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Why teaching British pupils to do their own Quran translating is undesirable

They simply cannot learn classical Quranic Arabic well enough for reliable Quran translation. At worst, they risk being misled by their instructor.


Posted 31 December 2016

I have recently corresponded with a couple of people about the general question of translating the Quran and the extent to which one should teach Arabic to British school pupils, particularly Muslims.

That led me to write this page. Doing so has enabled me to clarify my own thinking, as well as to share it. In practice, one never writes in such depth in private emails.

My conclusion is that, in general, it is not feasible to teach classical Quranic Arabic to British school pupils, to the level where they can reliably translate the Quran into English for themselves rather than relying upon published Quran translations.

What is the issue?

There are two distinct uses for religious texts in both Judaism and Islam:

  1. Recitation as part of religious services. For example, in Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath the Torah will be read out loud in Hebrew from the Torah scroll. Similarly, extracts from the Quran are recited from memory in Arabic during Muslim prayers. For other Muslim religious purposes, larger parts of the Quran are recited either from memory or by reading from the printed Arabic text.
  2. Religious texts are studied so that believers in the religion can understand God's message to us.

In both Islam and Judaism, it is universally agreed that the only authoritative version of the text is that in its original language, Arabic and Hebrew respectively.

The question is how this text should be studied by pupils in English schools. Broadly speaking, there are two alternative approaches:

  1. Study the text in its original language. Obviously this requires the pupil to learn the original language to the appropriate level.
  2. Obtain one or more high quality translations of the original text into English, and then study the English translations.

Which is more appropriate in the case of the Quran?

Some comments on the task of translation generally

The difficulty of the translator’s task is frequently underestimated. The translator needs to be an expert in both the source language of the text and the target language of the translation.

Furthermore, the goal is not to attempt a word by word transfer from one language to another since languages do not match in that way. Instead, the translator needs to read and understand the original source language text and then find a way of writing new text in the target language that conveys the meaning of the source text as closely as possible.

Moving away from Arabic and the Quran, the New York Review of Books website has a very educational three-part series by Tim Parks on the task of the translator in the context of translating the Italian writings of Primo Levi into English.

While most of the New York Review of Books website is behind a pay wall, the articles below are available free:

In the Tumult of Translation

A Long Way from Primo Levi

The Translation Paradox

The views of leading Quran translators

I have taken a look at what some of the Quran translators I respect most have to say about the task of translation.

MAS Abdel Haleem - translator of “The Qur’an: a new translation”

In his “Introduction” chapter, Haleem has a section “This Translation” which in turn has a number of subsections. I have quoted briefly from some of those subsections below.


It has frequently been remarked that different parts of the Qur'an explain each other, and utilisation of the relationship between the parts of the Qur'an was considered by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE) to be the most correct method.… The reader will find in the footnotes to the translation examples of how useful this technique is in explaining the meaning of ambiguous passages of the Qur'an.

Identifying Aspects of Meaning

Key terms are frequently used in the Qur'an with different meanings for different contexts, a feature known in Arabic as wujuh-al-Qur'an. These were recognised from the early days of Qur'anic exegesis and have been highlighted in many publications. As will be shown later, ignoring this feature and forcing upon a word one single meaning for the sake of consistency results in denial of the context and misrepresentation of the material.

Arabic Structure and Idiom

Throughout this translation, care has been taken to avoid unnecessarily close adherence to the original Arabic structures and idioms, which almost always sound unnatural in English. Literal translations of Arabic idioms often result in meaningless English. Moreover, the Arabic language at the time of the Qur'an was very concise. Parts of the sentence could be omitted because they were well understood from the context, and elision is a marked feature in the Qur'an: sometimes whole clauses are elided.… In some cases it is possible to use dots to indicate that something is missing. In others it is better to supply the omitted clause.

Another example where adhering to the Arabic can be misleading is in the description of Paradise, regularly described in the Qur'an as having streams. A literal translation of the Arabic phrase tajri min tahtiha al-anhar is thought by some to be ‘under which rivers flow’. This may, however, suggest to the English reader that the rivers flow underground, which is not what is meant in Arabic; rather the image is of a shady garden watered by many streams.

The present translation gives ‘graced with flowing streams’. ‘Graced’ was intended to convey the generosity in God’s gift to the people of Paradise implicit in the Qur'anic text; the adjective ‘flowing’ is taken from the Arabic verb tajri used in connection with these ‘rivers’; while ‘streams’ was chosen above the more general ‘rivers’ as the impression is one of many small rivulets coursing throughout the garden, keeping it watered, beautiful, and fresh.

In classical Arabic, the term nahr applies to any body of running water, from the smallest of streams to the widest of rivers. In modern Arabic the term has become restricted to rivers and this may in some cases have led to a misunderstanding of the term.


Identifying the proper reference of pronouns is problematical in the Qur'an since these sometimes shift in the same verse with the risk of ambiguity and distortion of meaning if these shifts are not correctly identified. There are numerous examples in the Qur'an where there is a change of addressee from Prophet to believers and vice versa. Like many other languages, Arabic distinguishes between ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural; in modern English ‘you’ is used for singular and plural without distinction.

Yet in the Arabic of the Qur'an, in almost all cases where ‘you’ is used in the singular it is the Prophet who is being addressed. In this translation, therefore, ‘Prophet’ is added to the English text where it is clear that it is he who is being addressed, to make the passages as clear in English as they are in Arabic.” [Accordingly in such instances Haleem translates the Arabic singular ‘you’ into English as ‘you [Prophet]’ so that the reader is clear who is being addressed.]

Classical Usage

It is important to identify the meaning of Arabic words as used at the time of the revelation of the Qur'an rather than the one(s) they have acquired in modern Arabic.… It is interesting to give an example of how the semantic spread of a certain key term has changed: walad in classical (Qur'anic) Arabic means the non-gender-specific ‘child’ or ‘children’, while in modern Arabic it can only mean ‘boy’ or ‘son’.

The claim of the pagan Arabs that God has walad is repeated several times in the Qur'an. As the Meccans believed that the Angels were the daughters, not the sons, of God, it is immediately evident that the modern meaning of walad is too restrictive to express accurately the intended meaning of the classical Arabic original in this context. Although later, in Medina, references were made to the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God, to use ‘son’ when talking about the beliefs of Meccan Arabs is incorrect and misleading.”

The editors of “The Study Quran: A new translation and commentary”

This major new translation is the joint effort of five editors / translators, with Seyyed Hossein Nasr being the Editor-in-Chief. The volume begins with a chapter titled “General Introduction” which has several subsections.

I have given a few brief quotes below.

"The Language, Structure, and Recitation of the Quran

The sacred presence and theophanic reality of the Quran as well as the levels of meaning contained in its verses cannot be rendered into another language, even Persian and other Islamic languages that were themselves deeply influenced by Quranic Arabic. In this context it is essential to remember that in various religions where the revelation is considered by believers to be the directly revealed Word of God, the language in which it was revealed is a sacred language, as in the case of Hebrew in Judaism or Sanskrit in Hinduism; in religions where the founder himself is considered to be the Word or the Message, the language of the message does not play the same role.

For example, in Christianity Christ himself is considered to be the Word of God or the Logos, and in a sense the New Testament is the word of the Word of God. For two millennia traditional and Orthodox Christians have conducted the Mass in Greek, Latin, Slavonic, and, in the smaller Eastern churches, Aramaic, Coptic, and even Arabic itself. But for Christianity these languages are liturgical and not sacred. The celebration of the Eucharist is valid according to the traditional churches no matter which accepted liturgical language is used.

But in Islam the daily prayers, the central rite that could be said to correspond to the celebration of the Eucharist in Christianity, are not valid if not performed in Arabic, whether the worshipper is Arab or non-Arab.


In our translation we have often consulted some of the best-known English translations such as those of Yusuf Ali, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, Muhammad Asad, AJ Arberry, Ali Quli Qarai, and Muhammad Abdel Haleem, [I had all but Qarai's already and have now obtained that] but our rendition is based on the Arabic text itself and not on any previous translation. Furthermore, we have sought to be extremely vigilant in translating the Quranic Arabic itself and not later interpretations of the Arabic. And the fact that ours was a collaborative effort by several scholars has helped us to eschew the personal predilections that can often influence the translation process.

Our aim in the translation has been, first of all, to be as accurate and consistent as we could within the possibilities of the English language and with full consideration of the different “fields of meaning” that many words, both Arabic and English, possess, fields that often overlap only partially, and are not completely equivalent. In fact, a huge effort and many countless hours have been expended to ensure that the translation is internally consistent in matters of both style and content. This effort included the creation of hundreds of secondary indexing documents and an enormous spreadsheet to track the use of individual words, phrases, and roots appearing in the translation. Considering the nature of the sacred language of the Quran, we have sought to make use of the full possibilities of the English language without the pretext of wanting to be so up-to-date in word usage that our rendition would soon become out-of-date.”

Muhammad Asad – translator of “The Message of the Qur’an”

The text of "The Message of the Qur'an" is available free to read on the internet. You can also download a free PDF of "The Message of the Qur'an" which gives you both the translation and the footnotes. My review of "The Cambridge Companion to the Quran" edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe has a quote from her explaining why Asad produced his translation.

Asad has a “Foreword” to his translation, and I have quoted some extracts below.

“When we look at the long list of translations - beginning with the Latin works of the high Middle Ages and continuing up to the present in almost every European tongue - we find one common denominator between their authors, whether Muslims or non-Muslims: all of them were - or are - people who acquired their knowledge of Arabic through academic study alone: that is, from books.

None of them, however great his scholarship, has ever been familiar with the Arabic language as a person is familiar with his own, having absorbed the nuances of its idiom and its phraseology with an active, associative response within himself, and hearing it with an ear spontaneously attuned to the intent underlying the acoustic symbolism of its words and sentences. For, the words and sentences of a language - any language - are but symbols for meanings conventionally, and subconsciously, agreed upon by those who express their perception of reality by means of that particular tongue.

Unless the translator is able to reproduce within himself the conceptual symbolism of the language in question - that is, unless he hears it "sing" in his ear in all its naturalness and immediacy - his translation will convey no more than the outer shell of the literary matter to which his work is devoted, and will miss, to a higher or lesser degree, the inner meaning of the original: and the greater the depth of the original, the farther must such a translation deviate from its spirit.

Arabic is a Semitic tongue: in fact, it is the only Semitic tongue which has remained uninterruptedly alive for thousands of years; and it is the only living language which has remained entirely unchanged for the last fourteen centuries.

These two factors are extremely relevant to the problem which we are considering. Since every language is a framework of symbols expressing its people's particular sense of life-values and their particular way of conveying their perception of reality, it is obvious that the language of the Arabs - a Semitic language which has remained unchanged for so many centuries - must differ widely from anything to which the Western mind is accustomed.

The difference of the Arabic idiom from any European idiom is not merely a matter of its syntactic cast and the mode in which it conveys ideas; nor is it exclusively due to the well-known, extreme flexibility of the Arabic grammar arising from its peculiar system of verbal "roots" and the numerous stem-forms which can be derived from these roots; nor even to the extraordinary richness of the Arabic vocabulary: it is a difference of spirit and life-sense.

And since the Arabic of the Qur'an is a language which attained to its full maturity in the Arabia of fourteen centuries ago, it follows that in order to grasp its spirit correctly, one must be able to feel and hear this language as the Arabs felt and heard it at the time when the Qur'an was being revealed, and to understand the meaning which they gave to the linguistic symbols in which it is expressed.

We Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the Word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the medium of a human language. It was the language of the Arabian Peninsula: the language of a people endowed with that peculiar quick-wittedness which the desert and its - feel of wide, timeless expanses bestows upon its children: the language of people whose mental images, flowing without effort from association to association, succeed one another in rapid progression and often vault elliptically over intermediate - as it were, "self-understood" - sequences of thought towards the idea which they aim, conceive or express.

This ellipticism (called ijaz by the Arab philologists) is an integral characteristic of the Arabic idiom and, therefore, of the language of the Qur'an - so much so that it is impossible to understand its method and inner purport without being able to reproduce within oneself, instinctively, something of the same quality of elliptical, associative thought. Now this ability comes to the educated Arab almost automatically, by a process of mental osmosis, from his early childhood: for, when he learns to speak his tongue properly, he subconsciously acquires the mould of thought within which it has evolved and, thus, imperceptibly grows into the conceptual environment from which the Arabic language derives its peculiar form and mode of expression.

Not so, however, the non-Arab who becomes acquainted with Arabic only at a mature age, in result of a conscious effort, that is, through study: for, what he acquires is but a ready-made, outward structure devoid of that intangible quality of ellipticism which gives to the Arabic idiom its inner life and reality.

This does not, however, mean that a non-Arab can never understand Arabic in its true spirit: it means no more and no less than that he cannot really master it through academic study alone, but needs, in addition to philological learning, an instinctive "feel" of the language.

Now it so happens that such a "feel" cannot be achieved by merely living among the modern Arabs of the cities. Although many of them, especially the educated ones, may have subconsciously absorbed the spirit of their language, they can only rarely communicate it to an outsider – for the simple reason that, however high their linguistic education, their daily speech has become, in the course of centuries, largely corrupted and estranged from pristine Arabic.

Thus, in order to obtain the requisite "feel" of the Arabic language, a non-Arab must have lived in long and intimate association with people whose daily speech mirrors the genuine spirit of their language, and whose mental processes are similar to those of the Arabs who lived at the time when the Arabic tongue received its final colouring and inner form. In our day, such people are only the Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula, and particularly those of Central and Eastern Arabia.

For, notwithstanding the many dialectical peculiarities in which their speech may differ from the classical Arabic of the Qur'an, it has remained - so far - very close to the idiom of the Prophet's time and has preserved all its intrinsic characteristics. In other words, familiarity with the Bedouin speech of Central and Eastern Arabia - in addition, of course, to academic knowledge of classical Arabic - is the only way for a non-Arab of our time to achieve an intimate understanding of the diction of the Qur'an.

And because none of the scholars who have previously translated the Qur'an into European languages has ever fulfilled this prerequisite, their translations have remained but distant, and faulty, echoes of its meaning and spirit.”

Readers will see that Asad’s comments about Arabic being entirely unchanged over 1,400 years are contradicted by Haleem’s examples of changes in the meaning of certain words. However Asad is largely right in that Arabic has been much more stable than a language such as English; the reason of course is the stabilising effect of the Quran as an unchanging Arabic text.

However, Asad does explain very well just how challenging is the task of translation.


The comments of Haleem, Asad, and the editors of “The Study Quran” show just how difficult is the task of translating the Quran reliably.

Concluding comments

I studied French at school for seven years and have a GCE O level in the subject. Even though that was almost 50 years ago, when I visit France I can read most of the signage. A few years ago, while I was riding on the Paris Metro, I picked up a discarded newspaper and was able to get the gist of almost all the articles it contained. In my 30s, on a visit to Geneva, I bought a short paperback novel in French and could read enough of it to keep going through the flight back to the UK.

However, with both the newspaper and the novel, I struggled with the nuances. Obviously, I would not dream of trying to read the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre in the original French.

In my view, there are two fundamental problems with encouraging British school pupils to attempt to comprehend the Quran for themselves in the original Arabic.

1. Capability

The first is that they simply cannot do it sufficiently well.

The overall time that they have available for study needs to cover their mainstream education in subjects such as mathematics, science, English and history. There is no realistic possibility of them developing proficiency in Quranic Arabic remotely equivalent to that of the translators mentioned above.

By translating for themselves, they are likely to misunderstand what the Quran actually means.

2. The risk of being misled

However, there is also a second problem.

In practice, the pupils will seek assistance and guidance on their self-translation efforts from their instructor. That puts the instructor in an exceptionally powerful position. Any guidance that he provides on the translation will be accepted “as gospel” by his pupils. Accordingly, rather than acquiring any autonomous understanding of the Quran, they will be absorbing his views and opinions. This leaves them vulnerable to being misled. In this regard, see my page “Teaching Muslims religious intolerance”.

The critical thinking skills that pupils need to develop, as well as their understanding of the Quran itself, will be fostered much more effectively by having them study multiple high quality English language Quran translations, and then compare and contrast them, and discuss the differences.

Postscript: Teaching Arabic as a modern foreign language

By number of speakers, Arabic is the fifth ranking language in the world. Accordingly, its study as a modern foreign language is at least as useful, if not more so, as the study of other languages often found in British schools such as French, German and Italian.

It is a perfectly reasonable decision for pupils to select Arabic as a modern foreign language at school in order to enable them to communicate with Arabs.

However, as explained above, if their reason for studying Arabic at school is to be able to self-translate the Quran, that is simply a mistake. Quite apart from the difficulty of translation discussed above, Modern Standard Arabic is different in many ways from Quranic (or Classical) Arabic, as illustrated by the extracts above from Haleem's introduction to his Quran translation.


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