Qur’an translation of the week #192: The ‘Saheeh International’: A ‘Saudi’ Team Translation into English

It would be hard to dispute that ‘Saheeh International’ (first published in 1997) is one of the most popular modern interpretations of the Qur’an in English. This work has a few notable aspects that distinguish it from other works in the genre. First of all, it is the product of teamwork, rather than an individually-authored translation like most of the other interpretations that were printed in  the second half of the twentieth century. Secondly, it was produced by three Muslim converts, and, finally, all three translators are women, which is quite rare in this male-dominated field.

The story of this work begins in the late 1980s in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second largest city. From the 1980s onwards, it had a growing community of foreigners, of both Muslim and non-Muslim religious backgrounds. One of the translators, Emily Assami, a.k.a. Umm Muhammad (born in 1940 in the US), moved there in 1981 from Damascus, where she had previously lived with her Syrian husband. The two other team members, Mary Kennedy and Amatullah ‘A.J.’ Bantley, had similar backgrounds. Thus, we have three American converts living in Jeddah at the beginning of the 1990s who were dissatisfied with the availability of Islamic literature in English. According to an interview with Amatullah Bantley, their original plan was to edit the Hilālī-Khān translation (which was known for its rather ‘problematic’ English), but they later decided to undertake a completely new translation.

The project resulted in the foundation of the first printing press in Jeddah to concentrate on the production of Islamic books in English, a private initiative registered as ‘Abul-Qasim Publishing House and Bookstore’. Established at the end of the 1980s as a bookstore owned by Amatullah Bantley, it started actively publishing at the beginning of the 1990s. It printed a few books, such as Hajj and Umrah: according to the Qur’an and Sunnah by Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips (1993), and The Muslim at Prayer: A Comparison to Prayer in the Bible, with an Introduction to the Mosque in Islam by Ahmed Deedat (1993), which appear to have been produced especially for daʿwa purposes. The ‘Saheeh International’ translation of the Qur’an was similarly intended for promotion both among English-speaking foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and on the international market. Assami was the only one of the team to have studied Arabic and Islamic Studies on a level that would allow her to carry out translation projects, as she had taught Islam for foreigners at an Islamic Centre in Jeddah, so she took the lead in the actual translation process, while the two other team members were responsible for editing the target text. All three were aware of the limitations of the most popular Muslim-authored Qur’an translations that were promoted by Islamic publishers in the early 1990s. Works by, for example, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (in both the KFGQPC and IIIT editions) and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall used more or less archaic vocabulary and a Biblical style of writing. In contrast, the Saheeh International team adopted the innovative approach, like al-Hilālī and Khān, of opting to use modern English. Unlike them, however, the individuals behind this text were much more fluent in the target language.

A few things are immediately striking about the first edition of the Saheeh International translation. The first is that the names of the people who actually worked on the project are not mentioned at all, perhaps due to the fact that they had no formal religious credentials. Secondly, the exact title of the work is The Qur’an: Arabic Text with Corresponding English Meanings. Thirdly, the cover references two new publishing institutions—the aforementioned Abulqasim Publishing House and al-Muntada al-Islami, a well-known Islamic charity based in London (est. 1986), also known as the Al-Muntada Trust. Due to the wide connections of the latter organisation, the Saheeh International translation quickly became known to readers outside Saudi Arabia.

The editorial preface to this first edition is very informative. It tells a story of a new translation, produced after thorough consideration of previous English translations of the Qur’an (by Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, and Hilālī-Khān), with a strong focus on the features of the target text. Other references in the prefatory material hint at the team’s translatorial approach. The text is characterised as ‘presenting the core meanings, as far as possible, in accordance with the ʿaqeedah of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jamiʿah’ [sic.] and as being aligned with the teachings of Ibn Kathīr and Ibn Taymiyya. These methodological aspects, as well as the special attention that is paid to the names and attributes of God, generally accord with the modern Salafi hermeneutical tradition. Moreover, the prefatory texts contain justifications of Qur’an translation that cite the influential Mabāḥith fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān (‘Studies in the Qur’anic Sciences’) by Shaykh Mannʿā al-Qaṭṭān (1925–1999), an Egyptian-born scholar who spent most of his life working in Saudi universities. This work, first published in 1971, sanctions the ‘explanatory translation’ of the Qur’an for use in daʿwa, but also asserts that translation can provide a theologically correct vision of divine unity (tawḥīd) and worship (ʿibāda) but really nothing more. It is clear that this idea of ‘approximate’ translation, along with other milestones of Salafi exegesis, became main features of the Saheeh International translation.

A second edition of Saheeh International was published in 2004 by the Al-Muntada al-Islami Trust, with a few corrections, and this has been reprinted many times without any further changes. Comparison of the first edition of 1997 and a recent 2019 version of this second edition (both published in Saudi Arabia) reveals some small but fairly significant differences. Notably, the later edition demonstrates a further simplification of the text. For example, in Q 1:7 (‘those who have evoked [Your] anger’), the word ‘evoked’ has been changed to ‘earned’, and a reference to al-Qurṭubī’s tafsīr on the difference between the divine names al-Raḥman and al-Raḥīm has been erased. Some rephrasing can be observed in Q 2:30, nusabbiḥu bi-ḥamdika wa-nuqaddisu laka, which is translated in the first edition as ‘we declare Your praise and sanctify You’, while in the recent version it reads as ‘we exalt You with praise and declare Your sanctity’, which seems to be a more precise rendition of the original. In other places, such as Q 4:34, there are more significant changes, probably related to justification of the Islamic position on the punishment a husband can inflict on his wife. The 1997 edition reads as follows: ‘But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance—[first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them’ and gives the following explanation in a footnote: ‘As a last resort. It is unlawful to strike the face or to cause bodily injury’.

In contrast, the 2019 edition contains a small but significant change: the addition of ‘lightly’ in brackets to give ‘But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance—[first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them [lightly]’. The commentary provided on this verse is also completely changed. It now reads: “This final disciplinary measure is more psychological than physical. It may be resorted to only after failure of the first two measures and when it is expected to amend the situation and prevent family breakup; otherwise, it is not acceptable. The Prophet ﷺ (who never struck a woman or a servant) additionally stipulated that it must not be severe or damaging and that the face be avoided”.

This shift may reflect that fact that, in the mid-1990s, the problem of ‘wife-beating’ was not yet widely discussed in Islamic scholarship. More recently, especially after 2001, the topic of violence in Islam has moved to centre stage in both academia and religious communities. The revised 2019 commentary, with its reference to Prophetic practice (‘[he] never struck a woman or a servant’), is thus designed to be more dissuasive of domestic violence than the more or less literal translation from 1997.

In some places, the Saheeh International translation resembles a brief tafsīr rather than a translation. This result is common where the intention is to produce a widely accessible translation of the Qur’an, particularly through the use of modern plain language: such ‘tafsīrisation’ is found in many Salafi interpretations of the Qur’an, which tend to produce a one-dimensional reading of the source text.

The Saheeh International translation has enjoyed growing popularity. This is due mainly to the simplicity and accessibility of both the core text and the accompanying commentary, which amounts to more than 2,000 footnotes (though many of these are brief). Although never published by any official institutions or with the official backing of any religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, it is widely used as a resource for individual reading and as a source for quotations from the Qur’an. Indeed, in the UK, it is one of the most popular Muslim translations and is available in almost every Sunni mosque and Islamic centre in the country. Its success is partially due to the fact that it has been distributed gratis by the Al-Muntada al-Islami Trust and other Islamic networks. Recently, editions have also been published by Saudi publishing houses such as Aljumuah and Noor International, and these are distributed by Darussalam. In 2017, the popular news website The Daily Beast published a detailed article on Saheeh International, claiming that it ‘has become the main version used in English-language propaganda put out by ISIS’. However, overall, in comparison to the Hilālī-Khān translation, the Saheeh International translation has not received much criticism. In fact, on several fronts, the interpretation of the Qur’an by the Saheeh International team is one of the most successful translation projects ever carried out in Saudi Arabia.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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