Interview with Prof. T. B. Irving
Posted Sep 29, 2002

Interview with Professor T. B. Irving

by Sheila Musaji

    Professor Thomas Ballantine Irving (Al-Hajj Ta?lim ?Ali) was born in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada in 1914. He holds a B.A. in Modern Languages from Toronto, an M es L in French from Montreal, and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton. He is perhaps best known in the Muslim community in America for his American-English translation of the Qur?an.

    Professor Irving has been an instructor in Spanish at Berkeley; a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve; Director of Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogota, Columbia; Assistant Professor at Wells College, Aurora, N.Y.; Instructor at University de San Carlos, Guatemala; Professor of Spanish and Arabic at the University of Minnesota; Fulbright Research Grant, Baghdad, Iraq; Visiting professor, University of Texas, Austin; Profesor of foreign languages, North Central College, Naperville, IL; Professor of Spanish, Guelph University, Ontario, Canada and at University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Professor Emeritus at University of Tennessee; Trustee of the American Islamic College, Chicago.

    Professor Irving has traveled widely and is a member of many organizations. He has been active in the Muslim community since he accepted Islam in the 1930’s in Toronto. He has founded Arabic and Islamic Studies Departments in three state universities: Minnesota, Texas at Austin and Tennessee.

    Some of his major publications include: The Qur?an: Selections from the Noble Reading, The Falcon of Spain and numerous booklets, articles and scholarly papers in English and Spanish.

    He lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he is active at the ?mother mosque? the oldest existing mosque in the U.S. It was specifically designed and built as a mosque and opened in 1934. It has been completely renovated to be preserved as a national historic site. The first national Muslim conference was also held in Cedar Rapids in 1952.

    Professor Irving was actively involved in helping to plan the First North American Muslim Pow Wow held at Abiquiu, NM in 1992 and during the gathering gave many fascinating presentations.  (photo below of Prof. Irving at the Pow Wow). 

    In 1992 Professor Irving was interviewed by Sheila Musaji, and the following was published in the Winter 1992 issue of The American Muslim.

TAM: Can you tell us when you converted to Islam?

TBI: I am an ?old timer? because I became a Muslim (never changed, never was anything else, just as the Prophet says) in the 1930’s at Toronto. Please don?t call me a ?convert? because that implies change and what did I change from? I ?became? a Muslim only in the sense that at a point in time I realized that was what I was. I personally feel that I am not a convert and not an ?indigenous? as opposed to an immigrant Muslim. I have met very few American Indians who were Muslims. The Blacks often call themselves this, but they are indigenous to Africa (look this word up in a good dictionary). I think what they mean is native-born Muslims. I am a native-born Muslim, except I come from Canada, and my family was indigenous to Scotland.

TAM: I understand what you are saying, and have been involved in some pretty heated discussions with other American Muslims involving the terms convert/revert and even ?born-again? Muslims. This topic seems to raise a lot of emotions, just as Black/Afro-American or American Indian/Native American can with some of our brothers and sisters. Actually, native-born is probably the clearest description I have heard of our status. It certainly feels more comfortable to me than refert for example, which I find to be a very uncomfortable usage.

TBI: I agree except that ?revert? might apply to descendants of the West African inner kingdoms along the Niger river.

TAM: In deference to your years of study and effort in the cause of Islam and the great respect I have for you, I feel hesitant to raise with you the following questions, however we would like to hear your point of view, and I am certain that you are aware that some criticisms have been leveled at your translation of the Qur?an. I would like to go through these and ask you to respond if that is acceptable to you.

TBI: Certainly.

TAM: Why did you choose to publish your translation without commentary and without the Arabic text?

TBI: I did not exclude commentary. My commentary was included as part of the original translation and was intended to be published. However, Mrs. Irving and I paid for the typesetting for the present edition of my translation (after the money that was donated and sent here to Cedar Rapids for this purpose simply ?disappeared?? as Argentine dissidents did). If we had included the full commentary, then we simply could not have afforded to print it. The same applies to the Arabic and English edition. Both were included in the original format, but to have printed it as envisioned would have doubled the cost. I did not choose to drop the Arabic text, or the commentary - the prohibitive expense forced it on me. It would cost a quarter of a million dollars at least to publish the complete edition.

TAM: There has been some criticism of some of the terminology - specifically the use of the word ?version? instead of translation, interpretation, etc.; the fact that you translate the Arabic Allah into God Alone; and your use of American colloquialisms.

TBI: I do not think that my translation is either archaic or colloquial (try to make poetry out of part 30 in either manner). I am a published poet, and still found it difficult. In the preface to my work (pages xl to xliii) I devoted a section to the topic of ?Translation as an Art? in which I have explained clearly my position regarding translations.

    About using God (God Alone, as I prefer to translate it), the urgent need of the Islamic world is to present the Islamic message to North America in its own language, not the Neanderthal jargon that we sometimes see and hear. We saw this need in the Gulf War with the television commentators and the journalists. They simply didn?t understand Islam, nor were our troops provided with a rational explanation of it in good English.

    We have two audiences we must reach: 1) The broad American public, who only need a clear English paperback they can buy cheaply in any bookstore. I know that this need is keenly felt from my teaching experience with American undergraduates. 2) For ourselves (American Muslims, especially those who are confused with thou, thee and ye, etc.) it can include the Arabic (but this also must be clear, not like the 1930’s edition of Yusuf Ali, which was so calligraphic that it was really difficult to use). Muhammad Ali?s was much better, but that is Ahmadi. The more recent editions of Yusuf Ali are clearer.

I have translated into English - for Americans - and for that I use God, which any American understands. Add the word ?Alone? either in quotation marks or without them, and the meaning is even more clear. I translate ?La ilaha Ill Allah? as ?There is no deity except God (Alone)?. If we keep to Allah, most Americans ignore the long sign over the second a, and accent the first syllable. So, it is not accurate even when printed. Like the old movie ?The Garden of Allah? with no long mark or macron. I prefer to keep it clear for Americans who often do not have any foreign language experience or even understand diacritical marks.

TAM: You have made the comment that you do not agree with the usage ?Holy Qur?an?. I must admit that I don?t understand this objection. Can you explain what you meant by that comment?

TBI: Nowhere can you find in the Qur?an an Arabic term corresponding with the translation ?Holy? in English. You can find - the ?Noble Reading? or the ?Mighty Qur?an?, or as Pickthall translates, the ?Glorious Qur?an?. This use of the term ?Holy? is mock reverence and a mimicking of Christian missionary usage.

TAM: Some Muslim scholars have recently made statements in print that there is a need for a new attempt to translate the Qur?an since past translations all ?fall short? and ?none of the individuals who claim these efforts is a native Arabic speaker with specialized training in Islamic Studies? and that ?existing, solitary attempts are either archaic, cold, or colloquial; barren of notes or filled with unreliable interpretations?. They have therefore undertaken a project to ?correct? this situation. Is it possible for you to respond on two levels ? first, in general as to whether or not you feel that we need more translations, and secondly as to how you would respond to the statements made regarding existing translations?

TBI: Yes, I am aware of this project and that it is meant to be specifically for American Muslims. It will not be ?American? however because neither the project director nor his collaborators as far as I am aware have been trained in the specific areas or have the experience required. They have a half-million dollar budget apparently, which makes me green with envy after struggling along for thirty years on a shoe-string.

    As to whether we need any more translations or whether or not all previous translations fass short ? I would point out the words of Ismail R. al Faruqi which were written for the dust jacket of my translation: ?It is a commonplace fact that the Qur?an is untranslatable into any language, because its form and content are both Divine. Its meanings, however may be interpreted into other tongues. Obviously no interpretation can express the whole range of meanings contained in any verse. But it can bring to light many an aspect of meaning which has escaped our attention in the past.?

    As to whether it is necessary to be a ?native Arabic speaker? I would have to say that being a ?native English speaker? is just as important. Generally speaking, anyone attempting to translate from Arabic to English (or other languages) will only be a ?native speaker? in one of these languages. What then is required is broad experience in the sound and meaning of both languages. Familiarity with the literature and with the cultural expressions is essential.

TAM: After so many years of service to the Muslim community in America, do you have any regrets?

TBI: In July I was 77 years old and have given almost sixty years of service to Islam in North America and elsewhere. At my age and after the contributions which I have made, I would like to receive a little respect as a scholar with a Ph.D. acquired over fifty years ago (1940) in one of the only two centers (Princeton) where training could be secured in Near Eastern studies, as they called it in those days (the other place was Chicago). I would also like for some ?Muslim? businessmen to ?fess up? as to what happened to the money they raised abroad to publish my translation. There are stories to tell!

TAM Editors note: I find it interesting that we give more importance to having buildings declared national monuments than we give to recognizing and honoring the accomplishments of those individuals like Prof. Irving who have made possible the growth of the Muslim community in America. Prof. Irving may be contacted at The Islamic Cultural Center, 1335 Ninth St., N.W., Cedar Rapids, IA 52405.

UPDATE:  Professor Irving passed away September 26,2002 and was buried in Mississippi on September 28, 2002.  We will miss him.   
This interview was originally published in the Winter 1992 issue of The American Muslim.


The Expulsion of Muslims from Spain, Professor T.B. (TA’ALIM ALI) IRVING

In Memory of Prof. T.B. Irving, Abdul Malik Mujahid

Introduction to the Noble Reading - Part I, Thomas B. Irving AND Part II

Thomas Ballantine Irving:  a Life Well Lived, Ayub Khan

Islam’s Living Miracle: the Qur’an, by T. B. Irving

Tribute to Dr. Thomas Ballantyne Irving – A Canadian Muslim, Muneeb Nasir

Where is T.B. Irving?, Abdul Malik Mujahid