University of Cambridge

All Things about Quran as a Miracle and English Translation of It

In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

All praise is due to God, the Lord of the Worlds.

The Beneficent, the Merciful.

Master of the Day of Doom.

 Thee (alone) we Worship; Thee (alone) we ask for Help.

Keep us on the Right Path.

The Path of Those Upon whom Thou hast Bestowed Favors. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy Wrath is Brought Down, nor of those who go Astray.


Despite the historical fact that the early Muslim community’s stand on the translation of the Arabic text of the Quran was ambivalent, as indeed, the general Muslim attitude remains so to this day, the act of translation may be logically viewed as a natural part of the Muslim exegetical effort. However, whereas the idea of interpreting the Quran has not been so controversial, the emotional motives behind rendering the Quranic text into languages other than Arabic have always been looked upon with suspicion. Muslims believe that the Quran is the revealed word of God. It happens to be in Arabic. Any translation into another language, like English, can only be an interpretation of the meaning, as is obvious if you compare two or more translations – sometimes they don’t say at all the same thing! In general, the translator can attempt to render the text as literally as possible, or he can attempt to capture the meaning and flavor of the text, but not both.

 This is obvious as the need for translating the Quran arose in those historic circumstances when a large number of non-Arabic speaking people had embraced Islam, and giving new linguistic orientations to the contents of the revelation – as, for instance, happened in the case of the ‘New Testament’ – could have led to unforeseeable, and undesirable, developments within the body of the Islamic religion itself. (For a brief, though highly useful, survey of the Muslim attitudes towards the permissibility of translating the text of the revelation to non-Arabic tongues, see M. Ayoub, ‘Translating the Meaning of the Quran: Traditional Opinions and Modern Debates’, in Afkar Inquiry, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Ramadan 1406/May 1986), pp.34 9).

The Qur’an is the Divine literal Word of God, Muslims believe, revealed in Arabic to His Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. However, Muslims also believe that Prophet Muhammad was not sent to Arabs only but to all mankind. That the message of Islam is a universal one, is a fact admitted by the Qur’an itself in the early Meccan suras (34: 28, 7: 158, 21: 107, etc). Therefore, it is Muslims’ duty to convey the message of Islam and the meanings of the Qur’an to all humanity. But in the meantime there is the concept of the inimitability of the Qur’an; i.e. it is in the highest rank of Arabic rhetoric and beauty that it challenged Arabs to produce the like of the shortest sura of it and they failed. The problem of translating the Qur’an into foreign languages became more pressing when Muslims came in close contact with non-Arabs, notably Persians, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The first appearance and discussion of the issue in classical books of fiqh was related to the issue of reciting the translation of the Qur’an in prayer. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the issue of translating the Qur’an reappeared due to several historical factors, which played a significant role in this debate, namely the translations made for nationalistic and sectarian purposes [1] as well as those made by Orientalists and missionaries for polemical purposes. Thus the different opinions of this period should be discussed in light of these factors. 

1. Opponents of the Translation of the Qur’an

In a separate study, the opinion of Rashid Rida regarding the translation of the Qur’an ‘was discussed.[2] Rida was not alone in his opposition to the translation of the Qur’an to non-Arab Muslims, yet we will see other scholars who adopted more or less the same opinion because of the early twentieth century conditions, which incited this approach. Among these scholars we the opinions of Sheikh Muhammad Hasanayn Makhluf and Sheikh Muhammad Shakir will be discussed.

1.1 Sheikh Muhammad Shakir[3]

In 1925 Sheikh Muhammad Shakir, former Wakil of al-Jami‘ al-Azhar, wrote a long article published in four parts[4] respectively in Al-Muqattam daily newspaper. This article was published later in the same year as a book entitled Al-Qawl al-Fasl fi Tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim ila al-Lughat al-A‘jamiyya.[5] Sheikh Shakir started by explaining what is meant by translation. He defined it as “the transference of speech from one language to another.” He then stated that a translator must know the meaning of each individual word, the idea that each one is intended to convey, either literally or metaphorically, and the special rules of composition whereby these individual words can express a sequence of ideas. The translator’s knowledge of the target language, he continued, must be equal to his knowledge of the language from which he translates — not merely as to the meaning of individual words and their literal and metaphorical use, but also the syntactical modes of expression — otherwise the translation will fail to convey the sense of the original or will differ from it.[6]

He compared the translation from one language to another to substituting one expression for another in the same language, in the sense that a balance of meaning must be preserved between the original and the translation, and between one phrase and another. Then he inquired if, in the case of the Qur’an, a due balance of meaning can be achieved in the replacement of one expression of the sacred text for another, no matter how much we strive to preserve this balance of meaning. In answer, he stated that no Muslim since the time of the Prophet to the present age had hesitated to give a definite answer in the negative and to condemn it absolutely, and that no man may change one word for another in the order it is set down in the Qur’an, even though the two words may be exactly synonymous.[7] He gave an example with the word walad in surat ‘Al ‘Imran (4: 47) and ghulam in surat Maryam (19: 20) stating that all Muslims agree that we are not at liberty to read in both suras, either walad or ghulam, nor put one of these words in place of the other in either of the two suras. He then stressed that if this kind of change of one expression for another in the language of the Qur’an itself is forbidden by all Muslims, then such a change as would be implied by the transference of all the words in the sacred text from the Arabic language into any foreign language is much more strictly forbidden.[8]

He also argued that the Qur’an is distinguished from all other heavenly books by the sacred character that accompanies its arrangement in Arabic. As to the Tawrah and the Injil, he continued, each one of them is a sacred book but through a sacred meaning quite apart from sacred words.[9] He condemned those persons making demands for a translation of the Qur’an reminding them that the Qur’an is the abiding remnant of the Islamic community, after the Great War had torn asunder the countries of Islam and after the Turkish republic had demolished the throne of the exalted caliphate and thrown aside the chief capital of Islam. Then he warned them that they will see another battle-ground for the Islamic community, when they find in the Turkish republic a Turkish Qur’an, and in the English colonies an English Qur’an, and in the colonies of other governments a French or Italian, or Spanish or Dutch Qur’an, which the translators will have to correct and revise whenever they recognize a need for correction and revision as is the case with the Tawrah and the Injil.[10]

1.2 Sheikh Muhammad Hasanayn Makhluf[12]

In the same year (1925) Sheikh Hasanayn Makhluf, former Mufti of Egypt, published a treatise entitled Risala fi Hukm Tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim wa-Qira’atihi wa-Kitabatihi bi-ghayr al-Lughati al-‘Arabiyya which was originally the last of four treatises he started on Rajab 1340/1922 and dedicated to some themes pertaining to Qur’anic sciences.[13] First, he distinguished between three kinds of translation (1) equal literal translation, (2) unequal literal translation, and (3) interpretative translation, stating that the first, i.e. the word for word translation which is identical to the original in its composition, style and rhetoric, is out of discussion for there is consensus among scholars that it is unimaginable and impossible to achieve.[14] Also he stated that the interpretative translation is not a translation of the words of the original but of their interpretation, in other words, it is an interpretation of or commentary on the Qur’an in another language. Sheikh Makhluf, maintained that this translation is unanimously permissible provided that it is based on the sound Prophetic traditions, knowledge of the sciences of Arabic language, and of other Qur’anic sciences which are required for the interpretation of the Qur’an.[15]

As for the unequal literal translation, which is the focus of his treatise, he said that in this kind of translation the translators try to replace each word by its equivalent in the target language as much as possible and thus it is not necessary to preserve the characteristics of the original in the translation.[16] He went on to explain that this occurred in the various translations made by Orientalists since the time they commenced translating the Qur’an in the eleventh century. The purpose of the majority of them, he said, was to damage it, distort its composition, and change its meanings. His opinion was that the best method of combating this campaign was to inform them that what they produced was not the Qur’an, and to convey to them the true message of the Qur’an, because most of what they knew about it was false due to the faults of translators or intentional distortion and alteration.[17] Then he stated that this kind of translation (i.e. the unequal literal trans.) is unlawful arguing that Allah and His Messenger took the responsibility of protecting and guarding the composition and style of the Qur’an and ordered us to protect it, so any act that contradicts this protection is an evil and a bad thing for it gives way to its alteration and distortion. In this sense the translation is an aggression against Allah and His Messenger and alteration of His Book. The same applies to the interpretative translation if it deviated from the Sunna of the Prophet, the basic sciences and principles of interpretation upon which the commentators relied.[18]

He referred to the opinions of the jurists of the four schools of jurisprudence stating that they did not permit the literal translation of the Qur’an. He pointed out that none of them was reported to have permitted it in any age except for what was reported about the Hanafis that they permitted the recitation of the translation of the Qur’an for the obligatory part needed in prayer on the basis of a certain proof.[19]

The method of conveying and propagating the message of Islam to all humans, he elucidated, was through explaining the principles of Islam that the Qur’an brought and were embodied in the biography of the Prophet which can be expressed in all languages without any need for translation [of the Qur’an].[20] Then he gave examples with the Muslim Turks, Persians, and Indians who read the Qur’an in Arabic, though they do not know Arabic but understand as much of it [the Qur’an] as is necessary to fulfill the obligations of Islam without any need for the translation of the Qur’an.[21]   

He concluded that the unequal literal translation is unlawful; the interpretative translation is permitted provided that it is based on a valid interpretation of the Qur’an; and that spreading Islam to all humans is not dependant on the translation of the Qur’an but on a sound translation of the principles of Islam, which is fard kifaya (collective duty).[22]

The Muslim need for translating the Quran into English arose mainly out of the desire to combat the missionary effort. Following a long polemical tradition, part of whose goal was also the production of a – usually erroneous and confounding – European version of the Muslim scripture; Christian missionaries started their offensive against a politically humiliated Islam in the eighteenth century by advancing their own translations of the Quran.

Obviously, Muslims could not allow the missionary effort – invariably confounding the authenticity of the text with a hostile commentary of its own – to go unopposed and unchecked. Hence, the Muslim decision to present a faithful translation of the Quranic text as well as an authentic summary of its teaching to the European world. Later, the Muslim translations were meant to serve even those Muslims whose only access to the Quranic revelation was through the medium of the European languages. Naturally, English was deemed the most important language for the Muslim purpose, not least because of the existence of the British Empire which after the Ottomans had the largest number of Muslim subjects.

The same rationale, however, applies to sectarian movements within Islam or even to renegade groups outside the fold of Islam, such as the Qadiyanis. Their considerable translational activities are motivated by the urge to proclaim their ideological uniqueness.

Although there is a spate of volumes on the multi-faceted dimensions of the Quran, no substantial work has so far been done to critically examine the mass of existing English translations of the Quran.

Even bibliographical material on this subject was quite scant before the fairly recent appearance of World Bibliography of the Translations of the Meanings of the Holy Quran (Istanbul, OIC Research Centre, 1986), which provides authoritative publication details of the translations of the Quran in sixty-five languages.

Some highly useful work in this field had been done earlier by Dr. Hamidullah of Paris. Appended to the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature Volume 1, Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period (Cambridge university Press, 1983) is a bibliography of the Quran translations into European languages, prepared by J.D. Pearson, as is the latter’s article in the Encyclopaedia of Islam. It is, however, of not much use to the Muslim.

Since none of the above-mentioned works is annotated, the reader gets no idea about the translator’s mental make-up, his dogmatic presuppositions and his approach to the Quran as well as the quality of the translation.

Similarly the small chapter entitled ‘The Qur’an and Occidental Scholarship’ in Bell and Watt’s Introduction to the Qur’an (Edinburgh, 1970, pp. 173-86), although useful in providing background information to Orientalists’ efforts in Quranic studies, and translations, more or less for the same reasons, is of little value to general Muslim readers. Thus, studies which focus on those aspects of each translation of the Quran are urgently needed lest Western scholars misguide the unsuspecting non-Arabic speaking readers of the Quran. An effort has been made in this survey to bring out the hallmarks and shortcomings of the major complete translations of the Quran.

The early English translations of the Quran by Muslims stemmed mainly from the pious enthusiasm on their part to refute the allegations leveled by the Christian missionaries against Islam in general and the Quran in particular.

Illustrative of this trend are the following translations:

(i) Mohammad Abdul Hakim Khan, The Holy Qur’an:’with short notes based on the Holy Qur’an or the authentic traditions of the Prophet, or and New Testaments or scientific truth. All fictitious romance, questionable history and disputed theories have been carefully avoided’ (Patiala, 1905);

(ii) Hairat Dehlawi, The Koran Prepared, by various Oriental learned scholars and edited by Mirza Hairat Dehlawi. Intended as ‘a complete and exhaustive reply to the manifold criticisms of the Koran by various Christian authors such as Drs. Sale, Rodwell, Palmer and Sir W. Muir’ (Delhi, 1912); and

(iii) Mirzal Abu’l Fadl, Qur’an, Arabic Text and English Translation Arranged Chronologically with an Abstract (Allahabad, 1912).

Since none of these early translations was by a reputed Islamic scholar, both the quality of the translation and level of scholarship are not very high and these works are of mere historical interest.

Later works, however, reflect a more mature and scholarly effort.

Muhammad Marmaduke William Pickthall, an English man of letters who embraced Islam, holds the distinction of bringing out a first-rate rendering of the Qur’an in English, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an (London, 1930).

It keeps scrupulously close to the original in elegant, though now somewhat archaic, English. However, although it is one of the most widely used English translations, it provides scant explanatory notes and background information. This obviously restricts its usefulness for an uninitiated reader of the Qur’an.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary (Lahore, 1934 37), perhaps the most popular translation, stands as another major achievement in this field. A civil servant by vocation, Yusuf Ali was not a scholar in the classical Muslim tradition. Small wonder, then, that some of his copious notes, particularly on hell and heaven, angels, jinn and polygamy, etc. are informed with the pseudo-rationalist spirit of his times, as for instance in the works of S. Ahmad and S. Ameer Ali.

His overemphasis on things spiritual also distorts the Qur’anic worldview. Against this is the fact that Yusuf Ali doubtless was one of the few Muslims who enjoyed an excellent command over the English language. It is fully reflected in his translation. Though his is more of a paraphrase than a literal translation, yet it faithfully represents the sense of the original.

 The Meaning of the Qur’an (Lahore, 1967), the English version of Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdud’i’s magnum opus, the Urdu Tafhim al-Quran is an interpretative rendering of the Qur’an which remarkably succeeds in recapturing some of the majesty of the original.

Since Mawdudi, a great thinker, enjoyed rare mastery over both classical and modern scholarship, his work helps one develop an understanding of the Qur’an as a source of guidance. Apart from setting the verses/Suras in the circumstances of its time, the author constantly relates, though exhaustive notes, the universal message of the Qur’an to his own time and its specific problems. His logical line of argument, generous sensibility, judicious use of classical Muslim scholarship and practical solutions to the problems of the day combine to show Islam as a complete way of life and as the Right Path for the whole of mankind. Since the translation of this invaluable work done by Muhammad Akbar is pitiably poor and uninspiring, the much-needed new English translation of the entire work is in progress under the auspices of the Islamic Foundation, Leicester.

The Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad (Gibraltar, 1980) represents a notable addition to the body of English translations couched in chaste English. This work is nonetheless vitiated by deviation from the viewpoint of the Muslim orthodoxy on many counts. Averse to take some Qur’anic statements literally, Asad denies the occurrence of such events as the throwing of Abraham into the fire, Jesus speaking in the cradle, etc. He also regards Luqman, Khizr and Zulqarnain as ‘mythical figures’ and holds unorthodox views on the abrogation of verses. These blemishes apart, this highly readable translation contains useful, though sometimes unreliable background information about the Qur’anic Suras and even provides exhaustive notes on various Qur’anic themes.

The fairly recent The Qur’an: The First American Version (Vermont, 1985) by another native Muslim speaker of English, T.B. Irving, marks the appearance of the latest major English translation. Apart from the obnoxious title, the work is bereft of textual and explanatory notes.

Using his own arbitrary judgment, Irving has assigned themes to each Qur’anic Ruku’ (section). Although modern and forceful English has been used, it is not altogether free of instances of mistranslation and loose expressions. With American readers in mind, particularly the youth, Irving has employed many American English idioms, which, in places, are not befitting of the dignity of the Qur’anic diction and style.

In addition to the above, there are also a number of other English translations by Muslims, which, however, do not rank as significant ventures in this field.

They may be listed as:

1. Al-Hajj Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar, Translation of the Holy Qur’an (Singapore, 1920)
2. Ali Ahmad Khan Jullundri, Translation of the Glorious Holy Qur’an with commentary (Lahore, 1962)
Abdur Rahman Tariq and Ziauddin Gilani, The Holy Qur’an Rendered into English (Lahore, 1966)
4. Syed Abdul Latif, Al-Qur’an: Rendered into English (Hyderabad, 1969)
5. Hashim Amir Ali, The Message of the Qur’an Presented in Perspective (Tokyo, 1974)
6. Taqui al-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Explanatory English Translation of the Holy Qur’an: A Summarized Version of Ibn Kathir Supplemented by At-Tabari with Comments from Sahih al-Bukhari (Chicago, 1977)
7. Muhammad Ahmad Mofassir, The Koran: The First Tafsir in English (London, 1979)
8. Mahmud Y. Zayid, The Qur’an: An English Translation of the Meaning of the Qur’an (checked and revised in collaboration with a committee of Muslim scholars) (Beirut, 1980)
9. S.M. Sarwar, The Holy Qur’an: Arab Text and English Translation (Elmhurst, 1981)
10. Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation (Karachi, 1984).

(In view of the blasphemous statements contained in Rashad Khalifa’s The Qur’an: The Final Scripture (Authorized English Version) (Tucson, 1978), it has not been included in the translations by Muslims).

Even amongst the Muslim translations, some are representative of the strong sectarian biases of their translators.

For example, the Shia doctrines are fully reflected in accompanying commentaries of the following books: S.V. Mir Ahmad Ali, The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary, according to the version of the Holy Ahlul Bait includes ‘special notes from Hujjatul Islam Ayatullah Haji Mirza Mahdi Pooya Yazdi on the philosophical aspects of the verses’ (Karachi, 1964); M.H. Shakir, Holy Qur’an (New York, 1982); Syed Muhammad Hussain at-Tabatabai, al-Mizan: An Exegesis of the Qur’an, translated from Persian into English by Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi (Tehran, 198~). So far five volumes of this work have been published.

Illustrative of the Barelvi sectarian stance is Holy Qur’an, the English version of Ahmad Raza Khan Brailai’s Urdu translation, by Hanif Akhtar Fatmi (Lahore, n.d.).

As pointed out earlier, the Qadiyanis, though having abandoned Islam, have been actively engaged in translating the Qur’an, Apart from English, their translations are available in several European and African languages.

Muhammad Ali’s The Holy Qur’an: English Translation (Lahore, 1917) marks the beginning of this effort. This Qadiyani translator is guilty of misinterpreting several Qur’anic verses, particularly those related to the Promised Messiah, his miracles and the Qur’anic angelology.

Similar distortions mar another Qadiyani translation by Sher Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation (Rabwah, 1955).Published under the auspices of Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, second successor of the “Promised Messiah” and head of the Ahmadiyyas, this oft-reprinted work represents the official Qadiyani version of the Qur’an. Unapologizingly, Sher Sher Ali refers to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as the “Promised Messiah” and mistranslates and misinterprets a number of Qur’anic verses.

There are a number of translations of the Quran into English. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a list of several that I recommend, and several that I feel people should avoid.

Recommended Translations

1) The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, by Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Pickthall was a British convert to Islam in the early 20th century. His translation sticks closely to the Arabic text and to the interpretations made by Muslims. It is also very easy to find and inexpensive. The only drawback is the archaic language (thee and thou and the like), which makes it difficult to read. Nonetheless, this is my preferred translation.

2) The Holy Qur’an: Translation, by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Available in several versions including with Arabic text, commentary, or Roman transliteration. His translation is looser than Pickthall’s but sometimes captures the flavor of the Arabic better. This translation is also widely available in one or another of its versions. Contains some archaic language but not as much as Pickthall.

3) The Koran Interpreted, by A.J. Arberry. This translation is by a non-Muslim. Arberry has really made efforts to render his translation in the most beautiful language and style. However, his rendering of certain passages may differ from that of other translators because he did not make use of Islamic interpretations. Also, the system of verse numbering is different than that of other translations, which makes it difficult to use as a reference.

Translations to Avoid

1) The Noble Qur’an in the English Language, by Muhammad al-Hilali and M.M. Khan. These authors have inserted a lot of commentary in parenthetical notes in the text, and this is why I do not like it. It gives a very misleading idea to non-Muslims or to new Muslims what the Arabic text of the Quran is. If the commentary had been put in footnotes rather than the main body of the text, this would be on my recommended list instead. Use this only if you are familiar with the Arabic text of the Quran and can determine what is commentary and what is the Quran.

2) The Koran, by J.M. Rodwell. This is a translation by a Christian missionary. Not only does this introduce bias into his rendering, but he has also left out several verses at the end of Surah al-Baqarat, and the last four surahs. As such, this translation is really unusable. Avoid it.

 2. Proponents of the Translation of the Qur’an

We will study now the opinions of two scholars who permitted the translation of the Qur’an.

2.1 Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi[23]

Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi, former Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, advocated the translation of the Qur’an and expressed the opinion that it is absolutely permissible in a treatise first published in 1932. In 1355/1936 he added to it some other quotations of classical works supporting his viewpoint. This treatise was republished in Nur al-Islam under the title Bahth fi Tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim wa-‘Ahkamuha and it was also distributed as a supplement to the second issue of the magazine on the occasion of the cooperation between al-Azhar and the ministry of Education in translating the meanings of the Qur’an. He used some quotations of al-Shatibi, Ibn Hajar, and al-Zamakhshari as the basis of his arguments. He started by quoting a passage of al-Shatibi, a Maliki scholar who died in Granada in 790 AH, which reads: “Arabic words, on their own or arranged in literary form to make sense, may be considered from two aspects: either they convey absolute meanings (ma‘anin mutlaqa) or auxiliary meanings (ma‘anin khadima). The first is common to all languages, so that it is possible to express in foreign languages what is expressed in Arabic and vice versa. …The second, derived from highly developed rhetoric, is peculiar to Arabic. If this second view is admitted, it is not possible to translate, in any way, Arabic into foreign tongues, still less to translate the Qur’an, unless the two languages concerned be proved equal… a very difficult thing to do conclusively….”[24] Al-Maraghi then stressed al-Shatibi’s conclusion that it is possible to translate the Qur’an, if the absolute meaning alone is considered, since by common agreement of all Muslims it is permissible to comment on it, and this agreement on its tafsir was an argument for the legitimacy of its translation.[25] Al-Maraghi went on to maintain that translation is similar to commentary in that both are meant to explain the meanings and purposes of the Qur’an in other words. The only difference is that the commentator uses Arabic while the translator uses a non-Arabic language. Since it is possible that a commentator be wrong or right in expressing the meanings, the same possibility should be accepted in respect to the translation as long as the commentator and translator possess the required qualifications.[26]

Al-Maraghi also quoted al-Zamakhshari’s aforementioned commentary on verse (14: 4) in which he stated, “If you argue that the Messenger of Allah was not sent to the Arabs alone but to all mankind…who speak different languages, so that if the Arabs could not make any plea (of ignorance) others could, then I would say this: The Qur’an could have been revealed either in all numerous languages, or only in one language. If the revelation were to be communicated in all languages, it would lead to needless repetition, since translation could serve as a substitute for such repetition. Hence it was revealed to the Prophet in the language of his own people, to whom he was sent, in the preliminary stage of the call to Islam. Once these people came to understand comprehensively the meaning of this message, they took the task of transmitting it to the rest of mankind throughout the world. This is evident in all non-Arab countries, where Muslims get their instruction in the Qur’an through translations in their native tongues…”[27] Furthermore, al-Maraghi stated that Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani in his commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari under the chapter entitled “Nazala al-Qur’an bilisan Quraysh wal-‘Arab…” [The Qur’an was revealed in the language of Quraysh and the Arabs…] quoted Ibn Battal who said, “The Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic tongue but this does not contradict the fact that the Prophet was sent to all peoples because he conveyed it [the Revelation] to the Arabs and they in turn would translate it to non-Arabs in their own tongues.”[28]

Al-Maraghi then commenced to respond to the arguments of the opponents of the translation of the Qur’an. He stated that the Qur’an is unanimously the literal word of Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language. He denied that Abu Hanifah once held that it is the meaning of the revealed Arabic text as it was reported. Al-Maraghi then asserted that the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet for two purposes: first, [instruction] through the meanings it comprised such as tawhid (the unity of Allah), the code of Divine laws dealing with all spheres of life, the code of ethics and manners, etc., and second, a proof for the veracity of Muhammad’s Prophethood, that is i‘jaz[29] (the inimitability of the Qur’an).[30] He stated that the majority of Muslim scholars view that the i‘jaz consists in the excellence of its literary composition. Hence no translation could transfer both of the meaning and literary style of the Arabic text to the target languages, but this does not mean that it is impossible to transfer the meaning. As for the i‘jaz, i.e., the inimitability of the literary style, it is still preserved in the Arabic text for the Arabs and non-Arabs who read the Arabic text.[31] then al-Maraghi argued that if the inimitability of the Qur’an lies in the fact that it contained certain forecasts of the future, as some believed, then the translation can convey this proof for this aspect of inimitability is connected to the meaning not to different forms of applying of different kinds of  wording.[32]

Al-Maraghi stressed that the translations cannot be called Qur’an and thus if they are altered or happened to differ from one another, this has nothing to do with the Arabic text which is preserved against any change or alteration as Allah promised. It is, he continued, the official text, which must be resorted to in case of differences, and the criterion for judging any translation to exist.[33]

Finally, al-Maraghi concluded that it is not permissible to change the words of the Arabic text or alter their arrangement and composition, which we are required to protect against distortion and alteration. Translations have nothing to do with this, for they are not the Qur’an and should not be described as such; they are no more than the meanings of the Qur’an. He added that it is not possible to translate the whole Qur’an literally, but this is possible with regard to the majority of its verses. He admitted that the interpretative translation may change the meaning intended by Allah for it is dependant on the understanding and interpretation [of the translator] but he stated that the Hanafis permitted this kind of translation and that al-Shatibi also permitted it comparing it to commentary. Then he stated that arabizing non-Arab Muslims is a pleasant aspiration and every Muslim wishes that Arabic would be the tongue of the whole Muslim world so that all Muslims could read and understand the Arabic text of the Qur’an. However, he emphasized that until this wish is fulfilled it is better that the meanings of the Qur’an be translated to non-Arab Muslims so that they could comprehend and reflect upon them. He also stated that the true meanings of the Qur’an should not be hidden from Christian communities but they should be properly transferred to them so that their scholars could study its social institutions, codes of ethics, etc.[34]

2.2 Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut[35]

In 1355/1936 Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut [former Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar] wrote an article entitled “Tarjamat al-Qur’an wa-Nusus al-‘Ulama’ fiha” in Majallat al-Azhar expressing his attitude regarding the translation of the Qur’an.[36] He adopted the same opinion as Sheikh al-Maraghi. First, he explained that the cause of the controversy on the issue was that some Muslim reformers noticed that many translations of the Qur’an were made by non-Muslims and contained many mistakes, which in turn led to misunderstanding of the meanings of the Qur’an. These Muslim reformers called for the making of a translation containing precise and adequate meanings of the Qur’an, which could then be spread all over the world so that, on the one hand, the guidance and principles of Islam would be propagated, and that it would overcome the corrupt translations on the other hand.[37]

Shaltut then referred to the three kinds of translation previously identified by Sheikh Shakir and stated that the equal literal translation which is intended to preserve the inimitability and excellence of the literary composition of the original was out of discussion for it is impossible and beyond human ability. As for the unequal literal translation and the interpretative translation, he stated that none of them could convey the inimitable aspects of the Qur’an, so such translations were not the Qur’an or its equal, for the Qur’an is the inimitable word of Allah revealed in Arabic and reached us through successive transmission. He emphasized that the existence of any of these two kinds of translation neither challenges the inimitable aspects of the Qur’an nor suffices to convey its purposes, i.e. i‘jaz and tabligh (instruction). But he stressed that the inimitability of the Qur’an consisted not only in its rhetoric and literary composition but also in that it contained certain forecasts of the future, which could not be perceived except through revelation, as well as distinctive codes of laws and social and ethical principles, which no one could say were capable of invention either wholly or partially by an unlettered man. If the translation could not transfer the inimitable rhetoric and composition, he argued, it could transfer the other great aspects of inimitability, which are connected to the original meanings, and thus humanity should not be deprived from them.[38]

3. Analysis

From the previous discussions we can identify many common points between both the opponents and advocates of the translation of the Qur’an. In general, none of them opposed translation of the meanings of the Qur’an to non-Muslims for the purpose of enabling them to have knowledge of the message of Islam. None of them denied the fact that the style of the Qur’an is inimitable and that it is impossible to transfer this inimitable aspect into a translation, and thus none of them stated that a translation could serve as a substitute for the original. None denied the need to have access to the Arabic original.
However, we have observed differing attitudes towards the issue on two main grounds: first, on legal grounds, for the issue was one of controversy among Muslim scholars in the past and thus the old debate was retained in the new discourse and each side more or less adopted one of the old attitudes. The second is a historical ground that had different effects on the discussion. It is obvious that all the fatwas issued at a particular period were affected by certain historical elements, which represented external threats to the solidarity of the community.

We have looked at the phase of history when the Turkish government was endeavoring to severe all ties and relations with Muslim countries, and to isolate the Turkish people from the language of the Qur’an by providing a substitute for it, with which they would have no need of the Arabic Qur’an. As we have seen this threatened the solidarity of the Muslim nation, and that is why all the fatwas more or less stressed the fact that a translation cannot be described as the Qur’an. Thus in response to this threat, some scholars opposed the idea of translation in general, and permitted only a translation of a commentary on the Qur’an so as to preserve the composition of the Qur’an from corruption, and to ensure that the remaining bond of Islamic unity (i.e. the Qur’an) after the collapse of the Islamic caliphate would not be severed in favor of nationalistic goals. This attitude was represented in the positions of Muhammad Shakir, Mustafa Sabrî, and Hasanayn Makhluf, who by invoking the principle of sadd al-dhara’i‘ were keen to preserve Islamic unity and fight against those, who tried to divert the peoples from the Arabic Qur’an and the Arabic language.

On the other hand, we encounter the long history of the Orientalist-missionary polemics towards the Qur’an and their production of a distorted image of the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam in general in the Western world. Though the first group felt this danger, some of them did not think that the production of a true translation of the Qur’an could prevent this campaign. This was the opinion of Sheikh Makhluf. In his opinion, the best method of opposing this campaign was to inform them that what they produced was not the Qur’an, to convey to them the true message of the Qur’an and assure them that the Qur’an is untranslatable. However, the second group perceived a danger and tried to react in a more positive way by calling for the production of a faithful translation of the Qur’an as an attempt to correct the misconceptions spread in the West. The reaction to the Qadiani threat was more or less the same as that to the Orientalist-missionary approach by both sides.

4. Conclusion

No doubt, the peculiar circumstances of history which brought the Qur’an into contact with the English language have left their imprint on the non-Muslim as well as the Muslim bid to translate it. The results and achievements of their efforts leave a lot to be desired.

Unlike, for instance, major Muslim languages such as Persian, Turkish and Urdu, which have thoroughly exhausted indigenous linguistic and literary resources to meet the scholarly and emotional demands of the task, the prolific resources of the universal medium of English have not been fully employed in the service of the Qur’an.

The Muslim Scripture is yet to find a dignified and faithful expression in the English language that matches the majesty and grandeur of the original. The currents of history, however, seem to be in favour of such a development. Even English is acquiring a native Muslim character and it is only a matter of time before we have a worthy translation of the Qur’an in that tongue.

Till them, the Muslim student should judiciously make use of Pickthall, A. Yusuf Ali, Asad and Irving; Even Arberry’s stylistic qualities must not be ignored. Ultimately, of course, the Muslim should try to discover the original and not allow himself to be lost in a maze of translations and interpretations.

From the aforementioned discussions we can reach two important conclusions. The first is that Muslim scholars did not stand aloof from their society, but were aware of its problems and tried their best to solve these problems and fight against the various threats endangering the solidarity and development of their societies. By dealing with the problem of the translation of the Qur’an, which serves here as an example, we can touch this aspect of the Muslim society very closely. The historical elements which surrounded the issue at particular moments of history emphasize this conclusion, for they reveal how Muslim scholars responded to the needs of society at these times. The second conclusion was the important role that the Arabic language has played in unifying the Muslim world, for it is not the language of Arabs but of all Muslims; it is the language of the Qur’an, of worship, and Islamic heritage.

From here I call upon all Muslims to pay more attention to the Arabic language in their educational curricula, and to establish institutions in the West to shoulder the task of teaching Muslims there the language of the Qur’an. In the meantime, I call upon Muslim scholars from all Muslim countries to convene an International Islamic committee including professionals both in Arabic as well as in the different foreign languages to examine the present translations of the Qur’an and revise whatever mistakes they find in them and hold regular revision sessions for these translations.


[1]This refers to those translations made by the Qadianis to proclaim their beliefs and to the initiative of the Turkish government, after the collapse of the caliphate, to produce a Turkish Qur’an as a substitute to the Arabic one in order to severe all ties with Arabs and Muslims.

[2]See: M. A. M. Abou Sheishaa, “The Translation of the Qur’an: A Study of A Fatwa by Rashid Rida” in Journal of the Society for Qur’anic Studies, no. 1, vol. 1, 2001, cf. M. A. M. Abou Sheishaa, The Translation of the Qur’an: A Study of a Fatwa by Rashid Rida and Other Relevant Fatwas and Issues, Unpublished paper submitted to the Seminar “Islam and the West: Their Mutual Relations as Reflected in Fatwa Literature”, Leiden, 2001.

[3]Sheikh Muhammad Shakir b. Ahmad b. ‘Abd al-Qadir was born in 1282/1866 in Jirja, a city in Upper Egypt. He studied at al-Azhar and in 1900 he was appointed as a chief justice in Sudan for four years. He was then appointed as Wakil of al-Azhar. He was a member of al-Azhar Corps of High Scholars and a member of the Legislative Society (al-Jam‘iyya al-Tashri‘iyya) in 1331/1913. He died in 1358/1939 in Cairo. Among his works are: al-Durus al-Awwaliyya fi al-‘Aqa’id al-Diniyya, al-Qawl al-Fasl fi Tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim, and al-Sira al-Nabawiyya. His son Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad Shakir wrote his biography in a treatise entitled Muhammad Shakir ‘Alam min A‘lam al-‘Asr. For further information see: Khayr al-Din al-Zirikli, Al-A‘lam, Dar al-‘Ilm lil-Malayin, Beirut, n.d., vol. 6, pp. 156-57; cf. Daghir, op.cit., vol. 2, p. 466.

[4]The first part of this article was translated by T. W. Arnold and published by the Moslem World under the title “On the translation of the Koran into Foreign Languages”. The Arabic original was inaccessible to me.

[5]Nur Ichwan, M., Response of the Reformist Muslims to Muhammad Ali’s Translation and Commentary of the Qur’an in Egypt and Indonesia: A study of Muhammad Rashid Rida’s Fatwa, Unpublished paper submitted to the Seminar “Islam and the West: Their Mutual Relation as Reflected in Fatwa Literature, Leiden, 1998, p. 22.

[6]Shakir, Muhammad, “On the Translation of the Koran into Foreign Languages”, trans. T. W. Arnold, in The Moslem World, vol. XVI, 1926, pp. 161-62.


[8]Ibidem, p. 163.

[9]Ibidem, p. 163-64.

[10]Ibidem, p. 164-65.


[12]Sheikh Hasanayn Makhluf was born on May 6, 1890 in Bab al-Futuh, Cairo. He learned the Qur’an by heart and joined al-Azhar as a student to learn different sciences at the hands of various Sheikhs. Sheikh Hasanayn Makhluf then joined the school of the Qada’ Shar‘i (Shar‘i Jurisdiction), which was affiliated to al-Azhar at that time. After finishing the program of study in this school which lasted for four years he applied for the examination to obtain al-‘Alimiyya Certificate and successfully obtained this in 1914. When he was 24 years old he taught in al-Azhar voluntarily. In June 1916 he was appointed qadi in the Shari‘a Court, reaching the position of President of Alexandria court at the end of 1941. He was then appointed Head Supervisor of the Shari‘a Courts at the Ministry of Justice. Later on he was deputized to teach in the Specialization section (qism al-Takhassus) of the school of Shar‘i Jurisdiction for three years, until he was appointed as a deputy of the High Shari‘a Court in 1944. In 1948 he was appointed a member of al-Azhar Corps of High Scholars, then a member of the Academy of Islamic Researches in 1961. He was one of the founding members of the Muslim World League. Sheikh Hasanayn Makhluf was appointed as chief Mufti of Egypt from 1946 to 1950. In 1952 he was reappointed as Mufti and remained in office until December 19, 1954. Afterwards he held the position of the head of al-Azhar Fatwa Committee for a lengthy period. He was awarded the King Faysal World Prize for his services to Islam. He died on 19 Ramadan 1410 /1990. Sheikh Hasanayn Makhluf wrote many books, for instance, Kalimat al-Qur’an: Tafsir wa Bayan; Risalat al-Tafsir wal-Mufassirun; Risala fi Ta‘alim al-Shari‘a al-Islamiyya, and Fatawa Shar‘iyya wa Buhuth Islamiyya. This biography is basically based on Mohsen Khalifa, “Ramadan Fasting in Northern Europe: A Study of the Fatwa of Sheikh Hasanyn Makhluf and other Relevant Fatwas and Issues”, Unpublished paper submitted to the Seminar “Islam and the West: Their mutual Relations as Reflected in Fatwa Literature”, 2000.

[13]Makhluf, Muhammad Hasanayn, Risala fi Hukm Tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim wa-Qira’atihi wa-Kitabatihi bi-ghayr al-Lughati al-‘Arabiyya, Matba‘at Matar, Cairo, 1343/1925, p. 2.

[14]Ibidem, pp. 7-9.

[15]Ibidem, pp. 9-10.

[16]Ibidem, p. 10.

[17]Ibidem, pp. 11-12.

[18]Ibidem, pp. 14-15.

[19]Ibidem, p. 25.

[20]Ibidem, pp. 20-21.

[21]Ibidem, p. 29.

[22]Ibidem, pp. 28-29.

[23]Sheikh al-Maraghi, whose full name was Muhammad b. Mustafa b. Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im al-Maraghi, was an Egyptian researcher and commentator who advocated reform and renovation. He was born in 1298/1881 in al-Maragha, a village in Upper Egypt, in the district of Jirja. He studied at al-Azhar in Cairo and was a disciple of Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh. He was appointed a qadi shar‘i (Shari‘a judge), then a chief justice in Sudan (1908-1919) where he learned English. In 1928 he was appointed Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar and remained one year in office. He was reappointed a Grand Sheikh in 1935 and remained in office until he died in 1364/1945. Among his writings are: Bahth fi tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim ila al-Lughat al-Ajnabiyya, Buhuth fi al-Tashri’ al-Islami, al-Durus al-Diniyya, Tafsir surat al-Hujurat, etc. For this biography I relied on Khayr al-Din al-Zirikli, op.cit., vol. 7, p. 103.

[24]Maraghi, Muhammad al-, Bahth fi Tarjamat al-Qur’an al-Karim wa-‘Ahkamuha, Matba‘at al-Ragha’ib, Cairo, 355/1936, pp. 3-4; cf. Shatibi, al-Muwafaqat, ed. ‘Abdallah Diraz, vol. II, Dar al-Ma‘rifa, Beirut, n.d., pp. 66-68.

[25]Maraghi, op.cit., p. 5; cf. Shatibi, op.cit., p. 68.

[26]Maraghi, op.cit., p. 5.

[27]Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaf, vol. 2, Matba‘at Mustafa al-Baabi al-Halabi wa-Awladuh, Cairo, n.d., pp. 366-67; cf. A. L. Tibawi, “Is the Qur’an Translatable?” in The Muslim World, vol. LII, 1962, p. 10.

[28]Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, ed. Muhammad Fu’ad ‘Abd al-Baqi & Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib, Dar al-Ma‘rifa, Beirut, 1379, vol. 9, p. 10; cf. Maraghi, op.cit., p. 33.

[29]I‘jaz literally means ‘rendering incapable’ and theologically it means the inimitability of the Qur’an. This is an Islamic doctrine, which, according to the Muslim viewpoint, proves the Qur’anic text’s divinity and sacredness as well as the authenticity of the unlettered Prophet, the recipient of the Qur’anic revelation (Muhammad Harun, “Al-Fatihah and its Translators” in Islamic Quarterly, vol. 40, 1996, p. 70).

[30]Maraghi, op.cit., p. 9.

[31]Ibidem, pp. 9-11.

[32]Ibidem, p. 10.

[33]Ibidem. p. 12.

[34]Ibidem. p. 31-32.

[35]Mahmud Shaltut was born on April 23, 1893 in the province of Buhayra. After learning the Qur’an by heart, he was enrolled in 1906 at the new religious Institute of Alexandria for his primary and secondary stages of education. In 1916 he graduated form al-Azhar with his ‘Alimiyya certificate. In 1919 he supported the independence movement led by Sa‘d Zaghlul and in the same year he was appointed to teach at the Alexandria Religious Institute. In 1937 he represented al-Azhar at an International conference on comparative law held at The Hague, The Netherlands. There he gave a lecture on the nature of Islamic law which was well received and which won recognition for the Shari‘a as a viable and independent source of law from the delegates. In 1941 he was admitted to Jama‘at Kibar al-‘Ulama’ and in 1946 he was chosen a member of Arabic Language Academy. His academic career went from strength to strength until he was appointed on October 21, 1958 Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar following the resignation of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman Tajj. Shaltut was then 65 years old. Of course, Shaltut was a very popular choice for the position of Sheikh al-Azhar. He was described by several people as a gifted orator, having a powerful voice and a commanding presence. On 25 November 1963, at the age of 70, Shaltut was taken into hospital. There his condition worsened, he died of a heart attack in the evening of 13 December 1963. This biographical sketch is mainly based on Zebiri, Kate, Mahmud Shaltut and Islamic Modernsim, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993, pp. 11-15.

[36]Mahmud Shaltut, “Tarjamat al-Qur’an wa-Nusus al-‘Ulama’ fiha” in Majallat al-Azhar, vol. 7, 1355, pp. 123-34.

[37]Ibidem, p. 123.

[38]Ibidem, pp. 124-25.

[39]Ibidem, pp. 126-29.

[40]For further information see: Jacob Skovgaard-Petersen, Defining Islam for the Egyptian State, Brill, Leiden, New York & Köln, 1997, pp.133-141.

[41]Ibidem, pp. 130-31.

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