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An Introduction to the History of English Translations of the Qur’an

To translate and interpret the Quranic text, the fundamentals of the methodology of interpretation, i.e., principles of tafsir, are set criteria

Post by on Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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 In contemporary times, translation of the Qur’an is one of the most critical topics in Qur’anic studies. Primarily, the first book that non-Arabic speakers will come acrossin understanding Islam is a translation of the Qur’an. From the very beginningof Islam, parts of the Qur’an havebeen translated into other languages; translation has until recently occupied a standard positionin Islamic scholarship. Islamic traditions tell us that one of the earliest Persian converts to Islam and a Companion (?a?abi) of the Prophet (SAAW), namely Salman al-Farsi (RA) (d.35/656), translated the first surah (al-Fatihah) of the Qur’an, consisting of seven verses into Persian. Non-Muslims’ interest in translating the Qur’an began during the early period of Islam when some Christians in Syria began translating the parts of the Qur’an into Syriac. This is imperative to mention that there developed a flagged science for interpreting the Qur’an called ‘Usul al-tafsir. Therefore, to translate and interpret the Qur’anic text, the fundamentals of the methodology of interpretation, i.e., principles of tafsir, are set criteria.  

Although the first translation of the Qur’an in the European language was done in the twelfth century, at this time, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny (d.1156), began criticizing Islam in general and the Qur’an in particular. His criticism of the Qur’an had both aspects; theological and intellectual. He commissioned a team of translators to produce several books, including a Latin translation of the Qur’an. This translation was completed in 1143 AC by Robert of Ketton and published in 1543 AC. However, translation into European vernaculars began to increase in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Subsequently, in the seventeenth century, translation of the meanings of the Holy Qur’an started to appear in English and other European languages. 
Orientalist English Translation Works on the Qur’an 
The 17th century marked the beginning of English translations of the Qur’an. In 1649 AC, the first English translation by Alexander Ross (d.1654) hit the stands. However, it was the English translation of the French version of the Qur’an by Sieur Du Ryer. In the 18th century, the first direct English translation from Arabic was prepared by George Sale (d. 1736) in 1734 AC. This translation got reprinted more than one hundred and twenty times. It is said that almost every European library would keep a copy of Sale’s translation of the Qur’an.It was followed by J.M. Rodwell (d. 1900) and E.H. Palmer’s (d. 1882) translation of the Qur’an in 1861 and 1880 AC, respectively. Both the translations have followed the approach of their Orientalist predecessors in the translation and methodology. 
In the first half of the 19th century, three more translations were added to the field of English translation from Europe; Richard Bell (d. 1952), Arthur Johns Arberry (d. 1969), and N. J. Dawud (d. 2014) translated the Qur’an into English in 1937-1939, 1955, and 1956 AC respectively. Although, these translations were banking on the earlier Orientalist translations. However, Arberry’s translation approach partially acknowledges the Qur’an’s historical dimension as the Word of Allah. Subsequently, in the twentieth century, Thomas Cleary, Alan Jones, A.J. Droge, and Sam Gerrans translated the Qur’an in 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2015 AC, respectively. It is imperative to mention that Orientalist translations, by and large, have depended on their predecessors and followed their methodology in translation and the Qur’an’s commentary.
Major Muslim English Translation Works on the Qur’an
In the twentieth century, Muslims started to venture into the field of English translations. Several works were published in the East and the West. Some translations came into being in response to the translations already done by Europeans, particularly Orientalists. In 1911 AC, the first English translation of the Qur’an by ‘Abu al-Fadl (d. 1956) was published in two volumes, followed by Hairat Dehlavi’s three-volume translation of the Qur’an in 1916 AC. These translations were prepared as a response to the works of Orientalists. Almost similar work in 1920 AC by Ghulam Sarwar (d. 1873) was published to examine Orientalists’ approaches critically.
Consequently, while continuing the trend of the English translation, several other translations of the Qur’an were published. Such as Marmaduke Pickthall (d. 1936), Badshah Husain, and ‘AbdAllah Yusuf ‘Ali(d. 1953) published their translation works in 1930, 1931, and 1934-37 AC, respectively.Yusuf Ali’s work has appeared in at least thirty-five editions and probably many unregistered ones. It has been twice revised, once (mostly favorably) in America by AmanaPublications in 1989, and at nearly the same time in Saudi Arabia by The Presidency of Islamic Researches, IFTA, Call and Guidance, and the King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex in 1990.
In the year 1941, AC‘Abd al-Majid Daryabadi (d. 1977) completed his translation of the Qur’an, and its few volumes were published in 1941 and 1943 AC by Taj Company of Karachi, Pakistan. However, all the volumes were published in 1957, entitled, The Holy Qur’an: Translated from the Original Arabic with Lexical, Grammatical, Historical, Geographical, and, Eschatological Comments and Explanations, and Side-Lights on Comparative Religion in two volumes. Its reprints appeared in 1962, 1970, and 1971 AC.Later on, at the behest of Say‘id Abu al-Hasan Ali Nadwi (d. 1999), its revised edition in four volumes was published by the Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, Nadwat al-‘Ulama, Lucknow, from 1981 to 1985 AC, titled Tafsir-ul-Qur’an. In the year 2001 AC, an abridged single-volume edition of this tafsir titled The Glorious Qur’an was published in Leicester, London, by the Islamic Foundation. 
A reprint of this abridged edition was released in 2006 AC by Sidq Foundation, Lucknow, India. According to Say‘id Abu al-Hasan Ali Nadwi, “Abd al-Majid Daryabadi has acquitted himself of this translation of the Qur’an being an onerous task in a laudable manner. Throughout his life, he preoccupied himself with studying the Holy Qur’an and wrote an exegesis in Urdu in addition to English. His translation and commentary, to my mind, is unique and most dependable among all the translations and commentaries of the Qur’an so far attempted in the English language.” (tafsir al-Qur’an, vol. 1, pp. xvi-xvii).
Several other Muslim translation works appeared in the next three decades, but few deserve special attention. The Message of the Qur’an Presented in Perspectiveby Hashim Amir Ali in 1974 AC, in 1977 AC, partly as a reaction to Muslim experimentation with the Qur’an as exemplified by H.A. Al-Muhammad Taqi al-Din Al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, published The Noble Qur’an. A new light entered the realm of Qur’an translation in the person of Muhammad Asad, born in Austria (now Galicia, Poland) in 1900 as Leopold Weiss, who published his English translation of the Qur’an in 1980 AC titled The Message of the Quran. Mention may be made of The Qur’an, of husband-wife team Ahmad and Dina Zidan, the late Thomas Ballantine Irving, an American expert on the history of Spain, published his translation in 1985.
Among the most recent notable English translations of the Qur’an is the Gracious Qur’an:A Modern Phrased Interpretation in English (2008) by Ahmad Zaki Hammad (b. 1946) of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University.The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (2015) by Say‘id Husain Nasr (b. 1933). There were a few more early additions by Qadiyani’s in the English translation field. Some of their notable translations are; The English Translation of the Holy Qur’an with Commentary (1917) by Maulana Muhammad Ali (d. 1951).The Holy Quran: Arabic Text and English translation (1955) by Maulvi Sher Ali (d. 1947). 
(Author is a Ph.D. Scholar, Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir. Email: furqanmjd0@gmail.com)

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