Qur’an translation of the week #189: The Qur’aan The Supreme, or: how literal can one get?

When a translator entitles his work The Textual Translation For The Qur’an The Supreme in an attempt to render the Arabic phrase al-tarjama al-naṣṣiyya li-l-Qurʾān al-Majīd into English, this is a clear indication that he is taking the concept of ‘literal translation’ to the extreme. And indeed, this is the explicit aim of Abdulaziz F. AlMubarak (ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Fahd b. al-Mubārak), the Saudi author of this translation, which was first published in 2008 in Beirut and has since then undergone constant revision. While apparently self-published and not massively popular, we did find a 2018 edition in an Islamic bookstore in Accra, Ghana, in 2024, indicating that it must have made some of the way around the world.

Not much is known about AlMubarak, other than the fact that he hails from al-Aḥsāʾ in eastern Saudi Arabia, acquired degrees in law and economics in Lebanon and the United States, worked with Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia’s national oil and gas company) for decades, and after his retirement devoted himself to daʿwa. It was at this stage of his life that he produced his Qur’an translation. According to his own account, he had many discussions with American colleagues and acquaintances about the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Out of a desire to demonstrate that the perpetrators were not acting according to the ethics of the Qur’an, he consulted a number of English Qur’an translations and was appalled at their perceived inaccuracy, whereupon his wife suggested he write his own translation.

In the introduction to this work, AlMubarak strongly emphasises the need for a literal translation of the Qur’an into English, and is, correspondingly, disdainful of the efforts of all previous translators (italics in the original):

“Dear reader: let it be known to you that the diction of The Qur’aan is phrased in ultimate precision and exactitude. Each word in it is intended for itself to convey a specific message. It does not have word-deficits or word-surpluses nor does it have synonyms. It is sacred and unique. It is for the entire humanity. So its translation is a must and must be verbatim or transliteration, in order to be taintless and faithful.

All ‘translations’ in circulation since a long time ago, known as ‘Translation of The Meanings of The Qur’aan,’ with due respect to their authors, are absolutely unfit to convey its precision and exactitude, in whole or in details. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a sentence of two words in any of them exactly corresponding to the text of The Qur’aan. This is in addition to unfortunately very, very many fatal flaws ubiquitous in all of them.

All that, because such ‘translations’ have not abided by its verbatim text, and so had deprived it of its biggest treasure and greatest mother of marvels […] From its words sacrosanct faiths are taken and the religious rules are derived. Its diction is abundant with meanings and the augmentations thereof. So its translation by ‘meaning’ detracts from its text and corrupts its intended implications. Hence, its translation by ‘meaning’ is not only unfit but should never be.”

This raises the question of why he did not simply ask all Muslims to either learn Arabic to read the Qur’an in the original or to trust an Arabic-speaking authority, as some critics of Qur’an translation have done, such as Muṣṭafā Ṣabrī (1869–1954), the penultimate şeyhülislam of the Ottoman Empire, or Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1860–1935) in a 1908 fatwa. Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā changed his mind on this subject by 1931, though, after having learned that some Europeans had embraced Islam because of their encounter with a Qur’an translation, however flawed it might have been. After this, Rashīd Riḍā came to the conclusion that, rather than condemning all translations, it might be preferable to produce better translations. Since then, many Muslim translators have tried to negotiate a path between, on the one hand, the desire to be faithful to a text that they believe to be God’s verbatim revelation and, on the other hand, the need to produce a target text that is comprehensible to non-Arabic speaking readers. Most aim to find a middle ground, with some giving more emphasis to fluency in the target language and others to a precise rendering of the meanings and structure of the source text. AlMubarak, however, rejects outright the existence of a middle ground. His extensive introduction is filled with emphatic proclamations and injunctions, italics and quotation marks, in which he describes the approach of his translation to the last detail over the course of nearly ninety pages. Trying to summarise this description would exceed the limitations of this post.

Instead, let us look at the result of his method, for example with regard to Q 2:142:

سَيَقُولُ ٱلسُّفَهَآءُ مِنَ ٱلنَّاسِ مَا وَلَّىٰهُمْ عَن قِبْلَتِهِمُ ٱلَّتِى كَانُوا۟ عَلَيْهَا ۚ قُل لِّلَّهِ ٱلْمَشْرِقُ وَٱلْمَغْرِبُ ۚ يَهْدِى مَن يَشَآءُ إِلَىٰ صِرَٰطٍۢ مُّسْتَقِيمٍۢ

Saheeh International, a translation that generally aims to stay close to the source text without compromising fluency in English, renders the verse thus:

The foolish among the people will say, ‘What has turned them away from their qiblah, which they used to face?’ Say, ‘To Allāh belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He wills to a straight path.’

To AlMubarak, this is an inaccurate and unacceptable rendition because it deviates from the Arabic syntax and wording in favour of correct English. His own translation is as follows:

Shall say the mooncalves of the mankind: what diverted-/diverged them a’n (off) their Qeblataw (direction to face during Prayer)w whichu theyz were on itw; let-say [yous]: for Allah (are) the mashreqe (sunrise’s locus) and the maghrebe (sunset’s locus); [He] divinely-guides whomp [He] wills to a Sseratten (road/way) straight.

The problem with this approach is obvious: The resulting target text is impenetrable and sometimes unintentionally funny, and it would put off anyone who is not already familiar with the Qur’an. For an English-speaking Muslim, learning Arabic might actually be easier than navigating this translation with its strange vocabulary, use of Arabic words in a completely idiosyncratic transcription system, brackets, and superscript letters that are supposed to indicate the Arabic grammatical gender, number and so forth. Moreover, the English is riddled with mistakes, not only in the translation itself but also in the introduction, which suggests that the translator’s skill in the target language was limited. In his desire to convince readers of the divine origin of the Qur’an, including its ‘scientific miracle’, the footnotes are interspersed with rather surprising claims. For example, the famous phrase wa-ka-dhālika jaʿalnākum ummatan wasaṭan (Q 2:143), which is sometimes translated as ‘And thus We have made you a community of the middle way’, is explained, among other things, by saying that ‘scientifically speaking, it has been proven that the center of the Earth runs through the Ka’abah, towards which Muslims face in their Prayers!’

This translation might be extreme in many ways, but some of its features are paradigmatic of certain trends in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century daʿwa movements. A substantial proportion of the members of these movements are technocrats with backgrounds in economics, engineering, medicine and similar disciplines who, despite a deep and sincere commitment to Islam, lack a proper understanding of language, philology, history, or the Islamic religious sciences. This can result in a very mechanistic notion of language, according to which every Arabic word must have precisely one synonym in English and vice versa, which forces the translator to dig up outlandish terms in a thesaurus. Similarly, the idea that the grammatical and syntactical structures of Arabic can and should be transferred into English without alteration in order to be faithful to the source text, even if the result is ungrammatical (as in The Qur’aan The Supreme), conforms to a perspective on language that confuses it with mathematics, where there is only one correct way to describe a mathematical operation and no number can ever conceivably have a synonym. AlMubarak’s translation also reflects a trend towards seeing Arabs – and especially Arab men – as uniquely qualified to translate the Qur’an, with little regard for their training or competency in the target language. According to this view, the ‘accuracy’ and ‘precision’ of the translation is compromised when a single Arabic article is left untranslated whereas errors in the use of English are not considered problematic. But then, as AlMubarak states in his introduction: ‘Allah willing, all Qur’an translators are winners for their efforts, doubly when right and singly when not so right!’

More fundamentally, this translation raises the question of whether the translator was unaware that there is, in fact, a traditional method of Qur’an translation that gives readers access to the precise meanings and syntax of the source text while not creating nearly as much confusion as AlMubarak’s work does. Interlinear translations, which date back a thousand years or more, provide the meanings of terms, often alongside grammatical and syntactical information, in between the lines of the source text. Having fallen out of fashion in the twentieth century in favour of the modern European model of translation where the aim is to produce a coherent stand-alone text, interlinear translations have seen a resurgence in recent years due to an increasing interest among practicing Muslims in studying the Qur’an in Arabic, and the ease with which such translations can today be typeset on desktop computers. Instead of pursuing such an approach, however, AlMubarak – probably unthinkingly – adopted a European model of translation, paradoxically doing so in order to prove the superiority of his own religious tradition.

Johanna Pink

Share this post