Qur’an translation of the week #178: The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad: the forgotten story of the first, 1964 edition

Usually, the history of Muhammad Asad’s (1900–1992) translation is dated back to the publication of the complete edition in 1980, while the first, partial version (comprising the first nine suras) which was printed in 1964 has become a bibliographical rarity. The 1964 edition was published by the Islamic Center of Geneva, which was based in Switzerland, under the auspices of the Muslim World League. The Islamic Center, established in 1961 by Saʿīd Ramaḍān (the son-in-law of Egyptian Islamic thinker and Muslim Brotherhood founder Ḥasan al-Bannā), had some funding from Saudi Arabia and published a monthly journal in Arabic, al-Muslimūn. It may not come as a surprise to learn that the journal promoted a global Islamic revival, and was primarily devoted to covering the stories of Muslim minorities worldwide. Ideologically, it frequently referred to ‘correct religious doctrine’ and, for instance, published fatwas issued by such Saudi religious authorities as the famous Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Bāz.

This first, partial edition of Asad’s Qur’an translation had quite a limited print run, and nowadays is hard to find in European libraries. Widely travelled in both the East and West, Asad had many connections all over the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, and famously stayed at the court of the first ruler of the modern Saudi State, King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, between 1927 and 1932. Even after years of living and working in Pakistan, and finally moving back to the West in 1959, Asad still enjoyed some level of support from the Saudi authorities, especially King Fayṣal. His interest in translating the Qur’an seems to have been sparked during a stay in Geneva when he developed a local connection with the aforementioned Center, and apparently he began his first draft just before the establishment of the MWL, sometime around 1961. Later, in 1964, Muhammad Asad published an article entitled ‘al-Muqaddima fī tarjamat al-Qurʾān’ (‘The Introduction to the Translation of the Qur’an’) which was originally written in English and translated into Arabic and published in the Muslim World League Journal (vol. 11, 1964). It looks as this was the first text by a Western scholar published by the Muslim state institution to promote ‘foreignization’ of the Qur’anic text in Saudi Arabia.

The first edition of Asad’s Qur’an translation was titled The Message of the Qur’an. Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad. Vol. 1 and looks to be part of an ongoing project. Most probably, the intention was to publish a complete translation in three, or even, four volumes. Although published under the banner of the Islamic Center of Geneva and the MWL, it was actually printed in the Netherlands by Mouton and Co, the Hague, a publisher that was later incorporated into De Gruyter, the well-known German academic press. The book cover details the price of the volume in three currencies – riyals, shillings and Swiss francs – which gives some basic idea of the intended areas of distribution: Saudi Arabia (16 riyals), Austria (25 shillings) and Switzerland (15.50 Swiss Francs). The copyright is cited as belonging to Pola Hamida Asad, Muhammad Asad’s second wife, his first reader and sometimes even the editor of his books. Her name is also mentioned in the acknowledgements, as well as that of the Secretary General of the MWL, Muḥammad Sarūr al-Ṣabbān (1898–1972), a prominent Saudi writer and intellectual who secured MWL funds for Asad. The Shaya family from Kuwait (who still run a very important family business in the country, nowadays known as the Alshaya Group), are also singled out for thanks.

In addition to the translation itself, the volume contains a foreword, a list of the literature used, and an index; overall, therefore, the structure and approach of the 1964 first edition does not differ much from the later version of 1980. These structural similarities also seems to carry over into the actual translation, although it does differ in some details: for example, in his 1964 translation of Q 2:2 Asad writes ‘This Divine Writ is, beyond any doubt, a guidance for all the God-conscious …,’ while in the later 1980 complete version, it reads ‘This Divine Writ– let there be no doubt it is [meant to be] a guidance for all God-conscious …’ Also, in Q 2:4 (and afterwards) Asad renders the Arabic verb anzala as ‘revealed unto thee’ in the 1964 text, while in the 1980 text one may read ‘bestowed from on high.’ In another example, al-mufliḥūn from Q 2:5 changes from ‘they who are graced with good everlasting’ to ‘they who shall attain to a happy state,’ while in Q 2:9, ‘those who believe’ become ‘those who attained to faith,’ and ghayb in Q 2.33 changes from ‘secrets’ in the 1964 edition to ‘hidden reality’ in the 1980 text. This list of amendments (which mostly reflect a shift from a more grammatical translation to a more explanatory approach) provides only a sample of such small tweaks to the wording, which is accompanied by some amendments in the commentaries. The most significant changes can be observed in Asad’s treatment of Q 3:55, which relates to Jesus’ crucifixion. The Islamic exegetical tradition had not historically been very concerned with the issue of how to understand Jesus’ disappearance from the material world, but this changed in the twentieth century due to the Ahmadi movement’s specific stance on this issue. For Ahmadi Muslims, Jesus’ death as reported in Q 3:55 was pure historical fact. However, for many Sunni Muslims, reacting to Ahmadi belief that Jesus was not taken to Heaven alive by his Lord, the most proper interpretation for the relevant Qur’anic verb, mutawaffika,became ‘taking away’ as opposed to ‘causing to die’ in a real physical sense.

The issue at hand was not the translation itself. Asad had translated the relevant phrase as ‘Verily, I shall cause thee to die’ in both the 1964 and 1980 editions. This was similar to the way the Ahmadi translator Muhammad Ali had rendered it in his 1917 translation (‘I will cause you to die’), and contrasts with, for example, the reading provided by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who in all his translations of this verse that date to later than 1938, writes, ‘God said: “O Jesus! I will take thee”’. Although Muhammad Asad was never entirely clear on the rationale behind his particular rendition of this phrase, his approach generally fits in with his rationalisation of the Qur’anic text as an attempt to show that it accords with the natural world order. Although the wording of the actual translation is identical in the two editions, what has been modified between 1964 and 1980 is the commentary. In the first edition, Asad writes: ‘Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any warrant for the popular belief of many Muslims that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily into heaven. In 1980, this sentence is modified: the phrase ‘of many Muslims’ is omitted, and an addition made  so that the phrase now reads ‘… God has “taken up” Jesus bodily into heaven in his lifetime’. There could be a few possible explanations for this change (obviously, it is something more than just a stylistic amendment), but the newer variant seems to be less critical of those Muslims who really believe in Jesus’s ‘ascension.’                                                              

It seems that the MWL presidency trusted Asad completely, and so he was allowed to produce his translation without any directives or supervision. However, when it was finally published and the MWL inspected it, their publishing board found it rather challenging. There are rumors that virtually the entire print run of the first edition was destroyed after Asad’s Saudi hosts raised serious objections to some of his translations, including most notably his ‘misinterpretation’ of Q 3:55 and his supposed ‘denial of miracles.’.   

When it comes to Asad’s alleged ‘denial of miracles’ or, in other words, his attempts to provide a kind of rational explanation for those verses that had been traditionally described as miracles or wonders in the Islamic tradition, the same position can be found in contemporary popular commentaries from Egypt, for example in the thought of al-Marāghī, who was presumably influenced by Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s earlier reflections on the Qur’an. However, in terms of Saudi scholarship of the time, especially given that academic religious circles were becoming more familiar with the English language during this period, many of these readings were completely irreconcilable with their Sunni-Salafi beliefs. Though there was no specific campaign to discourage or discredit Asad’s translation, some fatwas issued in 1979 (and confirmed in the 1980s, after the publication of the entire, finished work) were full of criticism. For instance, a collection of fatwas issued by the Saudi Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta (Lajnat al-Dāʾima li l-Buḥūth al-ʿIlmiyya wa-l-Iftāʼ) contains a ruling issued in response to a request concerning future plans to publish The Message of the Qur’an in Dublin. After a long apologetic statement on the issue of whether or not Jesus was taken alive to heaven, the Committee issued a decisive overall statement on Muhammad Asad’s translation to the effect that: ‘In his translation, there are brutal mistakes and disgusting disbeliefs, and this is why the Consulting Board of the Muslim World League in the Holy City of Mecca has prohibited its printing and distribution.’

Even before this negative fatwa, and due in no small part to previous criticism of his work from the MWL, Asad had fallen out of favor with the Saudi authorities after his main patron, King Fayṣal, was killed in 1975. Living mostly in the West, he was unable to renew his ties with the Saudi religious elite, unlike other translators of his generation such as al-Hilālī. Of course, his personal background as a practicing Jew who converted to Islam or, at a broader level, as an educated Westerner who embraced an ‘Eastern’ identity and was engaged in the struggle for the global Muslim Umma, at some level allowed both him and his translation of the Qur’an to rise above the controversies surrounding it: however, the fact remains that his translation has never been printed in Saudi Arabia. Still, today it remains one of the most influential Qur’an translations worldwide, and has been translated into a number of languages (for example, German, Spanish, Bosnian, Turkish and Swedish), and is now viewed by many as a kind of tafsīr. The rare edition of 1964 may have all but disappeared, but it was an important milestone in this translation’s long journey to global prominence.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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