From Merchant to Messenger

The Prophet Muhammad's struggle for legitimacy as revealed in the Koran

Majid Fakhry vs. Yusuf Ali and Others

From Merchant to Messenger“Translations,” an Italian proverb says, “are a betrayal.” They might be if— unlike Majid Fakhry’s, the translation used in my series on the Koran—the translator is not faithful to the original. The worst offender is the translator of the most popular English rendition of the Koran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali. I discussed Ali’s translation with Professor Bruce B. Lawrence of Duke University in an exchange of emails in 2013.


June 11, 2013

Dear Professor Lawrence,

Thank you for providing me with a copy of the lecture you gave at the KA Nizami Centre for Qur’anic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University on February 17. I thoroughly enjoyed “Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Translation of the Qur’an – An 80-Year Retrospective, with Special Attention to Surat ad-Duha (Q 93),” what I have to say next notwithstanding.

It was said of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien that he was equally incomprehensible in either official language. His difficult speech was partly the result of a childhood Bell's palsy attack which permanently partially paralyzed the left side of his face. After leaving politics, he spotted my wife and other interpreters for Canada’s Parliament at a restaurant and walked over to thank them for making him “sound good” all those years.

Making the folksy Chrétien sound good they did, but they never deliberately put words in his mouth or embellished what he had to say, as Yusuf appears to do in his translation of the Koran.

I do not know Arabic but from the five translations of the title of Surah 93 given in your lecture, Yusuf Ali seems to be going for dramatic effect with his addition of “Glorious,” damn what was in the original.

Yusuf Ali: The Glorious Morning Light

Pickthall: The Morning Hours

Droge: The Morning Light

Toorawa: Morning Light

Khan: The Forenoon

The Saudi-approved and promoted Khan translation seems to me the more accurate in spite of the translator's, to quote Khaleel Mohammad (assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State), “supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic.”

In Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice, whenever I needed another translation to bolster Majid Fakhry’s—who, like Khan, translates ad-Duha as “The Forenoon”—it is Yusuf Ali to whom I normally turned. I love his translation almost as much as I love Fakhry’s, but I trust Fakhry to give me as accurate a rendition of the original as only an “honest translation” (un travail honnête) by a native Arab speaker can.

Khaleel Mohammad dismisses the translation I used in Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice as being “a prosaic rendition” that does not do the Koran justice. Compare the difference between the two translations of Surah 111, Al-Masad.

Yusuf Ali:

111 Al-Masadd (sic)

Palm Fibre, The Flame

1. Perish the hands of the Father of Flame! Perish he!

2. No profit to him from all his wealth, and all his gains!

3. Burnt soon will he be in a Fire of Blazing Flame!

4. His wife shall carry the (crackling) wood - As fuel!-

5. A twisted rope of palm-leaf fibre round her (own) neck!

Majid Fakhry:

111 Al-Masad

The Fibre

In the Name of Allah,

the Compassionate, the Merciful

1. Perish the hands of Abu Lahab, and may he perish too;

2. Neither his wealth nor what he has earned will avail him anything.

3. He will roast in a flaming fire,

4. And his wife will be a carrier of fire-wood,

5. She shall have a rope of fibre around her neck.

Ask any translator/interpreter and they will tell you that getting their clients’ message across is what is important, and Fakhry does this very smartly without Yusuf Ali’s embroidered superfluous text.

For many people, I would hazard the vast majority, poetry, as opposed to prose, leaves the impression that a text will be difficult to understand.

Insisting that translations of the Koran have a rhyme and rhythm that is not in the original creates an additional deterrent to non-Muslims reading the Koran, and that is more than unfortunate.

Sincerely Yours,

Bernard Payeur


One of the best examples of Fakhry's superior command of the English language is his succinct and elegant translation of revealed truth 48:28, one of the most significant verses of the Koran:

Pickthall: He it is Who hath sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to prevail over all religion. And Allah sufficeth as a Witness.

Yusuf Ali: It is He Who has sent His Messenger with Guidance and the Religion of Truth, to proclaim it over all religion: and enough is Allah for a Witness.

Mohsin Khan: He it is Who has sent His Messenger (Muhammad SAW) with guidance and the religion of truth (Islam), that He may make it (Islam) superior over all religions. And All-Sufficient is Allah as a Witness.

Shakir: He it is Who sent His Messenger with the guidance and the true religion that He may make it prevail over all the religions; and Allah is enough for a witness.

Muhammad Sarwar: It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the true religion to make it prevail over all other religions. God is a Sufficient witness to this Truth.

Majid Fakhry: It is He Who sent forth His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may exalt it above every other religion. Allah suffices as Witness.

Professor Khaleel Mohammad's opinion of the two most widely-distributed English translations of the Koran:

The Holy Qur'an: Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali.

Among those Qur'an translations which found Saudi favor and, therefore, wide distribution, was the Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali (1872-1952) rendition that, from its first appearance in 1934 until very recently, was the most popular English version among Muslims … While his rendering of the text is not bad, there are serious problems in his copious footnotes; in many cases, he reproduces the exegetical material from medieval texts without making any effort at contextualization. Writing at a time both of growing Arab animosity toward Zionism and in a milieu that condoned anti-Semitism, Yusuf 'Ali constructed his oeuvre as a polemic against Jews.

Several Muslim scholars have built upon the Yusuf 'Ali translation. In 1989, Saudi Arabia's Ar-Rajhi banking company financed the U.S.-based Amana Corporation's project to revise the translation to reflect an interpretation more in conjunction with the line of Islamic thought followed in Saudi Arabia. Ar-Rahji offered the resulting version for free to mosques, schools, and libraries throughout the world. The footnoted commentary about Jews remained so egregious that, in April 2002, the Los Angeles school district banned its use at local schools. While the Yusuf 'Ali translation still remains in publication, it has lost influence because of its dated language and the appearance of more recent works whose publication and distribution the Saudi government has also sought to subsidize.

The Noble Qur'an in the English Language by Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan.

Now the most widely disseminated Qur'an in most Islamic bookstores and Sunni mosques throughout the English-speaking world, this new translation is meant to replace the Yusuf 'Ali edition and comes with a seal of approval from both the University of Medina and the Saudi Dar al-Ifta. Whereas most other translators have tried to render the Qur'an applicable to a modern readership, this Saudi-financed venture tries to impose the commentaries of Tabari (d. 923 C.E.), Qurtubi (d. 1273 C.E.), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1372 C.E.), medievalists who knew nothing of modern concepts of pluralism. The numerous interpolations make this translation particularly problematic, especially for American Muslims who, in the aftermath of 9-11, are struggling to show that Islam is a religion of tolerance.

From the beginning, the Hilali and Muhsin Khan translation reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture …

Although this Saudi-sponsored effort, undertaken before 9-11, is a serious liability for American Muslims in particular, it still remains present in Sunni mosques, probably because of its free distribution by the Saudi government.

(The “supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic” Saudi sponsored translation of the Koran by Dr. Muhsin Khan and Dr. Muhammad Al-Hilali is set to surpass, if it has not already, Ali’s in popularity due the Saudis making it freely available to mosques, madrassas and universities and colleges around the world.)