Qur’an translation of the week #102: ‘Interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English language‘ by al-Hilālī and Khān- the story behind the first Saudi translation (1/2)

This popular translation of the Qur’an into English, widely known as ‘Hilali-Khan,’ is one of the most influential Islamic texts in the world. Published in numerous editions, it gained much of its fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while recently it has been criticized on various grounds, some more controversial than others. Criticisms have ranged from assertions that the often problematic grammar and style was not always suitable for native (or non-native) speakers of English, to questions over the numerous ideological trends and ideas that are reflected in the translation itself, as well as the accompanying commentary. Paradoxically, this innovative translation, which uses modern English instead of the archaic King James Bible style that characterized earlier translations, was the product of conservative Saudi circles and appeared in a time when discussions of the permissibility of Qur’anic translatability were still very much current. In recent years the text has been dismissed as merely a ‘Salafi sectarian product’ by some of its critics. The story behind this translation, however, is more complicated than it might appear at first glance, even when discussing any of the later editions of this large work.

The textual history of ‘Hilali-Khan’, which has been published more than 20 times since 1977, remains almost completely unexplored, despite the fact that there seem to be many differences between its various editions. When it comes to the authors of this translation, biographical information about Muḥammad Taqī al-Dīn al-Hilālī (1893–1987) is widely available from a number contemporary Islamic sources (including a quite informative web-site especially dedicated to him, alhilali.net), whereas his co-author, Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān (1927–2021), remains quite an enigmatic figure, about whom no systematic biography has yet been written. While al-Hilālī spent much of his life travelling through many parts of the world (from Morocco, India and Germany to Saudi Arabia), the life of his co-author, Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān, was less well-travelled. After graduating from the University of Punjab, and later the University of Wales, Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān moved to Saudi Arabia where he studied medicine. We know that while in Saudi, in 1376/1956, he started his own English translation of ‘Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī,’ finishing it in 1968. According to his memoirs, he decided to embark on his translation of the ‘Saḥīḥ’ after experiencing a visionary dream in which the Prophet asked him to ‘serve the Sunnah’. ‘This translation contained numerous quotations from the Qur’an, and examination of his translation of these verses provides us with grounds to suppose that it was Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān who was the main initiator of the Qur’an translation project. As Yasīr Qāḍī, Khān’s student, wrote in his obituary, ‘although Dr. Hilālī was more fluent in French and German than English, he knew enough English to help Dr. Muḥsin, and together they embarked on the translation of the Quran, after which Dr. Muḥsin continued onwards to translate the Ṣaḥīḥ on his own’. Al-Hilālī himself was a close friend of Shaykh Ibn Bāz, one of the most influential Saudi religious authorities of the twentieth century. After accepting Ibn Bāz’s invitation that he take up teaching in Medina in the late 1960s, he became active in the field of tafsīr studies, teaching his own exegetical works such as ‘Sabīl al-Rashād’ (‘The Way to the True Path’), which was only completely published posthumously in 2006.

‘Interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qur’an’ was finished in 1972 in Medina, but the very first edition of the translation was not published until 1977, and appeared far from Saudi Arabia. Published in the USA by Kazi Publications, a Chicago-based Islamic publisher, its original, lengthy, title was ‘Explanatory English translation of the Meanings of the Holy Qur’an: a summarized version of Ibn Kathir, supplemented by At-Tabari with comments from Sahih al-Bukhari’ (with the Arabic text). Its arrival on the scence passed virtually unnoticed, and this edition soon became a bibliographical rarity: the number of copies printed and sold was extremely limited. Nevertheless, a second edition appeared in the following year (1978), but this time from another publisher and place: Hılâl Yayınları, located in Ankara, Turkey. This time, the translation had been ‘officially sanctioned’ by a Muslim religious institution (the Islamic University of Medina). A short letter included in the very beginning of this edition mentions the fact that both translators ‘are known for good doctrine free from any obstacles,’ while an introduction by a group of Muslims scholars from Saudi Arabia (F. Abdur Rahim, M. Amin al-Misri and Mohieddin H. Azmi, the latter two of whom both graduated from universites in the UK) notes that there are limits to every translation, while making an interesting observation on the target text: ‘Again, if the book is reprehended for not being written in a high and advanced style of English, as it occurs in modern contemporary English Literature, there, it is only from its advantages … The reader’s intention is to enjoy himself by understanding the meaning of the Book, and not to enjoy himself through an English style.’ There are also some words at the beginning in praise of al-Hilālī’s suitability for the project: ‘he qualified for his Doctorate in Germany, which is renowned for its being strict in everything … as for the Belief, he is a Salafi (traditional follower of the way of the Prophet).’ In general, the introduction focuses on the translatorial approach: the translation has been undertaken by Muslims scholars with ‘Western’ academic credits (which, it is clearly hoped, will mean that it will be accepted by ‘Western’ readers), and it is clear that the doctrinal aspect of the work prevails over its literary value. In this and many other features, the Hilali-Khan Qur’an translation became an influential examplar for many other Muslim translations produced in later years.

The first edition of the text also contained introductory material, presumably composed by al-Hilālī, which emphasized the high status accorded to the Arabic language by the Islamic faith. In general terms, it seems that the work was regarded by the translators as a kind of exegesis undertaken in English rather than a translation per se, and that is why the first and second editions were called ‘Explanatory English translation of the Meaning of the Holy Qur’an’. The inclusion of the subtitle, ‘A Summarized version of Ibn Kathir, supplemented by al-Tabari with comments from Sahih al-Bukhari’ clearly conveys another hallmark of rising Salafi exegetical trends: it indicates the paramount importance of Ibn Kathir’s exegesis for twentieth-century Salafi hermeneutics, as well as its significance for Qur’an translations published by organisations and authors with Salafi leanings.

Later editions of the text, however, saw the introduction of many changes to both text and commentary (including the title: the one mostly frequently used is ‘Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an’). Whereas the first (1977), second (1978) and third (1985) editions contained almost the same content (with only a few corrections of typos), the new edition published by the Saudi Publisher Darussalam in 1994 was completely revised, and was published in two different formats: a one volume edition and, a nine-volume large edition. Further to this, in 1997 an edition of ‘Hilali-Khan’ was published by the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, and this was largely based on the Darussalam edition. The revisions made in both cases were undertaken in close cooperation with the main translator, Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān (al-Hilālī had passed away years before, in 1987). The 1997 KFQPC edition was also prepared for printing by F. Abdul Rahim, the then head of the KFQPC Translation Center, and became a kind of ‘standard’ version, which is the version now available on many Islamic websites.

One important question still remains unanswered: why did the KFQPC wait so long to publish their Hilālī-Khan translation, some 20 years after it was first printed, given that it was the first complete Saudi-produced English translation of the Qur’an? In the early 1960s, the newly established Saudi-based Muslim World League (MWL) had been interested in supporting Muhammad Asad’s translation, although they later completely disavowed his work after the first nine suras were published in 1964 in Geneva. However, this did not mean that their interest in Qur’an translation had ceased, and in 1977 the MWL published Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation for distribution via its office in New York, with no apparent changes from the original edition of 1930. Later, in the years between 1985 and 1997 the KFQPC also prepared at least two editions of the popular Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation, each time making some minor and major revisions. Thus, there was clearly continued interest in producing English Qur’an translations among Saudi-based religious publishers. There are two possible answers to the question of why it took so long for a Saudi-backed edition of the Hilali-Khan translation to be produced: first of all, the work was largely neglected in Saudi Arabia because for the KFQPC, which was only founded in 1984 and was trying to establish itself, it made more sense to republish a translation that was already well known, and which would thus be more likely to find a wider readership. The second possibility is that, at the time, the Hilali-Khan translation was simply not ‘good’ enough to promote at a global level: a comparison of the earlier and later editions (i.e. the 1994 Darussalam edition and the 1997 KFQPC edition) reveals quite a significant number of differences, and both the text and commentary have been amended to conspicuous effect. Some of the most notable differences will be discussed in part 2 of this post, in next week’s blog.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

Share this post