Majid Fakhry vs. Yusuf Ali

Bruce B. Lawrence

Duke University

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 languages. 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”, and 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, “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 honêtre) by a native Arab speaker can.

Khaleel Mohammad dismisses the translation I used in Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice as being “a prosaic rendition” which does not do the Koran justice.

Compare the difference in the two translations of surah 111 Al-Masad which, I will admit, is on the extreme of what Allah has to say; just as surah 93 is not indicative of the preponderate message of the Koran.

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 oppose 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

June 11, 2013

One of the best example 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.

Bernard Payeur