Increasingly North American converts to Islam are expressing
discomfort over the aggressive proselytising efforts for their philosophical souls by
varied sectarian groups. In making complaints to their local Imams and Islamic
instructors, they reveal that some of these groups appear to have some peculiar
fanaticism, or obsessive "mission" to promote their own groups particular
perspective on "traditions," schools of thoughts, Fiqh, etc.
This proselytising, they indicate, also encroaches upon the validity of English "translations" of the meanings of the Qur'an. The word, "meanings," interestingly, is more often used now as a euphemism to satisfy the "truism" that the Qur'an "cannot be translated."
Such activity may indeed be innocent. Unfortunately, over zealousness in this activity may breed further divisiveness and confusion for the young non-Arab speaking Muslims. Such activity, given another view, should alert sincere Muslims of the dangers of extremism and inspire greater incentive to become involved with the Arabic of the Qur'an, even as the basic principles of Islam are being learned.
Much of the weight of this falls upon the Imams and
"scholars." At base, more attention has to be given to the methodology of
teaching. The objective is to protect the young believers from these cultist proselytisers
who sally near the Masajid, waiting to pounce on the new believer after he has just made
his declaration of faith.
With respect to this reality, we have noted that many teachers of Islam in America are now providing classes where the English "translations" are reviewed and examined in tandem with the instructions of the fundamental beliefs. Often the varied "translations," of words such as "heart" vs. "breast" in Surah Al-Nas are compared and contrasted to aid the new believers in grasping their synonymous Arabic counterparts, i.e. "qalb" and "Sadr."
Many English "translations" are being used for this purpose. These include many of the following: Ahmed Ali, Karat, Published in Karachi; MA Hale Elias, The Brunei Academy, published in India; Muhammad Ali; (earlier, later versions, most recent published by the Custodian of the Two Holy; Mosques King Fad Bin Abdullah Assize Al Saudi); Pickthall; Maulana Ali; Nobel Qur'an, Saudi published; V. Mir Ahmed Ali,Tarike Tarsile published (Shi'a oriented); Maulana Abdul Majid, Taj Company,Karachi; Muhammad Asad, Dar-Al-Andalus, Gibraltar; Mawdudi of Pakistan and several others.
We have found that appropriate introduction of the Qur'an to the
English speaking people is very critical. Many young believers are actually being diverted
away from the Qur'an with suggestions that they are unable to understand it, lacking acute
Arabic literacy. Their introduction to Islam is thus effectuated primarily by the
commentaries, fatwahs, tafsirs, ahadiths, etc. We are also
aware that aggressive sectarian polemics, which accompanies many sectarian movements, is
extremely counterproductive for North Americans.
It is simply better to suggest a particular Qur'anic "translation" that instructors feel best and allow the students to begin their studies in earnest. They (the new Muslims) are simply trying to understand the basics of Islam. Further, in this modern era where "ethnic and religious oppression," has become a "foreign policy" concern of many states, it is wise to re-think the methods of introducing Al-Islam to non-Arab speaking peoples.
Again, we have found that extreme preoccupation with any divisive or controversial issue for Muslims carries the danger of "forgetting Allah, and the Deen" in the essential aspect of "soul and self." In other words, the thoughts and feelings (anger, etc) that preoccupy the Muslim so engrossed may cause him or her to neglect many other important responsibilities ordained by Allah. It is clear that practising and teaching the Truth in a positive way will do more to enlighten the new believer than campaigns to win the young over to one or another sect or school of thought.
In reviewing the issue of English "translations," one
finds that the old standard Yusuf Ali translation still serves well for most English
speakers. The latest version published by the Custodian of the Holy Mosques printing
complex claims in its introduction: "In order to produce a reliable translation free
from person bias, a Royal decree (no. 19888) was issued by the Custodian of the Two Holy
Mosques...authorising the Presidency of the Departments of Islamic Research to revise and
correct a current translation which would be selected for this purpose.
"To accomplish this task a number of committees were formed and found that no translation was free from defects. (thus) two options were open for consideration: the first to select the best then adopt it as a base for the work...with the objective of revising its contents and, correcting faults; the second was to prepare a fresh, independent (new) translation and start from scratch.
"It became obvious that the second option demanded too much time...(thus) the translation by the late Ustadh Abdullah Yusuf Ali was chosen for it distinguishing characteristics, it highly elegant style, the choice of words close to the meaning of the original text, accompanied by scholarly notes and commentaries."
Some may readily disagree with the Custodian's decision in this case, especially with the editing of the original English commentary (without readers being able to determined what was edited out), etc. Nevertheless, one need not necessarily accept the Custodian's rationale to agree that Ali's "translations" has remained through many decades, mostly free of overt sectarian bias in its renderings. This recognition would be true for most, despite any disputed personal philosophy or socio-political concepts Ali may have had at one, or another period of his life. Allah will judge us all. He knows best. Surely we will "differ" until the time of -judgement, according to Allah's words in the Qur'an.
So what should the Non-Arab speakers do? Obviously, they should
pre-occupy themselves with the Qur'an in seeking purification of their souls. They should
encourage such in others and strive to find and effect the best methodology for helping
the others make the transition of language concepts from English to the Arabic of the
Qur'an. Ali's version, even with the new fetish at editing it, appears to be best for such
We find the "Noble Qur'an," on the other hand, gives less an exact translation (word-word, sentence-sentence "translation of meaning) than Ali and others, but the authors claim that the commentary-like renderings gives the readers a better Sunnah oriented understanding. The technical Arabic to English "translation " (of the 'Nobel' Qur'an) suffers for the sake of the author's pre-occupation with tafsirs, ahadiths and editorial opinion to convey a given perspective (or school of thought). The authors themselves acknowledge this in their introduction and, quite adroitly, explain their diversion from traditional translation styles.
It may be more difficult for the non-native English speakers to
appreciate what native English speakers know instinctively with reference to acceptable
and successful da'wah in the West. This is why you often see Muslim-Americans
urging the cessation of the divisive polemic controversies carried on from abroad. The
emphasis, they feel, should be first on Allah, and the Guidance given in the Qur'an,
bearing the pre-eminent Source of Knowledge, and of course, on the practical teachings and
conduct of the Prophet (s.A.w.).
It is felt that the people are intelligent enough to accept or reject Islam. Allah explains that we are only to give the message, clearly, as did the Messenger. Those in whose heart is the desire to meet their Lord, will so incline, only by His Will. None of the controversial groups or individuals professing their "version" of Islam is so important that they become the sole preoccupation of Muslims. Allah tests some by others. While the press makes much of these controversies, we live among the people and we know their real numbers. They are marginal, but gain paltry notoriety, because they draw many sincere Muslims into their debilitating debates and argument over Fiqh, Sunnah, etc.
We believe that the pure preaching of Al-Islam will bring the
people to Islam who themselves are destined to come. Placing undeserved attention on
maverick groups will not cause them to go away nor have less or more influence that Allah
permits. We believe that the Muslims must be "people oriented," and demonstrate,
in action, the conduct given to us by Allah and the example of the Prophet (S.A.w.). This,
we feel will endear the people to Islam, to Allah, His Books and His Messengers (Peace be
unto them all).
There may be those who differ, even as we speak. Proper dialogue, however, with the Qur'an as the Furqan (measure of decision) and Standard (ultimate Source), we may, by Allah's Will, learn more about the appropriate ways to study our Deen. We have the excellent example in Prophet Muhammad as a reflecting mirror of the Qur'an. Certainly, Allah will guide those who sincerely seek His Pleasure. It is He who says of the righteous, "They study it, as it should be studied." May Allah grant us all success in His Way.
Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif
22 February 1999.
[Currently, he is the Imam for Masjidush-Shura Washington DC. He was one of the founders of the American Muslim Council and served as in-house editor for the International Institute of Islamic Studies in Virginia, USA. As a writer, his writings have been published in significant publications. He is listed in WHO'S' WHO in Black America and WHO'S WHO among International Authors and Writers. His main interest lies in the rise of Islam in USA and the effects of international foreign policy upon Muslims in USA. He has traveled widely and has had acquaintance with such peer personalities as Malcolm (X) Shabazz, Muhammad Ali and W.D. Mohammad, etc., all early pioneers in the Islamic movements in America.]