Qur’an translation of the week #164: From The Great Tiding to The Awesome News: Mahmoud Ayoub’s Translation and Exegesis between Lebanon, Libya and the United States

Despite the fact that Mahmoud Ayoub (1935–2021) was a fairly renowned member of the Muslim community in North America, his translation of the Juzʾ ʿamma, the last of the thirty parts of the Qur’an, is virtually unknown and hard to obtain. It is a fascinating source for at least two reasons: first, because of its emergence in the context of Libyan Islamic internationalism, and second, because of the way in which Mahmoud Ayoub aimed in this translation to continue the Muslim exegetical tradition and simultaneously reshape it in a way that would be appealing and accessible to readers of English.

It is not widely known that Gaddafi’s Libya opened a centre for the publication of multilingual Qur’an translations and daʿwa literature in 1972, well before the foundation of the King Fahd Complex in Medina. The Islamic Call Society in Tripoli, later renamed ‘World Islamic Call Society’ (WICS), might even have been a model for the King Fahd Complex, which was established ten years later, in 1982. The Islamic Call Society commissioned Ayoub to translate the Juzʾ ʿamma, and published his work in 1983 under the title The Great Tiding: An Annotated Translation of the Thirtieth Part of the Qur’an. One year later, a similar work in Italian came out.

Interpreting the Juzʾ ʿamma, specifically, has a long tradition in Islamic pedagogy, and Ayoub explains his choice to translate this particular section of the Qur’an by saying that many of the suras in this part of the Qur’an are commonly used in prayer. This focus on daily worship practices also explains why he included the Fātiḥa, the first sura of the Qur’an, which is part of every ritual prayer, in his Qur’an translation even though it is not contained in the Juzʾ ʿamma. Aside from that, limiting the translation to the thirtieth part of the Qur’an is simply a more manageable task than producing a translation of the entire scripture. This would have made it easier for WICS to find a translator and would have considerably sped up the production process. The King Fahd Complex has also produced Juzʾ ʿamma translations, typically in rare languages where a translator willing to take on the entire Qur’an might have been impossible to find, such as Romani. In other cases, they apparently wanted to see quick results and thus published the Juzʾ ʿamma first and the complete translation later, as they did with their Fulani translation, and the World Islamic Call Society did with Italian.

Ayoub, however, never extended his translation beyond the Juzʾ ʿamma. He self-published a second edition of his work in 1997 in Iowa with small corrections and a new title: The Awesome News: Interpretation of Juzʾ ʿAmma – The last part of the Qur’ān. Both titles, The Great Tiding and The Awesome News, are inspired by Q 78:1–3, the very first verses in the Juzʾ ʿamma, which Ayoub rendered as follows:

About what do they question one another

About the awesome tiding (al-nabaʾi l-ʿaẓīm),

Concerning which they are in dispute.

The focus on the ‘awesome’ tiding speaks of the emphasis that both publisher and translator placed on daʿwa, and especially on calling non-Muslims to Islam. In Ayoub’s case, this was clearly a result of his own religious biography. He was born into a practicing Shi’i family in South Lebanon. Since he was blind, his parents enrolled him in a school for blind children that was run by British Christian missionaries. Much to his parents’ chagrin, he ended up becoming a Christian missionary himself, joining an American Southern Baptist church. Having completed a BA in philosophy at the American University of Beirut, he moved to the United States where he obtained degrees in religious thought and the history of religion, including a doctorate from Harvard that he earned in 1975. During his studies, he returned to Islam. He later taught religious and Islamic studies at various North American universities and eventually became professor of Islamic studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In 1978 he published his book Redemptive Suffering in Islam, an important attempt to foreground Shi’i concepts of suffering against the predominantly Sunni-centric perspective on Islam that Ayoub encountered in the US. Shortly after The Great Tiding came out in 1983, he started publishing The Qur’an and its Interpreters, an attempt to compile an extensive Qur’anic commentary in English from translated excerpts of authoritative works of tafsīr. Volume I, published in 1984, covered the first two suras and volume II, published in 1992, the third, after which the project was aborted. His later works, especially post 9/11, focused more generally on Islam and interreligious dialogue, moving away from Qur’anic exegesis.

Ayoub’s translation of the Juzʾ ʿamma is bilingual, and includes the Arabic text of the Qur’an alongside the English translation. While the title of the first edition still framed it as an annotated translation, the second edition called it an ‘interpretation.’ This is because it comes with a general introduction, an exegetical introduction to each sura, and footnotes. According to Ayoub, it is ‘meant to be a textbook’ that gives readers access to the meaning of the Qur’an ‘as directly and straight-forwardly as possible,’ in a way that is neither overly analytical nor apologetic. He displays a very twentieth-century perspective on the Qur’an, stating that it ‘is not intended simply for recitation, however important that may be. Rather, it is a book of guidance to the straight way. It is the only true law and constitution of Muslim society and its sure guide to God and the Good.’ The introduction focuses on extolling the Qur’an and the story of its revelation, affirming the authenticity of its transmission and the prophetic origin of its canonical arrangement. Accordingly, Ayoub emphasizes the importance of learning Arabic for Muslims and the approximate nature of his translation.

The translation itself is written in modern English and aims for comprehensibility. That said, Ayoub was obviously conscious about the complex semantics of many Qur’anic terms and refrained from resorting to facile solutions. For example, he did not translate the term kāfirūn as ‘unbelievers’ or ‘disbelievers’ but as ‘rejectors of faith.’ Overall, he strove for stylistic elegance and avoided convoluted syntax. For example, Q 104 (Sūrat al-Humaza) is rendered as follows:

Woe to every slanderer, backbiter—

who gathers wealth, greedily counting it over and over.

Does he think that his wealth will make him immortal?

No, indeed, but he shall be thrown into the crusher.

Would that you knew what the crusher is!

It is the Fire of God, set ablaze,

Which penetrates into innermost hearts.

It will close in upon them.

in columns outstretched.

The introduction to the sura explains that this is an early Meccan sura, revealed after Sura 75. It briefly sketches the story of the occasion of its revelation which connects it to Walīd b. al-Mughīra, a person hostile to Muḥammad. After this, Ayoub summarizes his view of the moral of the sura and concludes, ‘Even though the surah may depict a particular human being during the formative years of Muslim history, it applies to such people at all times and places. Such men are destined to a crushing [in the second edition: cursing] torment, from which they shall have no escape.’ Ayoub frequently uses his introductions to the suras in a similar way: to adduce narratives about occasions of revelation and on the merits of suras that are commonly quoted in premodern Qur’anic commentaries, from which he moves on to providing a general interpretation. His commentary on the meanings of specific terms or verses is presented in the footnotes; very rarely do we find exegetical insertions in brackets that would disrupt the reading flow.

Ayoub’s Qur’anic commentary, both in the introductions and the notes, is firmly based on the tafsīr tradition, acknowledging the plurality of opinions represented in that tradition. For example, in his introduction to Q 103 (Sūrat al-ʿAṣr), Ayoub writes, ‘Commentators have differed as to whether the word ʿaṣr here means afternoon, or time in the sense of successive ages. The latter seems to be the most likely interpretation.’ Accordingly, he translates the first verse (wa l-ʿaṣr) as ‘By [passing] time!’ He takes care not to label this the correct interpretation, though; it is merely ‘the most likely’ one. And sometimes he avoids making a choice altogether. For example, with regard to the oath in Q 95:1 (wa l-tīni wa l-zaytūn!,‘By the fig and the olive!’), he explains that commentators have differed widely regarding the meaning of this verse. He presents five different opinions that are common in premodern works of tafsīr, identifying the fig and the olive either as allusions to places or as a reference to fig and olive trees, or as the foodstuffs themselves. He then adds an opinion that goes back to Muḥammad ʿAbduh, but without naming him, according to which the verse is a metaphorical reference to the ages of Adam and Noah. He ends the discussion by stating, ‘It must further be concluded that nothing can be said with certainty concerning this matter. All that we can say is that the mention of the fig and olive here may refer to places or memories having some relationship to religion and faith …’

Such elaborate discussions can be found throughout his translation. They seem to be largely derived from Sunni Qur’anic commentaries; there are no discernible Shi’i leanings. Just like the authors of the short tafsīrs that were written for use in madrasas, he never mentions the names of his sources. And just like the premodern exegetes whose commentaries he uses, he avoids taking a categorical stance with regard to differences of opinion.

Ayoub conceived of The Great Tiding/The Awesome News as a continuation of the centuries-old madrasa-style tafsīr tradition in English. This is clear from the way he cites the classical exegetical traditions and presents the reader with a plurality of anonymous exegetical opinions while refusing to raise absolute truth claims. Instead, he either makes a probability judgment or withholds judgment altogether. The selection of the Juzʾ ʿAmma itself is a strategy to situate his work in a tradition, rather than aiming for innovation and modernisation. It was an attempt to make the tafsīr tradition relevant to English-speaking Muslims of the present times – albeit, it seems, not one that met with a particularly positive response.

Johanna Pink

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