By Mawlana Bilal Ali
With the countless translations of the meanings of the Qur’an available on the market today, it is difficult for the average reader to decide which one to use and which one best suits his or her purpose. While I admit not having read through or analyzed all of the available translations, I have had the blessed opportunity to read some of the more common and popular ones, along with reviews of each.
In choosing the best translation, it is important to keep in mind several considerations:
1. The translator or translators should, whether individually or collectively, be well versed in both Arabic and English. The more proficient the translator is in both, the better the representation of Allah’s Divine Word will be.
2. The translator should be well versed in the science of exegesis as laid out and developed historically by its masters. He should be able to identify differing linguistic interpretations, all possible meanings, and the explanations offered by the early Muslim scholars. All this should be available to the translator in the Arabic language. Translators that rely on English commentaries and secondary sources for their translation and notes will invariably be hampered. Every additional layer of source material, in any academic field, increases the likelihood of error and misinterpretation.
3. The Qur’an was revealed in a clear Arabic. Its language is lucid, fluid, and deeply moving. It is impossible to convey the meanings of the Qur’an with full force in any translation. However, the better the English resembles the Qur’an’s beauty of flow, simplicity of language, depth of meaning, and rhetorical effect, the better the translation. Therefore, the translator should know the principles governing the grammar and rhetoric of both languages.
4. The translator should be a scholar of the Islamic sciences. There are specialists whose knowledge is limited to languages, causing them to fall short of capturing the Qura’n’s moral and spiritual substance in their translation.
In my opinion, the best translation published to date is that of Shaykh Ahmad Zaki Hammad, entitled The Gracious Qur’an: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English. Those who know me may be surprised why I, a product of the great Islamic tradition of the Indian subcontinent, chose this translation over the one recently produced by my own beloved teacher, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani. One need only pick up The Gracious Qur’an and read through some of its passages to see why.
The wording is precise, the flow is great, the language is not archaic, and extra-textual additions enrich proper understand of the Qur’an’s subtler meanings, but are placed in half-brackets that do not visually disrupt the reading. Though it is not yet found widely outside of Islamic bookstores, it is worth seeking out. A pricey two-volume deluxe edition was for some time the only one available, but there has since come out a single-volume edition with parallel Arabic and English text. The regular price is $60, but it is worth the cost, considering the high quality of the content and presentation. (One may order a copy online from the translator’s main distributor, the Universal Knowledge Institute. The web address is www.universalknowledgeinstitute.com/6.html.)
The translator is an Azhari scholar who earned his PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago, affording him ample exposure to both the Traditional and Western approaches, though his allegiance appears to remain devotedly to the former. His knowledge, combined with the twenty odd years of toil he put into his opus, make this translation, in my humble view, likely to become the new standard in both academic and common Muslim circles. For this to happen, though, the publisher must quickly produce a less expensive, more marketable edition that retains all the virtues of the work, while dispensing with some of the esthetic frills.
Below is the publisher’s description, taken from the two-volume edition:
Description from the publisher:
This contemporary, authoritative translation interprets the Quran’s meaning for the English reader with unprecedented access to the foundational source of Islam, its civilization, and its peoples. It is highly reliable and powerfully expressed. Where the Arabic of the Qur’an swells with important implication, that intent is conveyed in this rendering with unobtrusive brackets. Its graceful layout and design augment the profound simplicity of the Qur’an’s message. Every effort has been expended to make The Gracious Qur’an august, clear, accessible, and consistent.
This masterful limited edition 2-volume set has been painstakingly produced and researched, to the highest academic and professional standards. The translator, Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad, undertook more than 20 years of intense review and work to produce this monumental translation. Its production quality is of the highest, with golden-edged paper, highest quality paper, multi-color printing, with an impeccable finish and touch.
It comes in a 2-volume set, the two volumes containing detailed essays and notes, English translation, original Arabic text, comprehensive introductions, general notes, substantive indexes, and a forward by Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
This contemporary, authoritative translation interprets the Quran’s meaning for the English reader with unprecedented access to the Book that is the foundational source of Islam, its civilization and its peoples, who now comprise nearly one-fourth of humanity across the breadth of all the Earth’s continents and who form a crucial, contiguous community at the middle of the world.
Twenty years in the making, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation of Its Meanings in English is both highly reliable and powerfully expressed. Where the Arabic of the Quran swells with important implication, that intent is conveyed in this rendering with a light hand in unobtrusive brackets, every effort having been expended to make its reading august, clear, accessible, and consistent while at the same time free of poetic pretension, philosophical complication, and lifeless literalisms. Its graceful layout and design augment the profound simplicity of the Quran’s message and give some semblance of resonance to its almost hypnotic power of literary expression.
The interpretation of The Gracious Quran is thoroughly guided by wide and deep experience with the civilizations of both luminous Islam and the enlightened west, while not unmindful of the light that infuses the world’s brilliant traditions. Fully four decades of scholarly expertise in Quranic studies and related disciplines are in its service, and the latest advances in the art of translation conspicuously benefit it.
Volume One comprises the complete text of the translation, along with concise introductory materials, annotated names and themes of the surahs, and substantive indexes. Volume Two presents the Arabic Text of the Quran in a new layout, along with an elaborate study that introduces the message-content of the Quran in the context of its form and style, a review of the history of Quran’s translation, and a description of the approach and features of this translation. A significant, but nonetheless concise notation section is devoted to answering several hundred questions that may present themselves to readers who are unfamiliar with the Quran’s historical context and revealed purpose.
The Gracious Quran opens a cosmic vista on the sacred in the English language. Through it, men and women of all faiths can gaze at the authentic world of the Quran and glimpse the Divine intent for humanity in this brief life and into the infinite Hereafter. At the very least, it promises to enrich the understanding of the inquiring minds and expand the awareness of the contemplative about the worldview and vision of the fast-growing faith-community of the way of Islam, religion of peace and willing submission to the true and only God.
About the Translator
Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad is an internationally known authority on Quran and Islamic Studies. He teaches Islamic Civilization and the Primary Disciplines of Quran Commentary, the Prophetic Traditions, and the Principles of Islamic Law at the foremost center of Islamic and Arabic learning in the Muslim world, Al-Azhar University (Faculty of Languages and Translations, Department of English). He is also a member of the Faculty of Shari’ah, Department of Juristic Studies.
He received his early Islamic and Arabic training at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, and was awarded the graduate degree of Alamiyyah from the Faculty of Theology. He holds a Ph.D, in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago and is the author of a study of translation of Abu Hamid al-Ghazalis’s Al-Mustasfa min Ilm al-Usul, “The Quintessence of the Science of the Principles of Islamic Law”; and also Islamic Law: Understanding Juristic Differences, a Primer on the Science of al-Khulaf al Fiqhi in Light of the Shari ah Sources.
He lived for many years in the United States, where he founded and served in numerous national and community Islamic institutions for American Muslims.
Bilal Ali is a teacher of Islamic studies by profession and a researcher in the Islamic sciences. He currently serves as a full-time instructor of the Arabic language, Islamic law, Hadith, and Islamic Doctrine at the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, IL and teaches Islamic law and history part-time for Darul Hikmah. His fields of specialization include Islamic law, hadith, and education.