The team of Saheeh International and Abdur-Rahman Abou Almajd about translating the meanings of the Qur’an

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see also: ترجمة معاني القرآن بين الجهود الفردية والجهود الجماعية www.alukah.net/Sharia/0/37237

English translations of the meanings of the Qur’an are needed because of the growing Muslim communities in English-speaking countries, as well as greater academic interest in the Qur’an.  Only about 20 percent of Muslims speak Arabic, and this means that most Muslims study the Qur’an only in translation.

“The Qur’an: English Meanings and Notes” by Saheeh International is one of the most authentic available.  The translation is simple, accurate and modern.  We have an opportunity to reflect upon the Saheeh International English translation with the team who produced it:  Umm Muhammad Aminah Assami, Amatullah Bantley, and Mary Kennedy.

Q: I wonder what made you focus on translation of the meanings of the Qur’an.

SI: We had been translating and editing Islamic material for Dar Abul-Qasim of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for several years.  The owner had constantly urged us to undertake this task due to the many complaints he received about the translations available at that time (in the early 1990s).  These complaints had to do with errors in translation, outdated styles and particularly, problems related to ‘aqeedah. At his insistence, we finally agreed to make an attempt and began work in 1994.  There were two main objectives before us:  to present meanings consistent with the ‘aqeedah of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah and to simplify and clarify the language, keeping it as close as possible to the Arabic wording for the benefit of students.

Q: Do you present “a translation” or “an interpretation” of the meanings of the Qur’an?

SI: Perhaps neither of these terms is entirely accurate.  We are all aware that the text of the Qur’an is untranslatable as such.  What we call a “translation” can only reflect an attempt to convey general meanings with some additions by way of footnotes.  As stated in our Introduction, the Arabic reader will perceive multiple shades of meaning contained in particular words and phrases, while a translation can reflect but one emphasis and thus appear very limited.

On the other hand, an “interpretation” implies an opinion.  Early and later scholars offered various commentaries according to their own understanding, but we restricted ourselves to those based on authentic hadiths or explanations by the most knowledgeable of the Sahabah and Tabi‘een. We neither relied on a particular interpretation nor accepted any one of them in totality but rather kept to whatever was considered to be most accurate and authentic.

Q: The mistake of most translators of the Qur’an is conforming it to their own religious beliefs or biases.  I wonder which mistakes you avoided.

SI: We were well aware of this and therefore careful to adhere to what reliable scholars of Ahl as-Sunnah had affirmed and avoided injecting into it anything of our own or of the modern commentaries which touch upon such issues as scientific miracles.  The latter omission has brought criticism by some, but we preferred to use only early sources.

We have compiled a list of some errors in the more familiar translations done prior to 1997 compared with the corrections we made.  It is too much to mention here, but we will consider posting it on our website in the near future at www.saheehinternational.com.  But to cite six examples:

1) Verse 2:231 (and 65:2 in some translations):  Previous translators basically said, “When you have divorced women, and they have reached their term, then retain them in kindness or release them in kindness.”  The Arabic words “fabalaghna ajalahunna” can also refer to the stage when a time period is about to expire.  In Islamic law, a man cannot take back his wife once she has actually reached her term, for the divorce would have already taken effect.  Thus, we translated it as “[nearly] fulfilled their term.”

2) The word “riba” in verses 2:275, 2:276, 2:278, 3:130, 4:161 and 30:39 has been translated as “usury” in many translations.  This is definitely incorrect because usury means “an exorbitant, exploitative or excessive rate of interest.”  Therefore, one could argue that charging a low or “reasonable” rate of interest is permitted.  Islamic law clearly forbids any amount; therefore, the translation of “riba” must be “interest” rather than “usury.”

3) Regarding the words “zina,” “zania,” and “zani” in verses 17:32 and 24:2-3:  English uses different terms pertaining to unlawful sexual intercourse when committed by a married person (adultery) and by an unmarried one (fornication).  In Islamic law the rulings about fornication and adultery are vastly different; therefore, the correct term must be given each time the word “zina” or its derivatives appear.  In 17:32, zina applies to both fornication and adultery (Pickthall only mentioned adultery).  In 24:2, the ruling for one hundred lashes applies only to fornicators, but Pickthall used the word adultery (a definite error).  And in 24:3, zina again applies to both adulterers/adulteresses and fornicators/fornicatresses, but he only indicated the former.

4) In 2:255 the phrase usually translated as “Neither slumber nor sleep overtake Him” is technically incorrect because “slumber” and “sleep” are similar in English and reflect the meaning of “nawm” in Arabic.  ”Sinah” is the state when one is on the verge of falling asleep but still aware of his surroundings.  There is probably no exact term in English for “sinah,” but “drowsiness” is closer in meaning.  In the Saheeh Internationl translation, the phrase reads:  “Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep.”

5) 18:71 Several translations used the word “scuttle,” as in this example by Hilali and Khan:  “So, they both proceeded till when they embarked the ship, he (Al-Khidr) scuttled it.  [Moses] said:  ‘Have you scuttled it in order to drown its people?’”  The meaning of “scuttle” is to open holes in a ship below water level in order to sink it.  Al-Khidr was instructed by Allah to disable the ship so that the unjust king who was confiscating ships would see a defect in it and not want it.  It was not intended to be sunk, and scuttling refers to sinking.  The Arabic term is “kharaqa,” which means “torn.”  Our translation reads:  “So they set out, until when they had embarked on the ship, he [i.e., al-Khidr] tore it open.  [Moses] said, ‘Have you torn it open to drown its people?’”

6) 2:116 (and 10:68, 18:4, 19:88, 21:26, 23:91)  Yusuf Ali and Hilali and Khan used “begotten” or “begets” in each of these verses.  By translating the word “ittakhadha” as “begotten” implies that Allah fathered a son, yet it has nothing to do with reproduction.  What is meant by “ittakhadha” is to take, adopt or consider one as a son.  The Arabic verb that means “fathered” is “walada,” as in verses 37:152 and 112:3, in which case using “begotten” is appropriate.

Q: No doubt before translating you studied Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s, Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s, and al-Hilali and Khan’s.  Could you elaborate on that please?

SI: We were familiar with these three and initially thought it would be easier to edit an existing translation.  But we soon discovered that this was going to be much more difficult than beginning from scratch.  Considering that every verse had to be checked from the relevant Arabic sources of tafseer and grammar, there honestly wasn’t much benefit in using English references.

Although we sometimes looked at the wording other translators had chosen, it was out of interest rather than decision making.  We found that, in reality, most of the more recent works are but revisions of Yusuf Ali’s original.  Some kept his name on them and some did not, but his wording is still recognizable despite the corrections and alterations made.

Q: What else did you study before doing the Saheeh International translation?

SI: Our translator, Umm Muhammad, had taken intensive Arabic courses in Syria and teaches basic fiqh and tafseer at an Islamic education center in Jeddah.  She was thus familiar with a variety of source materials, but for this assignment she relied only upon well-known works by recognized Muslim scholars.

We did look at several other translations besides those mentioned.  Sometimes translators failed to consider how particular wordings could be understood by an English reader unfamiliar with Arabic expressions.  One of them inserted explanations and hadiths within the translation of the text, which many people found confusing.  We had to consider such problems as a team and pay precise attention to grammar and punctuation because in some instances even a comma can change the meaning of a statement in English.

Q: Saheeh International‘s translation is now in its fourth edition.  What did you alter?

SI: The first edition was published in 1997.  At that time there was no desktop program for inserting the Arabic text, so each verse had to be pasted in by hand.  Unfortunately, two verses of the Arabic text were reversed, and that needed to be corrected immediately for a 2nd edition.  Since then, the Arabic has been replaced with an electronic Qur’an program to insure that no mistakes appear in the Arabic text, in-sha-Allah.

As for the English, the basic difference in each new edition has been the addition of explanatory footnotes.  For example, in the most recent edition (November, 2011) we added nearly 100 new footnotes, of which most pertain to the meanings of Allah’s names and attributes.

Throughout the years we’ve also made minor adjustments in the language of some verses when we felt further clarification was necessary or decided that a different word or phrase would be more suitable.  We put three

years of work into the original translation but occasionally come across things that could be improved.  Thus, we never hesitate to incorporate beneficial changes that might add to the reader’s understanding of the Qur’an.

Q: Saheeh International is the most popular English version among Muslims, but what about non-Muslim readers?

SI: We do not have any specific figures on that, but many da‘wah organizations have said it is the best translation to gift non-Muslims because of its accuracy and understandable English.  You can read feedback from scholars and others on the “Quran Translation” page at www.saheehinternational.com

Q: It is

said that the Yusuf Ali translation has lost influence because of its outdated language and the appearance of more recent works.  Do you think the Saheeh International translation will face what Yusuf Ali’s faced?

SI: In the case of Yusuf Ali’s translation, many revisions have been published with updated English.  So theoretically, this could be done with any translation in the future.  But we might add that some recent attempts by translators to modernize the language have resulted in a crude style unbefitting to Allah’s Book.

It is likely, however, that a greater cause for the “lost influence” of Yusuf Ali’s translation was the number of errors which remained uncorrected.  Having put much effort into conveying meanings consistent with acknowledged Arabic sources and accepted by reputable Muslim scholars, we hope to have avoided serious errors.  But as no one is infallible, we would not hesitate to correct any mistake that might be found.

Q: How long did you take to manage the Saheeh International translation?

SI: Outside of our duties as mothers and wives, we basically spent three solid years of daily work on it (often into late night hours) before the first publication.  We continue to update the text from time to time as mentioned previously.  And each new print size requires new formatting, which we also do.  We are also working on numerous electronic formats for online sales in association with our publisher, Al-Muntada al-Islami.  The first of these are now on sale at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.  The links appear below:

www.amazon.com/dp/B006E3UFOS

www.search.barnesandnoble.com/books/e/2940013541719

Q: What’s your opinion about translators like Yusuf Ali, Pickthall and Dawood?

SI: We can assume that any Muslim who undertakes this kind of work would be seeking reward from Allah and do it conscientiously.  Although we can appreciate the fine expression in Yusuf Ali’s translation, it is no secret that it contained some errors in ‘aqeedah. But he was undoubtedly sincere and provided an unprecedented service to the Muslim community in his time.  Pickthall’s translation is one of the better ones, although it too has now been revised.  Unfortunately, the original translator’s name is sometimes replaced by that of editors, who take credit for the “new” translation.

Dawood is a non-Muslim, and his translation has subsequently been modified several times by an anonymous person.  He initially rearranged the surahs into a chronological order but later editions restored the original sequence.  Generally, we would not recommend the translation of a non-Muslim, as it would not be free of the translator’s preferred interpretations.

Q: How can we manage to get English translations of the meaning of the Qur’an without bias?

SI: If the “bias” is toward the teachings of the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah and away from sectarianism and deviation, then one can find translations reflecting the intended Arabic meanings.  But again, the point must be stressed that the Qur’an is only in Arabic and no translation can convey it precisely.  When in doubt, it is easy to check out the background of a translator on the internet.

Q: Do you think that multiple English versions lead to corruption of the text?

SI: The various interpretations reflected in translation might appear confusing to a reader who cannot refer to the original.  But often times those differences simply reflect different yet valid interpretations and thus may actually assist in deeper understanding of the meanings of the Qur’an.  Problems arise when, as you mentioned, a translator’s “bias” interferes.  However, the text in Arabic is never affected by how it gets translated.

Q: I recall that the Los Angeles school district banned the use of Yusuf Ali’s translation in April 2002.  I wonder if you faced any anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemics.

SI: We are not aware of anything in particular, other than the same objections that opponents of Islam always raise in relation to the Qur’an.

Q: What do you see in books like “An Introduction to the Qur’an” by Robert Bruce Spencer?

SI: Although we have not seen the book itself, it is known that this non-Muslim author has given lectures on “the threat of Islam” and made many television appearances on conservative talk shows and in seminars on “the dangers of Islam.”  One could not, therefore, expect from him very accurate information.

Q: How should Prophet Muhammad be shown in the West?

SI: People need to know that Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) is relevant to them – that he was sent to all of humanity and not just to Arabs.  His mission was to invite all people to worship God alone.  We can point out that his coming was foretold, and because he was described in previous scriptures, the honest and open-minded among the Jews and Christians recognized him from those descriptions and believed in his message.

We need to learn more about his life and be prepared to convey the historical facts surrounding it.  To dispel vicious rumors against him, we may focus on explaining his true character, how he interacted with others and his fair treatment of everyone, including non-Muslims.

In view of this, we published a book entitled, “The Global Messenger,” which is a basic introduction to Prophet Muhammad for non-Muslims.  The book is also useful to Muslims for obtaining the basic information they can use when people ask questions about the Prophet or about Islam.  Additionally, we’ve produced a book called “Clear Your Doubts” which is beneficial for this purpose as well.  You can find out more about them on the “book list” page of our website.

Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much.  Barak Allah fikum.

SI: Wa jazakum Allahu khayran.  We appreciate the opportunity to speak with you as well.

Qur'an
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