The Collection and sources of the Koran

From:  Answering Islam, A Christian-Muslim Dialog and Apologetic.  (n.d.).  Retrieved February 25, 2015, from


1.  The Translations of Alexander Ross and George Sale.
In 1649 Alexander Ross published the first English version of the Qur’an under the title The AlCoran of Mahomet.  It was not a direct translation from the original Arabic but was done from a French version published a few years earlier.  Unfortunately Ross had no knowledge of Arabic and his proficiency in French left much to be desired so that the translation itself is extremely defective and at times misses the sense of the original altogether.  Nevertheless it served to introduce the Scripture of Islam to the English-speaking world and for nearly a hundred years was the only translation available.
This version today serves chiefly to reveal the attitudes pervading in England in those days towards Islam.  Ross introduces his translation with a preface “to the Christian Reader” and in it he says of the Qur’an:

Thou shalt finde it of so rude, and incongruous a composure so farced with contradictions, blasphemies, obscene speeches, and ridiculous fables, that some modest, and more rationall Mahometans have thus excused it . . . Such as it is, I present to thee, having taken the pains only to translate it out of French, not doubting, though it hath been a poyson, that hath infected a very great, but most unsound part of the universe, it may prove an Antidote, to confirm in thee the health of Christianity.  (Ross, The AlCoran of Mahomet, p. A2, A3).

The book ends with a brief biography of Muhammad and closes with a “Caveat” to consider “what use may be made of, or if there be any danger in reading the Alcoran” in which he is at some pains to defend the very fact of an English translation of the holy book of “the Turks” as against the presupposed criticism of those who might think that it was a way of allowing into England the “dismall night of Mahometane darkness” (op. cit., p. Ef3).  Describing the Qur’an elsewhere as a “gallimaufry of errors,” he goes on in his caveat to say:

If you will take a brief view of the Alcoran, you shall finde it a hodgepodge made up of these four ingredients:  1.  Of Contradictions.  2.  Of Blasphemie.  3.  Of ridiculous Fables.  4.  Of Lyes.  (Ross, op. cit., p. Ff2).

It was only in 1734 that the first genuine translation of the Qur’an into English appeared, though once again the author relied heavily on another work.  George Sale published his translation under the simple title The Koran with a subtitle commonly called the “Alcoran of Mohammed.”  As states on the title page, his translation was indeed a direct rendering from the original Arabic, but his interpretation was considerably influenced by a Latin version done by one Marracci.

As Ross had done before him, Sale supplemented his translation with additional material.  He prefixed his work with a fairly lengthy introduction to Islam entitled The Preliminary Discourse, printed about sixty years ago independently of the translation as a separate book, but usually found included in the earlier editions of his translation.  He also complemented his work with “Explanatory Notes taken from the most approved commentators.”  In 1898 his translation was reprinted in four volumes which contained a greatly enlarged supplement of notes by E.M.  Wherry entitled A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qur’an.  Unlike the publication by Ross, Sale’s translation and Preliminary Discourse were remarkably precise and have stood the test of time.

Incidentally, our examination of these extracts from Sale’s translation and the comparison of them with the Latin translation of Marracci have shown what a very careful and accurate piece of work was done more than two hundred years ago, at a time when students of the Arabic language had practically none of the equipment in the way of dictionaries and grammars which are available in the languages of Europe today.  (Shellabear, “Is Sale’s Koran Reliable?” The Muslim World, Vol. 21, p. 142).

Nevertheless Sale’s Koran has been vilified by Muslim writers.  Some have objected, for example, to his constant interpretation of passages speaking of struggling and fighting in the way of God as meaning physical warfare, an interpretation out of favour with many modern Muslim commentators who seek to soften such passages by suggesting that only spiritual warfare in the soul is meant.  This is by no means clear from the texts usually cited, however, and such interpretations only serve to expose the sentiments of those who desire to eliminate a theme considered unacceptable today but one which was regarded as perfectly consistent with true religion at the time of Muhammad.  Sale usually put such interpretations in italics in his text, or commented on them in his footnotes, and they were invariably not his own preferred suppositions but simply the interpretations of the earliest commentators, in particular the highly-respected al-Baidawi, as they were recorded in Marracci’s original Latin edition.  One writer says of Sale’s translation and interpretations:

Sale’s translation is extremely paraphrastic, but the fact that the additional matter in italics is, in nearly every case, added from the commentary of El-Beidhawi, makes it the more valuable to the reader.  (Zwemer, “Translations of the Koran,” The Muslim World, Vol. 5, p. 251).

It seems that the real reason for the widespread Muslim antagonism to Sale’s translation and notes is that they were the first serious assessment of the Qur’an by a Christian author and one which did not attempt to gloss over teachings and dogmas in the book which tend to reflect somewhat poorly on its claim to be of divine origin.  Such a thing as a critical or objective analysis of the teaching, sources and ethics of the Qur’an is unknown in the Muslim world to this day.  Indeed any Muslim writer with the courage to produce such a study would soon be vehemently denounced as a renegade.  It was chiefly because Sale was willing to publish a discourse and translation that set the heritage of Islam in an objective perspective that his translation has been disapproved of by Muslim writers.

2.  The First Muslim Translations of the Qur’an.
It was not until 1905 that the first Muslim translation of the Qur’an into English appeared and it was only in 1920 that a widely-accepted version was finally published.  This was The Holy Qur’an published by Maulvi Muhammad Ali of the moderate Lahore branch of the Ahmadiyya Movement.  The translation was published as an interlinear English/Arabic text and was supplemented with copious footnotes explaining the text.  It was also introduced with a fairly lengthy preface (90 pages) discussing the teachings and collection of the Qur’an.  Although this translation is a fairly accurate rendering of the original Arabic, it often exposes the subjective convictions of its author in passages that appear to be a preferred interpretation rather than an objective translation of the original.  The Ahmadiyya Movement denies the general Muslim belief that Jesus was raised alive to heaven without being put on the cross while another was made to look like him and was crucified in his place, and teaches instead that he came down alive from the cross and died many years later in Srinagar in India.  The Qur’an has only one verse which refers to the crucifixion and, after denying that the Jews ever crucified Jesus or killed him, it says wa laakin shubbiha lahum (Surah 4.157).  This means “But so it was made to appear to them,” that is, that it was made to appear to the Jews they had crucified Jesus.  Ali avoids this by interpreting the phrase to mean “but (the matter) was made dubious to them.”  He comments on the whole verse in a footnote:

The word does not negative Jesus’ being nailed to the cross, but it negatives his having expired on the cross as a result of being nailed to it . . . The story that some one else was made to resemble Jesus is not borne out by the words of the Qur’an. (Ali, The Holy Qur’an, p. 241, 242).

A translation entitled The Meaning of the Glorious Koran by an English convert to Islam, M. M. Pickthall, was published in 1930 and it was followed in 1934 by another done by one Abdullah Yusuf Ali entitled The Holy Qur’an.  These two translations have become the most popular editions in English in the Muslim world though both have serious defects.
Yusuf Ali’s translation has become the most widely approved translation of the Qur’an among the Muslims and for this reason it is the translation used throughout this book (except where indicated otherwise).  This work truly deserves popularity for, although the author was a Shi’ite Muslim, it is a work that breathes out freshness and rarely shows sectarian bias such as is found in many other Muslim translations.  Its principal shortcoming (which the reader will probably have noticed already) is that the translation does not flow easily at times and too much use is made of capital letters.  The author is at times also too liberal in his rendering of basic Arabic expressions, e.g. “Cherisher and Sustainer” for Rabb (Surah 1.2), a word meaning simply “Lord.”

Yusuf Ali has based his work on Muhammad Ali’s model.  He so supplemented his translation with explanatory notes numbered in sequence but, in this case, the notes are usually homiletic and display his purpose to edify his readers with a spiritual understanding of the text.  A Western author comments on the book as a whole:

The author is evidently a sincerely religious man, who has endeavoured to apply his religion to the problems of life as he has found them, and tells us where he has found help and inspiration for better and fuller living.  The whole spirit of his work is admirable, and makes it a real document of religious worth.  As it is a work laid before scholarship it will necessarily have to submit critical examination, but the critic is the first to pay homage to the evident sincerity of the author.  (Jeffery, “Yusuf Ali’s Translation of the Qur’an , The Muslim World, Vol. 30, p. 55).

He adds a succinct observation, however:  “His counselling is wise and on a high ethical plane – much higher, some will suspect, than that of the text on which he is commenting” (op. cit., p. 58).  Nevertheless, like Muhammad Ali before him, much of his commentary is apologetic and at times polemical and Christian readers will find much to question, especially his use of the Bible in his notes where one cannot help agreeing that “he has not escaped a certain ingenuousness in his use of it” (Jeffery, op. cit., p. 61).

That Yusuf Ali’s translation has stood the test of time and is preferred to this day above other versions in the Muslim world is perhaps the best testimony to its general reliability.  It is our view, however, that it suffers from many defects, some of which have been pointed out in this book, and cannot be regarded as a classic.

3.  A Selection of Later English Translations.
During the latter part of the 19th century two further well-known translations were published in England.  The first was The Koran by J.M. Rodwell published in 1861 which was the first attempt by any translator to put the surahs into some sort of chronological order.  Ultimately this effort has detracted from the value of the books those familiar with the transmitted form of the text or brought up on the Arabic original will have difficulty locating specific passages.  This problem is compounded by the author’s decision only to number the tenth consecutive verse of each surah.

The translation also suffers from inaccuracies in the use of tenses and particles – but scores in its choice of words to convey the meaning of the original Arabic.  It is this writer’s opinion that Rodwell’s translation is one of the best to come from an English author.  Apart from its minor grammatical defects it is a fine work and a pleasure to read.

The second translation was done in 1880 by E.H. Palmer and was entitled The Qur’an, translated.  This version concentrates on rendering as closely as possible the sharp, almost nervous tone of the original Arabic into English.  It was the first attempt to produce the spirit of Muhammad’s orations in their original lively form in a translation.  Palmer’s version thus became an important contribution to this field.

Although Rodwell’s version approaches nearer to the Arabic, Palmer states that in this also “there is too much assumption of the literary style.”  In his own translation he has attempted to render into English the rude, fierce eloquence of the Bedouin Arabs and has succeeded, I believe, almost to the same degree as Doughty in his “Arabia Deserta.”  Where rugged or commonplace expressions occur in the Arabic, they are rendered into similar English; sometimes the literal rendering may even shock the reader as it did those who first heard the message.  (Zwemer, “Translations of the Koran,” The Muslim World, Vol. 5, p. 251).

In this century only two translations of note by English authors have appeared.  The first was by Richard Bell entitled The Qur’an Translated.  It appeared in 1937 and has met, like so many others, with a mixed reception.  This translation also makes an attempt at giving some sort of chronological order to the text but, unlike Rodwell’s version, wisely retains the original sequence of the surahs.  As pointed out already in this book, most of the surahs, especially the longer ones, are composite chapters of passages from different periods of Muhammad’s ministry.  Bell alone has endeavoured to break the surahs up into their constituent parts.  He supplemented his work with notes as well but they usually take the form of brief interpretations of specific clauses rather than commentaries on the text such as we find in most Muslim translations.  The usual criticism of his work is that the divisions he proposes cannot be proved and in many cases are disputable.  The author himself was not unaware of this likelihood and comments in his translation:

The reconstructions of passages will, no doubt, seem arbitrary, thus presented without the arguments which support them.  In some cases the author would be the first to admit uncertainty, but he hopes that examination will disclose a sufficient number of certain results to justify the methods which he has adopted, and that he will be given credit in other cases for having made an honest effort to understand the passage as it stands before resorting to hazardous reconstructions.  (Bell, The Qur’an Translated, Vol. 1, p. viii).

His work is nevertheless an extremely important contribution to this field and serves as a most useful model of the probable divisions of the original revelations.  The translation itself concentrates on textual accuracy and is therefore a valuable reference work.

The other renowned translation of recent date is that by A.J.  Arberry entitled The Koran Interpreted.  The chief feature of this work is the endeavour of its author to make the Qur’an do in English what the original Arabic does so strikingly – and that is to impress its spirit and rhythm on the ear of the hearer.  We have already seen that the Qur’an is to be recited as well as read and throughout the centuries the sonorous character of its text has had an almost mesmerising effect on many of those who hear it carefully recited in Arabic.

It is this effect that Arberry has attempted to capture in his translation and with a considerable degree of success.  Its only drawback is that, like Rodwell’s version, the individual division of verses is not brought out and only the fifth consecutive verse of each surah is numbered.  Nevertheless it is almost certainly the best translation of the Qur’an into English available and is recommended to all who seek a version which combines textual accuracy with the spirit and thrust of the original.

4.  More Recent Muslim Translations of the Qur’an.
Quite a number of new translations have appeared from the Muslim world in recent years.  In 1956 N.J. Dawood’s The Koran appeared, significantly first published in England.  Like Rodwell’s, the surahs are not placed in their original order but in a supposed chronological form and the verses are not individually numbered.  The work has a pleasing literary style but lacks the sharpness of the original.

Two further translations appeared in 1971.  One was the version of Maulaaa Abdul Majid Daryabadi entitled The Holy Qur’an published in two volumes in Pakistan.  He followed Muhammad Ali and Yusuf Ali in adding a substantial commentary to the interlinear English/Arabic text but his work is an interesting contribution in that it is chiefly comparative and quotes extensively from the Bible.  The translation itself has become a favourite with many orthodox Indian Muslims and is preferred by them to its two predecessors.  Whereas the former works were somewhat interpretive, Daryabadi’s is a strict translation of the Arabic original.  A one-volume publication without his commentary has this note:

This English Version is a Translation of the Arabic Text not its Paraphrase or Adoptation.  (Preface).

This translation, however, suffers from serious English grammatical weaknesses.  One can give the author a degree of the benefit of the doubt by presuming that in many cases a pleasing style has been sacrificed in the interests of an accurate rendering of the text, but it makes heavy reading for those whose home language is English.  This work will remain in the shadows of Yusuf Ali’s popular version but the preference of some of the orthodox school for Daryabadi’s edition gives it a place of importance in this field of study.

The other version published in 1971 was a work simply entitled The Qur’an by a follower of the Ahmadiyya Movement Pakistan’s well-known Sir Zafrulla Khan.  It begins with a typical introduction of some length.  The English text has a literary style common to so many translations which simultaneously lose much of the character of the original.  Only Arberry has succeeded in combining both.  Zafrulla Khan’s work is, on the whole, a very free interpretation of the text and suffers from a sectarian bias.  One can compare his translation of Surah 4.157 with that of Muhammad Ali already quoted.  It says of the Jews’ claim that they crucified Jesus:  “they slew him not, nor did they compass his death upon the cross, but he was made to appear to them like one crucified to death” (Zafrulla Khan, The Qur’an, p. 96).  This is hardly an objective translation or simple rendering of the original passage and is typical of the author’s penchant for reading the preferred dogmas of his sect into the text of the Qur’an.

In 1980 a translation by a Jewish convert to Islam, Muhammad Asad, appeared as a complete work entitled The Message of the Qur’an.  The author is one of the modern school of Islamic scholars who rationalise much of the teaching of the Qur’an and endeavour to present its teaching in the spirit of 20th century modernism and scepticism about the actual physical reality of alleged supernatural events in history.  There has been a strong negative reaction to this translation in much of the Muslim world as it denies miracles cherished by the orthodox, such as the physical ascensions of Jesus and Muhammad to heaven.  In traditional Muslim style the translation is produced in an interlinear form with extensive notations.  Once again the author’s convictions affect his translation which so often conveys a preferred interpretation rather than an objective exposition of the original text.  He holds to the school that teaches that Jesus was not raised to heaven and so translates Surah 4.158:  “God exalted him to himself” rather than “God raised him to himself” found in most translations.  He adds a footnote which has caused much opposition to his work from orthodox elements:

Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven.  (Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, p. 135).

In 1979 another translation The Koran by Mufassir Mohammad Ahmad was published in London.  It carries the strange claim that it is “the first Tafsir in English,” presumably meaning that it is the first commentary in English.  The work has no notes but the author’s interpretation is liberally written into the text itself which reads something like the Amplified Version of the Bible.

Many years ago a student of Islam made an interesting observation in a lecture delivered to students of the Hartford Theological Seminary:

Just as in the case of the Old Testament there is no translation at present in existence that can be called even approximately adequate, so in the case of the Qur’an there is no translation that you can trust.  That work is still to be done . . . Whichever view you take, the translation of the Qur’an is still to come.  (Macdonald, Aspects of Islam, p. 88).

The claim about the Old Testament may no longer be true but it is this writer’s conviction that the translation of the Qur’an is yet to be published, even today.  There is none that can be called a classic, though the translations of Rodwell and Arberry are excellent individual efforts.  It is perhaps this very fact of individuality that explains why there is no translation of the Qur’an to compare with translations of the Bible such as the Revised Standard Version or New American Standard Version.  These were done by committees of scholars and the result has been a remarkably consistent and accurate rendering of the original.

Every well-known translation of the Qur’an has been the work of an individual and, to one degree or another in every case, the value of the final product is tempered by the presence of the author’s own personal convictions and interpretations.  Perhaps in time a select body of Western and Muslim scholars will get together to produce a standard translation of the Qur’an.  As long as Muslim suspicions about Western scholars of Islam persist, however, the desired eventuality remains unlikely.




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