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The Issue of Translation of the Quran

Having recently moved from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts to the heart of American Appalachia in western North Carolina, I have found that some things are just simply lost in translation!

The puzzled looks I receive when I say something is “wicked good” (a common expression in New England) are quite amusing, but it ultimately serves as a reminder that a more general language should be used here in the South!

The truth is, “wicked”, in the Boston area, also means “really” or “very”, whereas nearly everywhere else in the world it really only means “bad” or “evil”; “How can something be ‘wicked’ and ‘good’?!” many have asked me!

Massachusetts natives also refer to submarine sandwiches as “grinders”, milkshakes are known as “frappes”, drinking fountains are called “bubblers” and if you order a “regular coffee” – it doesn’t come served black and plain, but with cream and sugar (I know!).

Needless to say, I’ve had to adjust my vocabulary quite a bit over the past few years, though I still drill it into my children to speak like a “propah Bustohnyan” (proper Bostonian)!

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Now, this area of America is a hotbed of Christianity. Being “Christian” is something the Christians here truly wear on their sleeves and it is a part of pretty much everyone’s daily discourse.

Even those who don’t ascribe to the Faith are met with terms, opinions and talking points they don’t hold as their own.

With this, usually comes a wave of invitations to each person’s particular brand of Christianity, whether subtly in general conversation or even invitation to their Church or Bible study.

It’s charming, but very confusing for the Muslim.

Why are there so many Churches? Why does each Church use a different Bible than the next? What is with the apparent infighting?

It comes down to the difference between “Versions” and “translations”; each Church has their preferred one and when two different denominations intersect and use the same Bible, the other Church claims it is they who have the proper understanding as opposed to the Church down the street.

Many “Versions” (where some entire Books are omitted) and even more “translations” (particular choice of words).

Alhamdulilah, Muslims are not met with this problem; it’s not as if we drive by four different Masjids to get to our own.

Even with considering the apparent divide between Sunni & Shia, the same Arabic Quran is used among each congregation and much of the disagreements come from jurisprudence (Fiqh) rather than Doctrine.

Now, in all my time spent talking with the many Christian Missionaries of various denominations who come to my house, only one group claims to have a superior translation over their other Christian brethren; the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I have a beautiful and terrific relationship with many local members of this denomination and we typically meet at least once a month, though sometimes multiple times a week! They are never not welcome here at my home; I truly love them.

During one of their most recent visits, a member I had not previously met had shared with me that his son and daughter-in-law were currently in Nevada, where there happened to be a large Arabic speaking community, mostly Muslim.

“Hey, it’s the desert!”, I joked! They found it funnier than I did (which is a rarity, because I LOVE my own jokes!)!

He went on to tell me about their sharing of The New World Translation into Arabic with that particular community, as well as their other literature.

He also boasted about how many languages their Version had been translated into.

It is quite an impressive feat, but it struck me as an odd waste of time.

I didn’t tell them this, as that idea only popped into my head some hours later.

You see, Muslims have been living side by side with Christians since the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), so they know their Message, they know The Bible.

Why send Missionaries whose first language is English to “teach” these Arabic speaking Muslims (and Christians too!) what The Bible says in Arabic?

That’s odd enough, I suppose, yet thinking about it a bit more and in considering their efforts in translating their Version of The Bible into over 100 languages, I thought: “Wouldn’t it just be easier to learn, understand and teach Hebrew and Greek?!”

The Jewish people are quite content doing this with the Hebrew Scriptures, why aren’t the Christians, generally speaking, then learning Hebrew or Greek?

Alhamdulilah, Muslims do not have this problem. We have dozens of beautiful translations of The Quran and one Version; the Original Arabic.

I’ve not heard of one piece of writing, ancient or modern, where the translation from the original text is not compromised to a certain degree.

So, while an English speaking and reading Muslim (like myself) may refer to a favorite translation (choice of words), confirming it in the one Version (the Original Arabic Quran) is crucial, as no translation of The Quran is truly “The Quran”.

This puzzles most of the Christians I am in touch with. I suppose the idea of learning what the Original says has not been given much thought or scrutiny, even with their own Holy Book.

I’ve had to illustrate firsthand to people the difficulty I have in sometimes relaying what I’m getting at with my Massachusetts accent and vernacular to their particular dialect of American English and propose they try to imagine the difficulty it would be for me to translate the 7th Century Arabic of The Quran to Boston English to their southern drawl! THIS is one reason why the Muslim must learn Arabic! The point seems to resonate a bit more after pointing this out!

Islam has but one version of The Quran, the one our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) left for us, and more or less only one “translation” is needed for the Muslim; that is, to learn the Original Arabic.

وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِن مُّدَّكِرٍ

Yusuf Ali:

And We have indeed made the Quran easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition? (54:17)

إِنَّآ أَنزَلْنَٰهُ قُرْءَٰنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

Sahih International:

Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand. (12:2)

وَلَوْ جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا أَعْجَمِيًّا لَّقَالُوا لَوْلَا فُصِّلَتْ آيَاتُهُ أَأَعْجَمِيٌّ وَعَرَبِيٌّ قُلْ هُوَ لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا هُدًى وَشِفَاءٌ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ فِي آذَانِهِمْ وَقْرٌ وَهُوَ عَلَيْهِمْ عَمًى أُولَٰئِكَ يُنَادَوْنَ مِن مَّكَانٍ بَعِيدٍ

And if We had appointed it a Lecture in a foreign tongue they would assuredly have said: If only its verses were expounded (so that we might understand)? What! A foreign tongue and an Arab? – Say unto them (O Muhammad): For those who believe it is a guidance and a healing; and as for those who disbelieve, there is a deafness in their ears, and it is blindness for them. Such are called to from afar. (41:44)

وَكَذٰلِكَ اَنۡزَلۡنٰهُ قُرۡاٰنًا عَرَبِيًّا وَّ صَرَّفۡنَا فِيۡهِ مِنَ الۡوَعِيۡدِ لَعَلَّهُمۡ يَتَّقُوۡنَ اَوۡ يُحۡدِثُ لَهُمۡ ذِكۡرًا‏

And thus We have sent it down as a Quran in Arabic, and have explained therein in detail the warnings, in order that they may fear Allah, or that it may cause them to have a lesson from it (or to have the honour for believing and acting on its teachings). (20:113)

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About Andrew
Andrew has been Muslim 8 years or so now. His wife is Muslim as well. He has 3 children & is a Massachusetts native who now lives in North Carolina.