Manipulations and Inadequacies of Quran Translations

Quran Translations & Steering Public Opinion Against Islam
Quran translations are supposed to provide "an authentic point of reference from which to examine the biased stereotypes of Islam to which Westerners are habitually exposed." However, unfortunately, most of these translations have not fulfilled this function. They either fail to give a precise image of Islam, or give a negative distorted one, says Thomas Cleary, a non-Muslim Quran translator.


Reading Islam presents a three-part article which tackles the issue of Quran translations and their role in steering public opinion against Islam in non-Muslim communities.


The study starts with a historical review indicating that the libels leveled against Islam are deeply rooted in the misconceptions propagated by the first Latin Quran translations perverted on purpose, out of fear that Islam would shake the established faith of Christians.


It then goes on to explain some of the ways Quran translations contribute to giving a false or negative impression about Islam through either deliberate manipulation or non-deliberate mistranslations or inadequacies.


Finally, it proposes some insights as to how to take action against the campaigns discrediting Islam.


Quran mistranslations play a role in giving a false or negative impression about Islam.
Quran mistranslations play a role in giving a false or negative impression about Islam.
After giving a reviewof some milestones in the history of Quran translations, this section sheds light on some of the ways Quran translations can play a role in deliberately, or non-deliberately, giving a false or negative impression about Islam.


Some misconceptions about Islam arise from mistranslations of certain words or verses, not necessarily on purpose. This section cites only three examples to highlight the problem at hand.

One of the basic misconceptions is related to the status of women in Islam. Some people argue that Islam degrades women, and they base their argument on some Quranic verses. In this regard, for instance, a mistranslation of the verb "faddala", as preferred in verse 34 of chapter 4 (An-Nisaa') in the Bewleys translation gives a meaning different from the one intended. The verse is translated by the Bewleys as:


{Men have charge of women because Allah has preferred the one above the other and because they spend their wealth on them.} (73)


Indeed, the verb "faddala", in one of its senses, means "to prefer". However, in this verse, it is used in the sense of giving more privileges in terms of physical strength and affording for women's needs. Thus, a better translation, by Thomas Cleary, is:


{The men are supporters of the women, by what God has given one more than the other.} (40)


It is worth noting that, in fact, woman in Islam is given unique privileges: the right to own property in her name alone, the right to be divorced from a husband for the sole reason of the inability of living with him even if he were good, the right to keep her own name and property after getting married, the right of inheritance, the right to own and run a business of her own, the right to choose her life partner, the right to be maintained by the husband, and so on.


Dirks, a convert to Islam, refutes the misconception about the degraded women in Islam stating:


Some estimates place the percentage of American converts to Islam that are women as high as 80%... it is crucial to emphasize that the erroneous stereotype of women being subjugated and oppressed by Islam is flatly and mistakably refuted by the fact that a large majority of American converts to Islam are women. (11)


Another example of the wrong meaning results from the inadequate translation of verse  179 of chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) in Mahmoud Ghali's translation, for instance. The verse is translated as:


{And in retaliation there is life for you, O men endowed with intellect, that possibly you would be pious.} (27)


When I personally asked a Spanish friend about what he understood from this verse, he replied "the first phrase means fight, acting on revenge, and you'll get a reward (for example, extra life, in this world or the hereafter). The second phrase I don't understand at all."


In the previous translation, the apparent meaning of the first phrase is that Muslims rejoice in the act of retaliation. However, the intended meaning is that retribution, executing the murderer, is a deterrent penalty that can save peoples' lives by scaring those who want to murder anybody that their penalty would be being killed themselves. Thus, men of understanding would guard against retaliation by avoiding killing.


The problem here is that in trying to adhere so closely to the Arabic idiom, the translator rendered a misleading and an incomprehensible translation of the first part. In the second part, the word "ettaqa", translated as "be pious", in Arabic may mean several things, among which are "be pious in the sense of fearing God", to "guard against", "be cautious of", "beware of", and so on. The translator chose a wrong meaning that does not suit the context without referring to the exegesis.


A further problem may be arisen from the translation of the Arabic words "Islam",

Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad introduced different phases of the same essence: submitting one's will to God and associating no other with Him.

 and "Muslimun" in Quranic verses. These words literally mean in Arabic "submission to God", and "those who submit themselves to God", respectively, rather than "Islam only as the religion of Prophet Muhammad", and "Muslims as the followers of prophet Muhammad". 


Using the words "Islam" and "Muslims" in the translation of such verses without an explanatory footnote may make the verses appear as if based on anachronisms, as the persons involved came before Prophet Muhammad. It may also be understood that the Quran is based on falsifications, as it describes people who came long before Prophet Muhammad as "Muslims". Examples of these verses are:


{And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house, [they prayed]: "Our Lord! Accept from us [this act]. You are indeed the Ever-Hearing, the Ever Knowing. Oh our Lord! Make us both Muslims to You. And raise from among our offspring a community who are Muslim to You."} (Al-Baqarah 2:127-128)


{Or were you present when death came to Jacob? When he said to his sons: "What will you worship when I am gone?" They answered: "We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers: Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, the One God, and to Him we are Muslims."}(Al-Baqarah 2:133)


{When Jesus found Unbelief on their part He said: "Who will be my helpers to God?" The disciples said, 'we are God's helpers: We believe in God, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims."} (Al-Imran 3:52)


Translations should explain that the word "Muslim" is derived from the verb "aslama" (past tense), or "yuslim" (present tense), which means "submit to God", and not "a follower of the Islamic religion" only. It was coined first by Prophet Abraham, the founder of monotheism, to be succeeded later by other prophets, namely, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, who supposedly introduced different phases of the same essence — submitting one's will to God and associating no other with Him — to be culminated by the final religion of Islam.


Hence, Prophet Abraham is a great prophet in Islam, as he originally founded the basis of what Islam culminated. That is why Eid al-Adha, one of the two feasts in Islam, is a celebration of the rescue of his firstborn son.




A major trend that helped in spreading the idea that Islam is a religion of terrorism is that western media decontextualize verses of the Quran dealing with war, and use them to criticize Islam. Such verses were revealed on certain occasions at the time of the Prophet.


Along the same lines, in their book The Dark Side of Islam, Abdul Saleeb and R. C. Sproul decontextualize some verses  to prove that Islam is a religion that instigates violence. One of the examples they mention is verse  190-193 of chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah). This is how they cite them:


{Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, … and slay them wherever you catch them, ... and fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.} (87)


However, the full verse, along with the verses that come after, read:


{Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors, and slay them wherever you catch them [those who fight against you]; drive them out of the places from which they drove you, for persecution is worse than killing. But do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque until they first attack you there, but if they attack you [there], then kill them. Such is the retribution of the disbelievers. But if they desist, then [know that] God is Forgiving, Compassionate, and fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against the transgressors.} (Al-Baqarah 2:190-194, emphasis added)


Obviously, all the parts giving restrictions on fighting, reasons for it, and emphasis on the fact that Muslims should not be the initiators of war, are omitted. As these verses  indicate, war here was not a war of aggression, but in self-defense to prevent the occurrence of persecution in the land. Two further examples from verses 5 and 14 in chapter 9 (At-Tawbah) are cited by Abdul Saleeb and Sproul:


{Fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).} (88)


{Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame.} (89)


These two verses are often singled out in the media, and it is important to 

Many Quran translations do not include any footnotes for explaining allusions and ambiguous pronominal references

understand their context. Prophet Muhammad had an accord with the idolaters of Makkah called the Treaty ofHudaibiyah. It entailed a 10-year truce between the Muslims and the idolaters, in which people of both sides should enjoy peace.


There were two tribes: Khuzaah and Banu Bakr. The former was an ally of the prophet, while the latter was an ally of the idolaters of Quraish. During the truce period, Banu Bakr broke the treaty and committed an aggression against Khuzaah, who sought the help of the Prophet. Accordingly, he decided to conquer Makkah and was victorious.


Later, after the conquest of Tabuk against the Romans, whom the Prophet knew were preparing to attack the Muslims, the Prophet wanted to go for pilgrimage, but he was told that the idolaters were going to Makkah as they used to, and that they go around the Kabah, the cubic building inside the Sacred Mosque, naked. Hence, he did not want to go for pilgrimage again and find them like this. The verses of this chapter were revealed to him giving permission to fight the idolaters after the sacred months. The Prophet then sent Abu Bakr and Ali, two of his Companions and later caliphs, to notify the idolaters of this and warn them.


The omitted verses between the two above quoted verses give reasons why permission was given to fight the idolaters at that time. However, the verses  are taken out of context and manipulated to drive the required point home. The full verses read as follows:


{When the [four] sacred months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post, but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go in their way, for God is most Forgiving and Merciful.

If any one of the idolaters should seek your protection [Prophet], grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a place safe for him, for
they are people with no knowledge.


How could there be a treaty with God and His Messenger for such idolaters? But as for those with whom you made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque, so long as they remain true to you, be true to them; God loves those who are mindful of Him [keeping their treaties].


How and if they where to get the upper hand over you, they would not respect any tie with you of kinship or of treaty? They please you with their tongues but their

hearts are against you and most of them are lawbreakers.

They have sold God's message for a trifling gain, and barred others from His path. How evil their actions are.


Where believers are concerned, they respect no tie of kinship or treaty. They are the one who are transgressors.


If they turn to God, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, then they are your brothers in faith: We make the messages clear for a people who [are willing to learn].


But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you, if they revile your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, as oaths mean nothing to them, so that they may stop.

How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers.


Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you conquer them, He will heal the believers' feelings.} (Al-Tawbah 9:5-14)


These are just two examples of many other cases where decontextualized Quranic verses are exploited to mislead the public as far as Islam is concerned, hence stimulating the feelings of Islamophobia.


Excluding the Occasions of Revelation


Many Quran translations do not include any footnotes for explaining allusions and ambiguous pronominal references, or giving the cultural background and a brief explanation of the occasions of revelation — at least of the verses that may be controversial or misunderstood.


It may be argued that the Quran in Arabic does not have such explanations. This is certainly the case. However, readers who want to check any information may refer to exegeses that are available in Arabic, yet they hardly exist in other languages. In fact, even if they are available, it is highly unlikely that non-Muslim laymen would possess exegeses of the Quran, or would take pains to check them. Thus, if they encountered Quranic controversial verses that are cited somewhere, and they wanted to check for themselves, they would not find any clarification to dispel their misunderstanding.


For example, verse  216 of chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) reads:


{Fighting is prescribed upon you, and ye dislike it. But is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth and ye know not.} (87)


Without knowing the background of this verse, it gives the impression that fighting per se is an obligation on all Muslims. However, it should be noted that in the early days of Islam, Muslims were not allowed by God to fight. Hence, they used to bear all the persecution they were exposed to by the idolaters of Makkah. However, when the Prophet immigrated to Medina, God allowed Muslims to fight aggressors. Permission to fight was given in verses  39 and 40 of chapter 22 (Al-Hajj) which read:


{Permission to fight is given to those who have been fought against because they have been done injustice, and God is well able to help them .. those who have been unjustly driven from their homes only for saying, 'our Lord is God. If God did not drive back some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, where God's name is mentioned much, would be surely be demolished…} (Al-Hajj 22:39-40, emphasis added)


As the verses  indicate, fighting was allowed for Muslims to defend themselves against the aggression they were subjected to. Besides self-defense, fighting was prescribed to keep all places of worship, which used to be attacked at that time, intact for supplicants of all religions to worship God there.


Ahmad Subhi Mansour points out, however, that Muslims, contrary to what was expected, did not want to use the license given to them. They were reluctant to fight to defend themselves and guard against aggression, which was good for them, and preferred passivity and submissiveness, which was bad, because they could have been annihilated. Hence, these verses  prescribing fighting were revealed showing that fighting, at that time, was necessary for their good.


It is interesting that despite taking the verses  cited out of context to prove their point, and omitting the parts that would refute their claim as shown above, Abdul Saleeb and Sproul state that "these are not isolated passages that people are misinterpreting or quoting out of context" (89).


They further state that nowhere in the Quran is it said that the verses  of fighting were intended for the time of Prophet Muhammad. This last point is true; however, Abdul Saleeb and Sproul overlook an important point, which is that the Quran was not revealed to Prophet Muhammad in one shot. It was revealed piecemeal over the 23 years of his prophetic mission, with groups of verses revealed to him upon the occurrence of different events to tell him how to behave, which answers to give to Muslim's queries, and what actions to take in certain occasions. It was understood that these verses were in response to that situation, hence the importance of briefly clarifying in the translations the occasions of revelation.


It is hoped that this discussion has highlighted, at least in part, how Quran translations have had a great role in framing the image of Islam. However, before moving on to the next section, it should be noted that apart from the orientalist translations, driven by hostile intentions, and some of the sectarian Muslim translations, which do not reflect the mainstream Islamic perspective, most of the supposedly reasonable, unbiased translations available are far from satisfactory.


There are two trends in Quran translations. Some of them are "woodenly" literal, to the extent of making the meaning incomprehensible, and this leads many readers to discard the Book. Others, in trying to make their translations readable and fluent, take liberties with the text by adding explanations and making interpretative decisions for the readers, in the case of ambiguous verses, without indicating these changes. This leads to destabilizing the text when comparing different translations, and results in confusing the readers.


The Muslim German former ambassador, Murad Hoffman, points out the negative consequences of the differences in translations. He mentions that he has a book by an American author who talks about 12 translations of the meanings of the Quran, and says that when reading the 12 translations, it is as if you are reading 12 different books (Abdul Aal 62).


The departure from the original text results in different translations that open the door to claims like "contradictions in the Quran", "versions of the Quran", or "perversion of the Quran". We are living in an era in which the need to provide "the other" with translations that make it possible to grasp the true spirit and instructions of Islam, and at the same time do not demote the full dignity and exegetical potential of the original, is far greater than any time in the past.


Works Cited:

Abdul Aal, Afaf. "Muhammad Wrote the Quran in an Epileptic Fit." Nesf Ad-Donia Magazine 5 February 2006: 62.


Bewley, Aisha, and Abdul Haqq Bewley. The Noble Qur'an: A New Rendering of Its Meaning in English. Dubai: Dubai Printing Press, 1999.


Cleary, Thomas. The Essential Koran. New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993.


Dirks, Derba. L. "America and Islam in the 21st Century: Welcome to the Sisterhood." Islam Our Choice: Portraits of Modern American Muslim Women.  Ed. Debra L. Dirks. Maryland: Amana Publications, 2003.


Ghali, Muhammad M. Towards Understanding the Ever-glorious Quran. Cairo: Dar An-Nashr for Universities, 2003.

Mansour, Ahmad Sobhi. "Al-Islam Deen As-salam." Middle East Transparent. 1 May 2006  

Sproul, R. C., and Abdul Saleeb. The Dark Side of Islam. Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003.


Dr. Ibrahim Saleh holds a PhD in political communication & national development. A Fulbright scholar and senior media expert in the "Media Sustainability Index (MSI)" in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), he is also Chair of the Journalism Education and Research Section in the International Association for Media & Communication Research (IAMCR), and the Global 'Partner Organization' of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, Media Literacy Education Clearinghouse. Saleh is also the editor of the special issue on Media ; Religion, in the Journal of Arab Media ; Muslim Media Research (JAMMR), and a scholar of Quranic studies.

Dahlia Sabry is a member of the teaching and translation staff at the Language and Translation Center at the Academy of Arts in Egypt. Project Manager of the English/Arabic Section at Arabotic Translation Ltd, she also works as a freelance translator for a number of international organizations. She is also a researcher in comparative linguistics, translation studies, Sufism, Quranic studies, interfaith issues, and comparative religion.

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