The Qur’aan, the final discourse between God and man, was revealed in the language of the final Prophet (ﷺ), the language of the people among whom he was raised and by whom the last message was destined to be carried to the ends of the world. Allaah created man in a variety of colors and taught man diverse languages. Allaah, Most Wise, sent each of His messengers speaking the language of his people in order to facilitate the transmission of the divine message. This was clearly stated in the verse:
“I never sent a messenger with other than his people’s language.”
Consequently, all prophets were raised up from among their own people, even though they all carried the same basic message:
“Verily, I have raised up in every nation a messenger saying:
‘Worship Allaah and avoid false gods.’ ”
Thus, in spite of the final message’s universality, echoed in the verse,
“Say: ‘O mankind verily, I am Allaah’s messenger (ﷺ) sent to all of you,’ ”
and the verse,
“I have only sent you as a bringer of glad tidings and a warner for all mankind,”
this message was revealed in the Arabic language.
The Islaamic state arose in the Arabian peninsula, engulfed it, and quickly spread to the neighboring lands of Africa, Asia Minor, India, and Asia. Arabic soon became not only the language of the final revelation of Islaam, but also the official language of a vast Islaamic empire encompassing diverse cultures and languages. Some of the people already spoke Arabic, while most did not. However, within a very short period, Islaam and Arabic spread rapidly among the people.
Some foreign languages absorbed Arabic-Islaamic terms and those who spoke them began to write them in the Arabic script. Eventually, many of these languages were overshadowed or replaced by Arabic. The Coptic language of the Egyptians and Berber of the North Africans are some examples of the replacement of national languages by Arabic, while Hausa, Persian and Malay are examples of languages which absorbed large amounts of Arabic words and were written in Arabic script.
In other areas, trading languages developed, made up of a mixture of local languages and large amounts of Arabic, but even these languages were written in Arabic script. However, when the ‘Abbaasid caliphate weakened, Persian and Turkish warlords carved the state into a number of competing sultanates. Persian was the language of government of many of these states. Eventually leadership of the Muslim state fell into the hands of Mongols and, subsequently the Turks, a form of cultural nationalism arose in which the Turkish language became the official language of the state, and Arabic was de- emphasized, except in religious ceremonies and religious schools. The famous hadeeth of the Prophet (ﷺ),
“ Whoever reads a letter from Allaah’s book earns a blessing,”
took on new meaning. This statement was made to Arabic-speaking Muslims to encourage them to read as much of the Qur’aan as possible. The goal behind this encouragement was increased exposure to Allaah’s message, and it was never intended to be the mere parroting of the vehicle in which it was brought. However, with the rise of Turkish cultural nationalism, there arose the concept of reading the letters and words of the Qur’aan simply for the blessing. Many students began memorizing the whole Qur’aan without understanding a word of what they had memorized. Parroting the Qur’aan became an accepted and highly regarded practice.
With the decline and break up of the Muslim state and the rise of European colonialism, the transitional process by which Muslim people’s languages were evolving into Arabic was totally halted. Colonialists divided Muslim territories and required languages that had not completed the transition to Arabic to be written in Latin script. Examples of this attempt at reversal can be seen in the forced adoption of the Latin script by African languages, such as Hausa and Swahili; Middle Eastern languages, such as Turkish; and Asian languages, such as Malay.
Many of the Qur’aanic schools in which Arabic was taught were closed down or replaced by Christian schools, and the few schools which remained taught only the pronunciation of Arabic. Consequently, the vast majority of Muslims remained unable to understand Arabic, even though many of them continued to read and pronounce its script. In an attempt to fill this vacuum, some Muslim scholars in these non-Arabic speaking countries began to translate the Qur’aan into their local tongues. The earliest known translation of this type was by Shah ‘Abdul Qaadir of Delhi (d. 1826 CE). This movement to translation began to gather momentum around the latter part of the eighteenth century C.E.
However, these were not the earliest translations made into foreign languages. Before the evolution of modern European languages, Latin, the language of the Holy Roman Empire, was the language of culture in Europe. Hence, the earliest recorded translation was into Latin. It was made for the Monastery of Cluny in 1143, but it was not published until 1543 at Basle by Bibliander. This Latin translation was subsequently translated into German by Schweigger in Bavaria in 1616, into French by DuRyer in Paris in 1647, and into Russian at St. Petersburg in 1776.
The first English translation, by A. Ross, was merely a translation of DuRyer’s French translation, and was published a few years after DuRyer’s. During this period, Maracci, a confessor to Pope Innocent XI, produced another Latin translation in 1698, which included the Arabic text as well as quotations from various Arabic commentaries, carefully selected and garbled, in order to give Europeans the worst possible impression of Islaam. Maracci was a learned man, and his agenda was clear. He dedicated his work to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, and wrote an introductory volume for it entitled, “Refutation of the Quran.”
Among the most widely circulated English translations was that of George Sale, made in 1734. Sale translated from Maracci’s Latin version and included his biased notes and introduction. Other examples are that of Rev. J.M. Rodwell, published in 1876, in which the chapters were placed in a rough chronological order, and that of Professor E.H. Palmer, published in 1876. However, all of these translations contained a strong anti-Islaamic bias, either in their translated texts or in their introductions and footnotes.
Consequently some Muslim scholars of India began the formidable task of accurately rendering the Qur’aan’s meaning in English. The first to do so was Dr. Muhammad ‘Abdul Hakeem Khan of Patiala in 1905. Unfortunately, this translation was followed in 1917 by that of the Ahmadee scholar Maulvi Muhammad ‘Alee, which reflects the ideas of the Ahmadeeyah psuedo-Islaamic sect. Due to the strong missionary activity of the sect, their translation has, until recently, enjoyed a very wide circulation in the West. In 1919, Mirza Hairat of Delhi also published a translation, and Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar’s translation was published in 1929. However, neither of these was ever widely read.
In 1930, the English scholar of Arabic, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, produced the first English translation by a Muslim convert. This scholar attempted what he termed an “almost literal translation” and included very few explanatory footnotes. Nevertheless, his translation has become the second most widely received among Muslims. Perhaps the most widely read English translation is that of ‘Abdullaah Yusuf ‘Ali, first published in Lahore in 1934.
This is a rather free translation, in which the author, who received an education in the English classics, attempted to make a literary masterpiece capturing the beauty of the original. He provided summaries and profuse footnotes which, in a number of instances, included very unorthodox, if not heretical, opinions. A committee was formed in Saudi Arabia in 1980 to produce a reliable English translation of the Qur’aan. They chose ‘Abdullaah Yusuf ‘Ali’s as the best available, noting its “highly elegant style, a choice of words close to the meaning of the original text, accompanied by scholarly notes and commentaries.”
They recognized, however, that it had serious flaws, so they revised his translation here and there and made substantial revisions of his notes to remove his most glaring errors. This revised edition was published by the King Fahd Qur’aanic Printing Press in Madeenah in 1985.
Among the translations rejected by the Saudi review committee was that of the Austrian Muslim convert, Muhammad Asad. Its publication had been earlier considered but rejected by the Raabitah (Muslim World League) due to his marked leaning toward Mu‘tazilee (Rationalist) views. Asad then went ahead and published it on his own in 1980, and he reached an agreement with the prominent orientalist publisher, E.J. Brill, to distribute it.
Another Muslim convert, Professor T.B. Irving, dissatisfied with the archaic language of both Pickthall and Yusuf ‘Ali, produced “an American version in contemporary English,” published in 1992. It has a useful introduction about the problems of translating the Qur’aan into contemporary English. Very brief introductory notes for each chapter are gathered at the beginning of the book, but there is no commentary.
Professor Muhammad Taqi-ud Din Al-Hilali and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, both of the Islaamic University of Madeenah, published their Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in 1985. It is an attempt to summarize the commentaries of at-Tabaree, al-Qurtubee and Ibn Katheer by inserting additional material in parentheses into the translated text. Many Arabic terms, such as faasiqoon, abraar, haneef, are transliterated, with explanations of their meanings inserted after them in parentheses.
Most of the footnotes consist of hadeeths from saheeh al-Bukhaaree relevant to the verses they annotate. There is much that is useful in this work, but it is marred by repetitive insertions that disrupt sentence flow, making it linguistically clumsy. Also, because commentary is inserted into the flow of the sentences, readers unable to read Arabic may understand the added commentary to be an integral part of the original text. For instance, verse 157 of Soorah an-Nisaa’ refutes the claim that Jesus was crucified:
“They neither killed nor crucified him, but it was made to appear so to them.”
However, as rendered in The Noble Qur’an, it reads:
“But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of Jesus was put over another man (and they killed that man)…”
The orientalists have also been active during this century and have produced other English translations; for example, R. Bell, Edinburgh, 1937-39; and A.J. Arberry, London, 1964. However, these translations have been shunned by Muslims now that sufficient Muslim works are available.