Reading Professor Kidwai’s Critical Evaluations of English Translations of the Qur’an

  • 3

Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

Among other fields and disciplines, Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai (Professor of English, AMU), has contributed significantly to the field of Qura’nic Studies, especially in the sub-area of English Translations of the Qur’an. In this field, some of his books are: The Qur’an: Essential Teachings (2005); Daily Wisdom: Selections from the Holy Qur’an (2011); What is in the Quran? Message of the Quran in Simple English (2013); and 365 Selections from the Holy Qur’an (2014). Besides these, his three (3) significant works on the critical assessment of English translations of the Qur’an are: Bibliography of the Translations of the Meaning of the Glorious Quran into English 1649-2002 (2007; henceforth referred as ‘Bibliography’); Translating the Untranslatable: A Critical Guide to 60 English Translations of the Quran (2011; henceforth ‘Untranslatable’); and God’s Word, Man’s Interpretation: A Critical Study of the 21st Century English Translations Of The Quran (2018; henceforth ‘God’s Word’). This write-up, in this backdrop, is a humble attempt to provide an assessment and overview of these three works of Professor Kidwai—which are related to the critical evaluation of the English translations of the Qur’an—viz. ‘Bibliography’, ‘Untranslatable’, and ‘God’s Word’.
In the Bibliography (2007), Kidwai presents a comprehensive and critical assessment of various English translations of noble Qur’an, in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Preceded by an Introduction, in which he has explores into the history of the English translations of the Qur’an, Kidwai has reviewed, analyzed and scrutinized, 47 complete, translations in his work (starting with The Alcoran of Mahomet, by Alexander Ross, of 1649), by using these criteria: (a) biography and background of the translator; (b) publication history, number of editions and their reception; (c) the features of the translation, highlighting both positives and negatives, strengths and weaknesses of each translation; (d) Mindset of the translator, as reflected in the translation: identifying the predilections and dogmatic presuppositions of each translator; and (e) Reviews: in this part, Kidwai lists the book reviews and other critiques on each translation, including their publication details.
These criteria help a reader not only to learn about translators, especially non-Muslims, but about their motives and objectives, their underlying assumptions, and about other aspects like the main contours of the Westerns scholarship on Islam in general and Qur’an in particular. Kidwai also brings into limelight the various translations done by Qadiyanis (and their missionary activity) and the intellectual trends displayed by Shi’ah translators. This work of Kidwai is arranged in alphabetical order, and not chronological. The reviewers have called it “a major academic task”, a “valuable study”, and an “excellent bibliography” which is “more than just a plain bibliography” and is thus rightly termed as ‘a critical study’.
Untranslatable (2011) is a critical study of sixty (60) complete English translations of the Quran, carried out from 1649 to 2009. It seeks “to guide readers in selecting a suitable translation for their study out of the many available” (p. xvii). It is a modified, enlarged, and updated version of his ‘Bibliography’, and includes sixty (60) English translations. The major objective is to present an analytical review of each translation, and thus attempts “to identify the ideological and sectarian affiliation, mindset, features, and strengths and weaknesses of every translator” (p. xvii). The work is divided into six (6) parts; in part I, English translations by “[Sunni] Muslims”, starting from Abul Fadl, Hairat Dehalwi to Tarif Khalidi and Wahiuddin Khan have been reviewed. These translations are thirty-five (35) in number, with the first one published in 1911 and the latest one in 2009. Among the prominent translations included in this section are: Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Daryabadi, Al-Hilai and Muhsin Khan, Asad, Haleem, Zaki Hammad, and Tarif Khalidi (pp. 3-161). In part II, four (4) translations by “Shia Muslims” have been reviewed and analyzed, which have been published in 1964, 1968, 1997, and 2004, by S. V. Mir Ahmad, M. H. Shakir, M. Baqir Behbudi, and Ali Quli Khan (pp. pp. 165-181). In part III, two (2) translations by “Barelwi Muslims”, done by Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi and Abdul Majeed Auolakh, published in 1988 and 1990, are reviewed (pp. 185-191). In the next part, seven (7) translations by “Qadiyanis” are critically assessed. These translations, published from 1905 to 2005, are by translators like M. Abdul Hakim Khan, Muhammad Ali, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, Sher Ali, Malik Ghulam Farid, M. Zafrulla Khan, and by Omars—Amatul Rahman and Abdul Mannan Omar (pp. 195-233). In part V, English translations by “Orientalists”, published from 1649 to 1956 and one in 2007, are reviewed. These include: Alexander Ross (1649), George Sale (1734), J. M. Rodwell (1861), E. H. Palmer (1880), Richard Bell (1937-39), A. J. Arberry (1955), N. J. Dawood (1956), and Alan Jones (2007) [pp. 237-281]. He adds one more category of translations under the category “Others”, wherein he reviews the translations of Rashad Khalifa (1978), M. A. K. Pathan (1993), Majid Fakhry (1996), and Edip Yuskel, et. al. (2007) [pp. 285-300].
From the assessment of each translation, what becomes evident is that Kidwai reviews and evaluates these English translations of the Qur’an, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, on the grounds of language, style, faithfulness to the original Arabic text, and on the basis of a translator’s background/ expertise in the field. This too has got positive reviews both in South Asia and in the Western academia; and a reviewer has praised this work as: “The author has done a good job in discussing critically each work of translation …. [It] is as useful and valuable as the author’s previous work [‘Bibliography’]”; and another reviewer has called it a “well-rehearsed triumphant encore …which is packed with genuine scholarship”.
God’s Word (2018) is a new addition, and an extension and supplement of Kidwai’s previous works. It attempts to provide, as the sub-title clearly reveals, a “critique” on the newly published English translations of the Qur’an, from 2000 to 2017 (p. xii). It provides an assessment of 32 translations; highlights their merits and demerits and literary features; points out the translator’s ideological presuppositions and intrusions; and brings to the limelight trends and changes that have occurred in this field, over the decades. The book is preceded by a Preface (xi-xvii), and ends with an ‘Appendix’ (pp. 142-54) and finally by a rich ‘Bibliography’ on Qura’nic Studies (pp. 155-178).
In the Preface, the author points out that he has “evaluated” and analyzed these translations “in terms of its approach and its strengths and weaknesses” (p. xii). Of these 32 translations, mostly are done by Muslims (both Sunni and Shia), and very few by Orientalists and Qadiyani translators. Thus, in comparison to the past—when English translations were done mostly by the Orientalists—“the field is now dominated by [the] Muslim scholars” (p. xiii). But the author is well-aware of the fact that in “terms of quality”, all these translations “vary [and differ] much”, and here the author has tried to “provide readers with a clear idea of their pitfalls and brilliant and redeeming features” (p. xiii). That it, in this book, Kidwai evaluates every English translation of the Quran on the basis translator’s religious belief, ideological presupposition and organizational affiliation, etc.
Among these translations, Kidwai praises the translations of M.A.S AbdelHaleem (2004), Ahmad Zaki Hammad (2007), Tarif Khalidi (2008), Sahih International (2012), Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias (2015), and Mustafa Khattab (2016) in high terms. He is of the opinion that they have, collectively and in comparison to others, “succeed[ed] remarkably in conveying the import of the Quran” by presenting “the true meaning and message of the Quran in chaste, easy to understand English”, which is lucid and idiomatic (p. xvi). However, among these, for Kidwai, it is “Hammad’s and Khattab’s works” which “stand out” (p. xvi), and, along with Khalidi’s work, are “remarkable translations” for their lucidity, chastity, idiomatic English, reader-friendly, and other features (p. 128).
It is on the basis of this evaluation (of earliest and these new translations) that Kidwai is of the argument that “notwithstanding the intense activity in the field, there is still need for a reader friendly translation in idiomatic English which may cater to the varying needs of an ever increasing English readership” (p. xvi).
Shortcomings aside, this 196-page work is a remarkable one, for it presents, very succinctly and lucidly, the (de) merits and features of each translation. In Sum, Kidwai’s God’s Word Man’s Interpretations not only validates and substantiates its title but meets all the expectations and indeed has succeeded in presenting a balanced and fair ‘critique’ of 32 translations of the Qur’an published from 2000 till 2017—it thus serves, fairly and genuinely, as an extension of ‘Bibliography’ and ‘Untranslatable’.
Thus, through these works, Kidwai has presented an accurate and comprehensive evaluation, with due focus on weaknesses and strengths, of the English translations of the Qur’an. This critical, but fair, evaluation, gives the readers a chance and guides in selecting a suitable and more accurate translation. Also, by these works it becomes clear that it is largely neglected field of study which is otherwise very fascinating and scope-oriented as well.
To honor and give due credit to the contribution of Professor Kidwai, Farooq Argali (Farid Book Depot Ltd., Delhi) compiled a book on him, entitled as ‘Mujahid-e-Ilm-o-Amal: Prof. Abdur Raheem Kidwai’ (2017). Another scholarly 450-pages ‘Commemorative Volume’ was published through Viva Books, New Delhi, ‘Bridging the Divide: Essays on Language and Literature, and Islamic Studies’ (2017), and this writer had the privilege to contribute a chapter on “Professor A. R. Kidwai’s Contribution to the Qura’nic Studies: An Assessment” to this volume. Thus, keeping in view his overall contribution (especially in the field of the Qura’nic Studies), it is not an exaggeration to call Professor Kidwai as ‘Professor of English by profession and career’ and ‘an expert of Qura’nic Studies by vocation, capability, and competency’.

—The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC, Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at: