Anyone who doesn’t know Arabic faces many obstacles reading the Qur’an. The last thing they need is an archaic translation. Though cheap and popular, Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation is very archaic, making it hard for modern readers to grasp. Yusuf Ali’s The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an suffers from archaic speech also, though its Sunni commentary (in the footnotes) can be helpful. A.J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted: A Translation remains a scholarly standard in many respects, but archaic English weakens it too.
Modernization of the Qur’an’s contents is the other major problem in translations, with some recent ones being the worst offenders. When such modernization—or even Christianization—contaminates it, a translation reflects our thinking, not that of the Qur’an. Unfortunately, this problem is as hard for non-Arabic speakers to detect as the first problem is easy.
For example, Q 4:34 tells Muslim men to beat their wives if they suspect them of being unruly. Many translators modernize the word iḍribuhunna (strike or hit them) here. Yusuf Ali’s translation adds the word “lightly” in parenthesis. The problem is that the Arabic text has no such qualifier and most English readers won’t know that. Laleh Bakhtiar’s The Sublime Qur’an goes even further, excising the entire idea of corporal punishment and, so, failing miserably to interpret the Qur’an in context. Though M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s The Qur’an: A New Translation evidences fine scholarship in many respects, it too is sometimes weakened by a modernizing tendency. In Q 4:34, however, it rightly confines that tendency to a footnote allowing husbands to give their wives a single slap. It’s understandable that translators want to make this seventh-century command fit current values and, so, make it more pleasing to modern sensibilities. But such modernization flies in the face of the hadith, which demonstrate that the first Muslim generations had no precise understanding of the sort of beating advocated.
For centuries Muslims couldn’t translate the Qur’an. Nowadays new Muslim translations seem to pop up every other day, but most of them exhibit serious modernization. Some non-Muslim translations fail here too.
My first choice of translation is Alan Jones’s The Qur’an (pictured above top). Jones gives us a readable translation that avoids modernizing quite consistently. The serious scholar will also want to consult A.J. Droge’s The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation, a thoroughly researched version, with detailed notes reflecting current Qur’an scholarship. A translation to watch for is Gordon Nickel’s Qur’an with Christian Commentary, to be published by Zondervan later this year.
Even with a solid translation, the Qur’an is hard to understand. Most non-Muslims find its non-chronological order and lack of contextual markers utterly bewildering. So, I strongly encourage you to read the Qur’an in chronological order, along with a guide to its story. Also, consulting a book that compares and contrasts the Qur’an with the Bible is vital, since the Qur’an claims to be the Bible’s sequel. And one challenge we all face is determining how the Muslim scripture agrees with and differs from the Bible.