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One Qur'an, Many Translations

Question and answer details
Peter Raymond Skinner
  There are several translations of the Koran into English, some of which are not recommended as they do not give an accurate rendering of the words of the Prophet. It is probably very difficult to give the exact translation of the original words, as of course is the case with other sacred books.What, in your opinion, is the most accurate translation, the one that gives the "spirit" of the book?
Marwa Elnaggar

Salam, Peter.

Thank you for your question. It touches on a very important issue, especially for the millions and millions of both Muslims and non-Muslims who do not understand Arabic but are interested in reading the Qur'an.

You might be surprised if I told you that the Qur'an has been approached by millions throughout history, each with his or her own way. What does this mean?

Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the very word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language, and this belief should be understood by anyone who wants to study or read the Qur'an.

The belief itself that the Qur'an is the word of God leads to an understanding of the many sciences, disciplines, behaviors, and emotions that Muslims have concerning the Qur'an.

This takes me back to my earlier point about people approaching the Qur'an in their own ways.

What Does the Qur'an Mean to Muslims?

Generally speaking, Muslims all over the world, as do many other people, seek spiritual fulfillment and emotional serenity through their relationship with God.

Muslims who are conscious of their state as creations of a Loving Creator are in a constant inner struggle to purify their hearts from diseases such as greed, hate, and pride, free their minds from the hassles of an everyday worldly life, and exalt their tired souls to a more beautiful state of spiritual peace.

There is a verse in the Qur'an that says what means:

*{Truly, hearts find peaceful calm in the remembrance of God.}* (Ar-Ra`d 13:28)

This verse is loved and memorized by millions of Muslims all over the world because it sums up how Muslims feel when they remember God by praising Him, expressing gratitude to Him, asking Him for what they need, and most importantly, reading and reciting His words.

You will find that many Muslims, when they are faced with difficult times, such as a marriage falling apart, a loved one dying, or being confronted with the reality of a debilitating illness, for example, unfailingly turn to the Qur'an for solace.

Many more Muslims, whether they are happy or sad, whether they are comfortable in their worldly lives or have been stricken with difficulties, cry when they read the Qur'an.

If you could take a look in a mosque one day, or if you had the opportunity to enter a Muslim home and live with a Muslim family, you will undoubtedly always find that there is someone, man or woman, adult or child, who is sitting with a copy of the Qur'an open on their laps, tears falling silently on their cheeks.

These tears express a myriad of emotions. They can be tears of joy, tears of the pain of an inner struggle, cathartic tears of purification when one finally finds the peace that one has been looking for, or even tears of love for a Creator Who calls out with love to you.

For a Muslim, they can even express the realization of the honor of reading the very words that God Himself spoke. Ultimately, the Qur'an represents a direct "hotline," if you will, between the Creator and His creation.

What remains constant for Muslims is that each and every one approaches the Qur'an individually, personally, seeking a personal and deeply individual connection with God.

There is a saying that many Muslims repeat: "If you want God to talk to you, read the Qur'an. If you want to talk to God, pray to Him."

This is how the everyday Muslim, whether Arab or non-Arab, approaches the Qur'an.

Go to Bangladesh or Uganda, Iceland, or Brazil, all over the world, the 80 percent of Muslims who are not Arab still read or recite the Qur'an. Some can actually read the Arabic itself but others cannot and have memorized some of the verses. You will also find that all Muslims know at least some of the verses by heart.

The Qur'an in Islamic Academia

Throughout history, however, the Qur'an has not simply been read or recited by Muslims. Because of the great respect Muslims have for the Qur'an, and because of the emphasis Islam places on knowledge and on understanding the Qur'an, it, like the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad — that is, the Hadith — has been the subject of many academic disciplines in Islamic history.

The way the Qur'an is recited and pronounced is a discipline or science called tajweed. This science has its scholars, its references, its books, and its schools.

Interpreting the Qur'an is another science called the science of tafseer. Likewise, it has its scholars, references, books, and schools.

There are many other sciences that deal with the Qur'an itself, and the group of sciences are called `ulum Al-Qur'an in Arabic, meaning, "the sciences of the Qur'an."

These disciplines were developed by Muslim scholars meticulously and painstakingly over the centuries. Scholars specialized in these disciplines had to be experts in the Arabic language, in the history of the science itself, and in many other fields before they were considered specialists.

Although no one needs to be an expert or a scholar to read and understand the Qur'an, it is a vital criterion for anyone who claims to interpret the Qur'an itself.

This brings us to the problem with translations.

The Problem With Translations

Generally speaking, translations of anything can be problematic. While translating any text, whether it is an academic text, a poem, or even a newspaper article, the translator must walk a fine line between accurately transferring the meaning of the original text, and avoiding any input of his or her own as much as possible.

Coming to the Qur'an, the question always arises: How much of the translation is actually the input of the translator?

Remember when we said that Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the actual word of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language? This definition automatically disqualifies any translations.

A translation can try to faithfully render the meanings of the Qur'an into another language, but simply by being a translation, no one can ever claim that a translation is the Qur'an or is the word of God.

Therefore, if anyone gives you an English copy of the Qur'an, you should always recognize that in fact what they have given you is a copy of the rendering of the meanings of the Qur'an into English, and not the Qur'an itself.

Of course, as with any translation, the hand of the translator is always present. That is why you will find that translations are different.

Which Translation?

With all the differences between translations, the true answer to your question about which one conveys the "spirit" of the Qur'an best would be: all of them … and none of them.

I'm not trying to be "smart" with that statement. I, and indeed many of my friends and colleagues, have been dealing with translations of the meanings of the Qur'an for several years now and we all believe that there is no one translation that is "the best."

Sometimes we prefer a specific translation over another for certain verses and not others, for example. Sometimes we prefer a certain style of a translator, but prefer the accuracy of another translator. Because we can read the Arabic, we always compare the original with the translation, and we always feel that there is something missing in the translation.

If you have ever heard the Qur'an being recited in Arabic, you will notice that there is a certain rhythm and cadence to the words that can never be copied into another language. For Muslims, there is also the emotion of reading or hearing God's words that is related to the Arabic recitation that is not as strong when reading or hearing a translation.

There are a lot of translations out there, but after asking for several people's input when I was preparing this answer, I received several recommendations for Muhammad Asad's The Message of the Qur'an. You could probably find it on Amazon, or at another online vendor. Let me warn you, though, this particular translation is relatively expensive and may not suit your budget. You should, however, find it in a good-sized library. If not, you can ask your librarian if they could acquire a copy.

Another translation that has been recommended is a recent one by Dr. Muhammad Abdel Haleem and published by Oxford University Press.

My advice to you would be to try to read as many translations as you can, approaching the Qur'an with the heart of someone who sincerely wants to understand, but at the same time, to take things easy and slowly, so as not to overwhelm yourself with too much at one time.

Peter, I hope this answers your question. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to write back to us. Keep in touch.


Useful Links:

What Is the Qur'an?

Recommended Translations of Qur'an

The Story of the Qur'an

It Is Reported That the Prophet Said…

The Most Widely Read Book in the World