Taking Care with Translation of Sacred Scripture
by Edward Price2016/2020
Here is an excerpt from my forthcoming Volume 4 of the Divine Curriculum series, on Muhammad, the Founder of Islam. In this excerpt, I discuss the importance of using reliable translations of the Qur'án. The concerns raised here, in the context of the Arabic language of the Qur'án, would apply equally to all religions and to the care that must be taken when translating from one language to another. In this example, we can see how misunderstandings can both be easily generated and easily corrected as a result of translation. The discussion does necessarily get a bit technical. Nevertheless, the persevering reader will be very satisfied with the result.
Concerns about translation
The Faith that Muhammad brought into the world is not called Muhammadanism. It is called Islam. The word "islam" has two meanings. Its first meaning is to surrender or submit your will to the Will of God. "Islam" is also the name of a world religion with more than a billion adherents, which predominates throughout the Middle East and much of Asia and Africa.
The word "muslim" is directly related and also has a dual meaning. Again, the primary meaning is one who surrenders, submits, or bows in submission to God. The second meaning is that it refers to a member of the Islamic religion.
The word "islam" occurs ten times in the Qur'án and the word "muslim" occurs three times. Related forms of the word occur many, many times throughout the Text, so there is no doubt as to the importance of the concepts conveyed by these words.
Because of the approach taken by some translators, it is sometimes difficult to uncover the true message of the Qur'án. Muslims who know the Qur'án in its original Arabic often hail the clarity of its language, the beauty of its construction, and the profundity of its thought. Among those who are fluent in Arabic, the Qur'án is legitimately regarded as the finest literature ever produced in that language. Among those who are believers in the Qur'án, the fact that this supreme example of Arabic literature was produced by an uneducated camel driver is considered a proof of its Divine origin. Scholars who translate the Qur'án strive to bring the beauty and the meaning of the original Text into the English language, but they face many daunting challenges.
Muhammad Asad, is his lengthy work, The Message of the Quran, has noted:
"…it is obvious that the Qur'án cannot be correctly understood if we read it merely in the light of later ideological developments, losing sight of its original purport and the meaning which it had – and was intended to have – for the people who first heard it from the lips of the Prophet himself. For instance, when his contemporaries heard the words islam and muslim, they understood them as denoting man's "self-surrender to God" and "one who surrenders himself to God", without limiting these terms to any specific community or denomination – e.g., in 3:67, where Abraham is spoken of as having "surrendered himself unto God" (kana musliman), or in 3:52, where the disciples of Jesus say, "Bear thou witness that we have surrendered ourselves unto God (bi-anna muslimun)". In Arabic, this original meaning has remained unimpaired, and no Arab scholar has ever become oblivious of the wide connotation of these terms. Not so, however, the non-Arab of our day, believer and non-believer alike: to him, islam and muslim usually bear a restricted, historically circumscribed significance, and apply exclusively to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, the terms kufr ("denial of the truth") and kafir ("one who denies the truth") have become, in the conventional translations of the Qur'án, unwarrantably simplified into "unbelief" and "unbeliever" or "infidel", respectively, and have thus been deprived of the wide spiritual meaning which the Qur'án gives to these terms…" – Muhammad Asad
We will consider this advice sincerely. In my writings, I use a variety of translations of the Qur'án, as cross-references to one another, to make sure both the meaning and the beauty of the Sacred Text are conveyed. For example, some of the translations used are those by Rodwell, Sale, Arberry, Yusuf 'Ali, and Pickthall.
I must be critical, however, of some of the translators because certain errors have been made systemically, leading to misunderstandings about Islam that are, unfortunately, highly consequential. In pointing out these difficulties, no insult to the translators is intended. Our concern is that the problems of translations must be pointed out and honestly discussed if we are to have any hope of eliminating some of the great misunderstandings about Islam.
The first problem to be addressed is the translation of the word "Allah". We noted earlier that Allah simply means "the God" in Arabic. "Allah" however is not a name. Any native Arabic speaker, in the 7th century or in this century, refers to God simply as Allah because, in Arabic, Allah means "God."
For example, suppose that you are a Christian living in Egypt. Arabic is your native language not because of your religion, but because it is the language of the society into which you were born. Arabic is the language you encounter at home and at school. You encounter Arabic in the workplace, at the gas station, on the street signs, on restaurant menus, in the newspaper, at the bank, on television, among your friends, and, notably, when you go to church. As an Egyptian Christian, when you read the Bible, in what language would you read it? Arabic, of course. So, when you read the Bible, in the place where the English text would use the word "God", what word will be used in your Arabic version of the Bible? The answer is "Allah".
This common usage is not widely understood in the West.
Consider the following graphic which displays side-by-side the first ten verses of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis, in both English and Arabic. The English side is the familiar King James English Bible. The first ten verses of the Book of Genesis use the word "God" twelve times. In the Arabic translation of those same ten verses the word "Allah" is used to translate the word "God" exactly twelve times. Thus a native Arabic speaker who happens to be Jewish or Christian, or even an atheist, in the Arabic translation would find the word "Allah" in the exact place where the word "God" is used in the English translation. The graphic places a circle around the word "Allah" so the reader can see the exact correspondence to the word "God" in the English text. Thus the exact equivalence between the word "God" in English and the word "Allah" in Arabic is proven beyond any doubt.
Comparing the English Bible with the Arabic Bible, regarding God = Allah
Unfortunately, many of the Qur'án translators, including Abdullah Yusuf Ali, leave Allah in the English translation, thus implying that Allah is the proper name of a different Deity, an altogether different God.
Just imagine. If the Bible had originally been revealed in the Arabic language, and English Bible translators use the same approach as the English Qur'án translators, we would get this…
"In the beginning Allah created the heaven and the earth…"
Does this look right to you?
No, of course not.
To say "In the beginning Allah created the heaven and the earth", is to place the word "Allah" where the word "God" should be; is the same failure to translate which many of the Qur'án translators have fallen into.
The word "Allah" appears 3,156 times in the Qur'án. So, we can only take the time to look at a small sampling of in-context examples to see the effect of this translation error on the meaning of the translated text. Hopefully, this will be sufficient.
Westerners are familiar with the outcry of the Muslims, "Allah'u'akbar". The word "akbar" means "most great" so the cry means "God is most great". "Akbar" is a superlative form of the word "kabir", which simply means "great".
Surah 110 is translated as:
"When comes the Help of Allah, and Victory, And thou dost see the People enter Allah's Religion in crowds, Celebrate the Praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: for He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy)."
Is Allah's religion a different religion than either Judaism or Christianity? No, the Qur'án doesn't say that. God's religion is one religion, delivered to humanity at different times and places. Since Allah means simply "the God", the proper translation should be:
"When comes the Help of God, and Victory, And thou dost see the People enter God's Religion in crowds, Celebrate the Praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: for He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy)."
Translating Allah properly enables us to see the universal and inclusive intention of the Qur'ánic verses.
The last verse of Surah 14 is interesting. The translator offers this:
"Here is a Message for mankind: let them take warning therefrom, and let them know that He is (no other than) One Allah: let men of understanding take heed." (Qur'án 14:52)
Isn't each individual unique? Isn't that what the verse says ("One Allah")? The translator treats the word Allah as a personal name.
Let me ask the reader's tolerance for one second, just to make a point. Suppose we substitute the phrase with this: "…and let them know that He is (no other than) one Harvey Smith…" If each individual is unique, isn't this redundant? Obviously there is only one Harvey Smith. But there are many people, so another statement could be: "…and let them know that He is (no other than) one Harry Jones…"
Likewise, if Allah is a personal name, referring to an individual god, one would say there is only one Allah. There could be many gods, each with a unique name, so what's the big deal? But Allah means simply God. And in the time of Muhammad, the issue He was presenting to the pagan Arabs was the oneness and singleness of God.
The actual Arabic is: "huwa ilāhun wāḥidun", which means "He is God, the one", not "He is Allah, the one." So the more sensible translation ought to have been:
"Here is a Message for mankind: let them take warning therefrom, and let them know that He is God, the One: let men of understanding take heed." (Qur'án 14:52)
With this translation redundancy vanishes and the universal meaning becomes clear. Men of understanding, take heed!
The Qur'án repeatedly speaks to the Jews and the Christians, who were referred to as People of the Book. Here is an example:
"Say: 'O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah.' If then they turn back, say: 'Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah's will).'" (Qur'án 3:64)
When you look at this translation from the perspective of the Jews and the Christians who are being addressed the message seems incomprehensible. Allah seems to be asking them to view common terms by agreeing that they are all Muslims!!
What! How strange is that? It is like arguing with someone: Let's seek common ground, you give up everything, I win and you lose! And this is presented as the least they should do! Does this sound like coming to "common terms"?
We must understand this step-by-step. Let's begin by seeing the effect of changing the translation of Allah to God, which is more accurate:
"Say: 'O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.' If then they turn back, say: 'Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims bowing to God's will.'" (Qur'án 3:64)
This is somewhat clearer, isn't it? At least there is the sense of coming to common ground about worshipping the same God. When the translators do not render into English the true meaning of the word "Allah" they make it appear that Allah is a name and that the God of the Qur'án is different from the God of the Bible. This is an artifact of the translators' practices; no such difference is found in the original Arabic. As I mentioned, a Jewish or a Christian Arab "hears" the word "Allah" merely as a direct reference to God.
Let's now come back to the terms "islam" and "muslim".
The double meaning assigned to the words "islam" and "muslim" can cause problems for someone relying on the translations that are available. This is the problem – sometimes the word "islam" is translated as a name when it refers to the state of submitting to God and this can create misunderstandings for English translation readers. Another problem is that sometimes the translators insert words into the English translation that are not actually in the original Arabic.
Let's consider some examples to see the difficulties caused. Let's see what Abdullah Yusuf Ali does with this verse:
"If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good)." (Qur'án 3:85)
According to this translation you have to be a Muslim, a member of the Islamic religion, in order for your faith to be acceptable to God. Yes, the parenthesis does indicate that submission to God is essential, but it seems that one submits by becoming a member of the Islamic religion. The implication of this translation is clear – if you're a Jew, a Christian or any other Faith, Allah will not accept your religion. Surely then the reader will be interested to know that the entire parenthesis doesn't exist in the original Arabic. It was inserted by the translator supposedly for the purpose of clarification, which is a frequent practice. Taking out the parenthesis, here is a closer rendering of the original:
"If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good)." (Qur'án 3:85)
Now the verse seems to be saying even more emphatically that you must be a member of the Islamic religion for your faith to be accepted by God. Sounds rather exclusive, doesn't it?
Perhaps we should look at the context. Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates this verse and the one before as follows:
"Say: 'We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord; we make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bow our will (in Islam).' If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good)." (Qur'án 3:84-85)
Now, in proper context, the meaning has changed quite a bit; it has flipped from an exclusive to an inclusive message. The Revelations of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the other prophets are all from God, indeed, "we make no distinction between one and another among them." By the way, in verse 84, the parenthesis "in Islam" doesn't exist in the Arabic either. It was added by the translator.
The discussion becomes even more interesting. According to the Qur'án, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, along with other prophets, have all considered themselves muslims. Are you surprised? Didn't all of these Great Figures live centuries, even millennia, before the time of Muhammad? Islam as a distinctive religion didn't exist back then. So how could they call themselves muslims? The Qur'án itself poses this question for Abraham:
"Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian, but he was true in faith, and bowed his will to God's (which is Islam), and he joined not gods with God." (Qur'án 3:67)
Note: Again the phrase "which is Islam" is not found in the original Arabic, it was inserted by the translator. Abraham's faith was enduring, universal:
"Say: 'God speaketh the truth: follow the religion of Abraham, the sane in faith; he was not of the pagans.'" (Qur'án 3:95)
The Qur'án actually says Abraham asked God to make Him a muslim! How can that be? (Especially since Abraham lived twenty-five centuries before the Islamic religion was established in 7th century Arabia!)
Shortly after establishing the Ka'aba with his son Ishmael, He prayed:
"Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (Will), and show us our places for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in mercy); for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most-Merciful." (Qur'án 2:128)
In this verse, in the Arabic, the first occurrence of the word "muslim" is "mus'limayni" and the second occurrence is "mus'limatan", both with the meaning of being submissive. The phrase inserted by the translator, "bowing to Thy Will", which is redundant, does not occur in the original Arabic text.
What about Moses? The Qur'án reports on the confrontation between Pharaoh's sorcerers and Moses. In this encounter the sorcerers perform their enchantments but Moses overcomes them with superior miracles. The sorcerers acknowledge their defeat, falling "down prostrate in adoration", and this makes the hard-hearted Pharaoh angry. The sorcerers reply to Pharaoh and then, in his presence, turn to God in prayer:
"But thou dost wreak thy vengeance on us simply because we believed in the signs of our Lord when they reached us! Our Lord! pour out on us patience and constancy, and take our souls unto thee as Muslims (who bow to thy will)"! (Qur'án 7:126)
The parenthesis, "who bow to Thy will", does not exist in the original Arabic, it was inserted by the translator. The last word is "mus'limūna", which means "people who bow down to God." Taken literally, the translation is redundant. The proper translation should be: "and take our souls unto thee as those who submit to God".
Later in the Qur'ánic narrative, while in hot pursuit of Moses and His people, Pharaoh surprises himself at a crucial moment:
"We took the Children of Israel across the sea: Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. At length, when overwhelmed with the flood, he said: 'I believe that there is no god except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit to Allah (in Islam).' (It was said to him): 'Ah now! – but a little while before, wast thou in rebellion! – and thou didst [make] mischief (and violence)!'" (Qur'án 10:90-91)
Only at the moment of his defeat, like many people in that situation, does the Pharaoh admit to the power of God, and submit to His will. In this verse, the phrase "I am of those who submit to Allah (in Islam)" is "wa-anā mina al-mus'limīna" in the Arabic. The word "Allah" is not actually present in the Arabic; neither is the term "in Islam" which the translator put in parentheses. Again, taken literally, the translation is redundant. The proper translation should be:
"I am of those who submit."
Though not stated literally, the implication is that the speaker of these words, the Pharaoh, is submitting to God. Also, with Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation, we must note the oddity of the heard-hearted Pharaoh claiming to be a Muslim. No, nothing of the kind is suggested by this text in the actual Arabic. It is only after being defeated by the God of the Old Testament, the God of Moses, while being overwhelmed by the on-rushing waters of the Red Sea, and with his army being drowned, that Pharoah finally submits to God. He's obviously not claiming to convert to a religion that will not be revealed for another two thousand years!
Jesus also thought it was good to be a muslim. The Qur'án reports a conversation between Jesus and the disciples:
"…he said: "Who will be my helpers to (the work of) God?" Said the Disciples: "We are God's helpers, we believe in God, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims." (Qur'án 3:52)
The last word is "mus'limūna" which literally means "muslims". But wait, the Qur'án reports this encounter one more time. In the second instance, God is speaking:
"And behold! I inspired the Disciples to have faith in Me and My Messenger: they said, 'We have faith, and do thou bear witness that we bow to God as Muslims.'" (Qur'án 5:111)
Again, in this verse, the phrase "we bow to God as Muslims" is also the word "mus'limūna". Since the word "mus'limūna" means a people bowing down to God, surrendering to Him, the translator literally has the disciples saying "we bow to God we bow to God." But the word "mus'limūna" occurs only once in the original, not twice. The proper translation should simply be "we bow to God."
What can be concluded from these examples? When Abraham, Moses, and Jesus expressed their desire to be muslims, when the sorcerers in the Egyptian Pharaoh's courts pray to God – in the Pharaoh's presence – as muslims, when the Pharaoh himself, at the moment of his drowning in the Red Sea, testifies that he is a muslim, when the disciples of Jesus testify that they are muslims, when the many other prophets also mentioned in the Qur'án speak out as muslims, clearly They were not asking to convert to the not yet existent Islamic religion!
Instead, these important Figures of history were participating in a universal religious experience, in a state of mind in which their will as individuals was wholly surrendered to the Will of God.
Based on this insight, it becomes clear how the verse we examined earlier should now be translated:
"Say: 'We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord; we make no distinction between one and another among them, and to God do we bow our will.' If anyone desires a religion other than submission to God, never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good)." (Qur'án 3:84-85)
And what about the verse we examined earlier (3:64)? Given what we've learned, clearly the verse should be translated as follows:
"Say: 'O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.' If then they turn back, say: 'Bear witness that we (at least) are bowing to God's will.'" (Qur'án 3:64)
The word "muslim" did exist in the original Arabic, but the translator rendered is as the name of the follower of the Islamic religion. In full context, however, it is clear that the real meaning is the state of being in which one has surrendered one's will to the Will of God.
The Qur'án is not demanding, as a minimum of common ground, that the Jews and Christians must give up their religions and convert to the Islamic religion. No. It says, "Let's at least agree that we all bow down to God. Let's at least find common terms on that basis."
Properly understood, these messages are universally inclusive; the Qur'án says non-Muslims are not excluded from joyful reunion and acceptance by God, nor are they denied spiritual blessing in the Hereafter. What is not acceptable to God is arrogance and pride. Therefore, if you submit your will to God, like Abraham, like Moses, like Jesus, and like Muhammad, the Qur'án says we can find common ground and you too are blessed.
Observe how the translators led us to opposite, narrow and erroneous conclusions because of two common errors:
The preceding discussion has demonstrated that all readers, wishing to gain a true understanding of Islam, must approach the English translations of the Qur'án with the utmost caution. Sadly, all is not always as it is presented to be.
In addition, in this book series, for the reasons given, and regardless of which translator is used, I always change the word Allah to God. Likewise, when justified by the context, the terms "Islam" and "Muslim" are translated to indicate submission to God.
In the Divine Curriculum series, we exercise the greatest care to avoid these errors and seek a true understanding of the Message of the Qur'án, and indeed of all Scriptures.