Bible understood differently in two new Quran translations

English versions of the Quran suffer from awkward, old-fashioned wordings and other problems. So English-speaking Muslims, and non-Muslims who want to explore Islam‘s holy book, can cheer the arrival of two worthy translations:

The Qur’an: A New Translation” (Oxford University Press) by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of London

An Interpretation of the Qur’an” (New York University Press) by Majid Fakhry, emeritus philosophy professor at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, a 2002 edition now in paperback

At first scan, Haleem’s translation seems the more readable. But Fakhry’s enjoys special religious status because of approval from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and includes the Arabic text since translations cannot be considered scripture in Islam.

The contrasts between the translations include passages about the Bible, referred to in the Quran as the Torah, Psalms or Gospel.

Muslim scholars believe the Bible is unreliable but differ on why. Some say Jewish and Christian interpretations became distorted, while hard-liners think Jews and Christians purposely corrupted the actual texts that God revealed. There’s no historical evidence for the latter charge, and the classical 12th-century Quran commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, for one, rejected it.

One flash point is Quran 61:6, rendered by Haleem as: “Jesus, son of Mary, said ‘Children of Israel, I am sent to you by God, confirming the Torah that came before me and bringing good news of a messenger to follow me whose name will be Ahmad.’ ” Ahmad is understood as the Prophet Muhammad, and Fakhry (but not Haleem) inserts this identification in parentheses.

Since Jesus doesn’t predict an Ahmad or Muhammad in the New Testament Gospels, many Muslims conclude that Christians purposely deleted that revelation.

The related Quran 7:157 says the Messenger (Muhammad) is the prophet “mentioned in their Torah and Gospel” (Fakhry’s translation) or “described” (Haleem). In this subtle difference, Muhammad could be implicitly “described” without being explicitly “mentioned,” which could mean Jews and Christians made intentional deletions.

The sharpest translation gap occurs in Quran 5:41. Fakhry’s rendition has God telling Muhammad that certain Jews “alter the words” of revelation, a serious accusation. Haleem merely says Jews “distort the meanings” of the sacred words, which again seems to indicate misinterpretations rather than rewrites and deletions.

Quran 2:79 likewise accuses certain people of scriptural fraud. Haleem’s version: “Woe to those who write the Scripture with their own hands and then claim ‘this is from God’ in order to make some small gain.”

In the related verse 2:75, Fakhry provides a footnote specifying that it was Jews who did these things; Haleem provides no identification. Also, Fakhry says they “knowingly perverted” God’s Word, while Haleem merely says they “twist” the Scriptures, again leaving room for misinterpretation rather than rewriting of revelations.

Fakhry’s account of Quran 6:91 says this of the Jews’ treatment of God’s revelation through Moses: “You put it in scrolls which you reveal, while you conceal much. And (now) you are taught what neither you nor your fathers knew.”

Here Haleem uses the past tense: “You were taught things that neither you nor your forefathers had known.” Haleem thus appears to refer to God’s message in the Torah or Old Testament, as opposed to the giving of the Quran in Muhammad’s time.

In Quran 4:46, Haleem’s rendition says “some Jews distort the meaning of (revealed) words” so that “God has spurned them.” Fakhry says that some “take words out of their context” so that “Allah has cursed them.”

The translations agree in Quran 2:140 that some Jews and Christians “conceal” or “hide” testimonies from God, apparently leaving open whether that’s by deletion or neglect.

Note: Neither Fakhry nor Haleem provides detailed footnotes and commentary based on the best current scholarship that would update A. Yusuf Ali’s 1934 edition. That’s a massive need some future scholar should meet.

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