Thursday, November 15, 2007

But it's not Qur'an

Some people get a little prickly when you bring up the Qur'an, and start a sentence with "The Qur'an says" or "Allah says" or "We read in the Qur'an that" and you continue in English. In fact we had a sheikh here a few weeks ago who hammered this point, the absolute importance of learning Arabic and not relying on translations. The Qur'an is actually in Arabic. It was revealed in Arabic--that's what it says (although in Arabic, of course.) Translated "We have revealed to you an Arabic Qur'an."

What tends to amuse me, however, is how after making so much fuss about not saying "The Qur'an says" he proceeded to do exactly that, later in the presentation, without clarifying the translation. Kind of made me roll my eyes. As long as people understand that what we read in English is not actually Qur'an, and assume that when we refer to the Qur'an without specifying the redundancy that we are referencing a translation, is it such a big deal to leave it out?

Just a thought.

But translations do matter. With Qur'an, they are not authoritative, definitive, because if all of Qur'an is a revelation from God, from Allah, it's not just the message that matters, but the words, and even the placement of the words. Because that is how Allah revealed it.

Now, I was having dinner with a lady last night and she asked me whether there really is a big difference in translations. I told her that sometimes there could be, and gave her an example. The one which came to my mind had confronted me in an odd way a few weeks ago, the first ayah of Surat al-Burooj. Waalssama-i thati alburooj. (Translit from here.)

A Muslim sister I know asked me when my birthday was. So I told her, and then she named the corresponding zodiac "sign" for my birthday, asking if that was correct. It was, but I responded by saying kind of tongue-in-cheek that I am a Muslim so I'm not interested in that sort of thing. But didn't you know, she says, that Allah swears by the Zodiac in the Qur'an? Excuse me??

See, I was fairly confident at that point that astrology was haraam, and with how she was asking for my birthday and that of my fiance I was a little suspicious. So with my face disturbingly contorted I ask her where Allah supposedly does this and she tells me Surat al-Burooj. So I make a mental note to check this out, and I went on about my way. I did finally look this up, but I couldn't find "zodiac" anywhere. In the translations for Burooj I see things like:
By the heaven, holding mansions of the stars,
Allah is swearing by something, by the use of "wa" (waaw) in the beginning of the ayah, like in Surat al-Asr (by time, waalAAasri) or in Surah Ya-Seen (by the wise qur'an, waalqur-ani alhakeemi). This is actually something I learned in my Arabic class. So, according to my friend, Allah is swearing by the Zodiac. Hmm. It just so happens I know the second word in the ayah, too. As-samaa'. The sky, or the heaven. One repeated phrase I've come to recognize, as-samawati wa l-ard, the heavens and earth. The sky and the zodiac are not the same thing. I get the impression the ayah is talking about constellations. Holding constellations of stars. There's a huge difference between constellations, and zodiac, in particular using the zodiac for astrology.

If any of you happened to look at the Yusuf Ali translation, however, you might have seen this:
By the sky, (displaying) the Zodiacal Signs;
Ahh... that's where it comes from. And I can see now why this sister might have gotten the impression... well anyway. I explained at dinner that yes, translations can really matter and gave this example, because sometimes the translator may improperly convey the message, or may use words that his audience might associate with something else, or a translator might not even understand. So we decided that yes there can be big differences in translations.

Cover of Saheeh International Paperback Qur'anAnd then I recommended the translation which has been recommended to me (or to audiences in which I am sitting) many, many times: Saheeh International. I heard of it first through my Arabic instructor from Bayyinah, then by a number of friends of mine who speak Arabic and English who prefer it, and since then by a graduate student from Al-Azhar and another American sheikh who I think also studied at Al-Azhar. In fact, I've not heard anybody recommend another translation who has been aware of this one. One of my friends even showed it to me saying they gave it away at the airport in Saudi Arabia last year when she went on Hajj. It's the one I read, it's the one I prefer to read (when reading in English) and prefer to use in da'wah as well. Unfortunately it's been difficult to find it online, while other translations (Yusuf Ali, Pickthal, Shakir, etc) are more readily available online (as they are older and more well-known up until recently).

But today I found a downloadable version of it, so even when I don't have my personal edition handy I do at least have a version now on my laptop. (Not on my work computer though.) You can download it here: The first download is the Hilali/Khan translation and it includes transliteration along with each ayah presented in Arabic (Qur'an) and translation. The Saheeh International download also includes the Arabic ayah along with the translation. I can't copy the Arabic text from it, and I'm not sure if I can copy/paste the english either, but having access to Qur'an even without a text to carry around is very handy. Both versions are search-able as well. May Allah reward the brother whose efforts made this translation even more accessible.


MyHijab said...

I just wrote a massive post and it just went missing!!!

I just generally said that ihave noticed from one translation to another of the Quran that different words in English are used for the same word in arabic. It totally loses the meaning and it is quite worrying.

Actually, I said more than that but im still upset about the lost coment!!


Amy said...

I'm sorry!! :-(

The blog is acting kind of weird on me; I updated the post a few times, but I should have received notification of a comment and I didn't. I've had that happen to me before--it's so annoying. Maybe it'll find its way through cyberspace and come back?

But about this comment, let me expound:

Sometimes you'll see one word, like aslama translated as 'submit' or other times 'surrender' or sometimes slip in the word 'Muslim.' As in the post, the word samaa' is sometimes translated as sky, sometimes as heaven. Heaven is more appropriate in my opinion, but there is the problem of the word 'Heaven' being associated with the Christian version of an afterlife paradise.

And sometimes the english fails altogether, as with the words 'ruh' and 'nafs' in Arabic which are at times both translated as 'soul.'

So we should all learn Arabic. :-) Or at least be very careful about translations.

alajnabiya said...

Assalaamu 'alaikum,

I like to compare translations when I read. Sometimes the differences shed some light on the way others have understood it. I don't have a copy of the Saheeh Int'l translation yet, unfortunately, but I have looked at it online. InshaAllah I will get someone to bring me one from Saudia one of these days. A dear friend sent me a copy of Muhammad Farooq-e-Azam Malik's translation, in addition to the A.Y. Ali and Muhsin Khan/ Hilali versions I already had, and I prefer it. You can read it online at I would definitely use it for dawa, because in addition to being very clear and readable, it has a nice bio of the Prophet (SAWS) and introductions to the surahs. He chose not to translate some words such as Rabb or Zakat, instead explaining their fuller meanings. And for my self, I love the fact that the Arabic text is clear and easy to read. But not Uthmani script. It was interesting to read how they "field-tested" the translation to make sure that people who read it understood the intended meaning, as well as having it reviewed by ulama from Egypt, Saudia and Pakistan.

If you like to compare translations there are a couple of sites I would recommend.
is very useful. There are 6 translations (not Malik's unfortunately), plus a transliteration, and the Arabic text as images AND as text, so you can copy and past it. And they have a link to audios of various reciters including several that have English translations too.
has even more translations, including some that I (and the site itself) don't recommend. (Like orientalist George Sale's translation from 1734, which was actually the first "Qur'an" I ever saw.) But it is still a useful and interesting site.

Amy said...

Jazakillah khair!!

arsalan said...

jazak allahu khairan .....bro.
its really good to see a of saheeh international,i have been searching for it since long.thanx again...........arsalan ali

Sachal Smith said...
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