By Akbar Ahmed
As a schoolboy in the hills of Abbottabad, Iread Marmaduke Pickthall’stranslation of the Holy Qura’n, and its stirring introduction has stayed with me to this day. Pickthall wrote; “The Qur’an cannot be translated…The book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Qur’an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qur’an—and peradventure something of the charm in English. It can never take the place of the Qur’an in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so.”
The Meaning of the Glorious Koran was published in1930 after authorisation from Al-Azhar University and Pickthall, a convert to Islam, had become the first Muslim Englishman to translate the Quran. It remains popular among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The translation of the Quran is a complex and difficult exercisein itself. For Muslims it is the direct word of God, meaning that any translation risks the nuances or the lyrical nature of the text being distorted. Consequently, translations of the Quran have been dogged by questions of accuracy made worse by many translators with political agendas against Islam.
Early interpretations of the Quran in the West were produced in the context of the Crusades against Muslims. It was not until eleven hundred years after revelation that there would be a more direct translation of the Quran into a Western language—André Du Ryer’sL’Alcoran de Mahomet (1647) in French. Though it contained many mistakes and expressed dismissive sentiments about Muslims, it was the first attempt to genuinely translate the Quran and not merely combine paraphrased passages and exegesis with explicit political intent. The first Quran available in English was a re-translation of this translation by Christian cleric Alexander Ross in 1649 that perpetuated the sentiments conveyed in Du Ryer’s translation.
The most influential English version of the Quran was translated by George Sale in 1734 relying on an earlier Latin translation. Sale was openly critical of Islam and accused the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of feigning divine revelation for political gain. Sale’s version earned high praise from Voltaire who was perhaps influenced in his negative views of the religion. This translation was the standard for more than 200 years and was the translation owned by Thomas Jefferson. Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman in US history, was sworn in on Jefferson’s copy of Sale’s translation in 2007.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s 1934 translation, The Holy Quran: Text, Translation, and Commentary, marked a new era of Quran translations that focused on the linguistics of the Holy text itself rather than the politics of the translator. An Indian Muslim who was a student of the English classics and former member of the elite Indian Civil Service, he made an effort to simultaneously preserve the accuracy of the Arabic while conveying the lyrical nature of the text in English. Ali’s translation of the Quran remains one of the most popular in the Western world today and is a favorite among English speaking Muslims.
In the past decades, there have been other attempts. Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam, offered The Message of the Qur’anin1980 and Muhammad Abdel-Haleem, a professor at London University and editor of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, produced The Qur’anin 2004.Sandow Birk in 2015 attempted to portray the universality of Islam with his American Qur’an which uses a combination of copyright-free English translations with the traditional structure of the Quran.Birk spent almost ten years on the project which is illuminated with striking pictures of contemporary everyday American life.
This year saw the publication of the The Majestic Quran, Dr Musharraf Hussain’s translation. A prominent British Pakistani Muslim,Dr Hussain studied Islam in a traditional seminary in Pakistan and graduated from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Dr Hussain was inspired to translate the Quran to share his love ofits “breathtaking beauty”In attempting to avoid the“old-fashioned’ English” of Pickthall and Yusuf Ali he has “attempted to avoid such ‘old’ terminology as much as possible, while still retaining the original meaning of the Majestic Quran”. As if to underscore the point, hissub-title is A Plain English Translation.
Dr Hussain memorised the Quran as a teenager and has been teaching Islamic studies and translations in Islamic schools for over fifty years. He attributes his understanding of the Quran to an accumulation of knowledge from honourable sages and a treasury of classical Islamic wisdom. He is the author of several books and a leader in interfaith dialogue in the UK. In 2009 he was awarded the OBE for community relations.
To guard his flanks from the criticism that Muslims are won’t to make when other Muslims conduct such exercises, Dr. Hussain has gathered a variety of glowing commendations of his effort. There is even a letter from the Senior Advisor to the Grand Mufti of Egypt, testifying to the authenticity of the translation.
I met Dr. Hussain when I was visiting the University of Nottingham as part of a lecture and film screening tour in 2016. He and a delegation of the Muslim community warmly welcomed me and my team at the train station. The day following my lecture at the University of Nottingham, he invited me to speak at a press conference at the Karimia Institute, which Dr Hussain heads, for the launch of his new Trust Building Project. The Trust trains representatives from the Muslim community to build relationships with non-Muslims and dispel myths about Islam. He leads his initiatives, such as this one, by example.
When I asked him how he felt when he finally had a copy of the translation in his hands, he expressed his sense of being overwhelmed with eschatological emotions: “I was humbled and went straight to the mosque and sat in the mehrab, prayer niche, and opened it randomly. It opened to a verse which states: Those who believed and did righteous deeds will enter the gardens beneath which rivers flow living here forever by their Lord’s permission and their greetings will be “Peace”’ (Surah Ibrahim: 23). I regard that as a good omen.”
When I asked him what he hoped the translation of the Quran will accomplish, he replied, “I wish Muslims become serious readers of the Quran and go beyond just parrot-fashioned reading. Our age is the age of materialism and consumerism… the Quran constantly challenges, rejects and argues against that worldview… our society is in dire need of an antidote.”
(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)