Any translation of a book into another language needs great care, as it risks distorting its message. Sadly some Quran translations appear intended to spread exclusivist religious views amongst Muslim readers.
27 February 2016
The last sixty years have seen growing religiosity amongst Muslims living in Muslim majority countries, and also amongst Muslims living in Britain.
Some examples to illustrate this trend are:
There are many factors which cause religiosity to increase or decrease, and Britain and the USA have in the past seen periods when the influence of Christianity declined and other periods of Christian revivalism. Accordingly the recent increase in religiosity amongst Muslims should be seen as a historical trend that is quite capable of reversing.
As the spread of religiously motivated violence shows, one disturbing factor associated with the recent increased religiosity amongst Muslims is the spread of intolerance against adherents of other religions.
Nobody is born believing in religious intolerance. They have to be taught it. I recently came across a concrete example of how intolerant religious views are propagated through the distribution of what I regard as a distorted translation of the Quran.
On 16 October 2015, I took part in a panel discussion “Is Islam the Cause or Solution to Extremism?”
At the end of the session, all six speakers were given a “goody bag.” This contained some literature from the event organisers iERA, a box of chocolates and a Quran translation. Something made me want to check how Quran 2.62 had been translated, and when I turned to it, I was shocked by what I read, because it was very different from my recollection of the verse.
The translation we had been given is “The Quran: English Meanings and Notes by Saheeh International” which is distributed by Dar Qiraat for Publishing and Distribution, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The title page and the introduction does not name the translator, but right at the back she is named on a page which gives more details about Saheeh International and references its website www.saheehinternational.com which informs us:
Kindle edition above.
“Author & Translator: Umm Muhammad, Aminah Assami was born in southern California in 1940 and embraced Islam in 1974 in Syria after completing intensive Arabic language courses. In 1981 she moved to Saudi Arabia, and has taught classes in tafseer and basic fiqh at the Islamic Cultural Center in Jeddah since 1991. She has authored and/or revised more than 80 Islamic books in English, mostly for Dar Abul-Qasim. Her precise translation skills and effective writing style has gained her an impressive reputation appreciated by a dedicated reading audience.”
The verse concerned, Quran 2:62 has been translated:
“Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muhammad] – those [among them] who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. (29)”
Footnote 29 reads:
“After the coming of Prophet Muhammad no religion other than Islam is acceptable to Allah, as stated in 3:85.”
The translation given for verse 3:85 is:
“And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.”
When I read this translation immediately after receiving the “goody bag” I was struck by the use of the past tense in Quran 2:62 which differed from all of the translations that I was familiar with.
The obvious goal of putting the verse into the past tense and adding the cross reference to Quran 3:85 is to promote a Muslim version of the Christian doctrine “No salvation outside the Church”. Namely, for all who live after the coming of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) Heaven is exclusively reserved for Muslims.
I collect Quran translations and have over a dozen. Accordingly, I have set out below how some other translators have rendered these verses.
I recommend this translation on my page “A guide to Quran translations.”
“VERILY, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians(49) - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (50)”
Footnote 49 is about who the “Sabians” might be. Footnote (50) reads:
“The above passage - which recurs in the Qur'an several times - lays down a fundamental doctrine of Islam. With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of "salvation" is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life. The statement of this doctrine at this juncture - that is, in the midst of an appeal to the children of Israel – is warranted by the false Jewish belief that their descent from Abraham entitles them to be regarded as ‘God's chosen people’.”
Asad does not cross refer Quran 2:62 to Quran 3:85. However for completeness I have reproduced below his translation of Quran 3:85.
“For, if one goes in search of a religion other than self-surrender unto God, it will never be accepted from him, and in the life to come he shall be among the lost.”
It is striking that Asad uses the term “self-surrender unto God” which is of course perfectly capable of applying to Christians and Jews as well as to Muslims.
As mentioned on my page about Quran translations, for many years Asad’s translation has been the one that I have used for reference and research due to the clarity of the language and the extensive footnotes.
I also recommend this translation on my page “A guide to Quran translations.”
“The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians (a) – all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good – will have their rewards with their Lord. No fear for them, nor will they grieve.”
Footnote (a) discusses the identity of the Sabians and refers to the discussion in Muhammad Asad’s footnote 49 mentioned above.
Haleem does not cross refer to Quran 3:85 but I have reproduced his translation of that verse below:
“If anyone seeks a religion other than [islam] complete devotion to God, it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter.”
Again, although Haleem adds “[islam]” to assist the reader’s understanding, the actual translation of the text is clearly capable of application to more people than just those who self-describe as Muslims.
This translation is also mentioned on my page “A guide to Quran translations.” It was the translation I used most before I discovered Asad’s.
Yusuf Ali translates Quran 2:62 as follows:
“Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians (76), – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (77)”
Footnote 76 discusses the possible identity of the Sabians. Footnote 77 reads:
“Cf. ii 38, where the same phrase occurs. And it recurs again and again afterwards.
The point of the verse is that Islam does not teach an exclusive doctrine, and is not meant exclusively for one people. The Jews claimed this for themselves, and the Christians in their origin were a sect of the Jews. Even the modern organised Christian churches, though they have been, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by the Time-spirit, including the historical fact of Islam, yet cling to the idea of Vicarious Atonement, which means that all who do not believe in it or who lived previously to the death of Christ are at a disadvantage spiritually before the Throne of God. The attitude of Islam is entirely different. Islam existed before the preaching of Muhammad on this earth: the Quran expressly calls Abraham a Muslim (iii. 67). Its teaching (submission to God’s will) has been and will be the teaching of Religion for all time and for all peoples.”
Yusuf Ali does not cross refer to Quran 3:85 but I have reproduced his translation of that below:
“If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to God), (418) never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).”
Yusuf Ali’s footnote 418 reads:
“The Muslim position is clear. The Muslim does not claim to have a religion peculiar to himself. Islam is not a sect or an ethnic religion. In its view all Religion is one, for the Truth is one. It was the religion preached by all the earlier Prophets. It was the truth taught by all the inspired Books. In essence it amounts to a consciousness of the Will and Plan of God and a joyful submission to that Will and Plan. If any one wants a religion other than that, he is false to his own nature, as he is false to God’s Will and Plan. Such a one cannot expect guidance, for he has deliberately renounced guidance.”
This is a new translation that I bought relatively recently. It is extremely impressive and I intend to write a separate review. It translates Quran 2:62 as follows:
“Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve.”
There are about two pages of commentary. I have skipped over that part of the commentary which discusses the identity of the Sabeans and the other religious groups. However the rest of the commentary is very informative and I have reproduced it below:
“Concerning this verse the commentator al-Qushayri writes, ‘the differences in paths, with the oneness of the origin, does not hinder the beauty of acceptance. Whosoever affirms [God] the Real in His signs, and believes in the truth and His Qualities of which He informs them – namely, the Truth and His Qualities – then the differences in religious paths [or laws, "shar"] and the differences in the appellation of names do not impinge on the realisation of the good pleasure [of God].’
The theologian and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d.505/1111), in his famous work Faysal al-tafriqah, [full title “Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayn al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa” translated as “The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam from Masked Infidelity”] argues that ‘Christians of Byzantium’ and the ‘Turks’ (still outside the Islamic world at that time) would come under God’s Mercy. Those who know the teachings and virtues of the Prophet and yet still deny him deserve to be called disbelievers, but al-Ghazzali gives wide latitude in recognising the obstacles to this knowledge. How could a Turk who had never heard of Muhammad be faulted? Moreover, why should a person who grows up hearing the Prophet Muhammad referred to as ‘the great liar’ investigate his truth claims, since one would not expect the same from a Muslim who hears of someone accused of being a false prophet? Hearing the name Muhammad means nothing if one learns only of the opposite of his true attributes. One could extend this reasoning to point out that one is unlikely to deem a religion good or desire to learn about it, if the only followers one meets are bad. Such mitigating circumstances, namely, that birthplace, upbringing, and social experience mediate one’s knowledge of religion, provide ample space for God’s Mercy to encompass those who believe in Him and in the Hereafter and act righteously.
Some argue that the verse refers to certain Jews, Christians, and Sabeans who adhered to these faiths before the Prophet’s mission, but who then acknowledged him when he came – people such as Salman al-Farsi, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, and the monks Waraqah ibn Nawfal and Bahirah; others have understood it to include Zoroastrians as well.
Al-Zamakhshari and some others argue that ‘those who believe’ refers to the hypocrites, because they affirm belief outwardly, and lump them together with the Jews, Christians, and Sabeans to form a first group, which is then juxtaposed with those mentioned in the second part of the verse, the true believers in the Prophet and Islam. If this interpretation is accepted, this would be the only instance in the Quran when ‘those who believe’ was used ironically or with the implication of referring to the hypocrites. Al-Razi mentions the double usage of ‘believe’ in 4:136 ‘O you who believe! Believe in God and his Messenger’ as an example where one can be called a ‘believer’ in two senses, necessitating the command to believe, though this is not the interpretation given to that particular verse when it is discussed on its own. Indeed, in 4:136, al-Razi seems to approve of the opinion that the use of ‘mumin’ (‘believer’) without any qualifier is reserved solely for Muslims.
Some argue that these other groups are believers simply insofar as they affirm the truth of the Prophet Muhammad. However, Christians who affirm the message of Muhammad would no longer be Christian at all, just as those who practice idolatry would no longer be idolaters if they accept Muhammad. Still, it is not uncommon for commentators to insert the phrase ‘and follows Muhammad and acts according to his Law’ as a gloss on ‘whosoever believes in God’.
Al-Qurtubi mentions an opinion attributed to Ibn Abbas, that 3:85 (Whosoever seeks a religion other than submission, it shall not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers) abrogates this verse. But a widely accepted principle of abrogation is that only legal rulings or commands can be abrogated, not descriptive statements, especially as regards one’s status in the Hereafter.
For the commentator al-Baydawi, this verse refers to those who fulfilled their obligations before their religions were abrogated by Islam, or it means that these various kinds of disbelievers are saved when they believe sincerely (since he interprets the first reference to be to hypocrites).
Many commentators on this verse disallow those who deny Islam and the Prophet to be included among those who are saved from eternal fear and grief, but as al-Ghazzali’s position makes clear, such denial is hard to verify, especially since one’s rejection of Islam in later times might simply be a verdict pronounced upon Muslims and not upon the Prophet himself. Moreover, the plain sense of the verse cannot be denied without introducing inconsistencies: in no other instance is a ‘believer’ used as a name for a hypocrite, and in no sense does a Jew or Christian following the religion of Muhammad continued to be called a Jew or Christian. Moreover, the affirmation of the belief of Jews and Christians is reinforced elsewhere in the Quran, including 3:110; 5:48; 22:67 – 69; for a fuller discussion, see the essay ‘The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions.’ [That essay amongst others is included in appendices to The Study Quran.] Also see the commentary on 3:110 – 15 for similar issues relating to religious communities.
‘No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve’ is a description of one’s life after death, the equivalent of what might be called salvation. It describes the reward of those who follow God’s Guidance (v. 38), those who submit with faith (2:112), whoever believes and is righteous (6:48), the friend of God (10:62), and ‘those who say, “Our Lord is God”’ (46:13).”
It is not necessary to look separately for the translation of Quran 3:85 since it is given during the commentary above.
I cannot recall how I acquired this. The dust jacket has printed on it “Not for Sale” and is also printed with the text “A Gift presented by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on the Opening Ceremony of King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud Mosque and Islamic Centre Edinburgh, Scotland, UK 31/7/1998 – 2/8/1998.” It is published by Darussalam Publishers and Distributors, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It translates Quran 2:62 as follows:
“Verily, those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians,(1) whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2)”
Footnote (1) is about the identity of the Sabians. Footnote (2) reads as follows:
“This Verse (and Verse 5:69), mentioned in the Quran should not be misinterpreted by the reader. As [Sentence break added by me as the text appears to have a printing error.] mentioned by Ibn Abbas (Tafsir At-Tabari Vol 1, Page 323) that the provision of this Verse was abrogated by the Verse 3:85: ‘And whosoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.’ (i.e. after the coming of Prophet Muhammad on the earth, no other religion except Islam, will be accepted from anyone).”
Each of us is individually accountable to God for our actions. Accordingly, none of us can avoid the responsibility of deciding for ourselves what God requires of us. That individual responsibility does not preclude consulting others who have studied religious questions to ascertain their views, but the ultimate responsibility for deciding remains with the individual.
The text of the Quran is written in classical Arabic, the language spoken at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Due to the existence of the Quran, over the last 1400 years the Arabic language has changed far less than has English. Nevertheless the Arabic spoken on the streets of Arab cities today differs from the language of the Quran. Accordingly even native Arabic speakers need to construe the Quran with care.
In my opinion unless one has spent years mastering classical Quranic Arabic, one needs to rely upon translations. (Learning a little Arabic is more dangerous than learning none! I spent seven years learning French at school and would not dream of trying to understand a French language philosophical text even though I can make out most of a newspaper story.)
One should look for translators of high repute. Furthermore, consulting many different translations avoids being misled by a single translator.
In my opinion the Saheeh International translation must be rejected as unreliable. Its use of the past tense in Quran 2:62 is not followed by any of the other translators mentioned above, even the other one from Saudi Arabia despite that being just as exclusivist in its attitude to adherents of other religions.
I have not bothered looking at any other part of the Saheeh International translation since, once one has a concrete example of unreliability, there is no point in looking for more instances.
The Study Quran translation gives by far the most detailed exploration of the meaning of Quran 2:62. Although I only acquired it recently, it is the translation that I expect to use most often when doing research.
With regard to my own understanding of Quran 2:62 and 3:85, I read these verses as being non-exclusivist.
That is the overall approach of Muhammad Asad, Yusuf Ali and The Study Quran. Haleem's translation intentionally has few footnotes, so it is not possible to ascertain his view of the interpretation. However an inclusive approach does not clash with the text of his translation.
As a Muslim, I believe that Islam is the best religion. A few short reasons are: it has the clearest and simplest theology; it is a universal religion rather than being the religion of any particular ethnic group; the Quran is the best preserved Holy Book. However I do not believe that God rejects any non-Muslims who “who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness” [Yusuf Ali translation].
I am dismayed by the way that both translations from Saudi Arabia promote an exclusivist message which will inevitably have the effect of causing Muslims to think less well of Christians and Jews than they otherwise would. Hence the title of this page.