In my formative years I tried to read the Quran in English but without much success. The obstacle for me was the language.  It wasn’t my English that gave me trouble, but the style in which it was written. I had a Marmaduke Pickthall translation with archaic words and grammar that became an insurmountable barrier to my enjoyment and understanding of this wonderful book.


I now know that although translators like Pickthall tried to emulate the Quran’s original style and rhythm, they missed the point. The Quran is a book of guidance and for it to be of any practical use, the reader must be able to understand it, otherwise it loses its function.


Of course for many the Quran remains a holy book reserved for recitation in prayer and at weddings, funerals and other social occasions. Some insist that no attempt should be made to understand the Quran in the mistaken belief the words of the Quran each have varied and hidden meanings and that they cannot be understood without a scholar’s interpretation – which should be accepted without question. This unquestioning view does not rest well with those who have understood the Quran and recognise the  many grave anomalies in the translated texts, that have led to many assorted and disturbing beliefs.


The Quran states that it is a book that makes things clear, explained without ambiguity. It further boldly states that had it been from any other than God, it would have contained many discrepancies. Surely this means that there is consistency in the message – consistency that can only be achieved by dependable rules of the language. If the translator changes the rules at will, then where is the reliability?[1]


Words translated with different shades of meaning to suit the context of the statement, can be accepted without any hesitation. But when the meaning appears to create ambiguity or confusion, it is then we have to question, not the author, but the translator’s skill or indeed the motive.


Unlike some languages, Arabic is not a concept language. The words in Arabic are based on root letters. Words that stem from one root may have different shades of meanings but the essence will remain the same.


An example of this is the root S’L’M.  One word that comes from this root is ISLAM. This means submission (i.e. harmonisation) to a set of laws. This could also mean a group of elements subject to fixed laws, e.g. atoms, planets etc. This can also be applied to a set of harmonious values by which a community – people, birds, insects – live. The word to describe such a community is MUSLIM – also formed from the root S’L’M. In fact, anything or anyone that submits to an absolute law, rule or value (creating or maintaining harmony) can be said to be muslim, in English a ‘submitter’.


This one example shows that although the two words (islam and muslim) appear quite different, one describes a physical system or a social order (submission) and the second describes the one that submits to it, i.e. submitter: planets, people, animals etc. within that system or order. Should we take another word with the same root, yet give it a meaning that is different in essence, then we know the translator has made a fundamental error.


This basic rule applies to all the key words in the Quran – same root, same essence – throughout the Quranic vocabulary. Likewise, the word quran, root Q’R and its derivativesqiraat, qariand iqraareall anchored to the same base and have the same substance, although they each carry a different meaning without changing the essence of the root connotation: recitation, reciter, recital and recite, respectively. Languages that don’t apply this feature with any consistency can be called Concept Languages as random words may be applied to objects and ideas without any connection to other similar associated words.


While some analogies can be made, to compare the Quranic grammar and structure to just any other language is to degrade it. The Quran needs to be incisive and perfect in its delivery of God’s message. Anything less would make it unfit for purpose. Some may still argue that the beauty of the Quranic language is in these variations of meanings. However, this is only a belief and carries no validity. These people have been indoctrinated to leave the thinking to ‘scholars’, who have their own self-serving agendas.


There are many weaknesses in the traditional translations. This is largely due to the desire to conform to prevalent beliefs. Failure to comply with accepted dogma could of course mean being ostracised, or worse, being declared an apostate with the fatal consequences it can bring.  This alone ensures that little or no change takes place. However, a constructively critical eye needs to be cast over any translation. These can then either be discredited and discarded or validated and accepted.


To attach arbitrary meanings leaves the Quran open to abuse and is in fact an insult to God. Did He in his infinite wisdom create a message of guidance for all time, yet leave it open to ambiguity? I suspect not.


Paigham Mustafa,  February 2006.


[1] Detailed guidance: 6:114; 16:89; 17:89. Clear guidance: 2.99; 2:185; 6:157; 7:56; 12:1; 14:4. Nothing left out: 6:38. No contradiction: 4:82.