Reading the Qur’an: which translation?

October 1, 2006 at 1:16 pm (Arabic, Books, Islam, Islamism, Religion, Theology)

Many people would like to read the Qur’an, especially as a way to understand Islam and Muslims. Anyone who embarks on such an endeavor will come to a realization that there are hundreds of different translations to choose from. Which one ought one to read?

First, I should like to say something about this endeavor to begin with. While this endeavor is quite admirable indeed, perhaps one needs to examine closely what one will get out of reading the Qur’an. Like any sacred book, the value of the Qur’an is not in what it says but rather in how it is interpreted and implemented by those who believe in it. It really doesn’t matter, for example, if the Qur’an says X but Muslims interpret it or implement it as Y. This is more especially so if someone is reading the Qur’an in order to understand Islam and Muslims.

What adds to this issue is the complexity of the Qur’an itself. Interpreting the Qur’an is an art to itself. Many Muslims are fond of reading the Qur’an and then judging Islam and other Muslims accordingly: they are idiots. Without a solid grounding in interpreting the Qur’an, without an intimate familiarity with what Islamic experts have said about the Qur’an’s statements, one simply cannot state one knows or understand what the Qur’an says. In effect, the Qur’an is a dumb book: it cannot speak. The mufassirūn (مفسّرون, “those who interpret” the Qur’an; that is, the authors of the (تفاسير, tafāsīr), the commentaries on the Qur’an) are the mouthpieces of the text. When I want to understand a verse, I consult a variety of books that explain, comment on, and interpret it. The same would apply to anyone consulting or studying the Qur’an.

One may view this like how Judaism believes in the Written Torah (the Torah written on scrolls) and in the Oral Torah (compiled in the Talmud, which comments on, explains, and interprets the Written Torah). Jews believe that the Written Torah cannot be understood or implemented as it is. It’s incomplete, as it were. In order to understand and implement the Written Torah, one needs to consult and be familiar with the Oral Torah. Consider, then, the Qur’an to be Islam’s Written Torah, and the other fundamental sources (aHadīth, sunnah, sharī‛ah) and commentaries (tafāsīr) to be Islam’s Oral Torah. (This comparison goes only so far: various units in the Torah are self-explanatory as they are. There is no self-explanatory units of the Qur’an.)

In other words: reading the Qur’an will not really help one understand Islam and Muslims if only the Qur’an is read. Fortunately, there are translations out there that contain commentary and explanations.

Perhaps the most popular translation is that by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It is the KJV of the Qur’an, as it were and as far as the English language is concerned. Fortunately, Abdullah Yusuf Ali included substantial commentary and helpful footnotes. I would recommend his: the more notes the better. (There are various versions of his translation, some with lesser notes than others.)

But the best translation that includes interpretation and commentary is The Noble Qur’an: English Translations of the meanings and commentary (ألقرأن الكريم وترجمة معانيه إلى اللغة الإنكليزية, al-qur’ān al-karīm watarjamat ma‛ānīhi ilā al-lughat al-inkilīziyyah) by Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali (محمد تقي الدين الهلالي, muHammad taqī ad-dīn al-hilālī) and Muhammad Muhsin Khan (محمد محسن خان, muHammad muHsin khān). The copy I have was sent to me, free of charge, by the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in The United States. This was some time before September 11, 2001. I do not know if the Saudi Embassy still sends out translations of the Qur’an for free and, if they do, which translation they send out. I head they switched over to Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s.

What may be considered to be an imprimatur of sorts, the closest one can get to one, is the fact that this translation was printed by the King Fahd Complex For The Printing of The Holy Qur’an in Medinah, Saudi Arabia. In other words, this was printed by the Saudi government. Now, there are a number of Islamic/Islamist publishers who print this version; it should not be difficult to find.

This translation and its commentaries are very faithful to Islam as traditionally understood and as being promoted, to whatever degree, by fundamentalists. It quotes various fundamental sources and tafāsīr, has additional essays, and otherwise presents an Islamist interpretation of the Qur’a: this will certainly help one understand Islam and Muslims.



  1. Zia Sheikh said,

    The Noble Quran is not really accepted as the best translation, as the footnotes are sparse. Muslims usually recommend the Yusuf Ali translation with footnotes, so that they verses can be understood in their correct light.

  2. Vinnie said,

    The best version of the Koran I found was the one I doused with lighter fluid and put a match to in the backyard firepit.

    It did cook the bacon rather quickly, I might add.

  3. Josh Scholar said,

    Vinnie, in keeping with the spirit of the old joke:

    Q: “What’s perfect pitch?”
    A: “when you throw a banjo into the dumpster and it lands on a ukulele, bagpipes and an accordion”

    I recommend that you cook your bacon over the flames of a Koran, Bible, Talmud, Sunna collection, and a copy of “the noble eight-fold path”. Add other religions to taste, serve hot.

  4. Mahsheed said,


    If you’re reading this (and hope your fastings are going well), here’s an example of Christianity in action.

    I don’t know how long the above link will work, so here it is:

    Amish grandfather: ‘We must not think evil of this man’

    PARADISE, Pennsylvania (CNN) — A grieving grandfather told young relatives not to hate the gunman who killed five girls in an Amish schoolhouse massacre, a pastor said on Wednesday.

    “As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was making a point, just saying to the family, ‘We must not think evil of this man,'” the Rev. Robert Schenck told CNN.

    “It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry.”

    The girl was one of 10 shot by Charles Carl Roberts IV after he invaded their one-room schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania on Monday. (Watch how Amish practices affected treating, identifying the victims — 4:16 )

    Three died at the scene and two died early Tuesday at hospitals.

    Funerals for four of the victims are scheduled for Thursday, and the fifth will be Friday.

    Five girls remained hospitalized on Wednesday in critical or serious condition.

    At the families’ request, the hospital did not provide details on the extent of the girls’ injuries.

    Schenck met with the families of two of the victims as well as the family of the gunman.

    Relatives of Roberts had no hint that he would commit such violent acts, the pastor said.

    Others who knew him described him as troubled.

    “One person who had had almost daily encounters with him said that she noted that he never looked into anyone’s eyes, he never looked into anyone’s faces, and she knew that there was something deeply troubling about him,” Schenck said.

    “Although she did say, she was very careful to say, that Charles Roberts was not an evil person. That he was a deeply troubled man, that he had, in her words — the sort of modest words of the Amish — that he had problems of the heart.”

    On Tuesday, police said Roberts told his wife he molested young relatives 20 years ago and was dreaming about molesting children again. (Full story)

    Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller said Roberts may have targeted the school for its girl students and — given various items found in the school — intended to molest the children. (Watch police describe the molestation confession — 1:34 Video)

    Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, said local people were trying to follow Jesus’ teachings in dealing with the “terrible hurt.”

    “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts,” he told CNN.

    Sam Stoltzfus, 63, an Amish woodworker who lives a few miles away from the shooting scene, told The Associated Press that the victims’ families will be sustained by their faith.

    “We think it was God’s plan, and we’re going to have to pick up the pieces and keep going,” he told AP. “A funeral to us is a much more important thing than the day of birth because we believe in the hereafter. The children are better off than their survivors.”

    When members of the community die, they are buried in wooden coffins; women in all white and men in all black, according to AP. (Watch how the Amish maintain their simple lifestyle — 2:40)

    Bodies are embalmed, but undertakers do not apply makeup. Funerals are held in the victim’s home, and the dead are delivered to the cemetery in a horse-drawn carriage. A hymn is read, but there is no singing, AP reported.

  5. Zia Sheikh said,

    Very moving. Now why can’t we all have that same kind of attitude. It would make the world a better place for living.

  6. Mahsheed said,

    This kind of forgiveness is supernatural and can only come from Jesus.

    In my own life the only reason I’ve been able to forgive all wrongs done to me is because of Jesus and only after meditating on His life and teachings. If I want God to forgive me I must forgive others. But I am awed and I can only pray that I too could have these Amish Christians’ generosity of forgiveness in similar situation. They even took up a collection for the family of the murderer! As he lay dying one of the men told him “I forgive I forgive” . He said this to the murderer who went on a rampage because of his inability to forgive something done to him 20 years ago. One can only hope that this prompted him to repent before he died. May God have mercy on us all and bless these wonderful Amish!


  7. Javad Akbari said,

    Your essay was very useful.

  8. Javad Akbari said,

    Your essay was very useful for me.

  9. Pashtana said,

    Salaams and Ramadan/Eid mubarak to all readers!

    This is a very interesting blog. I’m currently taking a class called “The Quran” in which we’re learning about the same thing you focus on in your post.
    I have come to the same conclusion that Quran is NOTHING without its interpretation. And let’s admit that there are TONS of different interpretations of the Quran out there (most, if not all, by men from earlier times of the Quran’s revelation; none of them are by female interpreters, especially from today’s time). So the question is: Which interpretation are we supposed to accept and which ones to reject? If we go with the majority, what makes that particular interpretation better than the others?
    The main example I can think of at this moment is verse24:31:

    “…And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…” (Qur’an 24:30-31)

    The point in focus is: “What must ordinarily appear thereof.” And here, I’m going to quote Author Fatima Umar Naseef, from her book “Women in Islam: A Discussion of Rights and Obligations.”

    Al-Quturbi tells us that “Allah has ordered the believing women to cover their beauty, except those mentioned in the verse, in order to stay away from and prevent temptations.”
    Ibn Masood says that by “what ordinarily appears thereof” means “face, hands, and clothes.”
    Al Masoor Ibn Mukhramah says the phrase means “kohl, henna, earrings, rings” BUT, he says, since the face and hands are normally displayed during prayers, face and hands aren’t needed to be covered.

    And so on. Other interpreters say other things.

    So my point is to simply say: WHICH one do we follow? They clearly aren’t the same interpretation. The decisions these interpreters make regarding our dressing style has a huge effect on our treatment and our lives in general, as women. So what are we to do?

    According to scholars, when this is the case — i.e., when different scholars say different things and they’re not reaching a conclusion about the topic — we, the average Muslims, get to choose ourselves which ones to follow. But then again, is it really we women who get to choose or is it our government and/or mullahs other “leaders” who decide for us which interpretation is best? Suppose we don’t agree with what they end up deciding on?

    So, yes, studying and understanding — and especially “interpreting” the Quran and other Islamic texts — require deep knowledge of other scholars’ views and understanding of these texts, but the best thing to do is to study as many different views, from as many different scholars as you can get hold of, but ultimately make your own conclusion. You don’t have to tell the whole world about it if you know they won’t accept it … unless, of course, you have some acknowledgment (or then, if you have a long beard and are a man, you can be assured to get a good audience, lol … but in females’ case, it’s not possible to get even a small group of people to hear your views if they’re different from the majority’s).

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