The Traditions on the Composition of ‘Uthmān’s muṣḥaf.

By Viviane Comerro

Viviane Comerro is Professor of Islamic Studies at INALCO (Paris). This blog is a synopsis of its French book titled “Les traditions sur la composition du muṣḥaf de ‘Uthmān”, Orient-Institut Beirut, 2012

When and how did the Quran become a book? Even though paleography and codicology provide us with useful elements that shed light on this question, we should not overlook the study of Islamic literary sources which, through the diversity of their accounts on the writing of the Quran and the richness of their glosses on the Quranic text itself, remain bolder and more informed testimonies than any collection of manuscripts.

(ukaz.com.sa)

(ukaz.com.sa)

How should we address Islamic sources which provide us with numerous pieces of information on this issue? An initial historical approach based on the transmission of texts could lead us to follow the Ancients in their investigative endeavor by privileging the historical veracity of the version adopted by al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) in his Ṣaḥīḥ.

A second, historical and critical approach has already achieved its full potential: drawing out a core that is common to the various versions of the account of the event so as to gain some certainty or extracting this historical core from its legendary, theological or ideological gangue.

Reflection upon the literary nature of sources that has developed alongside this approach has resulted in a transitory suspension of the “naively” historical approach. In fact, a tradition always provides the event and its interpretation as closely related. This is a khabar, information, as well as a hadith, an event set as an account. Thus, it is in taking into consideration the twofold nature of a tradition that I have read afresh the totality of the accounts on the writing of the Quran by paying very close attention to the variants and their meanings.

By placing back the received version of the event – the one Bukhārī kept in his Ṣaḥīh – in this totality, it appears as made up of several motifs that also exist in isolation as independent traditions. This version is therefore the result of a combination that selects some pieces of information while discarding others.

The author of this combination, or common link in the vernacular of the modern specialists of transmission, is Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742), who certainly did not invent this story but combined different pieces of information on the writing of the Quran, as he did for other accounts.

Beyond this stage, the hadith of Zuhrī evolved even further since a version that is quite different from Bukhārī’s is to be found in the introduction to his Tafsīr by the great compiler of the 3rd century of Hegira, Ṭabarī (d. 310/923).

Apart from the issue of authenticity, wherever we place this version in the chain of transmission, what seems to matter is the reason why such a well-informed exegete as Tabarī chose this version of Zuhrī’s account rather than another one. This question led me to question Bukhārī’s stance and Ṭabarī’s regarding the status of Quranic recitation in the intellectual debates of their time. I came to the conclusion that, to some extent, the issue of the isnād was of secondary importance. What really matters is the content of each account.

For Ṭabarī, who claims that ‘Uthmān reduced the various recitations of the Quran to a single ḥarf in the official muṣḥaf, it is important to note that the Quranic text is not the result of a collection but the writing of a single man, Zayd b. Thābit.

For Bukhārī, it is important to take a stand in a critical debate of his time: that of the created or uncreated Quran, which goes on long after the end of the Miḥna by claiming that the writing of the Quran is created, in contrast with the Hanbali scholars.

Besides, the stance differs from one Ṣaḥīḥ to the other. Muslim (d. 261/875), Bukhārī’s contemporary, who frequented the same circles as him, apparently avoids to take a stand in this debate. Nowhere does he mention the account transmitted by al-Zuhrī. On the other hand, he mentions traditions on the various recitations of the Companions Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd and Abū Mūsā. In this selection of information, one can detect a stand in another significant debate that lasted for centuries about the diversity of Quranic recitations theorized in the form of a prophetic hadith: Unzila l-qur’ān ‘alā sab‘ati ahruf. In this controversy, a stance became more and more a minority, yet it lasted for a long time: it was allowed to liturgically recite ancient qirā’āt, especially that of Ibn Mas‘ūd, due to the fact that the companions of the Prophet and the Successors did it, even though these “readings” were not in keeping with the ‘Uthmānian rasm. It seems that in the 3rd century, prior to Ibn Mujāhid’s reform, the traditionist Muslim was inclined to favor such a stance.

The discrepancies between the accounts about the writing of the Quran, which are already impressive regarding what comes from Zuhrī, are even more so when all the traditions are taken into consideration. They are so not only for the researcher who considers he should not side with the traditionists, now as in the past, but also because all these accounts excluded by the strict selection of the Ṣaḥīḥ reappear in the margin of a commentary or an argumentation by the early (or modern) authors among the most interested in orthodoxy.

Historical description is not the main goal of traditionists, who rather try to solve theological/juridical problems. The diversity of the accounts related to the writing of the Quran, which mostly took place under ‘Uthmān’s caliphate, could result from the traditionists’ worry about the composition of the muṣḥaf in an unfavorable historical context: a challenged caliphate in a time troubled by strong dissensions. The attested circulation of different maṣāḥif of the Quran, one of the sources of legitimacy and authority in the fullest sense of this dīn as the foundation of the new community, represented a danger for Medina’s power. After the historical situation changed, though it was never forgotten, the prime preoccupation concerned the conditions of transmission of the prophetic proclamation. The selection of the ḥarf of Zayd, a man related to ‘Uthmān, had not been consensual. And what to do with the maṣāḥif of Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd, Abū Mūsā, Miqdād and others? Several responses to these unexpressed worries arose in the large corpus of narrative traditions on the writing of the Quran. I have suggested classifying these accounts according to the kind of solution they provided to ensure the faultless transmission of the muṣḥaf.

After this investigation in literary sources, it is to be noted that there is no received version of the writing of the muṣḥaf despite the status acquired by the Ṣaḥīḥ of Bukhārī and the repetition, book after book, century after century, of his hadith on the collection of the Quran, a “thing the Prophet had not done.” In this way, although a 12th century traditionist such as Abū Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Baghawī reports Bukhārī’s account in his Sharḥ al-Sunna, in his commentary he carries out a rewriting of the event with the memory of other accounts. He claims that the composition of the muṣḥaf is an act involving the Companions as a collective actor of the ijmā‘: they are those who decided together with ‘Uthmān and those who wrote. This rewriting is as perceptible in the 15th century when al-Suyūṭī began his chapter of the Itqān devoted to the collection of the Quran by the blunt assertion that at the time of the Prophet’s death “the Quran had not been collected.” Throughout the text and in the conclusion of the chapter, it appears that the “thing the Prophet had not done” had in fact been accomplished since the muṣḥaf, organized as verses and suras, is exactly the same as that instituted by Muḥammad after the angel’s dictation.

In my book, I left the question of the writing of the Quran at the time of the Prophet open-ended owing to the scarcity of traditions that mention it. This question pertains to another kind of investigation on the oral/written composition of the Quranic text (Angelika Neuwirth) and could rest on the works of linguists and anthropologists dealing with orality and writing.

In conclusion, the study of traditions informs us on some crucial elements of the history of the text: the plasticity of its composition and oral transmission; the antiquity of its writing; the fixation of a model written under ‘Uthmān; its gradual canonization; the preservation of textual variants as a reflection of the original oral diversity and then the philologists’ interest; the parallel theologizing of the history of transmission.

Yet this study chiefly enables us to understand the Tradition that lends their full weight to the actors of transmission. Through selection, combination, additions or deletions, and when the text is permanently fixed in its letter, through their glosses, commentaries and interpretations, these actors contribute to the fluctuation in meaning in the preservation of religion.

The Qur’anic Manuscripts of the Mingana Collection and their Electronic Edition

By Alba Fedeli

1. Birmingham: Qur’anic Manuscripts in the Mingana Collection

Fifteen years ago my late mentor, Sergio Noja Noseda, showed me a few ancient Qur’anic parchments published by Giorgio Levi Della Vida in his 1947 catalogue. Those images were the starting point for Noja Noseda’s studies in Qur’anic manuscripts when he was a young scholar following the advice of Giovanni Galbiati (1881-1966), the prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.  His story was the starting point of my studies in the same field. Subsequent movements from manuscript to manuscript led me to the University of Birmingham, England, where I am now based.

My research in Birmingham focuses on four early Qur’anic manuscripts of the Mingana collection, held in the Cadbury Research Library. The first fragment (MS Mingana Christian Arabic Additional 150) is a palimpsest that was hidden for many years by its scriptio superior and by being wrongly catalogued as an unknown Christian text.[1] Recently I identified its scriptio inferior as a portion of the Qur’anic text, perfectly fitting together with an incomplete half-folio of the famous Cambridge palimpsested codex, the so called Lewis-Mingana palimpsest (MS Cambridge University Library Or.1287). The second manuscript of the Birmingham collection is MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572, nine parchment leaves in two parts. One part fits together with MS Marcel 17 in St. Petersburg and MS MIA67 in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, whereas the other part fits together with MS BnF ar. 328c in Paris. The third fragment (MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563) is composed of 39 parchment leaves. Finally, the Birmingham collection includes an uncatalogued papyri collection that Adolf Grohmann had inspected and recommended to a few German libraries, but due to difficulties in getting payment from Germany in the Thirties, the antiquarian Erik von Scherling of Leiden preferred to sell it to Mingana in Great Britain. Among these papyri, one fragment bears a small section of the Qur’anic text.

It is remarkable that all the fragments have the same provenance, in that after Alphonse Mingana had been appointed curator of the Selly Oak Colleges Library in Birmingham, he purchased from Erik von Scherling the papyri collection in 1934 and then—in May, September and October 1936—the above-mentioned Qur’anic fragments on parchment.[2]

MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, recto. MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, rectoSpecial Collections, University of Birmingham by courtesy of Cadbury Research Library

MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, recto. MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, rectoSpecial Collections, University of Birmingham by courtesy of Cadbury Research Library

2. Birmingham Qur’anic Manuscripts: Text, Contexts and Electronic Edition

First, my research on these Qur’anic fragments focuses on the comprehension of the linguistic characteristics they feature. Notably, a few deviations from the standard text found in the manuscripts reflect the linguistic competence of the scribes who were in charge of writing the text, and these linguistic features appear similar to the linguistic characteristics of early papyri. Secondly, the research explores the manuscript text by comparing it with the literature of the Islamic tradition, in order to comprehend the qirā’āt tradition as it is reflected in early Qur’anic manuscripts.

In addition, my research focuses on Alphonse Mingana’s papers held in the Cadbury Research Library, in seeking to place these manuscripts in their historical context. The papers give important information about the provenance of the manuscripts themselves,[3] as well as interesting information about scholars beyond the official story of their published works–thus depicting the atmosphere of Qur’anic studies in the ’30’s.

The outcome of the study of Birmingham early Qur’anic fragments will be their electronic edition.  Indeed, my work adopts the approach of digital philology in editing and tagging the manuscript texts, so that the text may be converted to XML, thus transferring the rich manuscript evidence to the web. I am doing this work thanks to the support of the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing in Birmingham, whose scholars have extensive experience in the field of electronic editions—such as, for example, the Codex Sinaiticus Project.

This electronic edition will be not only an expedient way to exhibit the edition and the analysis of the manuscript text but it will also affect our access to it. The digital tools offer technological solutions suitable for representing the movements of the text and its stratigraphic layers, working contrary to the idea of a fixed edited text. Thus an electronic edition and digital philology represent a different approach to the manuscript text itself.

3. The Tools: Non-linear Editions of Stratigraphic Records in Reproducing Textual Images

The use of digital editions and digital tools in editing codices that are now scattered in various institutions—like the Birmingham-Cambridge or the Birmingham-Doha-St. Petersburg fragments—offers two distinct advantages: first, the possibility of a virtual reunification of the codices and second, the prospects of reconstructing each of the two layers of palimpsested fragments.

In addition to this ideal presentation of a virtual/digital reality, digital editions permit a non-linear edition of stratigraphic records. These Qur’anic fragments are stratigraphic records of information added at different stages. The digital edition perfectly renders their multi-layered nature, taking the reader beyond the limits of the linear printed edition. Early Qur’anic fragments are, in some cases, the results of a settlement of differences, a compromise between two (or three) different systems. In different historical moments the two systems could have been coexisting or competing. The manuscripts express a mélange, a compromise between two systems. The manuscripts’ text is a dynamic text and it has a variant nature. Here I am referring first to the stages of the writing process, in that manuscripts could be a mélange of three systems (coexisting and competing); and second to the coexistence of alternative readings marked by red dots (whereas there is no coexistence of alternative readings marked by diacritical signs), as well as to the competition between two alternative readings.

As regards the first mélange, the different stages of the writing process are marked in these manuscripts using different ink colors, i.e. brown, red and black inks.  In the electronic edition, the stages can be edited using the appropriate tags. Thus tags for first hand writing, second and third copyists/correctors, etc., offer the possibility of a stratigraphic transcription of the manuscript text, in contrast to the linear printed edition.

Furthermore, with reference to the second mélange, electronic editions offer the possibility of transcribing the coexistence and the competition of two different systems and the possible correction in the case of a competition that leads to the suppression of one of the two systems. The appropriate tags of alternative readings and the “corrector tags” attached to one of the two alternative readings offer the possibility of editing the information marked in the script. This means that the electronic edition contains all of the information from the stratigraphic records, so that the edition can later answer specific research questions through the established database.

4. The Manuscript Text: Using Digital Tools and Electronic Editions Means a Different Approach

Thus the digital edition of the Birmingham early Qur’anic fragments results in representing the systems performed in the manuscript text. In fact, if the image of a text (i.e. its transcription) can be viewed as a linguistic structure that represents a system,[4] these ancient Qur’anic manuscripts are particular expressions of the presence of more than one system. Thus the strategies adopted in transcribing the image of the text of the manuscripts and their systems are based on the digital philology tools. The starting point of these strategies chosen in editing and tagging the manuscript texts and the manuscript characteristics—like the above-mentioned tags of first hand and second copyist, as well as of alternative reading—are the guidelines gathered by the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing and the manual of David Parker.[5] ITSEE’s Guidelines is a manual specifically pertaining to the transcription of Greek manuscripts, within the International Greek New Testament Project, and we have adapted these Guidelines to the characteristics of the early Arabic manuscripts of the Birmingham collection.

Finally, digital tools are not only tools for rendering in a non-linear edition the systems performed and added at different stages, but they also affect the methodology employed in editing the texts. In fact, the approach to early Qur’anic manuscripts prescribed by the characteristics of digital philology could be important in the field of Qur’anic studies, in that we are presenting the text as a series of manuscript artifacts[6] or, more precisely, as a process.[7] Given the fact that the variants and the characteristics featured in the manuscripts are presented as textual movements, the presumption is that we are considering the text as a process. The Islamic qirā’āt tradition itself has described the history and the transmission of the written text as a process, depicting the variety of the text; whereas early Qur’anic manuscripts reflect this variety, for example, in two coexistent readings.

MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563, f.26v, l.2

MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563, f.26v, l.2

Coexistence of alternative readings marked by red dots (’an ’asri and ’an-i-sri) in Q.26:52

This is the image of the manuscript text we are exhibiting in the electronic edition of the Birmingham early fragments. The importance of digital philology lies in the change of perspective that will help us to understand the richness of the manuscript texts, without imposing the limiting idea of a critical edition of the Qur’anic text.


[1] The fragment was hidden by a wrong label from 1939 to 2011, i.e. from the publication of the manuscript’s catalogue until its discovery in 2011. In fact it is highly probable that Mingana was aware of the content of the scriptio inferior of the palimpsested fragment, as we can infer from his correspondence about a few experiments he conducted in 1937 in order to obtain photographs of the palimpsest, applying ultraviolet lights.

[2] The details of the provenance of the early Qur’anic fragments of Birmingham were mentioned in Alba Fedeli, “The provenance of the manuscript Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572: dispersed folios from a few Qur’anic quires,” Manuscripta Orientalia, 17, 1 (2011), pp. 45-56.

[3] See the information about the Sinai provenance of MS Mingana Christian Arabic Additional 150 in Alba Fedeli, “The Digitization project of the Qur’anic Palimpsest, MS Cambridge University Library Or. 1287, and the Verification of the Mingana-Lewis Edition: ‘Where is Salām?’”, Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, 2, 1 (2011), pp. 100-117.

[4] Cesare Segre, Semiotica filologica. Testo e modelli culturali. Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1979, pp. 64-65.

[5] David C. ParkerAn Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[6] Peter M.W. Robinson. “Manuscript Politics,” in Chernaik, W., Davis, C. and Deegan, M. (eds.), The Politics of the Electronic Text. Oxford: Office for Humanities Communication, 1993, pp. 9-15.

[7] “Every written work is a process and not an object” is the dictum proposed by D.C. Parker in his Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Divergence in Qur’an Translations: Causes and Examples

By Sohaib Saeed*

(from citizenwarrior.com)

(from citizenwarrior.com)

The translation of the Arabic Qur’an into the languages of the world has received the broad acceptance of Muslim scholars since the middle of last century, though the practice of translating the whole Qur’an extends back to the sixteenth century or earlier. The original missionary goals were replaced by those of academic research, as well as Muslim efforts to clarify the teachings of their faith not only for non-Muslims but also for new generations of foreign believers. Translation is a particular method of explaining the Qur’anic text and can serve as a succinct way of expressing the meanings of its words and sentences.

Many Muslims make a fundamental distinction between the Qur’an—revealed verbatim in Arabic as a divine challenge—and its translations, understood as human renderings of its meaning into other languages. Any product of the human mind is subject not only to the possibility of error but also to the capacity for difference of opinion. Translation of any complex and highly literary text is necessarily a difficult task, and one in which expert opinions can diverge at various points.

After recognising the particularities of interpreting and translating a sacred text (too many to expand on here), the role of choice in the work of a translator is a reality that must also be appreciated. The translator may have to select exactly which text to translate (in this case, between the canonical readings, qirā’āt). On the level of vocabulary, a single word may have multiple meanings, more than one of which may be possible in a particular context. Indeed, it is possible that both meanings are intended, but that no single word in the target language will carry them both. There is also the challenge of observing the subtle distinctions between near-synonyms, e.g. the various words conveying senses of “fear,” even in a single verse.[1]

Then, on the phrasal and sentence level, the translator must decide which grammatical interpretation (iʿrāb) to follow. While the recent Qur’anic Corpus project is performing a valuable service in presenting the concept of grammatical parsing more widely, what may not be obvious from this project is the scope for diversity of opinion on this matter, as can be readily seen by consulting the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr. Similarly, the translator needs to decide on the referents of pronouns when they are ambiguous (e.g. between “he”, “He” and “it”), and how to incorporate punctuation such as sentence divisions and speech marks. After all this come the stylistic choices, such as how to render idioms and how the text will best flow in the target language.

Accordingly, we can compare between existing translations of the Qur’an to find that the differences between them fall within the following categories:

  • Vocabulary: lexical meanings and subtle distinctions
  • Grammar and sentence structure
  • Pronouns etc.
  • Stylistic choices
  • Multiple readings (qirā’āt) – rarely [2]

What follows is an analysis of a selection of translations of some verses (or parts of verses, as relevant) from the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah, in order to apply the above theory and discover the basis of difference between them. The method is to group the translations that are substantially identical (i.e. in all but style), and then identify the cause of divergence wherever it exists. It should be emphasized that this analysis will not indicate all the translations that could exist, because it is applied to a finite group (namely, those currently available on Quran.com); moreover, it is possible that translators tended to see things the same way, or indeed were influenced by each other. Indeed, there might be more diversity if they were to rely more pronouncedly on the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr, which present obscure interpretations alongside the more obvious.[3]

As such, what follows is designed to illustrate choice and divergence in translation and enable the reader to appreciate what is involved in the task. It is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment, but contains hints for further study. A subsequent project may be to do the same for the rest of the Qur’an, as well as to look at a greater number of actual translations, and indeed possible translations that were not selected by anyone before. It should also be noted that it is outside our present scope to discuss whether some mistakes were made by the translators, or which of their approaches is best in each case.

Translation Study
(Surat al-Baqarah 2:1-20)

2:2       ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ

Sahih International: This is the Book

Muhsin Khan: This is the Book

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book

Pickthall: This is the Scripture

Ghali: That is the Book

Shakir: This Book

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render literally the demonstrative pronoun usually reserved for distant things (“that”) or consider the distance here as indicating greatness of “this” book.
  • Whether to interpret the two words as being a complete nominal sentence (thus with “is”), or together as the subject (“This book”) which is then followed by the predicate.
  • Choice between general “book” and the more contextual “scripture.”

2:2       لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ

Sahih International: about which there is no doubt

Ghali: there is no suspicion about it

Muhsin Khan: whereof there is no doubt

Pickthall: whereof there is no doubt

Shakir: there is no doubt in it

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render it literally as “in” or understand it as “about”/“whereof.”
  • Different sentence structures depending on stopping place. Yusuf Ali’s rendering depends on reading it as ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ followed by فِيهِ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِين—resulting in the Book containing guidance, rather than being guidance. He has adjusted the phrasal order for flow in English.

2:2       هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ

Yusuf Ali: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah

Sahih International: a guidance for those conscious of Allah

Ghali: a guidance to the pious

Pickthall: a guidance unto those who ward off (evil)

Shakir: a guide to those who guard (against evil)

Muhsin Khan: a guidance to those who are Al-Muttaqun

Causes of divergence:

  • Different approaches to rendering the concept of taqwā, including the strategy of retaining the Arabic term.
  • The literal “guidance” (verbal noun) or a more contextual “guide” (active participle).
  • The different sentence structure used by Yusuf Ali, as explained previously.

2:3       الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاةَ

Sahih International: Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer…

Pickthall: Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship…

Yusuf Ali: Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer…

Shakir: Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer…

Ghali: Who believe in the Unseen, and keep up the prayer…

Muhsin Khan: Who believe in the Ghaib and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat)…

Cause of divergence:

  • Rendering certain Arabic terms as they are. As this is a regular occurrence in Muhsin. Khan’s translation (as well as its excessive glosses), it will not be mentioned further.

2:5       أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ

Sahih International: Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord

Muhsin Khan: They are on (true) guidance from their Lord

Yusuf Ali: They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord

Ghali: Those are upon guidance from their Lord

Shakir: These are on a right course from their Lord

Pickthall: These depend on guidance from their Lord

Causes of divergence:

  • Renderings of the word hudā, with Shakir perhaps being influenced by its being indefinite here.
  • Interpretations of the metaphor of being “upon” guidance. Pickthall has apparently understood that a word was left unmentioned; perhaps this ought to have been placed in parenthesis.

2:5       وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: and it is those who are the successful

Muhsin Khan: and they are the successful

Pickthall: These are the successful

Ghali: and those are they who are the prosperers

Yusuf Ali: and it is these who will prosper

Shakir: and these it is that shall be successful

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the active participle as indicating the present or the future.

2:6       لا يُؤْمِنُونَ

Sahih International: they will not believe

Muhsin Khan: they will not believe

Yusuf Ali: they will not believe

Shakir: …will not believe

Pickthall: they believe not

Ghali: they do not believe

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the imperfect verb as indicating the present or the future.

2:8       وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ

Sahih International: And of the people are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Yusuf Ali: Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Shakir: And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the last day

Muhsin Khan: And of mankind, there are some (hypocrites) who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Pickthall: And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day

Ghali: And of mankind (there) are some who say, “We have believed in Allah and in the Last Day”

Cause of divergence:

  • Whether to consider al-nās as referring to a specific number of people, or all mankind. This distinction is significant in certain other verses.
  • Here and elsewhere: approaches to the past-tense verb “believed,” often rendered in the present to suit the meaning.

2:10     وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْذِبُونَ

Sahih International: and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie

Muhsin Khan: A painful torment is theirs because they used to tell lies

Pickthall: A painful doom is theirs because they lie

Shakir: and they shall have a painful chastisement because they lied

Ghali: and for them is a painful torment for (that) they used to lie

Yusuf Ali: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves)

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb to apply to the act of lying, or as a mode of behaviour which is the opposite of being true (i.e. sincere).

2:11     قَالُوا إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُصْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: they say, “We are but reformers”

Muhsin Khan: they say: “We are only peacemakers”

Pickthall: they say: We are peacemakers only

Yusuf Ali: they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”

Shakir: they say: We are but peace-makers

Ghali: they say, “Surely we are only doers of righteousness” (i.e. reformers, peacemakers)

Cause of divergence:

  • Meanings of the term iṣlāḥ

2:12     أَلا إِنَّهُمْ هُمُ الْمُفْسِدُونَ وَلَٰكِن لا يَشْعُرُونَ

Sahih International: Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not

Muhsin Khan: Verily! They are the ones who make mischief, but they perceive not

Yusuf Ali: Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not

Shakir: Now surely they themselves are the mischief makers, but they do not perceive

Ghali: Verily, they, (only) they, are surely the corruptors, but they are not aware

Pickthall: Are not they indeed the mischief-makers? But they perceive not

Cause of divergence:

  •  Interpretation of the opening particle as being interrogative (its origin), rather than emphatic. Similarly in the following verse: “Are not they indeed the foolish?”

2:15     اللَّهُ يَسْتَهْزِئُ بِهِمْ

Sahih International: [But] Allah mocks them…

Muhsin Khan: Allah mocks at them…

Pickthall: Allah (Himself) doth mock them…

Ghali: Allah mocks them…

Shakir: Allah shall pay them back their mockery…

Yusuf Ali: Allah will throw back their mockery on them…

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb as being a direct action in the present, or as an expression of the punishment which God will enact on the hypocrites, described with a verb that matches their wicked behaviour to indicate that the punishment will fit the crime in perfect justice and wisdom.

2:17     وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ

Sahih International: and left them in darkness [so] they could not see

Muhsin Khan: and left them in darkness. (So) they could not see

Pickthall: and leaveth them in darkness, where they cannot see

Yusuf Ali: and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see

Shakir: and left them in utter darkness– they do not see

Ghali: and left them in darkness(es) (where) they do not behold (anything)

Cause of divergence:

  • The plural form of “darkness” being ignored, treated as an emphasis (“utter”) or rendered literally (“darknesses”) as a new coinage in English.

2:19     أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ

Sahih International: Or [it is] like a rainstorm from the sky

Muhsin Khan: Or like a rainstorm from the sky

Pickthall: Or like a rainstorm from the sky

Yusuf Ali: Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky

Ghali: Or as a cloudburst from the heaven

Shakir: Or like abundant rain from the cloud

Cause of divergence:

  • How they understood these two terms and their meanings and relation in the context.

2:20     وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللهُ لَذَهَبَ بِسَمْعِهِمْ وَأَبْصَارِهِمْ

Sahih International: And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their
sight

Muhsin Khan: And if Allah willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight

Pickthall: If Allah willed, He could destroy their hearing and their sight

Yusuf Ali: And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing

Shakir: and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have taken away their hearing and their sight

Ghali: and if Allah had so decided, He would indeed have gone away with (i.e., taken away) their hearing and their beholdings (Literally: eyesights)

Causes of divergence:

  • The latter translator’s understanding of the literal meaning of the transitive construction dhahaba bihi.
  • His attempt to convey the plural nature of abṣār, because the word for hearing (samʿ) occurs in the singular.

To be continued

[1] See Q 4:9. This example is interesting, because the generally precise translators of Saheeh International have simply written “fear” three times. Yusuf Ali and Muhsin Khan have even combined the first two and called them “the same fear”! Dr. M.M. Ghali (who pays particular attention to synonymy) has perhaps done the best job of distinguishing between their senses in the verse; likewise Pickthall.

[2] The vast majority of translators have relied solely on the reading of Ḥafṣ ʿan ʿĀṣim, being the preponderant narration throughout the Muslim world since the era of publishing and indeed earlier. However, ten canonical readings (qirā’āt) are recognised as being equally authentic and authoritative. While most differences between them pertain to pronunciation only, some affect meaning and thus translation. The Bewley translation (1999) is based on the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ. In addition, there are instances where translators deviate from the reading of Ḥafṣ, whether knowingly or unwittingly. These issues will receive a detailed treatment in the future.

[3] The books of tafsīr also contain divergence based on their stances concerning certain creedal and juristic matters, and so on. It is unclear to what extent many translators have relied on works of tafsīr to develop their interpretations; one could imagine that a linguistic treatment would be enough. We know that some, such as Muhsin Khan, make explicit reference to works of tafsīr; such can be seen in Yusuf Ali’s footnotes too. Unfortunately, most translators make little to no use of footnotes, and those who do write footnotes tend not to use them to explain their choices in translation.

Sohaib Saeed is presently pursuing a degree in Qur’anic Studies at the Faculty of Theology (Usul al-Din) of the world-renowned Al-Azhar University, Egypt, after attaining degrees in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh.

*This blog post is a slightly revised version of Sohaib Saeed’s essay from the website Quranica.com, which he manages.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Two Unique Translations of the Qurʾan

By Gabriel Reynolds

If you can’t judge a book by its cover perhaps you can by its title.  The “Hilali-Khan” translation of the Qurʾan is entitled Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qurʾan in the English Language: A Summarized Version of At-Ṭabarī, Al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir with comments from Sahih al-Bukhari.  With this title readers are reminded that a translation of the Qurʾan should not be confused with the Qurʾan itself, even while they are assured that this translation is based on reliable Sunni authorities who interpret the Qurʾan in the light of hadith.  The Hilali Khan translation is published by Dar-us-Salam, a Saudi publisher (with an American office in Houston) connected with the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qurʾan in Medina.  In fact the translation of Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Hilali (of Saudi Arabia) and Muhammad Muhsin Khan (of Pakistan, translator of the Dar-us-Salam Arabic-English version of Bukhari’s Sahih) is subsidized by the Saudi government and distributed for free in many mosques and to many libraries throughout the English speaking world; it was chosen to replace the translation of Yusuf Ali, a translation considered suspect by certain tradition-minded Sunnis.

However, the Hilali-Khan translation has been criticized for the manner in which hadith – including those with an anti-Jewish or anti-Christian flavor — are integrated into the translation.  The most famous example of this is verse 7 of al-Fatiha, which Hilali-Khan renders: “The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).”  Yet it seems to me that there is something felicitous about the interpretive style of Hilalli-Khan translation.  All translations in the end are interpretations, and at least Hilali-Khan are truthful in their advertising.  In addition, their translation offers frequent citations (in English) of those hadith which are central to the tradition-minded Sunni reading of the Qurʾan.  For example, on Q 17:79 (which refers to a maqam mahmud, “a station of praise”) they cite the following hadith, “On the Day of Resurrection the people will fall on their knees and every nation will follow their Prophet and they will say, “O so-and-so! Intercede (for us with Allah)’, till (the right of) intercession will be given to the Prophet (Muhammad) and that will be the day when Allah will raise him to Maqam Mahmud.”  These sorts of references make Hilali-Khan a useful reference work.

Quite unlike the English translation of Hilali-Khan, and yet unique and useful in its own way, is the French translation of (the Swiss-Palestinian) Sami Awad Aldeed Abu-Sahlieh.  One thing that Abu-Sahlieh’s translation does have in common with that of Hilali-Khan is a long title: Le Coran: Version bilingue arabe-française, ordre chronologique selon l’Azhaar, renvois aux variantes, abrogations et aux écrits juifs et chrétiens (The Qurʾan: A Bilingual Arabic French Version in the Chronological Order of al-Azhar, with References to Variants, Abrogations, and Jewish and Christian Writings).  As advertised, the translation of Abu-Sahlieh begins not with al-Fatiha but instead with al-ʿAlaq (96) the Sura which appears first in most traditional lists of the chronological order in which the angel Gabriel revealed the Qurʾan to the Prophet.  It ends not with al-Nas (114) but with al-Nasr (110).

Meanwhile Abu-Sahlieh includes references throughout his translation to traditional variant readings (qiraʾat), to reports on which verses (according to the tradition) abrogate or are abrogated, and to parallel or otherwise relevant texts from the Bible or other Jewish and Christian writings, notably the Talmud.   Thus for the ending of Qurʾan 9:77 yakdhibuna (“They used to tell lies”) Abu Sahlieh notes the variant yukadhdhibuna (“They used to deny”).  Three verses later, regarding Qurʾan 9:80 (“Whether or not you ask forgiveness of them, even if you ask forgiveness of them seventy times, God will never forgive them….”) Abu Sahlieh notes: A. the verse is abrogated by Q 63:5 and B. 70 is the same number given for mutual forgiveness in Matthew 18:22.  Readers might be critical of certain aspects of Abu Sahlieh’s approach, but they will likely also be grateful for the references that make his translation, like that of Hilali Khan, a useful reference work.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2012. All rights reserved.