. Highlighting the arguments as to why it was not Alexander Ross, it is stated that Alexander Ross was never known for having any French skills; moreover, he only admitted to writing the ‘Caveat’ to the book. Moreover, there were clear discrepancies between the author of different parts of the book. Thus, Burman suggests there was more than just one author and it may have been a relative of Alexander Ross, namely Thomas Ross who also helped in the writing of the translation. Alexander was also known to be an unwavering royalist hence would have intended to appease the late King with his translation depicting Islam in a negative light.

Thus, the discussion remains open whether or not Ross did indeed write the first translation. However, it is an incredible example that those who try to alter the meaning of God’s unique and complete words will cause for their own hamartia. Indeed God’s words are of perfect nature and therefore, the futile attempt of presenting it in a negative light has led to a man being forgotten in the pages of history. Indeed, God is the Guardian of this Exhortation.

Maulwi Sher Ali Sahib (ra)
Maulwi Sher Ali Sahib (ra)

Looking at our own Jama’at however, we can establish that we have a fair few scholars that have depicted a good translation of the Holy Qur’an, namely Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Rabih rhabbreviation for "May Allah have mercy on him/her/them", Hazrat Chaudry Zafrullah Khan Sahib raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", Hazrat Maulvi Sher Ali Sahib raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", and Muhammad Ali Sahib. However, Mohammed Ali joined the Lahori Movement in the Ahmadiyya Community soon after. Hazrat Maulvi Sher Ali Sahib’s raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" translation was written in 1936 and later published in 1955 in the Netherlands first. Now it also contains some footnotes from the fourth Khalifah, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" in the most recent editions. An ex-evangelist, Clay Chip Smith, has reviewed the translation as, ‘clear and worded satisfactorily.’ Hazrat Maulvi Sher Ali raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" was extremely down to earth and pious in so far as that Hazrat Masih Maud asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" had seen in a revelation that he was referred to as an angel. It is narrated that once a man, having read the translation done by Hazrat Maulvi Sher Ali raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", wanted to meet him, but upon seeing him was amazed by how simple and humble Hazrat Maulvi Sher Ali Sahib raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" was. Translators of the Holy Qur’an With the passage of time, many people have forged their own imprint on the giant tapestry that is the deciphering of the Holy Qur’an. Various have bought forth translations in order to present the Qur’an as barbaric and violent and yet some present the Qur’an in all its beauty. Below is a timeline of different authors of translations of the Qur’an in English:

17th Century

1. Alexander Ross, 1649, The Alcoran of Mahomet

18th Century

1. George Sale, 1734, Koran, Commonly called: The Alcoran of Mohammed

19th Century

1. John Meadows Rodwell, 1861, The Koran 2. E.H. Palmer, 1880, The Qur’an: The Sacred Books of the East Part Nine

20th Century

  1. Mohammad Abdul Hakim Khan, 1905, The Holy Qur’an
  2. Hairat Dehlawi, 1912, The Koran Prepared
  3. Mirza Abul Fazl, 1911, The Qur’an
  4. Maulana Muhammad Ali, 1917 The Holy Qur’an: Text
  5. Al-Hajj Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar, 1929, Translation of the Holy Qur’an
  6. Marmaduke Pickthall, 1930, The Meaning of the Glorious Qu’ran
  7. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1934, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an
  8. Maulvi Sher Ali, 1936, The Holy Qur’an with English translation
  9. Richard Bell, 1937–39, The Qur’an
  10. Abdul Majid Daryabadi, 1941, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation
  11. Arthur John Arberry, 1955, The Koran Interpreted: A Translation
  12. N. J. Dawood, 1956, “The Koran”
  13. Khadim Rahmani Nuri, 1964. “The Running Commentary of the Holy Qur-an”
  14. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, 1970, “The Qur’an: The Eternal Revelation vouchsafed to Muhammad the Seal of the Prophets”
  15. Muhammad Asad, 1980, The Message of The Qur’an
  16. M. H. Shakir, 1981, The Qur’an, Arabic and English
  17. T. B. Irving, 1985, The Qur’an: First American Version
  18. Zafar Ishaq Ansari, 1988 Towards Understanding the Qur’an
  19. Dr. Rashad Khalifa, (died on 31 January 1990), Qur’an: The Final Testament, Universal Unity
  20. Allamah Nooruddin, Amatul Rahman Omar and Abdul Mannan Omar 1990, The Holy Qur’an – Arabic Text and English Translation
  21. T. B. Irving, 1991 Noble Qur’an: Arabic Text & English Translation
  22. AbdalHaqq and Aisha Bewley, 1999&2005 The Noble Qur’an: A New Rendering of its Meaning in English
  23. Emily Assami, Mary Kennedy, Amatullah Bantley: 1997, The Qur’ān Saheeh International Translation
  24. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr. M. Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, 1999. The Noble Qur’an

21st Century

  1. Dr. Zohurul Hoque, 2000, Translation and Commentary on The Holy Qur’an, Holy Qur’an Pub. Project
  2. Dr. S.M. Afzal-ur-Rahman, 2001, The Holy Qur’an.
  3. Ahmed Ali, 2001, Al-Qur’an, a Contemporary Translation
  4. Muhammad Taqiuddin Sarwar, 2001, The Holy Qur’an, Islamic Seminary Inc.
  5. Shabbir Ahmed, 2003, Galaxy.
  6. The Message: God’s Revelation to Humanity, 2003, by ProgressiveMuslims.Org, iUniverse, Inc.
  7. Ali, Muhammad Mohar (2003). A Word for Word Meaning of the Qur’an. Ipswich, Suffolk: Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj al-Sunnah
  8. Kanzul Iman by Professor Shah faridul Haque, 1990, The Qur’an “Kanzul Iman” With a Phrase-by-Phrase English Translation
  9. Ali Quli Qara’i, 2005, The Qur’an With a Phrase-by-Phrase English Translation
  10. Muhammad Abdel-Haleem, 2004, The Qur’an (Oxford World Classics)
  11. Thomas Cleary, 2004, The Qur’an: A New Translation
  12. Ali Ünal, 2006 The Qur’an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English.
  13. Alan Jones, 2007, The Qur’an Translated into English, Oxford, Gibb Memorial Trust.
  14. Edip Yüksel, Layth al-Shaiban, Martha Schulte-Nafeh, 2007 Qur’an: a Reformist Translation
  15. Laleh Bakhtiar, 2007 The Sublime Qur’an.
  16. Syed Vickar Ahamed, 2007, The Glorious Qur’an (Interpretation of the Meaning of)
  17. Tahereh Saffarzadeh, translated Qur’an in Persian and English
  18. Justice Mufti Taqi Usmani, 2008, Translation of Qur’an
  19. Usama Dakdok, 2009, The Generous Qur’an, Usama Dakdok Publishing
  20. Tarif Khalidi, 2009, The Qur’an: A New Translation, Penguin Classics
  21. P. JainulAbideen, 2010, Al-Qur’an, (Beta Translation)
  22. Tahir-ul-Qadri, 2011, The Glorious Qur’an, Minhaj-ul-Qur’an publications.
  23. Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias, 2007, Qur’an Made Easy – Arabic & English.
  24. Talal Itani, 2012, Qur’an in Modern English: Clear and Easy to Read, ClearQur’an Publishing
  25. Syed Vickar Ahamed, March 2015, The Glorious Qur’an (Interpretation of the Meaning of) Arabic and English
  26. The Study Qur’an Translation, Translation by Maria Dakake, Caner K. Dagli and Joseph E. B. Lumbard
  27. The Clear Qur’an: A Thematic English Translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab
  28. Paigham Mustafa, 2016, The Qur’an: God’s Message to Mankind New Millennium Exposition,
  29. Sam Gerrans, 2016, The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation
  30. The Division by Division English Interpretation of the Holy Qur’an In The Order of Revelation(2015) by Hakkı Yılmaz. Published by Hakkı Yılmaz
  31. Dr. Musharraf Hussain al Azhari, 2018, The Majestic Qur’an
  32. A plain English Translation. Published by Invitation Publishing

The Impact of Qur’an Translation on the West

As aforementioned, the purpose of translating the Qur’an serves to fulfil prophecy narrated in the Qur’an, ‘and when books are spread abroad.’ And as the Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" states, the reason why the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic was in order to serve a natural relationship with each and every tongue, hence reinforcing the fact that this is a complete book for everyone. The West has often seen the Qur’an as a threat and has feared its publication so much so that as early as 1309 it was banned to publish without prior warning or refutation of its contents. However, as time grew, it was later allowed in the West to be published only to depreciate its contents, again the attempt of doing so was futile as this is the holy word of God. The humble beings that are humans will never cease to alter it. Though relentless it is, bias will always play a role in the ever-iterating task to find the perfect translation of the Qur’an. One must consider the reason why God forbade it to be altered yet allowed it to be translated. One argument that can be established for this is that in order to translate it, one must fully understand it. God has provided a platform to His creation to deeply understand it, and not only do so but to further expand and spread the depths of their knowledge too. This connotes back to the original exploration that this article aims to seek: whether there can ever be a perfect translation. Though perfection cannot be achieved, the use of commentary, footnotes, and translations does allow us to scratch the surface a little deeper of the profound and rich meaning of the Holy Scripture. Thus, when we evaluate the impact that translation has had on the West, it has indeed played a vital role in bringing people back to their Creator, the One and Only.

The West has also posed many accusations on the true understanding of the Qur’an, and to do so they have compiled the Holy Qur’an in its chronological order as revealed to the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". After doing so, they found that the Qur’an seems to have a more, God Forbid, barbaric tone- when claiming that the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" became a “warlord”. One school of thought suggests that this counteracts the claim that the Holy Qur’an is the complete and comprehensive word of God, rather it is their argument this is written by the Prophet Muhammad saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". This is not the case at all. The chronology does correlate and runs parallel to the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him"‘s lifetime but this is not in any way proof as to the fact that this is not by a Divine and Heavenly Being, rather it is the vice versa. It is a testament to how Allah indeed is the All-Knowing, He has structured the Qur’an so that it acted as a perfect guide to our beloved Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and to the progeny that Hazrat Muhammad saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" leads.

“Spreading Books Abroad”: The Jama’at’s pursuit in spreading knowledge

Amongst the impact the Qur’an has on the west as above stated, it is also key to note what the Jama’at is doing to spread the knowledge. Indeed the Jama’at – having translated the Qur’an into many different languages – places itself at the role of a catalyst in the pursuit of spreading knowledge. As seen in events such as the Annual Peace Symposium and Jalsa Salana- amongst other external events- the Jama’at gifts dignitaries a copy of the translation of the Holy Qur’an. This initiative of Jama’at-e-Ahmadiyya is akin to that of the time of Hazrat Uthman raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" who started a similar initiative in spreading the Qur’an over the Arab empire. We can draw parallels to this and the modern time; and it is clear that from the outset of the revelation of the Holy Qur’an, it had one purpose: to spread the word of God and bring man closer to their Creator.

The efforts of the Jama’at serve as a vessel for the word of Allah the Almighty to be spread.

Conclusion

To concatenate on the matter, one can envisage a glimpse of the power of Allah the Almighty just by examining the history of the English translation of the Holy Qur’an, the prophecies laid out in the Qur’an that have been mentioned earlier, the way He has served as a “guardian” to diminish people out of the pages of history, the spread of knowledge that has been foreshadowed in the Holy Scripture and the perfection of the Qur’an- that it serves all languages- is a testament to the fact that the Qur’an must have been the work of Allah the Almighty.

It is ignorant and blind to think otherwise. It is with no doubt, however, that the West has also greatly benefited by the Qur’an and there are numerous examples of people drawn closer to their lord through the means of English translations of this Holy Book; thus it can be concluded that though we can never truly translate Arabic, it still fulfils its purpose in bringing man closer to its creator.

Disclaimer

This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Labeed Mirza

Labeed Mirza

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