Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s English Translation of the Quran (1930): An Assessment

in Marmaduke Pickthall: Islam and the Modern World
Open Access

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In the “Foreword” to his English translation of the Quran, The Meaning of the Glorious Quran (1930),1 partly out of the innate modesty of a scholar and partly in deference to the truism that the Quran being literally the Word of God is untranslatable, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936) laments his inability to capture and articulate in his English version “that inimitable symphony [of the Quran], the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy”.2 Nonetheless, his work published eighty-five years ago has been remarkably successful to this day in moving its numerous readers to tears and ecstasy, and in inspiring scores of later Muslim scholars to embark upon their own Quran translations. In the domain of the English translations of the Quran by Muslims, which number more than fifty,3 Pickthall’s holds pride of place a) for being the first worthy translation, and b) for serving all along as the touchstone against which all later ventures have usually been measured for their faithfulness to the original Arabic/Quranic text and for gauging their mastery or otherwise over the English idiom and usage. For Pickthall’s work excels all others on, at least, these two counts. The present assessment aims at bringing out these and other hallmarks, and strengths as well as weaknesses of his translation.

Although his translation saw the light of day in 1930, as the fruit of a project sponsored by the Nizam of Hyderabad, the ruler of a princely state in British India, he had this project in mind soon after his internal acceptance of Islam in 1914. The genesis of his venture may be traced back to his article, “The Quran” published in The Islamic Review (1919),4 which apart from being a stout vindication of the divine origin of the Quran, carries his own translation of a few Quranic verses, of which a vastly improved and more elegant version appears in his complete translation of the Quran in 1930. Equally significant are his following observations in the same article of 1919 on the Orientalist perspective on the Quran, and on the poor quality of the English translations of the day: “translations of the Sacred Book are prosy, and seem discursive and garrulous, whereas the Quran in Arabic is terse, majestic, and poetical. So bad are some of the translations, and so foolish many of the notes which choke the text”.5 Thus even in 1919 he realized the need for a quality translation which might help readers “feel the power of inspiration in it”.6 Prior to Pickthall’s, three types of English translation existed: (1) Those by Orientalists namely, Alexander Ross (1649), George Sale (1734), J.M. Rodwell (1861), and E.H. Palmer (1880).7 (2) Those by another group, Ahmadi translators, namely, Muhammad Abdul Hakim Khan (1905) and Muhammad Ali (1917), and by Ghulam Sarwar (1920) who had Ahmadi leanings.8 (3) Those by some well meaning but very poorly equipped and incompetent Muslims of British India namely, Abul Fadl (1911) and Hairat Dihlawi (1916).9.

So Pickthall’s criticism was neither misplaced nor exaggerated. Regrettably, the seemingly innocuous and academic field of English translations of the Quran looks like, so to say, a battleground, teeming with hysterical polemics, sectarian conflicts, and ideological presuppositions, including the missionary agenda. The unfortunate religious divide between Christendom and the West and Islam and the Muslim world, deepened by the Crusades, and exacerbated by colonialism and Islamophobia of our time against the backdrop of the deplorable events of 9/11 and other ghastly incidents of mindless killings in the name of Islam, have cast their dark shadow on the Orientalist discourse on Islam and the Quran. Among the Orientalist translators, Alexander Ross (1592–1654) did not know any Arabic yet he produced the first English translation of the Quran!10 George Sale (1697–1736), J.M. Rodwell (1808–1900) and Richard Bell (1876–1952) all were church ministers.11 To Orientalists, as Pickthall ruefully observes, the Quran seemed “a mere parody of the Bible”, “an imposture”, containing “hardly anything original”.12 In the early twentieth century, which was the heyday of both colonialism and Christian missionary onslaughts directed against Islam/the Quran in British India, some Muslim writers of the Indian subcontinent took up the translation of the Quran as a defensive move. So this field which was dominated by Orientalists until 1920 underwent a dramatic reverse. The steep increase of translations by Muslims, numbering now more than fifty, has corresponded to the decline in the Orientalist forays. After A.J. Arberry’s translation in 1955,13 after a gap of some fifty years, Alan Jones’s appeared in 2007.14 In contrast, since 1980 new translations by Muslim writers have been appearing regularly, particularly in the last two decades.15

As already indicated, the two earliest translations by Muslims namely, Abul Fadl (1911) and Hairat Dihlawi (1916) had the ambitious plan of countering the Orientalists’/missionaries’ charges against the Quran in their commentary. However, these deliver very little. Neither of them had academic credentials or any grounding in English idiom and presentation skills.16 At best, they recorded for the first time the Muslim presence in the field.

With Pickthall’s majestic translation, this enterprise blossomed into a highly rewarding and rich scholarly tradition. His work enabled the ever-growing English-speaking Muslims to gain some understanding of the meaning and message of the Quran in English. Apart from the Orientalists, the other group active in the field in Pickthall’s day was the Ahmadis, followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908) of Qadian, a small town in the Punjab province of British India, hence known as Qadianis. They take Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a Prophet, a belief contrary to the Islamic article of faith on the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s Messengership, and they are not recognized as Muslims. Besides parading the Mirza as a Prophet, Ahmadi translators namely, Muhammad Abdul Hakim Khan (1905) and Muhammad Ali (1917) present a strange, rather bizarre belief about the Prophet Jesus. According to Khan, Jesus was crucified yet he did not die on the cross. Rather, he walked away, thousands of miles to Kashmir, India, had his natural death there and lies buried at Khan Yar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India.17 Both Khan and Ali reject the Islamic/Quranic doctrines of miracles, angelology, jinn, bounties of Paradise, and all that lies beyond the realm of the unseen (al-ghayb).18 Swayed by his Ahmadi doctrines Muhammad Ali at times presented a twisted rendering of the Quranic text which could mislead unsuspecting English speaking readers who did not know any Arabic to grasp the Quranic text. An instance in point is his rendering of Surah Al-Fil which relates that God had sent swarms of birds, as a miracle, for pelting stones in order to thwart the invading army of the Abyssinian ruler Abraha’s army from demolishing God’s house, Kabah in Makkah, in the year of Prophet Muhammad’s birth. Muhammad Ali’s following translation and explanatory note point to his peculiar understanding:

Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant [Abraha’s army]? Did He not cause their war to end in confusion, and send down (to prey) upon them birds in flocks, casting them against hard stones? So He rendered them like straw eaten up.

al-fil 105, 1–5
In a more pronounced vein is his comment:

The commentators [classical Muslim scholars] relate some curious stories as to how Abraha’s army was destroyed […] The mention of birds is merely intended to show that they were destroyed, the birds feasted on their corpses, tearing off flesh from the dead bodies and casting it on stones.

In his version, however, Pickthall faithfully conveys the import of the Quranic verses:

Has thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant? Did He not bring their stratagem to naught, and send against them swarms of flying creatures, which pelted them with stones of baked clay, and made them like green crops devoured (by cattle)?19

His explanatory note is more forthright in reporting this miraculous happening:

The allusion is to the campaign of Abraha, the Abyssinian ruler of Al-Yaman, against Mecca, with the purpose of destroying the Kabah in the year of the Prophet's birth. Tradition says that the elephant refused to advance on the last stage of the march, and that swarms of flying creatures pelted the Abyssinians with stones.20

Pickthall’s conformity to the authentic Muslim tradition endeared him to the Muslim readers and stands out as a testament to his impeccable scholarship.

It was against this backdrop that Pickthall produced his translation of the Quran. It was warmly, nay rapturously received by Muslims for being elegant in presentation, and free from the errors of perspective and trappings peculiar to the Orientalist and Ahmadi translators. Within two years of its publication, its four editions were issued from the uk and usa. Its publication was most gratifying for English-speaking Muslims. At long last they had an English translation befitting the majesty of their Scripture, and that too by a British convert to Islam and a native speaker of English who had already made a mark as an accomplished British man of letters. For some naïve Muslims, then reeling under the seemingly invincible British colonialism, it vindicated the abiding truth of Islam and the Quran.

Pickthall’s translation won acclaim soon after its publication; it has retained its popularity to this day in view of its many merits. Until now its more than one hundred and sixty editions are on record. It must be, however, at once added that Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation (1934–1937) surpasses Pickthall’s, with more than two hundred editions.21 The global outreach of Pickthall’s translation is evident from its publication from such diverse places as the usa, uk, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia and Jordan. Notwithstanding the availability of many translations by Muslim writers, the regular re-issue of Pickthall’s translation, including the release of its Kindle edition on 23 July 2014, is a pointer to its special and outstanding place amid other translations.

Furthermore, Pickthall’s work inspired scores of later Muslim writers to produce their versions in their own varied ways. Many of them stand indebted to him for having provided them with apt English equivalents for a range of Arabic/Quranic terminology. Some, however, went to the extreme, transgressing all limits, by unabashedly plagiarizing his work, and passed it off as their own. Although this cannot be condoned as a tribute to Pickthall, it underlines the abiding influence of his work on later writers. (These deplorable instances of unacknowledged borrowings from Pickthall are: S.V. Mir Ahmad Ali’s The Holy Quran with English Translation of the Arabic Text and Commentary According to the version of the Holy Ahlul Bait (1964);22 Ali Ozek et al., The Holy Quran (1992);23 and Translation Committee, The Majestic Quran (2002).24 A fairly recent addition to this unenviable series is Daoud William S. Peachy and Maneh H. Al-Johani’s The Quran: The Final Book of God-A Clear Translation of the Glorious Quran (2012)).25

Let us now focus on Pickthall’s translation. His “Foreword” (xix–xx) presses home the following points which underscore his piety and assiduity: (1) His is a faithful translation, as close as possible to the Arabic/Quranic text. (2) His, like any other Quran translation in any language, presents only “the meaning of the Quran in English […] It can never take the place of the Quran in Arabic, nor is it meant to do”.26 (3) While drafting his translation he consulted several shaykhs (Muslim/Arabic scholars) at Jamia Al-Azhar, Cairo, the oldest Islamic seminary in the Muslim world in order to avoid “unwarrantable renderings” and to ensure the inclusion of only “the traditional rendering”27 of the Quran in English. However, his “Foreword” is too brief, skipping some important relevant details. For example, he only alludes to “some of the translations” which “include commentation offensive to Muslims”,28 without specifying these translations or the thrust of their offensive comments. What is more intriguing is his passing in silence over such objectionable material, for he tackles some of the objections raised against the Quran in his above mentioned article of 1919. It is a pity that his full length work on the Quran does not contain any refutation of the offensive comments of which he was well aware. Since such a rejoinder was the need of the hour and he had the competence to undertake it, his indifference seems somewhat inexplicable. Equally enigmatic, rather confusing is the opening sentence of his “Foreword” about his target readership: “The aim of this work is to present to English readers what the Muslims world over hold to be the meaning of the words of the Quran […] with a view to the requirements of English Muslims29 (italics mine). “English readers” evidently include non-Muslim readers, most of whom being ignorant of the Quran constitute a readership, which is markedly different from “English Muslims” possessing a distinct mindset, belief system and responsiveness to the Quran. Moreover, his allusion to “English Muslims” is far from clear. Did he intend his work for the few Muslim English converts to Islam in 1930? His main constituency, however, was the English-speaking Muslim readership that had been swelling by the day on account of their constant contact with English language and the West in major parts of the Muslim world, the then colonies of the West. Since Pickthall’s work is almost devoid of explanatory notes, which could otherwise determine his target readership, the above questions remain unanswered. Pickthall does mention the classical Muslim Quran commentators “Beydawi and Zamakhshari”30 as his sources. However, in the absence of explanatory notes in his work, their influence on his understanding of the Quran cannot be measured. Notwithstanding the lack of any gloss over the persons, places, events, history and geography mentioned in the Quran, he prefaces each of one hundred and fourteen Quranic Surahs with a note, mostly a brief one, on the circumstantial setting of each Surah. Therefore his reference to Wahidi’s Asbab Al-Nuzul (Causes of the Revelation of the Quranic Verses) as a source seems in order. It is an altogether different point that he does not cite even Wahidi once.31 His reliance on Bukhari’s collection of Hadith is manifest only in his “Introduction”. Since he does not elucidate any Quranic verse or allusion, no Hadith features in the main body of his work.

Pickthall’s extensive “Introduction” (xxi–xxxix) at once brings to mind George Sale’s much more comprehensive “Preliminary Discourse”, prefaced to his Quran translation (1734). Notwithstanding this similarity in format, the two stand poles apart in their approach to things Islamic. Pickthall’s aim is to acquaint readers with the articles of Islamic faith, the Prophet Muhammad’s illustrious life and achievements and early Islamic history. His description is essentially a chronological narrative, focused on the Prophet’s career. Occasionally does he dispel some popular misperceptions about the Quran. Illustrative of this is his defence of the divinely ordained arrangement of the Quranic text, which does not follow the usual chronological order: “[It is] not haphazard, as some have hastily supposed. Closer study will reveal a sequence and significance”.32 This aside, his “Introduction” contains precious little about the Quran itself. He does not explain at the outset that the Quran is not to be taken in the conventional sense of a book. Nor are its Surahs akin to chapters in a book. It is the note of divine guidance which binds the whole Book together and that the Quran should be approached as God’s address to mankind of every time and place. He does not place the Quran in the broader context of other Scriptures, highlighting their common grounds and points of departure. Such reader friendly background information could enlighten both his “English readers” and “English Muslims”, and facilitate their understanding of its contents and context. Studded with this useful feature are some later English translations by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1934–1937),33 Syed Maududi (1967–1988),34 and most effectively in the version by Ahmad Zaki Hammad (2007).35

As already stated, prefaced to all one hundred and fourteen Quranic Surahs are Pickthall’s introductory notes. Disappointingly these are too brief, and marred further by an unhelpful drift. Instead of preparing readers mentally for grasping better the theme and subject matter of each Surah, his notes are generally restricted to discussing the dating of these Surahs and the event/s which might have occasioned their revelation by Allah. Moreover, he makes it a point to define painstakingly the title of each Surah. Since these are no more than labels or reference tags, without any bearing on the contents, his exercise is largely tangential. Take the title of Surah two of the Quran as illustrative. This two hundred and eighty-six verses long Surah which contains scores of Quranic commandments and the exposition of the Islamic belief system is entitled Al-Baqarah (cow) in view of its allusion to a cow. The background information about the titles and dates so assiduously provided by Pickthall, though valuable in its own right, is of not much help to those new to the Quran. Those studying the Quran in English should be better instructed first in the subject matter of the Quran and what guidance they could derive from its study. Pickthall was capable of imparting such instruction in view of his decades long Muslim activist career. It is a pity that he did not make most of this opportunity. His translation is supplemented with a few explanatory notes. Some of these are strikingly original and cogent, underscoring his sound, nuanced understanding of things Islamic. Some gems of his Quranic scholarship are:

  1. a.His definition of the Quranic appellation, ‘abd36 (a slave of Allah) encapsulates the spirit of the God-man relationship in Islam.
  2. b.He draws attention to the fact that Surah Al-Nisa “deals with women’s rights”.37 However, he stops at that point, without elaborating how the Quran ushered in gender justice in the seventh century Arabia in which woman was a non-entity. Today it might sound downright outrageous but the grim reality is that she then used to be an item of inheritance, to be possessed by male heirs of the deceased.
  3. c.His interpretation of Prophet Muhammad being an ummi (an unlettered person) reflects the consensus view of Muslims. So doing, he refutes the divergent opinion of “some modern critics”.38 However, he refrains from identifying the dissenting voices.
  4. d.His clarification that “Satan is of the jinn, and not of the angels”39 is another shining example of his endorsing the orthodox, consensus Muslim view on this subject. Taking Satan as an angel is discordant with the Quranic angelology.
  5. e.His pithy elucidation of the rite of animal slaughter, as part of the Islamic pilgrimage, brings out the underlying spirit of this Islamic command.40 Had he inserted more explanatory notes of this import, his work would have served more admirably the cause of understanding the Quran better.
  6. f.His gloss over the Quranic figure of Luqman41 reflects his insights into comparative religion. One wishes the quantum of such scholarly and perceptive notes had been more.
  7. g.What is said above about his grounding in history of religions is to the fore also in his explication of the Quranic allusion to Tubba, the kings of Himyar of south Arabia.42
  8. h.In his exceptional relatively extensive prefatory note to Surah Al-Tahrim, both his piety and persuasive power are on display, as he vindicates Prophet Muhammad’s character and conduct, with a pointed reference to the latter’s polygamy. In so doing, he takes up the cudgels against with those “non-Muslim writers”43 who seek to discredit the Prophet on this count.
  9. i.As a committed Muslim he is found exalting logically Prophet Muhammad in his introduction to Surahs Al-Duha and Al-Sharh, as he highlights the Prophet’s “most wonderful record of success in human history”.44However, some of Pickthall’s observations mark his departure from the orthodox Muslim viewpoint. Since these are few, they have gone largely unnoticed, without diminishing his credentials as an outstanding Muslim scholar. Streaks of pseudo-rationalism, apologia or sheer carelessness account for the following unconventional notes of his:
  10. i)He cites the Ahmadi translator Muhammad Ali’s outlandish misconstruing of the intent of verse seventy-three of Surah Al-Baqarah,45 without refuting him or without branding him as an Ahmadi writer, which could alert readers.
  11. ii)His comment on verse ninety of Surah Al-Nahl that this verse is “recited at the end of every weekly sermon in all Sunni congregations”46 is marred by two factual inaccuracies: (A) It is recited as part of the Friday noon prayer sermon, and hence his branding it as a “weekly sermon” is non-specific and confounding for readers. (B) It features in the Friday sermon of not only Sunni but also Shiah congregations.
  12. iii)His note on verse eleven of Surah Al-Naml that “Moses had been guilty of a crime in Egypt”,47 being too curt, tends to present Prophet Moses in a poor light. He should have clarified that Prophet Moses had inadvertently killed a Copt and as the Quran adds, he soon repented and that God had accepted his repentance.
  13. iv)Equally gratuitous is his citation of the views of “some commentators objecting to the miraculous”48 speech of the ant, recounted in verse 18 of Surah Al-Naml. His quotation of an unorthodox view, without any contradiction on his part, could be misconstrued as his endorsement.
  14. v)Notwithstanding his overflowing love for and glowing tributes to Prophet Muhammad, of which we have already taken note, Pickthall is off the mark in insinuating that the Prophet “had shown but little consideration for Zeynab”49 in arranging her marriage with Zayd. It was in accordance with the divine directive contained in verse thirty-six of Surah Al-Ahzab that Zeynab and her family had unhesitatingly agreed on this marriage.
  15. vi)Recklessly he quotes “some commentators that these jinn [referred to in verse 30 of Surah Al-Ahqaf] were foreign (i.e. non-Arabian) Jews”.50 Pickthall should have better refuted this pseudo-rationalistic interpretation. Or he could simply have avoided quoting it.
  16. vii)His proclivity for brevity precludes him from spelling out the comprehensive code of social conduct outlined in Surah Al-Hujurat. He rests content with only this remark: “The whole Surah deals with manners”.51 His elucidation could introduce readers to the Islamic value system.
  17. viii)Verses 46–76 of Surah Al-Rahman describe the four gardens in Paradise. While mentioning “some”, without saying a word about their identity or credentials, he interpolates into his work their whimsical notion that these verses “refer, not to the paradise hereafter, but to the later conquests, of the Muslims, the four gardens being Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia”.52 Such lackadaisical attitude, though in very few instances, reflects poorly on a pious Muslim scholar of Pickthall’s stature.
  18. ix)In his prefatory note to Surah Al-Buruj, he rightly notes: “Verses 4 to 7 are generally taken to refer to the massacre of Christians of Najran in Al-Yaman by a Jewish king Dhu Nawas, an event of great historical importance”.53 Intriguingly enough, he then tends to contest the historicity of this “event of great historical importance” by citing the Jewish German Orientalist, Josef Horovitz’s opinion that the Quranic “words refer not to any historical event”.54 Such contradictory statements in the same explanatory note could be very disconcerting for readers new to the Quran.
  19. x)Equally incautious is his quotation of the view of some “late Dr Sidqi” that the Quranic expression, Al-Tariq (a star) stands for “the fertilizing germ penetrating the ovary”.55 This interpolation is all the more confounding in the face of Pickthall’s own definition of Al-Tariq as a star in the opening part of the same note.
  20. xi)His observation that “the meaning of the first five verses [of Surah Al-Adiyat] is by no means clear”56 seems somewhat unbecoming of Pickthall, a life-long student of the Quran.
For his translation Pickthall chose Jacobean English used in the King James version of the Bible, which is characterized by the use of archaic pronouns and verb endings. One comes across the following obsolete words, for example, in his translation of three Surahs Muhammad, Al-Fath and Al-Hujurat: rendereth, riddeth, improveth, coineth, maketh, relieth, changeth, teareth, thy, addeth, knoweth, seest, curseth, deafeneth, giveth, angereth, keepeth, believeth, forgiveth, obeyeth, turneth, promiseth, wilt, knoweth, sufficeth, sendeth, strengtheneth, riseth, ye, thou, camest, hath, doeth, loveth, doth ad infinitum.57 Moreover, at places, his predilection for closeness to the text in his rendering seems to be at the expense of articulating the meaning in a readily comprehensible, even intelligible way. For example, his overly literal translation of verses 1–4 of Surah Al-Balad reads thus:

Nay, I swear by this city-

And thou art an indweller of this city-

And the begetter and that which he begat

We verily have created man in an atmosphere.58

In the absence of any elucidation of “I”, “this city”, “thou”, “indweller”, “begetter”, “begat”, “We” and “atmosphere”, readers cannot make much sense of his rendering which is, no doubt, faithful. Ahmad Zaki Hammad’s following paraphrasing of the same passage clarifying the elliptical and pronominal expressions, underscores the inadequacy of Pickthall’s excessively literal translation in this particular instance:

No, indeed I swear by this sacred city of Makkah, while you, O Prophet, are a free dweller in this city of Makkah. Moreover, I swear by all that beget and all that is begotten! Very truly We created man in a life of travail.59

Such blemishes are bound to creep into a work of such vast magnitude as Pickthall’s is. These do not detract from his substantial, nay sterling contribution to the field – of being the first English translation by a Muslim scholar in elegant English and being remarkably faithful to the original. His translation, unlike many other Muslim translators’ such as those by Abul Fadl (1911),60 Hairat Dihlawi (1916),61 Khadim Rahman Nuri (1964),62 Salahuddin Pir (1971),63 Hashim Amir Ali (1974),64 Rashad Khalifa (1978),65 Muhammad Ahmad Mufassir (1979),66 Muhammad Asad (1980),67 Ahmed Ali (1984),68 M.A.K. Pathan (1993),69 Laleh Bakhtiar (2007)70 and Edip Yuksel et al. (2007),71 does not bristle with unpardonable liberties with and intrusion of some whimsical, even pugnacious notions into their translations and passing these off as the intended meaning of the Quran itself.72
Moreover, unlike his contemporary translator of the Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1934–1937), he adheres close to the Quranic text in his rendering and succeeds largely in avoiding the pitfall of offering a literal, soulless version. Pickthall’s distinction as an excellent translator consists in his concise rendering which faithfully conveys the sense of the original. In comparison, his contemporary, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and many later ones, offer only a loose paraphrase, at the expense of moving too far away from the original. This inimitable feature of Pickthall’s rendering comes out, for example, in his translation of verse fourteen of Surah Ali Imran, in a condensed way in only forty-eight words while the same is rendered in fifty-seven words by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and without capturing the essence of the original. The latter is not only verbose but also inarticulate, unable to guide readers to the real intent of the original. Pickthall’s precise, eloquent rendering is as follows:

Beautified for mankind is love of the joys (that come) from women and offspring, and stored-up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is more excellent abode.73

Contrast this with Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s following rendering which fails to convey effectively and energetically the Quranic observation on the ephemeral joys of this world coveted by man:

Fair in the eyes of men is the love of the things they covet: Women and sons; heaped up hoards of gold and silver; horses branded (for blood and excellence); and wealth of cattle and well-tilled land. Such are the possessions of this world’s life. But in the nearness to God is the best of goals (to return to).74

Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s last sentence is nothing short of being convoluted.

Nonetheless the cumbersome and archaic usage in Pickthall’s translation impelled an Arab scholar, Arafat K. El-Ashi to bring out in 1996 its thoroughly revised version, with the aim “to simplify Pickthall’s style, for example, by replacing the poetic, pronouns and verbs like ‘thou, thy, thine and hast’ with their more ordinary and common counterparts”. This objective is writ large over El-Ashi’s subtitle, M.M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Quran: Revised and Edited in Modern Standard English. (1996).75 This a masterly job of revision, reflecting El-Ashi’s thorough, discerning and reader friendly editing of Pickthall’s translation. It gave Pickthall’s work a new lease of life.

Notwithstanding the wide acclaim enjoyed by Pickthall’s venture among Muslims some dissenting voices were occasionally raised against his work. In 1991 a Pakistani writer Iqbal Husain Ansari, published a twenty-four page booklet with a somewhat pompous and sensationalist title, Corrections of Errors in Pickthall’s English Translation of the Glorious Quran.76 Despite its tall claim this work has little substance. On close examination of Ansari’s critique it cannot be held by any stretch of imagination that Pickthall’s work is a mass of errors.77 Pickthall missed, at places, translating each and every word of the Quranic text accurately, particularly the pronominals, the bane of almost every translator of the Quran. T.B. Irving, an American convert to Islam, in the “Introduction” to his translation of the Quran in 1985 is uncharitably dismissive of Pickthall’s venture on this rather silly ground: “Marmaduke Pickthall accomplished his labor in the East, and therefore his translation is […] laid upon a superstructure of Eastern preoccupations”. It is beyond one to figure out the meaning and implications of “the superstructure of Eastern preoccupations”.78 Nor is there any substance in his charge that Pickthall’s stint in the East in any way adversely affected his work. Pickthall’s credentials as an accomplished writer were recognized much before his sojourn in India. In his biography of Pickthall, Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim,79 Peter Clark makes almost no attempt to analyze Pickthall’s Quran translation. His brief account of Pickthall’s venture also contains some factual mistakes. He states: “Pickthall’s ally in the Khilafat movement, Muhammad Ali had already produced a translation”.80 The Khilafat movement leader was Maulana Muhammad Ali (Mohamed Ali) Jawhar (1878–1931) who never tried his hand at translating the Quran. It was his namesake, a Ahmadi writer, Muhammad Ali (1874–1951) who had produced his Quran translation in 1917 which is vitiated by his attempt to superimpose his typical Ahmadi doctrines on the Quran. Peter Clark is again off the mark in observing: “The translation [Pickthall’s] itself has been translated […] in 1970 a trilingual edition – English, Arabic and Urdu – appeared in Delhi”.81 Such trilingual editions are regularly issued in the Indian subcontinent for catering to the needs of a wider readership. However, these editions always carry the Urdu translation by some famous Urdu translators of the Quran. So this 1970 edition contains the Arabic text of the Quran, English translation by Pickthall and the independent Urdu one by Fateh Muhammad Khan Jallandhari. This is not a case of Pickthall’s translation “being itself translated”. We have already taken note of Pickthall’s occasional deviations from the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Quran. However, in his assessment of Pickthall’s translation, Khaleel Mohammed goes too far in discrediting him thus: “He adopted Muhammad Ali’s bias against descriptions of miracles”.82 First, Pickthall’s work, being bereft of explanatory notes, does not discuss miracles. In his approach to the Quran he stands poles apart from the Ahmadi Muhammad Ali who presents a garbled and tendentious view of things Quranic, especially miracles. Mohammed’s other observation is more devastating: “Perhaps the death knell for Pickthall translation’s use has been the Saudi government’s decision to distribute other translations free of charge”.83 Irrespective of the distribution of free copies of the English translation of the Quran by Saudi embassies across the world, Pickthall’s version has been consistently popular, and reprinted regularly, as is evident from the appearance of more than one hundred and sixty editions of his work, on the average two editions every year since its first appearance in 1930.

A laudable feature of Pickthall’s work is that besides its “General Index” (446–447) listing the main topics of the Quran, it also carries a subject-specific “Index of Legislation” (448), identifying around one hundred Quranic commands encompassing all aspects of individual and collective life. So doing, Pickthall appears to be pointing to the all-embracing Islamic worldview and the Islamic/Quranic way of life. Once again, it is regrettable that notwithstanding his discerning knowledge of the meaning and message of the Quran he did not dilate upon any of these Quranic commands by way of critically examining their rationale, their underlying spirit, and their efficacy and relevance or otherwise in his day. His exposition, stemming from his cross-cultural interactions could be a worthy contribution to Quranic scholarship. Certainly it would have enhanced further the value of his otherwise excellent work.

Pickthall’s wide and deep familiarity with the main contours of the Quranic scholarship, particularly the Orientalist critique on the Quran, is evident from his above mentioned article on the Quran, written as early as in 1919. However, his shying away from engaging himself more actively with Quranic scholarship and restricting himself to producing only a first-rate translation of the Quran has been a serious loss to it. His article of 1919 contains his translation of verses two of Surahs Al-Baqarah and thirty-six to thirty-seven of Ya Sin. On examining their final version in his Meaning of the Glorious Quran, it is gratifying to note that it is vastly improved, concise and majestic. It indicates that he must have been all along, from 1919 to 1930, working hard on this project. Little wonder then that his translation stands out above many of those of his predecessors and contemporaries. His sincerity of purpose accounts for the everlasting popularity and appeal of his Quran translation and his other remarkable writings on Islam which rank as a native English speaker Muslim’s valuable gift which has superbly served the cause of Islam for almost a century.


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1Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (Hyderabad-Deccan, India: Government Central Press, 1938). Reissued as Al-Quran Al-Karim with English Translation by Pickthall (Islamabad, Pakistan, Islamic Research Institute, 1988). The latter edition being a reprint of 1938 edition is cited in all subsequent references.
2Pickthall, The Meaning, 1. xix.
3The following select works provide bibliographical details about English translations of the Quran, including those by Muslim writers: Muhammad Ali Muhammad Abou Sheishaa, “The Translation of the Quran: A Selective Bibliography”,, accessed July 14, 2016; Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, ed. World Bibliography Translations of the Meanings of the Holy Quran: Printed Translation 1515–1980 (Istanbul, Turkey: oic Research Centre for Islamic History, 1986); Morteza Karimi-Nia, Bibliography of Quranic Studies in European Languages. (Qum, Iran: Centre for Translation of the Holy Quran, 2012); A.R. Kidwai, Bibliography of the Translations of the Meanings of the Glorious Quran into English 1649–2002 (Madina, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Quran Printing Complex, 2007).
4Marmaduke Pickthall, “The Qur’an”, The Islamic Review 7 (1919): 9–16.
5Pickthall, “The Qur’an”, 11.
7For discussion on these see: Muhammad Mohar Ali, The Quran and the Orientalists (Norwich: Jamiyat Ihyaa Minhaaj al-Sunnah, 2004); Ahmad Zaki Hammad, “Representing the Quran in English” in The Gracious Quran: A Modern- Phrased Interpretation in English (Lisle, la: Lucent, 2007), 67–87; A.R. Kidwai, Translating the Untranslatable: A Critical Guide to 60 English Translations of the Quran (New Delhi: Sarup Publishers, 2011).
8A.R. Kidwai, Translating, 7–10, and 195–212.
9Kidwai, Translating, 3–6.
10Nabil Matar, “Alexander Ross and the First English Translation of the Quran”, Muslim World 88: 1 (January 1998): 82 and 85; George Sale, The Kora (London, Frederick Warne, 1734): vii.
11A.R. Kidwai, Translating, 241–48 and 253–57.
12Pickthall, “The Quran”, 9, 10, 12.
13A.J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955).
14Alan Jones, The Quran Translated into English (London: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2007).
15Kidwai, Translating, 120–164.
16Kidwai, Translating, 3–6.
17Muhammad Abdul Hakim Khan, The Holy Quran (Karnal, India: Azizi Press, 1905), 116, 117, 122 and 123.
18Muhammad Ali, The Holy Quran (Lahore: Ahmadiyya Anjuman-i-Ishaat-i Islam, 1920), 1224–1225.
19Pickthall, The Meaning, 436–437.
20Kidwai, Translating, 195–212.
21A.R. Kidwai, Bibliography of the Translations of the Meanings of the Glorious Quran into English 1649–2002. 5–76.
22Kidwai, Translating, 167.
23Kidwai, Translating, 114–118.
24Ibid., 127–129.
25A.R. Kidwai’s forthcoming Book Review on this translation.
26Pickthall, Meaning, 1, xix.
30Ibid., xx.
31Ibid., xx.
32Ibid., xxxix.
33Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1934).
34Syed Abul A‘la Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran (Lahore: Islamic Publications Ltd., 1967–1988).
35Hammad, The Gracious.
36Pickthall, Meaning, 2, 344.
37Ibid., 49.
38Ibid, 113.
39Ibid., 203.
40Ibid., 231.
41Ibid., 284.
42Ibid., 346.
43Ibid., 396.
45Ibid., 6.
46Ibid., 187.
47Ibid., 260.
49Ibid., 289.
50Ibid., 353.
51Ibid., 360.
52Ibid., 373.
53Ibid., 423.
55Ibid., 425.
56Ibid., 434.
57Ibid., 353–362.
58Ibid., 428.
59Hammad, The Gracious, 664.
60Kidwai, Translating, 3–4.
61Ibid., 5–6.
62Ibid, 40–41.
63Ibid., 53–55.
64Ibid., 50–52.
65Ibid., 285–289.
66Ibid., 67–68.
67Ibid., 69–74.
68Ibid., 78–84.
69Ibid., 289–291.
70Ibid., 144–148.
71Ibid., 295–300.
72On the English translations of the Quran as a site for polemical, sectarian battles see also Hussein Abdul–Raof, “Textual Progression and Presentation Technique in Quranic Discourse: An Investigation of Richard Bell’s Claims of ‘Disjointedness’ with Especial Reference to Quran. 17–20”, Journal of Quranic Studies 7: 2 (2005): 36–60; Waleed Bleyhesh Al-Amri, “Quran Translation and Commentary: An Unchartered Relationship?” Islam and Science 8: 2 (2010): 81–110; Meir M. Bar-Asher, “Variant Readings and Additions of the Imami-Shi‘i to Quran”, Israel Oriental Studies 13 (1993): 39–74; Mohammad A Chaudhary, “Orientalism on Variant Readings of the Quran: The case of Arthur Jeffery”, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 12:2 (1995): 170–184; Michael L. Fitzgerald, “Shi‘ite Understanding of the Quran”, Encounter 178 (1991): 3–12; F.V. Greifenhagen, “Traduttore Traditore: An Analysis of the History of English Translations of the Quran”, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 3: 2 (1992): 274–291; Ahmad Zaki Hammad, “Representing the Quran in English” in The Gracious Quran: 67–87; Abdel Moneim A. Hosni, “On Translating the Quran”, Journal of King Saud University 2: 2 (1990): 93–134; Moch Nur Ichwan, “Differing Responses to an Ahmadi Translation and Exegesis. The Holy Quran in Egypt and Indonesia”, Archipel 62 (2001): 143–161; Muzaffar Iqbal, “Western Academia and the Quran”, Muslim World Book Review 30:1 (2009): 6–18; Khaleel Mohammed, “Assessing English Translations of the Quran”, Middle East Quarterly 12:2 (2005): 59–72; Neal Robinson, “Sectarian and Ideological Bias in Muslim Translations of the Quran”, Islam and Christian Muslim Relations 8:3 (1997): 261–278; Muhammad Samiullah, “Quran: the Final Scripture. (An Appraisal of false, misleading, and inimical interpretation of the meaning of the Quran)” Islamic Studies 20 (1981): 261–68.
73Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Quran, 32–33.
74Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1975): 125.
75A.R. Kidwai, “Book Review on El-Ashi’s M.M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Quran: Revised and Edited in Modern Standard English (1996)” Muslim World Book Review 18:1 (1997): 14–17.
76Iqbal Husain Ansari, Corrections of Errors in Picthall’s English Translation of the Glorious Quran (Karachi, Pakistan, 47–4, PECHS, n.d.).
77A.R. Kidwai, “Book Review on Ansari’s Corrections of Errors in Pickthall’s English Translation of the Glorious Quran”, Muslim World Book Review 13: 1 (1992): 15–16.
78T.B. Irving, The Quran (Vermont: Amana Books, 1985), xxii.
79Peter Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim (London: Quartet Books, 1986).
80Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 63.
81Ibid., 66.
82Mohammed, “Assessing”, 61.

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