Qur’an translation of the week #180: Australian Edition of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’ān

Despite its nearly ninety-year history (with the first volume appearing in 1934), Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Qur’an continues to outperform many other translations in terms of the frequency with which it is reprinted and the number of different publishers who reprint it, not to mention citations. What is sometimes not as frequently discussed is the fact that the original editions (published in 1934–1937, 1938, and 1946) are rarely reproduced today. Most of the copies printed and distributed nowadays are reprints of two later ‘revised’ editions that were created long after the translator’s death in 1953. The first, widely known as the ‘King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex edition,’ was published in Medina in 1985 (and re-published in 1993 with some minor amendments), while the second underwent a lengthy revision process in the USA, conducted by the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Amana Publications, and came out in 1989. These later editions contain some significant changes: in both cases the editors, for example, changed Yusuf Ali’s original ‘God’ to ‘Allah’ and corrected the translation of rasūl to ‘Messenger,’ to make the style of the work ‘less Biblical and more Islamic,’ as one reviewer noted. A version of the Amana edition was also produced by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, which published it in 2018 with the original introductions and commentary, describing it as a text that had undergone ‘additional proofreading.’

A third posthumous version of Yusuf Ali’s translation, published by the World Islamic Call Society (WICS based in Tripoli, Libya) in 2008 has received less attention. First published a year earlier by the Islamic Book Trust in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it was (according to the title page) ‘revised and updated’ by Keysar Trad. Trad was born in 1963 in Tripoli in Lebanon, and emigrated to Australia with his family in 1976. A Muslim activist for much of his life, he has served as the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils and currently represents the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia (est. 2003). In his introduction, which is included in both the first (Kuala Lumpur) and second (Tripoli) editions, Trad describes his intervention in the text as follows:

‘This minor revision is not a retranslation or a major amendment of the translation; it is merely tweaking some words and phrases in minor ways to make them more reflective of today’s usage of the English language.’

Trad goes on to say that, in total, he has ‘tweaked or amended 799 words or phrases.’ However, it appears that his revisions were not made to Yusuf Ali’s original editions from the 1930s or 1940s, but to the later Amana Publications revision. Thus, this is actually a ‘revision of a revision,’ which still makes sense in light of the fact that new translations appear every year, and changing approaches to the language used.

Apart from simply modernizing Yusuf Ali’s language to avoid archaic forms (such as using ‘has’ instead of ‘hath,’ ‘you’ instead of ‘ye,’ etc.), many of these changes relate to meaning. For example, in Q. 2:2, muttaqīn, which was originally translated by Yusuf Ali as ‘[those] who fear Allah’ becomes ‘those who protect themselves from (sin).’ The change is explained by Trad in his introduction, where he states that ‘fear is negative, whereas the word Taqwā is positive, and this makes it difficult to accept a translation that would introduce a negative word into the context.’ Sometimes revisions are made to make the text more literal, as in ‘It is He Who has taught the Qur’an’ in Q. 55:2, which becomes ‘Taught the Qur’an’. Another  significant change relates to the translation of the word awliyāʾ in Q 5:51: Yusuf Ali’s original text rendered it as ‘allies and protectors’, thus giving ‘Take not the Jews and the Christians for your allies and protectors,’ while Trad changes this to ‘protecting patrons’. Furthermore, following a modernist reading, Trad consciously opts to use ‘gender-neutral’ terms to avoid ‘unnecessary sexist meanings,’ so that, for example, al-nāss in Q. 2:161 and other places becomes ‘humanity,’ as opposed to the original ‘mankind.’ Even in the case of Q. 2:204 (‘There is the type of man …’), Trad makes the decision to use a more neutral wording: ‘There is the type of person …’

Supplied with the Arabic text of the Qur’an, Trad’s edition of this translation contains only an index of terms, and omits Yusuf Ali’s extensive commentary. This is a notable difference from the KFGQPC and Amana Publications editions that preceded it, as both of these also made changes to the commentary. In some ways, this makes this edition more suitable for free distribution, as it means that the translation is published in a relatively small-sized format.

It should also be noted that Keysar Trad’s revision is not the first English translation to be published by WICS. In 1981, WICS reprinted Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation, and just two years later, in 1983, they brought out an edition of Muhammad Ayuob’s The Great Tiding: An Annotated Translation of the Thirtieth Part of the Qur’an, with a repeat edition in 1997. Like other WICS editions, Trad’s revision of Yusuf Ali’s translation has seen limited distribution. Thus, despite significant efforts on Trad’s part to make the most popular English translation of the Qur’an even more accessible to readers, it still remains a bibliographical rarity.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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