Translation is no easy task, especially when dealing with the words of Allah, the All-Mighty. Many attempts have been made to translate the Qur’an’s meaning into English, starting with Alexander Ross and George Sale in the 16th and 17th centuries.1 Some endeavors, especially 19th and 20th century ones (i.e. by Rodwell, Bell and Dawood) have done more harm than good by distorting the Qur’an’s meanings, or even the divine sequence of its chapters. Other attempts, such as Pickthall’s, Yusuf Ali’s and even Arthur Arberry’s, try sincerely to convey the intended meanings of the Qur’an. However, even the latter also fall short in some areas, such as the use of archaic language, overbearing commentary or lack of historical contextualization.
One of the more recent twenty-first century attempts to transcend past translations’ shortcomings in clarity, accuracy, and modernity of language comes from M.A.S Abdel Haleem. Abdel Haleem is a Muslim Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England, and is also the editor of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies. He was born in Egypt, and is a hāfidh who memorized the Qur’an during his childhood. He received a B.A. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Cairo University and his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Abdel Haleem’s seven-year translation project, The Qur’an, was first published in 2004 by Oxford University Press, with a new edition published in 2005. His introduction to the translation, as well as the translation itself, both reveal that his efforts are aimed at doing faithful justice to the original Arabic, while acknowledging the difficulties of translating the meanings of a sacred text revealed and preserved in the Arabic language. He identifies his goal as “mak[ing] the Qur’an accessible to everyone who speaks English, Muslims or otherwise, including the millions of people all over the world for whom the English language has become a lingua franca.”
Contents and Methodology
Prefacing the actual translation, Abdel Haleem includes an introduction that covers numerous topics, such as the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the spread of Islam, as well as the revelation, compilation, structure and stylistic features of the Qur’an. In addition, he provides an overview of some significant English translations, followed by a brief explanation of his methodology and reasons for embarking on a new translation. He also includes a chronological list of major events in early Islamic history that are relevant to the contents of the Qur’an, the compilation of the Qur’an, and the release of significant translations spanning from Ross’s first translation (1649) to Muhammad Asad’s (1980). Although the introduction resembles an introductory text on Islam and the Qur’an, it helps provide a foundation for the reader to better appreciate the Qur’an’s structure, language and meanings.
One of the important issues Abdel Haleem addresses in the introduction is the order of the verses and topics within the chapters—which even many Muslims find difficult to understand. He states: “The reader should not expect the Qur’an to be arranged chronologically or by subject matter. The Qur’an may present, in the same sura, material about the unity and grace of God, regulations and laws, stories of earlier prophets and nations and the lessons that can be drawn from these, and the descriptions of rewards and punishments on the Day of Judgment.” Using examples such as how prayer reminders appear in the midst of divorce and settlements verses, and how ayat al-kursi (2:255) appears in the midst of charity verses, he notes: “This technique compresses many aspects of the Qur’anic message into any one sura, each forming self-contained lessons. This is particularly useful as it is rare for anyone to read the whole Qur’an at once…”
Clarifications such as these help dispel the suspicions and confusion readers may face when trying to make sense of the structure of the Qur’an. Although Abdel Haleem’s simple explanation does not delve into the thematic and structural coherence of the Qur’an’s verses and chapters (which many Muslim scholars and exegetes have detailed beautifully), it suffices for a novice reader of the Qur’an (Muslim or non-Muslim), or a beginner student learning about Islam and its sacred texts.
Language and References
The language used in this translation is probably one of Abdel Haleem’s greatest accomplishments. Other older translations have used Shakespearean language or direct and literal translations that trap the text in confusing and complicated diction, which hinders the readers from understanding and connecting with Allah’s words. Abdel Haleem, however, uses clear and simplified modern English that makes the text reader-friendly and very easy to follow. He states in his introduction: “The message of the Qur’an was, after all, directly addressed to all people without distinction as to class, gender, or age: it does not rely on archaisms or pompous language for effect. Although the language of the present translation is simple and straightforward, it is hoped that it does not descend to an inappropriate level.”2
Abdel Haleem also shies away from literal translations that make idioms and certain phrases sound awkward in English. His chosen methodology is to provide the rendered meaning in English, often with a footnote of the literal translation. An example is his translation of ‘umm al-qura’ (42:7) as ‘capital city,’ with a footnote stating: “Literally, ‘the mother of cities,’ Mecca.”
One notable, linguistic feature of Abdel Haleem’s translation is its consideration for shifts in pronouns that occur sometimes within one verse. These shifts do not translate into English, so his method for clarifying them is to insert bracketed notes of who is being addressed (i.e. the Prophet, all people, etc.). This can be seen in his translation of ayah 10:61: “In whatever matter you [Prophet] may be engaged and whatever part of the Qur’an you are reciting, whatever work you [people] are doing, We witness you when you are engaged in it.”
In addition to his use of modern language and attention to linguistic nuances, Abdel Haleem keeps his translation deeply rooted in the original Arabic meanings and classical exegesis. He cites well-known Arabic dictionaries and classical Arabic works to clarify meanings and explain linguistic differences and idioms. Some of the works and commentaries he relied on are Abu Hayyan’s al-Bahr al-Muhīt, al-Zamakshari’s al-Kashāf and Asās Al-Balāgha, al-Baydawi’s Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl, Qutb’s Fi Dhilāl al-Qur’ān, and one of his most frequently referenced sources, al-Razi’s al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr.
Structure and Punctuation
Abdel Haleem chose an unprecedented way to display his translation. He combines the verses into flowing script (versus placing each verse on a line), and breaks up the text into paragraphs based on shift in topic. His reason for doing so is to “clarify the meaning and structure of thoughts and to meet the expectation of modern readers.” He also numbers the verses using superscripts at the start of each verse and letters his footnotes (also in superscript). This overall format and superscripting provides easier flow in reading and also helps readers find or cite verses more easily. The translation occupies the majority of each page (except for smaller chapters) and footnotes rarely take up more than the lower sixth of the page, which keeps the readers focused on the main text rather than being distracted by detailed and overwhelming commentary.
Another feature of Abdel Haleem’s translation is the addition of punctuation. Although the Qur’an has its own system of marking pauses and continuation in recitation (`ilm al-waqf wa’l-ibtida’), the Qur’an does not have punctuation marks that delineate parenthetical statements, quotations, exclamatory remarks, etc.—which are unnecessary and implied by context (for the most part) for those well-versed in the Arabic language. As one of many efforts to provide clarity to the Qur’an’s meanings, Abdel Haleem has introduced punctuation marks, such as commas, semicolons, dashes, exclamation marks, quotation marks, etc. For example, ayahs 36-37 of Surat Aāli `Imrān read:
‘Imran’s wife said, ‘Lord, I have dedicated what is growing in my womb entirely to You; so accept this from me. You are the One who hears and knows all,’ but when she gave birth, she said, ‘My Lord! I have given birth to a girl’—God knew best what she had given birth to: the male is not like the female—‘I name her Mary and I commend her and her offspring to Your protection from the rejected Satan.’
This punctuation certainly helps readers differentiate between narrative and quotations; however, inserting punctuation without footnoting alternative readings (qirā’āt) or pauses may make the punctuation appear definitive, when in fact it is not. For example, the parenthetical statement above may not include “the male is not like the female,” which would make it a continuation of `Imran’s wife’s statement. Also, the Arabic phrase for ‘she gave birth’ (wada`at) can be read as ‘wada`tu’ (I gave birth) in a different reading. If this part of the verse is read using the second reading (“And Allah knows well what I gave birth to”), it would make this statement a continuation of `Imran’s wife’s statement as well.3
Despite his translation’s minor shortcomings, Abdel Haleem has produced what may be considered one of the most genuine and refreshing translations in contemporary times. His most notable success is merging authenticity with originality and transmitting Qur’anic meanings from classical Islamic works in an easily accessible language for both the Muslim and non-Muslim English-speaking populace. May Allah reward him and bless him for his efforts.
Note: this review is only an attempt to expose readers to a relatively new translation that may be unknown to some. Readers may prefer reading other translations that supersede this translation in both language and preservation of the original Qur’anic meanings.
- See Tafsir Al-Jalalayn. www.quran.com/3 ↩
- Some scholars find that the translation is too simplified in some areas, and includes imprecise translations of certain words and phrases. It also omits many Arabic conjunctions (i.e. “wa” (and), “fa” (then)), which detracts from nuanced meanings regarding chronology of events conveyed in the Qur’an. ↩
- Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. The Qur’an: A New Translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. xxvii. ↩