University of Oxford

Quranic Linguistics and Ethics


 Literature is made of language.  In another broad sense, language is made of words and words form chains of sentences.  One may know what the words mean and how they can be used together in meaningful combinations. However, one may or may not be able to express the rules of those combinations – the grammar. But as a user of a language, one can recognize when a group of words makes sense and when it does not. This knowledge of the system makes it possible for one to make sense of the particular combination of words that a text provides.  One has to apply this knowledge of the system of language – its meanings and forms – before a work of literature can come to life.

An individual may experience a story or a poem that one reads differently than the next individual.  This is because a reader brings what he reads to his own background and belief as well as his own knowledge and each one imparts one’s own meaning into what one reads.  However, there are certain rules that a reader must abide by where meaning is concerned.  There are language rules, literary rules and cultural rules which make up the systems of meaning.  Thus, one cannot make what one reads whatever one wants it to mean.  Reading literature actively and critically draws one’s attention to these systems of meaning.

An attentiveness to language in reading literature helps one to anchor on  specific linguistic analysis within the text to focus on linguistic features such as distinctive word orders, choices of vocabulary, patterns of sound and rhythm, and  complexities  of meaning .  These structures of language are clearly visible and present in literature.

The English translated versions of the Quran have been found to contain a rich variety of linguistic features. When one looks closer and give it the same attentiveness to the visibility of the structures of language in its literature, one can experience and perceive its literary value.

When one reads a poem, for example, one first looks at the language used – the words.  When one goes on to analyse a poem, one must consider its subject matter, the poet’s approach to it and the form and style in which the poem is written.  The subject matter and the poet’s approach generally influence his choice of form and style.  If a poet writes about a violent subject, for example, The Tornedo, the poet will tend to use words violent in their meanings and sounds.

Similarly, when one reads the verses of the English translated versions of the Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, one can appreciate the same poetic enjoyment and fulfillment. ln the academic setting, especially at tertiary level Islamic institutions, attempts have been made to incorporate Islam into all courses.  The use of English language translations of the Quran as literary texts would surely be a way of incorporating Islam to a larger extent in a literature classroom in the English language as the medium of instruction.

The majority of Muslims in the world are non-Arabic speakers which indeed makes it a necessity to deal with the Quran in various languages.  The English language, especially, as the world’s major international language would make a good medium for understanding Quranic teachings and thereby helping Muslims spread peace and harmony internationally through their practice of and commitment to Islam.

There is no general consensus on which translations of the meaning of the Quran are the “closest” or best. Each scholar may have his or her own reasons for preferring or rejecting a particular text.


According to Ahmad von Denffer, Muslim scholars agree that it is impossible to transfer the meaning of the original Quran word-for-word to another language (Von Denffer,1985:143). Some academicians refer to any translated version of the Quran in any language as translations of the Quran which are actually expressions of words and phrases that convey the meaning of the Quran in other languages.

Muhammad Al-Ghazali and Umar Ubayd Hasanah write that there is a consensus among Muslim scholars that when the Quran is translated into any other language, the translated work cannot convey the Quran’s original and exact meaning (Al-Ghazali and Hasanah, 1991:239). Thus, it is appropriate to call these translated work, translations of the meaning of the Quran in for instance, English, French, and German.  Scholars concur that the original text which was revealed in Arabic is the only book that can be called the Quran.

M. Pickthall opened the foreword section of his book, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran-English language translation of the meaning of the Quran, with these lines:

The aim of this work is to present readers what the world over holds to be the meaning of the words of the Quran and the  nature of  that  Book ……. The Quran cannot be translated (Pickthall, 1963: i).            

 Muhammad Asad writes in his book, The Message of the Quran -English language translation of the meaning of the Quran:

I do not claim to have “translated” the Quran in the   sense in which, say Plato or Shakespeare can be translated.  Unlike any other book, its meaning and its linguistic presentation form one unbreakable whole.  The position of individual words in a sentence, the rhythm and the sound of its phrases and their syntactic construction, the manner in which a metaphor flows almost imperceptibly into a pragmatic statement, the use of acoustic stress not merely in the service of rhetoric but as a means of alluding to unspoken but clearly implied ideas: all this makes the Quran, in the last resort, unique and untranslatable – a fact that has been pointed out by many earlier translators and by all Arab scholars.  But although it is impossible to “reproduce” the Quran as such in any other language, it is nonetheless possible to render its message comprehensible to people who, like most Westerners, do not know Arabic at all or – as is the case with most of the educated non-Arab Muslims – not well enough to find  their  way  through  it unaided (Asad,1980: v).

The translations of the Quran are actually expressions of the meaning of the Quran in other languages.  Although these translations cannot adequately express all the meanings of the Quran carried by the original text, these translations are greatly in need. Since the majority of Muslims in the world are non-Arabic speakers, translations of the meaning of the Quran in other languages serve their purpose of existence. Translations of the meaning of the Quran therefore becomes a practical basis for the spread of Islam to others all over the world.

While choosing a translation, a reader should keep in mind that the original Quran which was written in Arabic, has been revealed as guidance for mankind. A translation is to lead a reader to understand the meaning of the Quran so that one gets the guidance from it. Since the first published English translation of the Quran, about 350 years has passed. Within this period, 40 complete English translations have been published (Khan, 1997:245).

According  to Dr. M.H. Khan , the first complete translation of the Quran was done in Latin by an Englishman, Robert of Ketton. Robert professed that he attempted to undertake this project of translation by “selecting nothing, altering nothing in the sense except for the sake of intelligibility.” He completed this project somewhere between 16th June and 16th July 1643 (Khan, 1997:2).

Dr. Khan also highlighted the first English translation of the Quran was done by a Frenchman, du Ryer. The translation which was lengthily entitled: The Alcoran of Mahomet, translated out of Arabique into French; by the Sieur du Ryer, Lord of Malezair, and Resident for the King of France, at Alexandria. And newly Englished, for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities, was printed in London in 1649. Dr. Khan summed up reviewers’ comments of the first English translation of the Quran to be “very far from perfect” and “an indifferent translation of an inadequate version” (Khan, 1997:34).


Muhammad Asad, formerly known as Leopold Weiss, was born in 1900 in the Polish city of Lvov. In 1958, he went to Switzerland and commenced the translation of the Quran into English. About 5 years of work, Asad published The Message of the Quran in 1964. It was a preliminary, limited edition of part of his complete translation. The complete translation of Asad, the first of about twenty-two years of labour, came out in 1980, published by Dar al-Andalus Limited, Gibraltar.

The features of his book include a page of dedication “for people who think “ and a table of contents which gives both Arabic captions and their English translation of surah, a list of works of references and a foreword explaining the need for a new translation. Arabic text and English rendering are printed in parallel columns while short commentaries appear as footnotes in the translation. A brief introduction to each surah explains the chronological order of it but sometimes goes further to present its inner message. The work includes four useful appendices: “Symbolism and allegory in the Quran, al-Muqattaat, the term and the concept of Jinn, and the night journey” (Khan, 1997:146).


Abdullah Yusuf Ali, also known as Allama Abdullah Yusuf Ali was born on 4th April 1872 in Surat, India. He died on 10th December 1953. Abdullah Yusuf Ali is a well-known figure in the Quranic literature. His English translation of the Quran is so popular that almost every  English speaking Muslim has read it, heard of it or has a copy of it.

The features of his book are that the Arabic text and English translation are printed in parallel columns, series of notes are arranged as commentary on the lower half of the page, and each individual surah starts with a poetical summary. The book starts with a general introduction, poetical introduction and a table of contents. The first edition came out between 1934 and 1937. In all, 93 different editions by Abdullah Yusuf Ali were identified (Khan, 1997:123).


The surah (chapters of the Quran) can be selected randomly from the list of Medinan and Meccan surah. The selection of which verses in which Surah would be suitable to use in the Literature classroom has to be done with much thought and planning. This writer considers these aspects when making the selection:

a)   That the surah is of medium length-not too long or short. This writer has considered the approximate time of one class period to complete the teaching of one medium length surah.

b)   That the surah contains issues interesting and appropriate for the undergraduate level. Familiar issues are important for class participation and adequate points for essay writing.


 The Quran was revealed over a period of twenty-three years. The growth and development of the Muslims during the period of revelation are marked by two great phases:

a)   The period in Mecca, before the Prophet’s migration.

b)   The period in Medina, after the Prophet’s migration.

The knowledge of Meccan and Medinan revelations (or surah) is of great importance to a Muslim.  Altogether there are one hundred and fourteen surah in the Quran. The Meccan phase of revelation lasted about thirteen years from the first revelation up to the Prophet’s migration.  The main themes of the Meccan surah are:

a)   Allah and the oneness of Allah

b)   The Day of Judgement

c)   Righteous conduct

Meccan surah  are usually short. There are eighty-five Meccan surah in the Quran .The Medinan phase lasted about ten years, from the Prophet’s migration up to the death of the Prophet.  The main themes of Medinan surah are:

a)   legislation

b)   rules for social dealings

c)   property and inheritance.

Medinan surah are usually longer than Meccan surah.  There are twenty-nine Medinan surah in the Quran.


 A further objective of this paper was to explore and create an awareness of the literary aspects of two versions of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran mentioned below and consequently possibly using them as literary texts for the teaching of literature in the English language.

This writer has chosen Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version  because this book, The Holy Quran, has numerous footnotes which provide one with helpful explanations and background information. Furthermore, the English language used in this book is especially appealing to this writer in style—it is considered more poetic than others.

This writer was for a long while not aware of the existence of the other chosen book, The Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad. When this writer first stumbled across Muhammad Asad’s version, its narrative prosaic style caught this writer’s attention. Personally, this writer felt that it is written in such a way that it was somewhat easier to understand than Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version and other versions which had been read by this writer. In such a case, this writer further thought that Muhammad Asad’s version would serve well perhaps for younger readers or even for those with less competence in the English language.

The diverse variety of topics found in the Medinan and Meccan surahs makes the possibility and suitability of using it as a literary text that much more. Furthermore, the verses in each surah are rich with linguistic and literary features. These features can be exploited in the English language and Literature classroom as with any other literary text.


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