Reliable and reader-friendly

The history of translating the Noble Qur’an in European languages, especially English, is long. Numerous English translations of the Qur’an were published in the 20th century, by Muslims and (mostly by) non-Muslims. The trend has continued in the 21st century as well and a number of simple and lucid translations have appeared in the two decades. However, in the previous century, the scene was occupied by non-Muslim translators (‘orientalists’), but in the present times, especially from 2000s, Muslim translators, both native and non-native Arabs, have come to the forefront. “Until the early 20th century”, as rightly highlighted by Prof. Abdur Raheem Kidwai, “translating the Qur’an into English, or other modern European languages, was the exclusive preserve of Orientalist scholarship. … However, the scene has now refreshingly changed. Today English-speaking readers can draw upon reliable and reader-friendly translations in the chaste and accessible idiom of the day”, mostly done by Muslims. A new addition to this list of ‘reliable and reader-friendly’ translations by Muslims is The Luminous Qur’an (hereinafter TLQ) by Waleed B. al-Amri (Associate Professor of Translation Studies, Taibah University, Madina).

TLQ presents an easy-to-understand, lucid, and much faithful English rendering of first three surahs (Q. 1—3). This translation project is sponsored by Endowment for Cherishing the Two Glorious Revelations, Madina (hereinafter ‘Endowment’), and is named as The Grand Qur’an, of which TLQ is only the first step.

TLQ differs from other translations in its writer’s command over both languages, knowledge of the different nuances of translation, as well as his specialization and expertise, of around two decades, “in the critique of Qur’an translations”. This translation of first three suras (Q. 1—3) represents, as the sub-title also clearly reveals, “a safe, mainstream yet non-restrictive understanding of the Message of the Grand Qur’an”. It is “marked by its ‘faithfulness’: neither too literal nor too free” but is “as reflective of the Original as humanly possible” (pp. 40-1). In other words, this translation is “in modern-day, non-banal, idiomatic, educated English”, free from “being archaic” and is “easy to understand to a reader” (p. 42).

The Qur’an is Word of God, and it consists of 114 Surahs (chapters). These chapters were revealed over a period of twenty three (23) years (610-632 CE) on the last Prophet (pbuh) through Archangel Gabriel (AS). Out of 114 chapters, the present translation comprises of the translation of first three surahs (Q. 1—3, 493 verses), namely al-Fatihah (7 verses), al-Baqarah (286 verses)—longest surah in the Qur’an—and Al-‘Imran (200 verses): the latter two are collectively known as ‘al-Zahrawan’ (literally ‘Two Luminous Surahs’) hence the titleThe Luminous Qur’an’.

This translation is preceded by a number of introductory sections on different aspects of Qur’an, its translations and interpretations which help in understanding both the Sacred Text as well as the importance of translations and exegesis. An interesting and remarkable section is the “Key to understanding the Qur’an” (pp. 25-31), wherein al-Amri presents seventeen (17) “right keys” which can prove helpful for understanding the message of the Qur’an.

Being well aware with the history of, and having studied for seventeen years, the English translations of the Qur’an, al-Amri highlights the issue of translation in “The Qur’an known through translation” (pp.32-34) and supports his viewpoint by referring to the views of translators/ exegetes like M. M. Pickthall, A. J. Arberry, Ibn Hazm, al-Tabari, respectively. He also refers to “The exegetical problematic” (pp. 35-38), wherein he highlights ‘Translational’ and ‘Exegetical’ interventions (p. 37), faced by past and present translators, and thus proposes that “the commentary” should not “seep into the translation” (p. 38). The “Foreword” is written by Prof. Imad Zuhayr Hafid (General Secretary of the Endowment) and the translator has highlighted the objective of undertaking the present translation, and the methodology he adopts, in “Positioning the current translation” (pp. 39-42): he is of the opinion that English translations of the Qur’an have been “marked by waves of deviation”, ranging from “ferocious Orientalism” and “sectarianism” to “rationalism and apologia” and “interventionist translations on socio-political grounds” (p. 39).

It is within this context and with this background that one has to read, appreciate, and reflect on al-Amri’s translation of first three surahs of the Qur’an, Q. 1-3. His aim/ intention is to present “non-restrictive understanding of the Message of the Grand Qur’an”, which is “neither too literal nor too free” but is “as reflective of the Original as humanly possible” (pp. 40-1). The translation runs parallel to the Arabic text and each surah is preceded by an introductory note, consisting of four elements, viz. title, merit, theme, and key—i.e., the stuff which is “indispensable for anyone who wants to unlock some of the meaning potential of the sura” (p. 40-1). In Bibliography (pp. 43-44), al-Amri acknowledges the sources which he utilized in the translation and comprises of classical tafasir, hadith compendia, dictionaries, and other work related to different aspects of ‘Ulum al-Qur’an. Moreover, each surah is supplemented with ample annotations to make the message of the Qur’an more understood and implicit. For example, Surah al-Fatihah is provided with nine (9) footnotes, while Surah al-Baqarah and Al-‘Imran are supplemented with 507 and 265 footnotes, respectively. The introductory as well as footnotes help in understanding each surah and its content, context, and message easily. Some examples from Al-Amri’s translation are produced below:

In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful; Gratitude be to Allah the Lord of all beings; Owner of the Day of Judgment; `Only` you we worship, and `only’ You we seek help from; Guide us to the Straight Path (Q. 1: 1, 2, 4-6)

Alif, Lam, Mim. That Book—no doubt—in it is guidance to the Mindful; who `unshakably` Believe in the Unseen, keep up the prayer and give out of what We have provided them. […] Allah, there is no god but Him, the Ever-Living, the All-Sufficient;… to Him belongs what is in Heavens and Earth. …. they know nothing of His Knowledge, except what He Wills (Q. 2: 1-3; 255)

From these examples one gets a clear glimpse of the selection of words, sentence structure, and use of ‘idiomatic, educated English’ by al-Amri. Moreover, al-Amri translates Rabb as Lord, Taqwa as Mindfulness, Kafir as Denier, Mushrik as Associator, Nur as Light, Ruh as Spirit, Ruh al-Quds as Holy Spirit, Khamr as Intoxicants, Ayat al-Kursi as aya of the Footstool (which is generally translated as Throne verse), etc.

He occasionally adds single quotation marks (`…`) to make clear the meaning of some terms, phrases, or the whole verse: e.g., “`Only` you we worship, and `only’ You we seek help from” (Q. 1: 5); “… come up with a single sura like it, and call `for your aid` your witnesses” (Q. 2: 23); “Say `Muhammad` [pbuh]: If you `really` love Allah then follow me” (Q. 3: 31), etc.

Moreover, al-Amri adds notes, occasionally, which are of comparative religions nature; e.g., in the explanation of “Repent to your Maker! Kill yourselves” (Q. 2: 54) al-Amri adds: “The same form of punishment is mentioned in Exodus 32: 15-35” (fn. 80, p. 66); “They said: ‘Our hearts are encased’” (Q. 2: 88) is annotated as: “Ghulf, wrapped in a cover, alternatively means ‘uncircumcised’, a term which is often repeated in Bible” (fn. 114, p. 75).

Overall, the footnotes are of the lexical nature; explain the basic concepts of Islam, like faith, prayers, prophets, piety/ mindfulness; cross-referencing; and on occasions they clarify the complex words or phrases, etc. What is remarkable about these notes is that they are well-documented and are based on authentic sources.

Though the translator has made painstaking efforts, and has taken due help from many scholars in editing and revising, but still many typos remain, especially in the Introductory sections. Some of these are: “It is to be listened to attentively” (p. 19); “It explains of matters plainly to people” (p. 20); “According to many a well-accomplished translator” (p. 34); and “to think of it as a form of payer or supplication” (p. 48).

Keeping aside these shortcomings/ typo errors, and taking into consideration all the positive features, one must not hesitate to say that al-Amri’s effort clearly validates and rationalizes the translation’s sub-title and justifies his claim to have presented a ‘non-restrictive understanding of’ the Qur’an, which is ‘neither too literal nor too free’ but is ‘reflective of the Original’ Sacred Text. Thus, it is expected that this translation will prove very helpful for enthusiastic scholars and readers of the Qur’an and particularly for new comers to Islam. In a nutshell, al-Amri’s The Luminous Qur’an is a significant and highly appreciable endeavor, which is unique in many ways, and it will indeed make a great impact.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC for Women, Pulwama (J&K).