Some Quran translations are much higher quality than others. I give some specific recommendations.
Published 10 September 2010, updated 16 April 2016
As a Muslim, understanding the Quran is vitally important to me, since I believe that it is the direct word of God and I need to know what He requires of me.
Since the Quran has a strong influence over the lives of around 1.5 billion Muslims, everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, should have some knowledge about what it says, just as all educated people should know what is in the Bible.
The language of the Quran is Arabic, specifically Arabic as spoken at the time of its revelation during the period 610 AD — 632 AD.
The existence of the Quran has served to stabilise the Arabic language, so that present day speakers of Arabic can understand the Quran tolerably well, even though Arabic has changed a bit during the intervening 1,400 years. Compare this with a text in Anglo-Saxon from 622 AD which would be incomprehensible to a modern English speaker.
I decided long ago that mastering classical Arabic to the level where I could rely upon my own reading and understanding of the Arabic text was not realistic.
Some learn Arabic as a second language; that is excellent if you master the language. However, the challenge should not be underestimated. I spent seven years learning French at secondary school, and while I can get a general understanding of a newspaper article, I would not dream of trying to understand Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy relying upon my French ability.
Accordingly I consider that unless a non-native Arabic speaker has genuinely mastered classical Arabic (not modern Arabic), the best approach is to read and understand the Quran in translation.
This question is no different to assessing other written works. There are some obvious questions:
If you really care, look at multiple translations and compare them. I now own over a dozen English language Quran translations, although most of the time I only refer to a few.
Below I recommend some specific translations.
Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem, OBE is Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and editor of the Journal of Quranic Studies. He is a native Arabic speaker, being born in Egypt and he learned the Quran by heart during childhood. I have had the privilege of meeting Professor Haleem in London many times.
This translation was published in 2004. For both Muslims and non-Muslims, I recommend this as the first translation that you should read for the following reasons:
My wife and I have given copies to many members of our extended family.
This new translation was published very recently, in 2015. It is a joint effort by:
In the General Introduction, Nasr explains how the book came about:
"The history of the composition of The Study Quran began some 9 years ago when the publisher HarperSanFrancisco (now HarperOne) approached me and asked me to become the chief editor for a volume that would be called The Study Quran and complement The HarperCollins Study Bible, which this firm had already published. I was humbled by the enormity of the task and first balked at accepting such a monumental undertaking. But after much soul-searching and prayer, I came to the conclusion that this was a responsibility that God was putting on my shoulders, one I could not refuse, especially when I discovered that the project might not be realised if I did not agree.
I therefore accepted with humility on the condition that this would be a Muslim effort and that, although the book would be contemporary in language and based on the highest level of scholarship, it would not be determined or guided by assertions presented in studies by non-Muslim Western scholars and orientalists who have studied the Quran profusely as a historical, linguistic, or sociological document, or even a text of religious significance, but do not accept it as the Word of God and an authentic revelation. Rather, it would be grounded in the classic Islamic tradition in order to provide readers access to the many ways in which the Quran has been understood and explained by Muslims for over fourteen centuries. I also set the condition that I would have complete freedom in choosing the editors and other collaborators. All my conditions were accepted, and so the project began.
For the reasons mentioned above, I chose only Muslim scholars to collaborate with me in this task. At the same time, I did not want the work to be confined or limited confessionally, ethnically, or geographically. It was to be universal and at the same time traditional, that is, expressing traditional Islamic views and therefore excluding modernistic or fundamentalist interpretations that have appeared in parts of the Islamic world during the past two centuries. I set out to produce a text that reflects how Muslims have understood the Quran during their long history and how those Muslims who remain traditional, which means most of them, do so today.
To this end I chose three editors, all American, all with doctorates in Islamic studies from leading American universities, and all with direct experience of the Islamic world, familiarity with the traditional Islamic sciences, and mastery of classical Arabic. To preserve diversity, I chose two men and one woman, two of whom, Joseph Lumbard and Maria Dakake, are American Muslims of Christian background, and one of whom, Caner Dagli, was born, in America, into a Muslim family of Circassian origin. Later in the project, after the translation had been made and the essays edited, I added an assistant editor, Mohammed Rustom, who was born as a Muslim into a Canadian family of South Asian origin and who has a doctorate in Islamic studies from a major Canadian University."
As well as translating the text of the Quran, it is very extensively annotated with references to the work of classical commentators and it has a number of supplemental essays at the end. My page "Teaching Muslims religious intolerance" quotes extensively from its translation and commentary on Quran 2:62.
I have bought two hard copies, so that I have it with me in my Manchester house and London flat, and have also bought it on the Amazon Kindle. I recommend it very highly.
Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) was Jewish, born as Leopold Weiss in Lwow, Galicia, now in Poland, and then part of the Austrian empire. He converted to Islam in 1926 and became Muhammad Asad. He had a remarkable life, including becoming Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, and it is summarised in Muhammad Asad's biography published in 1995 in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
The autobiography of his early years, "The Road to Mecca" is very inspiring and reviewed on my website.
When I was in Granada, Spain in May 2010, I learned that Muhammad Asad is buried there, but sadly the cemetery was closed on the only occasion when I was able to try visiting his grave.
The translation took Asad 17 years. I recommend it, both for the clarity of the translated text and for the footnotes. The text of "The Message of the Qur'an" is available free to read on the internet. You can also download a free PDF of "The Message of the Qur'an" which gives you both the translation and the footnotes. My review of "The Cambridge Companion to the Quran" edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe has a quote from her explaining why Asad produced his translation.
A sign of how highly I regard this translation is that I own three hard copies, as well as keeping it close by on my computer.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali CBE, FRSL (1872 – 1953) was born in Gujarat, British India, and memorised the Quran as a child. His translation was done from 1934 to 1938, and I believe was the second major translation into English by a Muslim, the first being that by Marmaduke Pickthall. (The Pickthall translation is available free on the internet.)
It is readily available from the Islamic Propagation Centre International in Birmingham, although it is sometimes cheaper to buy it from Amazon.co.uk. Each page has the Arabic text, with English translation beside it. The translation is very extensively footnoted. Indeed, almost half of each page is devoted to footnotes.
The English text of the translation is available free on the internet, but without the footnotes.
Until I learned of the Muhammad Asad translation, the Yusuf Ali translation was my first source of reference when I wanted to understand the Quran. When my wife was the headteacher of a Muslim primary school, she used to give a copy at her own expense to each pupil who was graduating from the school.
There are many other translations of the Quran. I recommend readers to read the entire text of the Quran using one of the translations mentioned above, to gain an overall understanding of the text, before going on to look at other translations.
Using multiple translations becomes very helpful when you want to look at the Quran in greater detail, since the way that different people have translated the same Arabic text can help you to understand it better. That is essential for those, like me, who are not Arabic speakers. However even for speakers of modern Arabic, looking at the work of other translators should be helpful, since the classical Arabic of the Quran is not linguistically identical to the Arabic spoken today in the cities of the Arab world.
When looking at different translations, one needs to be aware of two risks:
For someone who cannot read classical Arabic the way to protect oneself against the above risks is to think about the translator's background, as with the questions listed earlier, and also to use multiple translations rather than relying upon one.
Talal Itani published a new translation of the Quran in the period 2009-2012 which can be read on the internet and downloaded free. I only became aware of it when he informed me by email in June 2013. I have since downloaded the text to my iPad.
The translation as I downloaded it contains the following biographical information:
About the Translator:
Talal Itani is an Electronics Engineer. He first read the Quran 1992, in order to discredit it. Since then, Talal has been studying the Quran, researching it, and teaching it to others. Talal decided to translate the Quran when he gave up all hope of finding an English Translation that is at the same time highly accurate, and very easy to read.
The above description indicates that the translator is not an Arabic scholar by background. It also suggests that he is a convert to Islam as was Muhammad Asad mentioned above. However as explained in his Facebook comment much lower down on this page, Talal Itani was born and raised as a Muslim, and he is amending his biography to remove this incorrect implication.
The English is very clear and easy to follow.
I cannot see any footnotes. While I commend Haleem's translation above for having few footnotes, I have some concern about their total absence. Haleem clearly felt them to be unavoidable for certain parts of the text.
To assess the translation, I decided to compare one specific text which I had discussed recently in a presentation. That is the story of the Sabbath breaking fishermen. Talal Itani translates it as follows:
Ask them about the town by the sea, when they violated the Sabbath. When they observed the Sabbath, their fish would come to them abundantly. But when they violated the Sabbath, their fish would not come to them. Thus We tried them because they disobeyed.
And when a group of them said, "Why do you counsel a people whom God will annihilate, or punish with a severe punishment?" They said, "As an excuse to your Lord, and so that they may become righteous." Then, when they neglected what they were reminded of, We saved those who prohibited evil, and We seized those who did wrong with a terrible punishment, because of their sinfulness.
Then, when they rebelled against the commands to refrain, We said to them, "Be despicable apes."
Quran 163-166 Talal Itani translation
This translation seemed odd to me, compared with the text as I recalled it. The Muhammad Asad translation is below:
And ask them about that town which stood by the sea: how its people would profane the Sabbath whenever their fish came to them, breaking the water's surface, on a day on which they ought to have kept Sabbath - because they would not come to them on other than Sabbath-days! Thus did We try them by means of their [own] iniquitous doings.
And whenever some people among them asked [those who tried to restrain the Sabbath-breakers], "Why do you preach to people whom God is about to destroy or [at least] to chastise with suffering severe?" - the pious ones would answer, "In order to be free from blame before your Sustainer, and that these [transgressors, too,] might become conscious of Him.“ And thereupon, when those [sinners] had forgotten all that they had been told to take to heart, We saved those who had tried to prevent the doing of evil, and overwhelmed those who had been bent on evildoing with dreadful suffering for all their iniquity;
and then, when they disdainfully persisted in doing what they had been forbidden to do, We said unto them: “Be as apes despicable!”
Quran 163-166 Muhammad Asad translation
I have also looked at the Yusuf Ali translation of the same text:
Ask them concerning the town standing close by the sea. Behold! they transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath. For on the day of their Sabbath their fish did come to them, openly holding up their heads, but on the day they had no Sabbath, they came not: thus did We make a trial of them, for they were given to transgression.
When some of them said: "Why do ye preach to a people whom Allah will destroy or visit with a terrible punishment?"- said the preachers:" To discharge our duty to your Lord, and perchance they may fear Him." When they disregarded the warnings that had been given them, We rescued those who forbade Evil; but We visited the wrong-doers with a grievous punishment because they were given to transgression.
When in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions, We said to them: "Be ye apes, despised and rejected."
Quran 163-166 Yusuf Ali translation
The behaviour of the fish is fundamentally different in the translations by Muhammad Asad and Yusuf Ali, which suggests that Talal Itani has translated this incorrectly.
I cannot be definitive, as I cannot read the Arabic for myself. However either Talal Itani is translating incorrectly or Muhammad Asad and Yusuf Ali both translated incorrectly. It is impossible for both variants to be correct.
This should not be taken as a criticism of Itani's translation overall, as all translators are human and capable of error. I particularly commend the clarity of Talal Itani's English, and his generosity in making the full translation available free on the internet.
In passing I am conscious that Muslim anti-Semites often refer to Jews as being descended from apes and pigs, and I condemn such abuse.
In my presentation, I gave Muhammad Asad's explanation of the text translated above. That explanation is reproduced below:
According to Zamakhshari and Razi, the expression "We said unto them" is here synonymous with "We decreed with' regard to them" - God's "saying" being in this case a metonym for a manifestation of His will. As for the substance of God's decree, "Be as apes despicable", the famous tabi'i Mujahid explain it thus: "[Only] their hearts were transformed, that is, they were not [really] transformed into apes: this is but a metaphor (mathal) coined by God with regard to them, similar to the metaphor of 'the ass carrying books' [62:5]" (Tabari, in his commentary on 2:65; also Manar I, 343; VI, 448; and IX, 379). A similar explanation is given by Raghib. It should be borne in mind that the expression "like an ape" is often used in classical Arabic to describe a person who is unable to restrain his gross appetites or passions.
Muhammad Asad footnote 133 discussing Quran 7.166