Qur’an translation of the week #188: The first ‘American Qur’an’

In 1985, T.B. (Thomas Ballantyne) Irving, also known as al-Hajj Ta‘lim ‘Ali (1914–2002), published a book entitled The Qur’an: The First American Version. Printed with funding from global donors, including a major halal food business that Levantine Muslim migrants had founded in the American Midwest, its publication was part of a globalizing trend that has seen the United States become a hub of Islamic activity, and ended the dominance of the British Commonwealth in the field of Islamic publishing.

In the post-World War Two period, migration patterns led to the emergence of a Muslim diaspora in North America that was quite different from that found in Western Europe. While there were small Muslim communities in the country even before the Second World War, such as the Nation of Islam and Ahmadiyya movements, as well as important Levantine communities in the Midwest, large-scale migration from the Middle East and South Asia only started in 1966 after discriminatory immigration quotas that had favoured Europeans were abolished. The majority of Muslim immigrants who arrived during the subsequent decades were students and university graduates seeking professional careers, such as doctors, and were solidly middle class. This meant that there was a large potential readership for Islamic books in English. To meet this market, Islamic publishing houses were founded from the early 1970s onwards, especially in Chicago and on the East coast. These were often able to draw on their transnational networks and funding from Muslim individuals, businesses and institutions in the US, the Arab world and South Asia.

As a result, during the 1970s and 1980s the United States became a major hub in the production and distribution of Qur’an translations. In the mid-twentieth century, the market had still been dominated by translations produced and printed in the Indian subcontinent, particularly those by Muhammad Ali and Abdullah Yusuf Ali. In 1977, American Trust Publications, the Chicago-based publishing house of the North American Islamic Trust which, in turn, had emerged from the Muslim Students Association and received funding from donors in Saudi Arabia, reprinted Yusuf Ali’s translation for a North American readership, and in 1983 the Amana Corporation in Maryland – which predominantly produced household appliances – followed suit with another reprint. Both predated the revised edition of Yusuf Ali’s translation produced by the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex, and maybe inspired it. Meanwhile, Kazi, the oldest Islamic publisher in Chicago and possibly in the United States, printed a new edition of Marmaduke Pickthall’s Qur’an translation in 1982, and the Shi’i publisher Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an in Elmhurst, New York, came forward with a new edition of Muhammad Habib Shakir’s Qur’an translation, which was essentially a de-Ahmadified and Shi’ised version of Muhammad Ali’s translation. Thus, the field was starting to diversify significantly, but it was still dominated by translations from the lands of the British Empire and its successor states.

This is what makes it so significant that between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, the first two original Qur’an translations into English by Muslim translators were published in the United States, both of which deliberately did away with the King James style that had been characteristic of Muslim Qur’an translations until then, with its aura of arcane gravity. While neither of them created a stir at the time, they represented a significant historical moment in the global history of Qur’an translation. The first of these two translations was the famous – or infamous – work by Muhsin Khan and Taqi al-Din al-Hilali, published in 1977 by Kazi in Chicago,  which only became famous after it was adopted as the translation of choice in Saudi Arabia (see QTOTW #102 and #103), and the second was Irving’s ‘American version’ of the Qur’an, which was also the very first Qur’an translation that used American English.

Thomas Ballantyne Irving was a Canadian-American who was born in Ontario, educated in Canada and the United States, and converted to Islam in the 1950s. By 1968 he had already published a selection of translated passages from the Qur’an, thematically arranged, with a publisher based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of which a second edition was published in Nigeria. Following this, he worked on a full translation which he ostentatiously titled The Qur’an: The First American Version. According to his introduction, his primary target audience was second- and third-generation Muslims in North America who knew no Arabic, had no access to a traditional Islamic education and grappled with the question of how to make Islam compatible with their American lifestyle, but also non-Muslims who were seeking an unbiased image of Islam. To these readers, he argued, none of the existing translations were suitable: not those of the Orientalists who wanted to ‘control Islam for their own purposes;’ not that of Muhammad Ali with its sectarian tendencies and Christian influences; and neither that of Yusuf Ali with its abundant embellishments, nor that of Pickthall with its ‘heavy Jacobean English.’ N.J. Dawood’s translation – incidentally, the first to use modern English – he considered ‘better than most’ but too loosely related to the source text. Last of all, Irving mentions Abdul Majid Daryabadi’s translation and commentary, which at the time reached America as an import from India or Pakistan, and makes an interesting assessment, namely, that it

is clear, but hard to work with because of its arrangement, especially in the naming and numbering of chapters. Egyptian and Pakistani interpreters often show that they have not been talking to anyone outside of their own circle, and this lack has hurt even their political propaganda.

Irving’s own, explicit aim was to provide a plain translation that children could understand, and to present the message of the Qur’an in a language shaped by Muslims on their own terms, not through the lens of Christian theology.

There is no reason why our holy Book must be quoted in awkward English: if the Arabic is clear (16:xiv, 26:xi) then why do we need to worry about it? […] this is not the means to achieve reverence in our youth, who must understand what they are hearing or reciting. They need comprehensible yet reverent English which will be respected by future generations.

Thus, his translation is written in succinct and fluent English, with a minimum of explanatory additions, as the following examples show:

So when your Lord told the angels: ‘I am placing an overlord on earth,’ they said: ‘Will you place someone there who will corrupt it and shed blood, while we hymn Your praise and sanctify You?’ He said: ‘I know something you do not know.’ (Q 2:30)

You who believe, fulfil any contracts [you may make]. Any animals from livestock are permitted to you except for what has already been listed for you. What is not permitted you is game while you are in pilgrim dress. God judges anything He wishes. (Q 5:1)

In order to make his translation accessible and distribute it widely, Irving was in need of funding, and for this he benefited from his good connections to diaspora communities as well as Muslim donors outside the United States. He mentions donations from Canadian Muslims, and Qatar and the Gulf states, but especially highlights the contribution made by the Aossey brothers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who had already published his selection of segments from the Qur’an in 1968 and had been the ones to push him to produce a full translation. The Aosseys (the spelling that had been chosen for their Arabic surname ʿĀṣī) were early-twentieth-century immigrants from a predominantly Shi’i village in the part of Ottoman Syria that is today located in South Lebanon. They were among the first Muslim families to settle in Iowa, and helped to build the oldest standing purpose-build mosque in North America, the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, which was completed in 1934. Their family business, originally a grocery store, evolved into a major halal food business in 1974 when some members of the family founded the Midamar company, and it was the economic success of that company that also financed the distribution of Irving’s Qur’an translation.

Irving’s translation was certainly more successful in the United States than was – initially – Hilali and Khan’s; there were several reprints and new editions in the 1990s and 2000s, including one by the Indian Goodword Foundation before its founder brought out his own translation, although its popularity still remained limited when compared to that of Yusuf Ali, for example. The milestone it represents might be more important than its actual distribution, though. Irving made good on Yusuf Ali’s vow, uttered in 1934, ‘to make English itself an Islamic language,’ although by the 1970s the centre of that endeavour had moved from the heart of the British Empire to the United States. Irving’s translation is indicative of a process of emancipation from the European colonial empires at the time that a genuinely American Islamic publishing industry was coming into its own. This new American publishing industry was heavily embedded in diaspora networks and drew on a wide range of sources of funding in the Middle East and South Asia, regions that were also increasingly looking to trade with the US, rather than Europe. As such, the system of ever-more rigid nation-state boundaries that had emerged after the Second World War was constantly challenged. Muslim communities in the United States were, paradoxically, at the same time becoming more American and more globalised.

Johanna Pink

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