The eternal book of Guidance

translated into plain English
by Sahib Mustaqim Bleher

Translator’s preface

Why another attempt at translating the Qur'an? The Qur'an is a book of guidance, which can only be followed if properly understood. Language continually develops, and the language of yesterday can prove a barrier to understanding for the reader of today. Most translators have in the past tried to enhance the esteem of the Qur'an by choosing a distinguished, learned and complicated language. The result has been that the message was lost on the ordinary reader. Furthermore, translators have been at pain to achieve the greatest possible accuracy. This being a worth-while objective, even more so when dealing with the divine word, it very often destroyed the clarity of expression as a result by keeping the translation too literal. It is my belief that those who would like to explore the fine details of the Qur'anic text best do so by learning Arabic as it is entirely impossible to consistently mirror in another language the full richness and detail of the original.

In any case it is a fallacy that there should only be one authoritative translation into a given other language. Since a full understanding, and thus transferring, the complete content of the book of Allah is not given to any human, perfection being a prerogative of the divine, there must by necessity be several translations, some focusing on the meaning, some on the literary and poetic style, for example. Furnishing another translation does not imply that existing ones are inadequate, but simply that they are unsuitable for the intended purpose.

My attempt at translating the Qur'an is therefore not a scholarly exercise, but an effort to make these words of guidance and wisdom reach as large an audience as possible and enable them to act upon it by absorbing the meaning of the divine address and the images it contains in a language they can relate to as their own. The Qur’an states that it was revealed in “clear (or plain) Arabic”. For its meaning to be transferred to another language, in this case English, one must equally strive for the same clarity of expression which speaks directly to the soul without requiring the mind to engage in complicated decoding first.

An important condition for translating the Qur’an is that one’s own interpretation does not overtake the wider meaning. Language is open to interpretation, and interpretations differ in accordance with time and culture. For that reason, the Qur’an cannot be correctly implemented without reference to the life example of the prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, who not only transmitted the Qur’an but also demonstrated its practicability and viability. To include this dimension, classical writings on Tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis), predominantly amongst them the very detailed work of Al-Qurtubi, were extensively consulted when preparing this translation.

Yet, one must also avoid the mistake of making the translation of the Qur’an itself into a commentary by substituting words in order to force their interpretation. The Qur’an speaks for itself, and as far as possible the words and phrases chosen by the Creator should remain unchanged. Adaptations are, however, required where a literal translation of the Arabic sentence would violate the syntax of the English and thus sound outlandish.

To illustrate the approach described above I would like to give a few examples of the choices made when completing the translation.

As for clarity of expression being achieved by not adhering unnecessarily closely to the word sequence in the original, the phrase “did you not see the water which you drink” is appropriately rendered as “take a look at your drinking water”. Likewise, the single letter word “wa”, meaning “and”, is often used in the same way as a comma in English and when it occurs in a list, the repetitive insertion of “and” will make the sentence difficult to follow.

Another example is prepositions which differ between languages, and to use the same preposition just to “stay close to the original” actually distorts it. Previous English translations of the Qur’an describe the gardens of paradise “underneath which rivers flow”, conjuring the image of some kind of sewage system. The Arabic word “below” is used in connection with rivers because the river bed is below the earth surface, but in English rivers flow “through” the land, since different cultures have different concepts of space and time. Thus in English children, for example, play “in the street”, which does not mean the inside of it but the inside of the space between buildings which is defined by the street. In German, on the other hand, they play “on the street”, the street here being defined as the actual road surface. Likewise, when we are told in the Qur'an to travel "in" the earth, we use "on" the earth in English.

Another difficulty when translating between languages belonging to distant geographical environments is that it is not always possible to use the same equivalent of a word throughout. On the one hand, Arabic has a multitude of names for an object, for example a camel, for which English only has one or two. On the other hand, the reverse is also often the case, and the same Arabic word needs to be represented by a different English word dependent on context. A “kafir” is, for example, both the one who rejects the truth and the one who rejects the blessings he received. In the latter case he needs to be described as ungrateful. So in the Qur’anic statement “if you were to count the blessings of Allah you could not enumerate them - man is unjust and ungrateful” it would be wrong to use “disbelieving” instead.

I have avoided the word “disbelief” and used “rejection” instead, because the concept is of somebody who rejects the truth after having been exposed to it. As for “abd”, literally a slave, I have used “servant”, although man is not just in the service of Allah but also owned by Him. I have made this choice not only because of the tarnished image of slavery but because it allows to retain the correlation between the noun and the verb, so Allah’s “servant” is somebody who “serves” Him, rather than just “worships” Him, as the concept of worship in the Qur’an is much more extensive than the English word implies.

If this translation were aimed exclusively at Muslims who are already familiar with key Arabic terms, then it would be legitimate to leave many such terms in Arabic without translating them, but because I want this translation to make the Qur’an more accessible not only to Muslims but also those who have not previously encountered the message of Islam, I decided to opt for a translation of terms wherever possible, even if such a translation is not always adequate to convey the complete meaning, for example, I have rendered Salah as prayer in spite of the different associations various cultures attach to this word. Whilst the Qur’an is the foundation of Islam, it is not possible to learn everything about Islam exclusively from the Qur’an, less so from a translation, and an exploration of the meanings of key Islamic terms will need to be pursued elsewhere.

I have made an exception from this rule of translating key technical terms of Islam in two cases in particular: Zakat and Injil. A simple translation does not do justice to the concept of Zakat which forms the third pillar of Islam. Zakat is a specified share of surplus wealth to be redistributed to a specified group of disadvantaged members of society. Due to its obligatory nature it is more than charity, yet it is not a tax, because it can, and preferably should, be given directly to the recipients without the involvement of the state. So in this case I have left the Arabic term without further explanation. I have also left Injil as the revelation given to ‘Isa (Jesus), because it is not equivalent to the Gospel, the latter representing third party accounts about his life rather than the actual revelation he received.

A particular difficulty in translation is posed by idioms and metaphors. Where there is a direct correlation, the familiar idiom should be used. For example, the woman who untwists her thread after having spun it is, in fact, the woman who undoes her knitting after completing it, and to cling to the literal wording means losing the power of this well-known expression. Other idioms have become common but are based on earlier incorrect translations, so for example, the “camel fitting through the eye of a needle” is based on a mistranslated Biblical metaphor. Etymologically the term “jamal” used in the Qur’an, which also means camel, here means a thick rope, and the expression makes a lot more sense with this meaning, so in spite of everybody having heard the camel version, I chose to move away from it.

Finally, there is the issue of tense: Many future events are described in the Qur’an in the past tense, because in the knowledge of Allah they have already happened, and present tense is used to convey a sense of regularity or immediacy also for events of the past. Whether this appeared equally strange to Arab listeners at the time of first revelation we do not know, but in order to make the text more approachable, all those who have previously translated the Qur’an into English have substituted those tenses with the ones one would normally expect in a continuous narrative.

These are not always ideal choices. As a result of settling for one option above another, some of the depth of the meaning of the original will be lost, especially where the Arabic word has layers of meaning. Here, only the dominant meaning can be conveyed, and to access the fine nuances of alternative interpretations the reader would have to consult a book of Tafsir. Similarly, when legal rulings are derived from the Qur’an, these cannot be based on a translation but require full consideration of the original wording and its context. Where it is possible, however, to leave an ambiguity in place, it is best to do so. A day in the Qur’anic text often means a time period rather than a day, but this inference is also possible in English, so there is no problem in keeping to the six “days” of creation, for example. Ultimately, every translation of a perfect text such as the Divine revelation will be a compromise, and I pray that I will have achieved my aim of introducing the reader of my translation to some of the beauty of the original without diverting from its meaning but, most of all, make it easy to read and comprehend and allow it to speak both to the intellect and the heart.

A number of Qur’an translations add an introductory chapter to each Surah, explaining its background and relevance, as well as footnotes to provide additional explanations to the text. After carefully considering this option I have decided against it as the result is the mixing of divine and human discourse and such interpolated passages distract from the cohesion and flow of the Qur’anic text. A detailed Tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an in English may well be of benefit but represents an enormous task which could not be done justice with the occasional interjection of a few interpretative or explanatory notes in this translation in any case. I therefore resolved to let available Arabic books of Tafsir inform my translation but ultimately let the text speak for itself.

I ask Allah to forgive me all the shortcomings in my work and to accept my efforts by making use of my translation to help guide people to the truth. I pray that this translation will open the doors to understanding the message of the Qur’an for many speakers of English who are unable to unlock its treasures in the original Arabic and, maybe, even encourage them to learn Arabic in order to discover the much greater depth and beauty of the original word of Allah.

Completed by the grace of Allah in the month of Ramadan 1436 (2015).
Sahib Mustaqim Bleher