On the Use of Translations of the Qur’an

Shaikh Mustafa Abdulhussein

What’s the harm in reading a translation? Surely some understanding is better than none at all. Why be suspicious of translations by well-meaning scholars? What is the best translation? Why not have one approved by Aqa Mawla (TUS)?

These are some of the questions raised recently on the Qur’an.

We must first begin with some understanding of what the Qur’an is. To us, as to all Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of Allah, revealed to Rasulullah (SAW) in the language of revelation and transcribed into the manifest Arabic language by a divine process. In effect, each word of the Qur’an is Allah’s pristine, unaltered revelation. No other holy book in any traditional religion has this status.

The Qur’an is the final revelation of Allah that completes and supersedes all revelations made to mankind before it. It has, for mankind, a Guidance (al-Huda) that separates right from wrong (al-Furqan). It has within it all knowledge of everything pertaining to creation. The Qur’an itself says that there is nothing in the universe that is not in the Qur’an.

One can imagine the immense difficulty of putting everything from the beginning of time to its end into a few pages. This colossal amount of information in the Qur’an is there in moral building stories, in historical accounts, in religious teachings, in social laws etc, where a common ground can be found with other books, divinely inspired or otherwise. However, the bulk of the information of the Qur’an is in its multitude of allegorical and esoteric interpretations. Another level of information is in its numerical usage of words and letters, another in the numerical values attached to each letter, another in its order, another in the letters opening certain chapters, another in its captivating sounds, another in the way each verse was revealed – the list is almost unending.

Yet another level of information exists in the strokes of pen required in writing each word in Arabic. It was not by accident that Arabic was chosen for this Final Revelation. The language itself was nurtured in preparation for this task. The word Allah written in Arabic, for example, contains volumes of information that is completely lost if written in any other script. We know how Amirul Mu’mineen (SA) spent an entire night talking of the meaning of the dot (nuqta) under the letter “be” of bismillah, without exhausting the subject.

Now how can anyone think that such knowledge can be preserved in translations? In fact, can it even be understood if one knows Arabic fluently? Let me say that being fluent in Arabic will help very little when it comes to understanding the real revelations or the miraculous nature of the Qur’an. Sure, knowing Arabic will help appreciate its poetry, its eloquence and some of its literal meaning, which is quite an achievement in itself. After all, Qur’anic composition remains unchallenged in its beauty and majesty. However, the real import of the revelation transcribed in the Qur’an can hardly be obtained simply by reading its literal meaning. If this were not true, then all speakers of the Arabic language would be transformed into saints immediately on reading the Qur’an as they would be privy to the revelation contained therein. We know this is not so simply by looking at the Arab world.

So the real knowledge of the Qur’an can only be taught to us by one who has been allowed by Allah to do so. That person is Allah’s Wali in each age, the Imam (SA). Rasulullah (SAW) tied the Qur’an and it’s interpretors in his famous words: “I leave behind two things, the Book of Allah (Qur’an) and my progeny. Whosover adheres to them both will never go astray.” Amirul Mu’mineen (SA) called himself Qur’an-e- Natiq (voiced), and the book itself Qur’an-e-Samit (silent) to demonstrate this point.

Aqa Mawla (TUS) has said (I have heard this myself, in London) words to this effect: “Mu’mineen! Recite the Qur’an daily. You may not understand much of what you recite, but you should recite it daily nevertheless. An alim would understand the Qur’an more, and one of higher ilm even more and so on until finally, the Imam (SA) – his very being is the Qur’an.”

So what is the point of reciting something that is not understood. Well, you would be repeating the Words of Allah as revealed, with all its divinity still intact. The human mouth would pronounce the revealed words, the eyes would see the script of revelation and the ears would hear the sound of revelation. Thus it is said that angels perceive the reciter of the Qur’an as a shining star. And why not – the reciter, by his reciting, makes alive the miraculous words of revelation and attains the blessings of so doing. As to the meaning of the Qur’an – given that the real meaning can only be obtained from the Imam (SA) and in his seclusion from the representative of the Imam (SA), that is the Dai al-Mutlaq, the only recourse is to listen to Aqa Mawla (TUS), and do what he says and does. Aqa Mawla’s bayans, the books written by our Huddat Kiram, whether in the time of zuhur or satr all go some way towards explaining the meaning of the Qur’an. This is the only real way of attempting to understand the Qur’an. Neither learning Arabic, nor reading translations can be a substitute for that.

If we read translations, not only do we read something that is bereft of the real revelation, but there is no blessing attached to the act either. There is no “approved” translation because, by definition, there can not be one. Of course translators, and for that matter, interpreters (in whichever language) may be genuine and honest scholars – but that is not the point. The point is whether one thinks that simply by being sincere, one will be able to fathom the revelation locked in this miraculous book. For a mu’min, the answer has to be no. Secondly, we know that in history, there have been many so called “sincere” scholars whose purpose has been to oppose Ahle Bayt (SA), the very people who we believe are the only true interpreters of the Qur’an. Would a mu’min consider any such work, however sincere, as worthy of reading?

In 1976, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb (TUS), addressed a conference of Muslims in London, in which he quoted Amirul Mu’mineen’s (SA) lofty words on the Qur’an as follows:

  • “a light whose lamp cannot be extinguished”
  • “an ocean whose depths cannot be fathomed”
  • “a path that never leads astray”
  • “a criterion whose validity is irrefutable”
  • “an illustration whose arguments cannot be challenged”
  • “a cure after which there is no fear of illness”
  • “an honour whose defenders cannot be vanquished”
  • “a truth whose upholders cannot never be forsaken”

May Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s guidance grant us the ability to ever be reciters of the Qur’an, defenders of its honour and upholders of its truth.

Response to a discussion about the merits of reading translations of the Qur’an that took place on Bohranet in 1996.