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Holy Quran: Text and Translation by Yasin al-Jibouri

Many questions come to mind when one considers the challenging undertaking of producing a new translation of the Holy Qur’ān: Is one “qualified” to undertake this task and, if so, what criteria determine such a qualification? Can he or she guarantee that the Almighty will not be offended because of an error in this translation, though it may be incidental? Can he or she guarantee that his new translation brings something new that enriches the existing translations?

Any presentation ought to be impressive, thought provoking and mind challenging, but let this be your presentation, not mine, for mine is simple, brief and to the point. I wished to include some points in this presentation, but the time pressure has forced me to be brief in order to let other brothers and sisters utilize the time allotted to them to express their precious views. I contend myself with the following humble statement:

Many questions come to mind when one considers the challenging undertaking of producing a new translation of the Holy Qur’ān: Is one “qualified” to undertake this task and, if so, what criteria determine such a qualification? Can he or she guarantee that the Almighty will not be offended because of an error in this translation, though it may be incidental? Can he or she guarantee that his new translation brings something new that enriches the existing translations?

Were I to tackle the answers to all these questions, this presentation would develop into a thesis of a handsome size, perhaps even a booklet or a book, depending on one’s ardent desire to do his/her best in this regard. But I leave such an undertaking to you, my respectful brother or sister, while I focus on two issues that prompted me a long time ago, as far back as 1974 when I started editing and publishing my Society’s Islamic Affairs bimonthly newsletter, to seriously consider producing a new English translation of the Holy Qur’ān. The Society I am referring to is the Islamic Society of Georgia, Inc. which I founded in 1973 in Atlanta, Georgia, months after going to the U.S. (from Saudi Arabia) to earn a graduate degree in English. These two issues are:

FIRST: Is it really justifiable, while translating the Word of the Almighty, to describe our Prophet, the man for whom the Almighty created everything, as being “unlettered”? Have you heard the Christians describing Christ, peace be upon him, as being “unlettered”? Have you heard the Jews describing Moses, peace be upon him, as being “unlettered”? If not, and surely the answer is negative, how can we justify our calling the Prophet of Islam “unlettered”, one who knows neither reading nor writing?

لُقِّبَ رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم بالأميِّ؛ لأنه كان لا يقرأ ولا يكتب، وهذه صفة كان يتَّصف بها غالب العرب في ذلك الوقت؛ قال الله تعالى: ﴿هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِّنْهُمْ﴾ [الجمعة:2

The Egyptian House of Fatwas (binding religious edicts) stated that the Messenger of Allāh (ص) was called “ummi”, illiterate or unlettered, because he did not know how to read or write, a characteristic which distinguished most Arabs at that time. The Almighty has said the following in verse 158 of Sūrat al-A`raf, the Heights or Elevated Places or Elevations, “… So believe in Allah and [in] His Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believes in Allāh and [in] His words; follow him so that you may walk in the right way” (Qur’ān, 7:158), as Abdullāh Yusuf Ali, perhaps the most famous translator, translates this verse.

وفي”الصحيحين” عن ابن عمر ـ رضي الله عنهما ـ عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، أنه قال: انَّا أُمَّةٌ أُمِّيَّةٌ، لا نَكْتُبُ ولَا نَحْسُبُ

In both Sahih books, where Abdullāh son of Omar (ibn al-Khattab), may Allāh be pleased with both of them, Ibn Omar says that he heard the Prophet, the peace and blessing of Allāh be upon him and his Progeny, as saying, “We are an unlettered nation; we do not write, and we do not calculate.” This is what both Sahih books, that is, the Sahih of al-Bukhāri and that of Muslim, state. I wonder how many Arabs would agree with this text…

سألت أبا جعفر محمد بن علي الرضا عليهما السلام، فقلت له: يا ابن رسول الله! لم سمي النبي صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم الأمي؟
فقال: ما يقول الناس؟
قلت: يزعمون أنه سمي الأمي، لأنه لم يكتب.
فقال عليه السلام: كذبوا، عليهم لعنة الله، أنى ذلك، والله عز وجل يقول في محكم كتابه: * (هو الذي بعث في الأميين رسولا منهم يتلوا عليهم آياته ويزكيهم ويعلمهم الكتاب والحكمة) * (٢) فكيف كان يعلمهم ما لا يحسن!؟
والله! لقد كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم يقرأ ويكتب باثنين وسبعين أو قال:
بثلاثة وسبعين لسانا، وإنما سمي الأمي، لأنه كان من أهل مكة، ومكة من أمهات القرى، وذلك قول الله عز وجل: * (لتنذر أم القرى ومن حولها)

Someone asked Abu Ja`far (Imam) al-Jawād (ع), “Why was the Prophet, peace be upon him and his Progeny, called Ummi?” He (in turn) asked him, “What do people say (about that)?” The inquirer said to the Imam, “May I be sacrificed for your sake, they claim that the Prophet (Peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him and his Progeny) was called Ummi because he did not know how to write.” The Imam (ع) said, “They lied, may the curse of Allāh be upon them. How can this be while Allāh, the most Blessed, the most Exalted One, says this in His perfect Book: ‘He it is Who sent to the Ummis a Messenger from among their own selves to recite to them His Signs, to purify them and to teach them the Book and the wisdom;’ so, how could he teach them that which he himself did not master? By Allāh, the Messenger of Allāh (Peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him and his Progeny) used to read and write in seventy-two or seventy-three tongues. Rather, he was called Ummi because he was born in Mecca, and Mecca was among the mother towns as the Holy Qur’an states: ‘… so you may warn Umm al-Qura (the Mother Town) and those around it (Qur’ān, 6:92).” Also notice the plural “Ummis” above which refers to the people of Mecca who had among them businessmen with trade ties connecting them with people outside Arabia and who kept records of their business agreements and trade-related matters as well as correspondence and bookkeeping. Would you call these businessmen unlettered, illiterate or unable to read and write?!

Now compare the above translation with mine, I am here providing you with my translation of the entire verse:

Say (O Muhammed!): “O people! I am sent to you all as the Messenger of Allah to Whom the dominion of the heavens and of the earth belongs: There is no god but He: It is He Who brings back to life and Who causes death, so believe in Allah and in his Messenger, the Ummi Prophet who believes in Allah and in His words:

Follow him so you may be rightly guided.”

Notice that I have used the word “ummi” just as both SV Mir Ahmed Ali and Muhammad Habib Shakir, the latter being my favorite, and I have edited his translation which is now in print in more than one edition, all Praise is due to Allāh Who enabled me to do that.

Now why do I prefer to use the word “ummi” over “unlettered”? This verse is one of the most misunderstood words of the Holy Qur’ān. The Prophet of Islam (ص) was born in Mecca which was called “Umm al-Qura”, the mother town; this is where “Ummi” comes from: the one who was born in Umm al-Qura. It is this simple. As for his being “unlettered” or illiterate, had he been so, why did the Almighty command him at the beginning of revelation to “Read!” or “Recite!” (Qur’ān, 97:1)?! Can you explain that?!

SECOND: Ablution, i.e. the performing of wudhu’وضوء , and its soundness is an essential act of worship in Islam; wrong performance of ablution means wrong and unacceptable prayer, and if one’s prayer is not accepted, none of his other good deeds are accepted.

الوضوء مأخوذ من الوضاءة .. وهي الإشراقة والضياء والنور والصفاء والحسن والنظافة ، وهي الحالة التي يكون عليها باطن المتوضئ وظاهره حينما يتوضأ ؛ فهو علامة الإيمان .. قال – صلى الله عليه وسلم – : ” ولن يحافظ على الوضوء إلا مؤمن ” رواه ابن ماجة .

The word “wudhu’’ is derived from the word “wadhā’a”, that is, shining, luminance, clarity, beauty and cleanliness which is the state of the inside and of the outside of the individual who performs it. This hadith is narrated by Ibn Majah. It, therefore, is the sign of imān, belief, conviction. The Prophet (ص) has said, “None safeguards wudhu’ other than a believer.”

Ablution is so important, the Holy Qur’ān explains its method so nobody will be excused if he or she does not observe it properly. Here below is the verse that explains to us how to perform the ablution:

یا أَیهَا الَّذینَ آمَنُوا إِذا قُمْتُمْ إِلَی الصَّلاةِ فَاغْسِلُوا وُجُوهَكُمْ وَ أَیدِیكُمْ إِلَی الْمَرافِقِ وَ امْسَحُوا بِرُؤُسِكُمْ وَ أَرْجُلَكُمْ إِلَی الْكَعْبَین

Above is verse 6 of Sūrat al-Ma’ida (Ch. 5, the Table Spread). Here below is its translation by SV Mir Ahmed Ali:

O ye who believe! When ye get ready unto prayers, wash ye your faces and your hands with the elbows and wipe a part of your heads and a part of your feet to the ankles.

Let us overlook the “ye”, Shakespearean “you”, and focus on what a person who performs the ablution does to the feet. This translator uses the verb “wipe” which is not different than “rub”. The same verb is used by Muhammad Habib Shakir, but what about Dr. T.B. Irving and Abdullāh Yusuf Ali? Here below is the translation of this verse according to the latter:

O ye who believe! When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles.

Notice how this translator inserts in parentheses “with water”, but let me ask you:

If you rub your head with water, will that not be washing it? Then he uses the verb “wash”, inserting it in parentheses when he goes to the feet up to the ankles. Is this the proper way of performing the ablution, washing the head and washing the feet? The Arabic word used by the Almighty in this verse is “امسحوا”, rub or wipe, not wash. In my visits to various mosques, I saw how some believers do, indeed, wash their heads and feet, and I wondered about it.

It is this wrong way of performing the ablution that convinced me that a more accurate translation of this verse and its likes is needed, hence my taking the time to attempt to do that, so let me introduce you to my own translation of the same verse:

O believers! When you are ready to pray, wash your faces and hands up to the elbows and rub your heads (with your wet hands) to the ankles.

Notice the economy of words in my translation, there is no need to be verbose, to add or to subtract from what the verse says, just translate the text as is and leave it there.

These are the two reasons that prompted me to undertake the task of producing a new English translation of the Holy Qur’an, and if you do not like my translation, I have no problem with that, you are entitled to it, and I do not like yours, either! When translating some text, we should let our own liking or disliking alone.

I, every cell in my body, plead to the Almighty to guide our steps to what He loves and prefers, to inspire us to be honest to the text of His Qur’ān, the most sacred and Holy Scriptures in existence, Allahomma Aameen, Wassalamo Alaikom.

The above is  Yasin T. al-Jibouri presentation before the International Conference of Translators of the Holy Qur’an sponsored by IQRA (International Qur’an Research Association) held on July 1-2, 2023.

About Ali Teymoori

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