21st Century English Translations of Quran by Native Arabs

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

In the last two decades of 21st Century, many new English Translations the Qur’an have been produced by the Muslims in the chaste and accessible idiom of the day 

THE history of translating the Qur’an—the Divine Writ/ Sacred Text—into various languages (oriental or European), especially in English, has a long history. However, a large number of English translations of the Qur’an were published in the 20th century, both by Muslims and (mostly by) non-Muslims. The trend has continued in the 21st century as well and numerous simple and lucid translations have appeared in the two decades. However, in the previous century, the scene was occupied and dominated by non-Muslim translators (‘orientalists’), but in the present times, especially from 2000s, Muslim translators, both native and non-native Arabs, have come to the forefront.

The scene is captured, and summarized aptly, by Prof. Abdur Raheem Kidwai (in an essay published in Muslim World Book Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2019, pp. 5-19) in these words: “Until the early 20th century, translating the Qur’an into English, or other modern European languages, was the exclusive preserve of Orientalist scholarship.” Nonetheless, there were many prominent translations by Muslims as well (especially those by Muhammad Marmuduke Pickthall, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Muhammad Asad, M. Muhsin Khan and Taqi-ud-Din Hilali, etc.). However, in the second decade of 21st century, “the scene has now refreshingly changed. Today English-speaking readers can draw upon reliable and reader-friendly translations in the chaste and accessible idiom of the day”, which are mostly done by the Muslims, both native and non-native Arabs.

The English translations produced in the last two decades (2000-2020) have seen a significant trend, and as noted by Kidwai (in his God’s Word, Man’s Interpretations, 2019, p. xi), more than “40 new complete translations [of the Qur’an in English] have been published between 2000 and 2017: [i.e.,] more than two translations appeared every year”. Most of these have been produced by the Muslims and a significant portion is by the native Arabs who are well-versed in the nuances of both languages. Five (5) such English translations by the native Arabs—namely Abdel Haleem (2004/2005), Tarif Khalidi (2008), Ahmad Zaki Hammad (2007/ 2009), Mustafa Khattab (2016) and Waleed B. Al-Amri (2019)—are briefly evaluated below:

  1. A. S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A New Translation (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 [2004])

M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (b. 1930) is a trained Egyptian scholar and is presently Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; editor of the Journal of Qur’anic 

Studies; and an expert on the Qur’an and Arabic language and literature. A hafiz-e-Quran, he received his education at al-Azhar, Cairo, and Cambridge University and has taught Arabic at Cambridge and London Universities since 1966. He is (among others) the author of Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style (1999) and Exploring the Qur’an: Context and Impact (2016).

Abdel Haleem’s Translation, which first appeared in 2004 and was republished in 2005, is, in his own words, “written in modern, easy style, avoiding … cryptic language or archaism” so that “to make the Qur’an accessible to everyone who speaks English, Muslims or otherwise”. It is evaluated by scholars and critic as “an accurate and highly readable translation” which is ‘remarkable’ for being into “refreshingly clear and simple English”, wherein “complex grammar and structure” are “transformed into smooth, contemporary English mercifully free from archaisms, anachronism, and incoherence”. This translation “emphasis on context, the connection of each verse to many”, which, in result, make this translation “original and exceptionally useful”; and thus “highly accessible and accurate” with “smooth” and “free from archaic language”. It has been described as “one of the best [translations] to have appeared in recent times” (Muslim News) and as an “Accessible and compelling... a remarkable achievement” (New Statesman).

Moreover, Dr Muhammad Sultan Shah (Lahore), in his critical essay on this Translation in Al-Qalam Journal (15, 2, 2010, pp. 3-14) applauds it in these words: “The English translation of the Holy Qur’an by Professor Abdel Haleem is a unique work.... No other translator of the Holy Qur’an has such mastery of both languages. Furthermore, he is a lexicographer fully equipped with the knowledge of both classical and modern Arabic. ... Abdel Haleem’s translation is in modern and plain English. He always opts for contemporary usage and sentence structure and avoids confusing phrases”. One of the main characteristics of this translation, in Shah’s consideration, is “the brevity exercised by the learned translator that is not possible without mastery of both the languages”, and that seems the main reason for his “minimum” use of “exegetical notes” and “footnotes”, which are added only “where there is extreme need of clarification or further explanation”, and in these notes, “for elucidation of Arabic words”, he “refers to Arabic grammar and lexicography”.

To get a glimpse, here is the translation of Surah al-Fatiha and Surah al-Ikhlas (Q. 112) from this Translation:

1 In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy! 2 Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, 3 the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, 4 Master of the Day of Judgement. 5 It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. 6 Guide us to the straight path: 7 the path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger f and who have not gone astray. (Q. 1: 1-7)

1 Say, ‘He is God the One, 2 God the eternal. 3 He begot no one nor was He begotten. 4 No one is comparable to Him.’ (Q. 112: 1-4).

  1. Tarif Khalidi, The Qur’an: A New Translation (London: Viking, 2008)

Tarif Khalidi (b. 1938) is a Palestinian scholar, who earned BA and MA in history from the University of Oxford and doctorate in Islamic Studies from University of Chicago (USA). He currently holds the Shaykh Zayid Chair of Islamic and Arabic Studies at the American University of Beirut (Lebanon). He has published substantial works on Palestinian historiography, Islamic and Arabic thought, history and culture, such as Images of Muhammad (2009); The Muslim Jesus (2001); Classical Arab Islam (1996); Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (1995); etc. His translation of the Qur’an in English language was published by Penguin, a leading Western publishing house, thus replacing “N. J. Dawood’s [The Koran; an] obnoxious version” for non-Muslims—of which more than 50 editions have been published since 1956 and more than one million copies of it had been sold by the 1990s.

Khalidi’s translation is assessed by Ziauddin Sardar (Reading the Qur’an: 2015, pp. 52-53) in these words: “Khalidi is neither interested in providing the context of the verses of the Qur’an” nor “concerned with providing some help to the reader” as there are no “footnotes or any other explanation. Instead, Khalidi takes a rather unusual attitude to the Qur’an”, which is, in Khalidi’s own words, “a bearer of diverse interpretation” and its ambiguities are deliberately designed to stimulate thinking”. “What Khalidi really wants is”, Sardar further writes, “for the reader to enjoy the experience of reading the Qur’an” and he not only “wants to communicate the majesty of its language, the beauty of its style and the ‘eternal present tense’ of its grammar” but also “aims higher” so that the readers “appreciate the unique structure of the Qur’an, how the language changes with the subject matter, how it swirls around and makes rhythmic connections”. On these and many other grounds, Sardar concludes that it is difficult to deny that Khalidi’s translation has a certain beauty and manages to capture a glimpse of the grandeur of the original. His use of the ‘eternal present tense’ have “enhanced the quality and readability” of the translation.

Khalidi’s translation, for Gabriel S. Reynolds, is “in a clear, consistent, and contemporary English style ... with a dramatic or poetic flavor” and for Kidwai, it is “remarkable”, “excellent reader friendly” as well as “refreshing and accurate”. It is described as an “eloquent and eminently readable translation” (by Reza Aslan) and “a landmark in the history of English translations of the Qur'an (Times Literary Supplement).

Here is the translation of Surah al-Fatiha from this Translation: “Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds: Merciful to all, Compassionate to each! Lord of the Day of Judgement. It is You we worship, and upon You we call for help. Guide us to the straight path, The path of those upon whom Your grace abounds, Not those upon whom anger falls, Nor those who are lost.”

While commenting on Abdel Haleem’s and Khalidi’s translations collectively, Sardar calls them as two “excellent translations” of recent times which together “provide a good illustration of just how different from each other translations of the Qur’an can be”. In sum, both these translations are a representation of lucid and reader-friendly English translations by native Arabs. (Contd.)

  • The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam, Kupwara (J&K). Email: [email protected] 

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