ON USING QUR’AN TRANSLATIONS:
The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Amana 2004 and others.
University of Wyoming
On Abdullah Yusuf Ali
On omissions and revisions from some recent editions:
For the most part I have come to use the Abdullah Yusuf Ali bilingual (Arabic and English) version of the Qur’an in courses which require a Qur’an edition. In addition to a translation, it has commentary and introductions, excurses, sonnets, and a very useful index. Abdullah Yusuf Ali was a lawyer from India in Colonial times (actually where he lived is now in Pakistan) and was trained in Britain and saw himself in some sense very much a part of the British empire; the work is not only directed to Muslims requiring a translation, but also to English readers. As such, Abdullah Yusuf Ali gives Bible parallels, references to British literature, and even some paraphrases of Shakespeare that are unreferenced, as those of his generation would recognize them instantly even if many of my students do not. Although the translation dates to the 1930s, the work appears to continue to be popular in American mosques and often quoted by Muslims.
Students should be aware that there are other highly influential Qur’an translations and commentaries available in English. An important review and critique of these translations was offered by Khaleel Mohammed in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, pp. 58-71, and available online at http://www.meforum.org/717/assessing-english-translations-of-the-quran. Among the translations he reviews, Mohammed favors the translations of Arthur Arberry (1955) and Muhammad Asad (1980), and has important criticisms of many others, including the current editions of the Abdullah Yusuf Ali volume.
There have been some editorial adjustments since the work originally appeared, especially in the commentaries, sometimes but not always marked by (R), and subject to a certain amount of discourse in the Islamic world. Typically the comments and modifications which draw the most debate reflect the Salafi/Wahhabi, anti–Shi’a and anti-Zionist (and antisemitic) views of Saudi Arabian sponsors of the new edition—who made its broad distribution possible.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s work was published before the many changes in the Islamic world since World War II, and thus prior to the appearance of seminal works by Al-Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and for that matter Amina Wadud and many others, who have reshaped the understanding of the Qur’an among Muslims of many different orientations.
Nevertheless, I like the book. Although there are a number of things to watch out for, for users cognizant of its editorial policies and the concerns of the commentary, it still provides a good baseline understanding of the text.
Some students will find ideas in his commentary about Christianity or Judaism to be offensive. Yet some Jewish or Christian students are likely to be offended by most things said by Muslims when arguing that the religions of Judaism and Christianity are wrong, misread the Bible, or changed its contents. Abdullah Yusuf Ali knows Bible well so has almost always the right references (there are really only a few mistakes) but of course these Bible verses are understood within his framework of reference, which is not Christian or Jewish. It is important to remember, too, that this is inherently a work meant not merely to give an English language version of the Qur’an as the translator understands it, but in so doing to argue for Islam, and against Judaism and Christianity—indeed, against Jews and Christians for their misunderstandings and unbelief.
Since there is a lot of commentary, explanation, poetic introductions and so forth, students should remember that the Arabic text is the Qur’an, and only the English texts printed parallel to Arabic texts are the translation: everything else is not.
Students also need to note that Yusuf Ali puts words inside parentheses which do not match up with the Qur’an but reflect the way he believes the Qur’an is usually understood, and he is usually more or less correct, although these translations often are somewhat apologetic or try to interpret the Qur’anic text in the best possible light for English-speaking readers. An egregious example of this, perhaps, is the famous verse which encourages husbands, in certain circumstances, to use various remedies on their wives, including beating. The Arabic word can indeed mean “spank (lightly)” as Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates, but the same word could also be used in “strike (dead).” Authoritative commentators almost always stress that striking one’s wife is not a good idea and must be limited in strength as well as scope. So, the translation reflects the traditional understanding as well as it represents the actual text—but those without Arabic might not realize the potential breadth of meaning of the Arabic terminology. In the classroom, this is easy enough to handle if you have time; more difficult if you need to be extremely brief. The verse in question is usually enumerated 4:34.
With its commentary and cross references this is a good “study Qur’an,” despite the age of the translation, its traditional approach, and its polemical intent. A “Study Qur’an” for university use (paralleling study bibles) would actually be welcome. Yet Study Bibles are often written by people who exercise critical analysis but also have a deep faith-community link with the text—and these persons are rare indeed in the Islamic world.
The biggest problem students usually have is going to be common to any translation: Students unfamiliar with the Qur’an often approach it with the expectation that Scripture is primarily connected narrative. Individual Bible Stories are connected into a long story that has a beginning, middle and end. Even in the Old Testament, this makes works like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, with many legal passages, or the second half of Exodus with its details about construction of the Sanctuary, rather difficult for students to comprehend. Thus even in Bible, narrative may well be secondary to legal sections or to detailed descriptions, not the primary point. Thus even in discussing familiar material such as Bible I need to spend a certain amount of time talking about the purpose of narrative to introduce legal materials, not simply to tell a story of “preparatio evangelae” “Preparation for the Gospel,” to borrow a term from Eusebius, and discuss many more types of literary genres in the Old Testament. For the Qur’an this discussion is much more complicated due to what appears to be the lack of any organizing principle for the book as a whole, or even for the individual chapters, called “suras” in Arabic. I do not have a short list of genres that I use for the Qur’an but it’s important to point out that there are few long narratives, and they relate to the central truths of Islam, not to the Biblical narrative sequence. There’s also legal material, highly poetic representations, preaching and so forth.
It seems to me that the best way to overcome these hurdles is to read and study a fairly long passage within one of the suras placed earlier in the Qur’an, to get a feel for the different genres contained; to read some of the very short suras placed towards the end of the Qur’an, and to take a few topics from the Index and read every relevant verse in its context.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Meaning of the Holy Qur’an is one of a number of popular editions which make it very easy for students unfamiliar with the Qur’an to do this productively. The issues I have discussed in this brief essay of course pertain to just about any edition or translation of the Qur’an English-speaking students are likely to use.