Assessing Professor Kidwai’s Evaluation of 21st Century English Translations of the Quran

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Abid Qayoom Mir

Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai (Aligarh Muslim University, India) has published copiously on the English translations of the Qur’an. His major works on this aspect are: “Bibliography of the Translations of the Meaning of the Glorious Quran into English” (2007), “Translating the Untranslatable: A Critical Guide to 60 English Translations of the Quran “(2011), and “God’s Word” , “Man’s Interpretations: A Critical Study of the 21st Century English Translations of the Quran” (hereafter “God’s Word” ). This essay presents an assessment of this latest work.
“God’s Word” attempts to provide a comprehensive and clear-cut “critique” of 32 newly published English translations of the Qur’an, from 2000 to 2017 (p. xii). It provides an assessment of these 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 consists of 32 chapters, each covering a critical assessment of a single translation, and is preceded by a Preface (xi-xvii), and ends with an ‘Appendix’ (pp. 142-54) and ‘Bibliography’ on Qura’nic Studies (pp. 155-178).
In the preface, the author claims that more than 40 English translations of the Qur’an have been published since 2000 (p. xi); and it is among these that he has “evaluated” only 32 translations in “God’s Word”. As the author puts it, all these translations are analyzed “in terms of their approach , strengths and weaknesses” (p. xii). Of these 32 translations, most are are done by Muslims (both Sunni and Shia), and a very few by Orientalists and Qadiyani translators.
The author is well-aware of the fact that in “terms of quality”, all these translations “vary much”, from each other, in different aspects; here, the author has tried to “provide readers with a clear idea of their pitfalls and brilliant and redeeming features” (p. xiii). In this book, Kidwai evaluates every English translation of the Quran on the basis translator’s religious belief, ideological bent and organizational affiliation, and so on. To prove all this, below is provided an assessment of the evaluation and ‘critique’ of Kidwai on some selected translations, from each category, with the two-fold aim of attesting his claims and to highlight his contribution.
For instance, while evaluating “The Quran with a phrase-by-Phrase English Translation’”(2004), authored by Ali Quli Qarai (an Iranian Shia scholar), Kidwai is of the opinion that this translation, “is not disfigured by blatant sectarianism”, but is, in comparison to previous Shia translators, “balanced and moderate on sectarian issues” (p. 14), and thus calls it “a welcome addition to the field” (p.15). While evaluating “The Sublime Quran” (2007) by Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American female Muslim writer, Kidwai finds her translation “an intriguing one on several counts” (see, pp. 31-33)and thus, “does not contribute in any degree in advancing the understanding the meaning and message of the Quran” (p. 34).
In evaluating Mawlana Wahiduddin Khan’s “The Quran: Translation and Commentary” (2011), Kidwai claims that it “facilitates in its own way a better understanding of meaning and message of the Quran”; but as it “represents a tafsir with a difference”, therefore it can be categorized as an “unconventional tafsir”, (pp. 58-59). “Khan’s tafsir”, for Kidwai, in sum, “notwithstanding some serious shortcoming, represents a substantial addition to the tafsir corpus in English” (p. 63). Similarly, he considers Tahir ul Qadri’s “The Glorious Qur’an” (2011) as an off-shoot and extension of and representative of “Barelvis’ understanding of the Quran” (p.74), with an inclination toward prescribing the readers “the veneration of the Prophet (PBUH)” by using the phrases like “O Esteemed Messenger”, “O Glorious Beloved” in place of “O Messenger” and “O Prophet” (see, pp. 76, 77).
In evaluating the translations by Orientalists like Thomas Cleary’s “The Quran: A New Translation “(2004) and Alan Jones’ “The Quran Translated into Englis”h (2007), Kidwai is of the opinion that in comparison to other Orientalists, Cleary’s translation “deserves every credit for this excellent work” for it is, shortcomings apart, “undoubtedly a work to be treasured for his empathy” (pp.5, 9). In contrast to Cleary, Jones’ translation “marks the return of the Orientalist breed with a vengeance”, like that of Alexander Ross, Richard Bell, J.M. Rodwell, and like-minded, for it brings to the limelight again, the centuries-old “misconceptions and half-truths about Islam and the Quran”, and has used the word “polemic/al” hundreds of times (pp. 26-27).
Kidwai “detects” 7 (out of 32) translations, which are just a replica of previous translations (like A.Y. Ali, M. M. Pickthall, and A.J. Arberry). Among these he lists the translations of the Translation Committee (2000), Syed Vickar Ahamed (2005), Leila Bakhtiar (2007), M. Sharif Chaudhary (2010) Peachy & Johani (20212), Shakir, Jibouri, & Yasin (2014), and A. L. Bilal Muhammad (2017): except Baktiar’s (which borrows from Arberry) all these borrow from Yusuf Ali and Pickthall (pp. xiii-xiv).
Moreover, it is noteworthy that while evaluating the translations of M.A.S Abdel “Haleem, The Quran: A New Translation” (2004), Ahmad Zaki Hammad, “The Gracious Quran” (2007), Tarif Khalidi, “The Quran: A New Translation “ (2008), Sahih International, “The Quran: English Meanings and Notes “(2012), Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias, “Quran Made Easy” (2015), and Mustafa Khattab, “The Clear Quran” (2016), Kidwai 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).
Another remarkable observation made by Kidwai is that the translations produced through “collaborative teamwork”—like the works done by the Translation Committee, “The Majestic Quran” (2000), Adalhaqq and Aisha Bewley, “The Noble Quran: A New Rendering of its Meaning in English” (2011), and “Sahih International” (2012)—underscore not only the “sensitivity about the needs of the reader” but is an indication of “a healthy, positive development” as well (p. xvi).
One expects that all the 40 translations should have been included (and evaluated) in this book, but due to reasons, better known to the author, Kidwai has left those 8 translations, including the influential-collaborative work by S. H. Nasr et. al., “The Study Qur’an” (2015). Keeping aside such kind of slips, this 196-page work is a remarkable one, for it presents, very lucidly, the merits, demerits, and features of each translation. In sum, Kidwai’s “God’s Word” meets all the expectations and indeed has succeeded in presenting a balanced and fair ‘critique’ of 32 translations published from 2000.

* Abid Qayoom Mir holds Masters in Islamic Studies from Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) Awantipora, J&K (India); Email: abidmir412@gmail.com