When Every Word Counts

A new translation of the Qur'an tries to rectify past mistakes, which is so vital to promoting intra-Muslim dialogue.

"We revealed it as an Arabic recital so that you would understand," says the Qur'an (12:2).

Indeed, the Qur'an is an Arabic text, and the original text has been preserved unchanged for more than fourteen centuries. And I must say the beauty of the Arabic--when read or heard in recitation--is unrivalled. You can really feel the text come alive with emotion, like in chapter 12 when the Prophet Jacob (peace and blessings be upon him) laments the loss of his son Joseph. You can really feel his sorrow if you understand the Arabic text, and it is hard to not shed a tear of sympathy for him.

All that gets lost in the translation.

But the reality is this: The overwhelming majority of the Muslim world are not native Arabic speakers. Hence, the Qur'an has been translated into a number of languages. Lately--especially after September 11, 2001--the English translations have garnered an increased amount of attention and scrutiny, especially by those who claim (falsely) that the Qur'an enshrines violence and hatred against all non-Muslim.

One thing must be understood about any translation of the Qur'an: It is really an interpretation of the meaning of the words. The Arabic language is a very rich and complex language. Many words have several different meanings that can also be applied within the same verse. That is why it is extremely important for anyone who decides to translate the Qur’an to have an expert understanding of the Arabic spoken at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)--not the Arabic of today’s Arabs.

The Qur'an has been translated into English by a number of Muslims and non-Muslims. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur'an, translated by George Sale, which was used by the first Muslim elected to Congress, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, at his swearing-in ceremony. The most common (and well read) English translations of the Qur'an are those by Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pictkhall.

But I have found these translations lacking. They are very archaic, both being published in the 1930s. Some of the explanatory footnotes in the Yusuf Ali translation are particularly harsh against Jews. Some non-Muslims have confused these explanatory footnotes with the actual text of the Qur'an, and the Council of American-Islamic Relations had been criticized in the past for distributing this translation of the Qur'an. CAIR, thank goodness, has stopped this distribution and hands out a different translation now.

Recently there have been better translations of the Qur'an that have not elicited a lot of attention. The best English translation of the Qur'an, in my opinion, comes from Thomas Cleary. Cleary has a Ph.D. in Asian languages and civilizations, and he has translated a number of other works from various languages. I try to use this translation when I quote Qur’anic text for my columns. It is particularly eloquent, and it is the first translation that gives the reader a taste of the beauty of the Qur’an’s Arabic text.

But I use the Cleary Qur'an for only a literal translation; he does not attempt to explain the verses at all. Muhammad Asad, however, has done both, and--by far--his explanation and translation of the Qur'an is the most superior in the English language. Asad--formerly known as Leopold Weiss--was an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam in 1926. He has written a number of wonderful books, the crown jewel of which is his"Message of the Qur'an."

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