On the New Revised Edition of Yusuf Ali’s Qur’an Translation
by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
In 1983 Amana printed Yusuf Ali’s outstanding Qur’anic translation and commentary in a nice subsidized hardcover edition. Except for minor changes, it was a reprinting of the classic third edition of Ali’s famous work. The third edition, the last produced during Alis lifetime, has been responsible for the conversion of many English speakers to Islam. He was punished for his intense labors for the sake of Islam with persecution. In the L’envoi to his Quranic translation and commentary he confided: “I had not imagined that so much human jealousy, misunderstanding, and painful misrepresentation should pursue one who pursues no worldly gain and pretends to no dogmatic authority.”
During his life he triumphed over misrepresentation. Now that he is dead, and no longer able to defend himself, however, Amana (1989) has produced a similar-looking, but seriously condensed edition marked “New and Revised.” The commentary in this “edition” is not so much revised as censored. The Publisher’s Note places responsibility for the work on anonymous “scholars” and “committees”. The only scholar named by the publisher is the late Isma’il al-Faruqi who was assassinated before the book was published, and who, therefore, cannot explain why he acquiesced to such revisions as, for example, the removal of Yusuf Ali’s appendices on the “Allegorical Interpretation of the Story of Joseph,” “Mystical Interpretation of the Verse of Light,” and “The Muslim Heaven” from the “New Revised Edition.” The subsidization of this edition is pricing Ali’s own third edition out of the market. This is not just a matter of underpricing the competition; it is more like a case of “knock-off designer labels.” By this method, buyers of what is called “Ali’s” translation and commentary are unwittingly deprived of Ali’s actual work and ideas.
The removal of appendices and evisceration of footnotes are my main objection to this edition, but the added material is dubious as well. The worst offense may be the footnote to 38:33 on the significance of the wording that Soloman (as) “began to pass his hand over” the legs and necks of his horses. In the 1989 Amana edition we find an addition to Yusuf Ali’s footnote referring to an “alternative interpretation” that “upon missing ‘Asr prayer, Solomon, peace be upon him, was so upset and sorry that he asked for the horses to be brought back to him and the ‘he fell to slashing with his sword their legs and necks,’ that is, he slaughtered them in expiation of his lapse seeking the forgiveness and pleasure of Allah.” Imagine the impact this would have on a seeker, seeing Islam represented by Muslims as a religion in which one obtains expiation for one’s own sins by the brutal mutilation of God’s innocent creatures! This bizarre interpretation was known to Ali, but he deliberately omitted it no doubt because of its obvious contradiction to the fundamental teachings of Islam as well as specific hadith’s prohibiting cruelty to animals. (I am told that after I pointed out this particular offensive addition to Amana’s then publications director it was deleted from later editions.)
Less draconian among the features which make the “New Revised Edition” a less effective introduction to Islam is the decision to detranslate the word “God” back into the Arabic “Allah”. One of Yusuf Alis brilliant insights was not to follow Muhammad Pickthall’s precedent of declining to translate the Arabic word Allah into the English word God. Many Arabs and linguists prefer Allah because it cannot be made plural, according to the rules of Arabic grammar. It therefore profoundly symbolizes the unity of God. This subtle linguistic point is lost on the average English speaker reading a Qur’anic translation for the first time. Ali wisely realized that it is more important to drive home the point that Allah is the same God with Whom the reader was already familiar as the God of Abraham and did translate that Arabic word into English. This is a more accessible and powerful lesson on divine unity.
It would have been better had the committee responsible for the “New Revised” edition heeded al-Biruni’s criticism of early translators of Greek texts for transliterating technical terms rather than using Arabic equivalents, thus losing potential readers. The scholars who passed judgment on Yusuf Alis commentary should have identified themselves in print, signed their names to their revisions, and made their criticisms openly. When Imam Muslim put out his Hadith compilation, he did not call it the “New revised” edition of Sahih Bukhari! Academic scholarship must be done openly; there is no merit in testing ideas in an academic equivalent of a Star Chamber.
This is an expanded version of a review initially published in The Reminder v. 4 #2, (March-April, 1992) p.2. Reprinted with permission of the author.
In 2002, the Los Angeles School District banned the use of this new revised translation in its schools because of the footnotes comments about Jews. “L.A. Schools Review Donated Korans, Citing Derogatory Commentary,” Magazine of the American Library Association, Feb. 11, 2002.