Questions About Translations

By F. M. Perry, April 3, 2002.

Let me introduce myself. I am a Christian who works for livelihood as an Electrical Engineer. I have only cursory knowledge of the book known to Muslims as The Qur'an, but I have begun a study of an English language translation. I sincerely pray that my approach to study of the Qur'an is without bias and my comments are without antagonism to anyone of the religion of Islam.

What Muslims Say about Translations of the Qur'an.

My first attempt to read the Qur'an was necessarily limited to an English language translation since English is the only language I know. I purchased a copy of the book entitled "The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (Qur'an)" by an English Muslim, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall. In the Foreword of the book I read the following:

  • "The Koran (Qur'an) cannot be translated (from the original Arabic). That is the belief of the old-fashioned Sheykhs and the view of the present writer. The Book is here rendered almost literally (in English) and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Koran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Koran - and peradventure something of the charm - in English. It can never take the place of the Koran in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so."

Later in my search to learn more about the Quran I found the following in a scholarly Internet article by Toby Lester, Associate Editor of the publication Atlantic Unbound:

  • "By the end of the tenth century the official doctrine (of Islam towards the Qur'an) had become that of i'jaz, or the 'inimitability' of the Qur'an. As a result the Qur'an has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases. The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Qur'an as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant."

To me as a long time student of the Judeo-Christian Bible, this Islamic doctrine seemed strange indeed, that is, the doctrine that the "the literal and uncreated Word of God," believed to be contained in the Qur'an, would lose its efficacy and usefulness if translated into languages other than Arabic. It is so unlike God's message in the Judeo-Christian Bible which literally cries out to be translated and communicated to every human being. More about this later.

References in the Qur'an to the Judeo-Christian Bible.

My first reading of the Qur'an (in English translation) revealed to me certain close relationships between the Qur'an and the Bible which I had not previously known. I counted approximately 158 references to "the Book" scattered throughout 43 surahs (chapters). In most cases the term "the Book" seemed clearly to refer to the Judeo-Christian Bible containing either the Taurat (Torah), the Injeel (Gospel), or both. In every case "the Book" itself was treated by the Qur'an with reverence as a revelation from God. The Qur'an commended those who claimed to be followers of "the Book" if they were faithful to "the Book." But the Qur'an warned of judgement to come if the "followers of "the Book" were deemed to be hypocrites.

And of course, as I read the Qur'an for the first time I realized that many of its major characters were the same as those in the Judeo-Christian Bible. For example, among the characters apparently deemed important to the message of the Qur'an the angel Gabriel is mentioned 3 times, Adam is mentioned 24 times, Noah 46 times, Ibrahim (Abraham) 77 times,. Ishaq (Isaac) 17 times, Ismail (Ishmael) 12 times, Yaquob (Jacob) 15 times, Musa (Moses) 171 times, Marium (Mary) the mother of Jesus 33 times, and Isa (Jesus) 28 times. I could not help but notice, however, that the Qur'an described certain events in the lives of these characters differently than did the Bible. The Bible accounts were much more comprehensive and revealing of the place of these characters in God's message than were the accounts in the Qur'an.

I was particularly impressed to discover that the Qur'an declares "the Book," the Judeo-Christian Bible, to be important as a message from God and that the message of the Qur'an involves, at least in part, many of the same historical characters who are important to God's message in the Judeo-Christian Bible. These facts seem to reveal that the Qur'an itself challenges everyone to study the Judeo-Christian Bible to learn more fully God's message to mankind.

Keeping in mind this challenge to readers of the Qur'an to study the Bible, let us turn again to thoughts concerning translations. I understand intellectually the fact that the original version of the Qur'an in spoken Arabic is considered to be of purest form, beautiful, and emotionally moving as its sound and thought is transmitted through the ear to the mind. I sympathize with the notion that such an Arabic gift, thought to be the "uncreated Word of God," might be destroyed by translation by humans into another language. Of course, I have no thought against an official Islamic policy not to sanction translations of the Qur'an.

However, I am moved to comment on the quite different attitude presented in "the Book" concerning translations of the original languages of inspiration of God's word to humans. "The Book," the Judeo-Christian Bible, teaches that translations are necessary in order to accomplish God's purpose of presenting His message of good news to all mankind. Let us consider what the Bible actually says concerning this subject.

What Does "the Book" Teach About Translations into Various Human Tongues?

The part of the Bible referred to in the Qur'an as the Gospel (Injeel) indicates it was intended by God to be translated from the language of the original inspired writers into all the languages of the world. God arranged from the beginning that the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ be preached in many languages. This is illustrated in the book of Acts, chapter 2, which gives an account of the very first preaching of the Gospel message in the Christian era. The Apostles of Jesus were all together in one place in Jerusalem (probably on the Temple Mount) where they had speaking access to Jews from many nations who were gathered to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. Jesus had been crucified and raised from the grave some 50 days earlier. The Apostles had been seen Him rise into the heavens in His ascension to God only ten days earlier. It was time for the Apostles to start preaching the good news that the Savior, Jesus, had been resurrected and had ascended to the throne of God.

  • "(4) And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (5) Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. (6) And when this sound occurred , the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. (7) And they were amazed and marveled, saying, 'Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? (8) 'And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? (9) 'Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, (10) 'Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, (11) 'Cretans and Arabs-we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.'" Acts 2:4-11. NASB.

Here was described a mighty miracle indeed, enacted by the Holy Spirit of God. It involved either the preaching of God's Gospel message in languages the inspired speakers had not learned, and/or the hearing of the message in languages which the speakers were not speaking. Whatever the case, the purpose of God to translate the Gospel message to each and every member of that multi-lengual audience was supernaturally done so that each one heard the message in his own language. A multitude of people, including 3,000 from among the men alone, responded to the message that very day by becoming the first of those later to be known as Christians. (Read Acts 2:12-47.) It is clear that from the beginning of Christianity God has desired that His word be made available to all peoples in their native vernacular.

The very nature of the Bible message demands that it be propagated in native languages. The predominant message of both the Old and New Testaments is the good news that God has made salvation from the judgement of the wicked world available to all mankind. The Gospel message that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16), of necessity must be transmitted with clarity of understanding to everyone. Jesus Himself commissioned Christians to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15). God loves everyone dearly and is "not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). For everyone to receive God's call to repentance, it is imperative that the call be translated from the original language of the inspired prophet who first received it into every common vernacular.

God has made it relatively easy for His people to carry out the task of "preaching the word to all creation." The prophets inspired of God to receive God's word, received it in only three languages. The Old Testament prophets received God's word in the Hebrew and Aramaic (a version of Hebrew) languages, and the New Testament prophets received God's word in the Koine Greek language. It so happens that these languages were among the most capable of any in the ancient world of expressing subtlety of thought. Indeed, there are many scholars today who still study and maintain fluency in these ancient languages for the purpose of bringing to present day mankind authentic translations of the early documents.

Can We Count on the Authenticity and Accuracy of the Judeo-Christian Bible Published in Current Languages of Today?

The Judeo-Christian Bible contains 66 separate books written by about 40 different prophets of God. The earliest of the books was written about the year 2150 BC (the book of Job) and the latest was written about the year 90 AD (the book of Revelation). The original manuscripts made by the inspired writers of these books no longer exist. But there are a great many ancient manuscripts bearing dates from about 200 BC to 400 AD which are copies of the originals. Professional scholars study the many manuscript copies and determine the most accurate readings to be translated by the language experts into the current languages of today. There is little or no doubt that the publishers of today's Bibles are able to give us accurate translations of the same words that were heard and read by the people to whom the various books of the Bible were originally addressed.

There are on today's markets books which are not translations but are paraphrases of the original Bible, presenting private human ideas of the meaning of Biblical passages. These paraphrased editions are not "the Bible" as presented to mankind by God, nor are they "the Book" referred to in the Qur'an. Muslims who may be reading "the Book" for the first time should not be confused by the variety of translated and paraphrased editions available. The foreword of the editions usually identify whether they are actual translations or paraphrases and indicate the purpose for which they are published. For instance, there are different English language translations which simply bring the language up to date with words which have changed their meanings over time, or which put the translation into words more understandable to those who speak different versions of English (i.e., the British and the Americans versions). Paraphrased versions are not accurate translations but are sometimes useful in discussion of the actual meaning of the text intended by God. They should only be used alongside of authentic translations.

Muslims desiring to look into "the Book" should not be confused by the differences in understanding and practice among the various denominations of so-called Christianity. An analogy may be made of these divisions with the divisions which exist in the world of Islam. They are due to human nature and limitations placed by worldly thinking, not by Godly thinking. One can get around the misunderstandings of the world by studying the Bible for oneself. The Apostle Paul in a first century letter to the young Christian Timothy recommended he study for himself: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB).

In quoting the Bible in my articles on the internet, I am using "The New American Standard Bible." Among other English translations which I consider to be accurate are "The King James Version," "The American Standard Version," "The Revised Standard Version," "The New International Version," and "The New King James Version."

For those who wish to look further into the details of the origin of the Judeo-Christian Bible, I recommend you click on the websites, FAQ on the Origin of the Bible, and The Bible's Origin and Preservation.

Watch for more articles to come in this series: "A Christian Considers the Qur'an in the Light of the Judeo-Christian Bible."

With Love, F. M. Perry.

(If you would like to write to me concerning this article, please do so via my Contact Page).

© 2002, F. M. Perry