Yusuf Ali Mistranslations 001

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

Lester A. Knibbs aka Doctor Hakeem

Most of the African American Muslims I know put more trust in Yusuf Ali‘s translation of the Qur’an and in the words of W.D. Mohammed than in Allah and Prophet Muhammad.

Allah sent his final message down to Muhammad, and Muhammad shared it with those around him. Their duty was to share the message with the world. (Twenty-nine years after the passing of Muhammad, there came a generation that thought that their duty and their destiny was to conquer the world. And so it goes. That is why the world is in a mess today. Yes, I’ll say it: It’s the Muslims’ fault.)

The word qur’aan (which is the most familiar name of the message sent to all human beings 14 centuries ago) refers to the process of reciting aloud — with understanding — the text that has been given to us. This process cannot be done in any language but the original Arabic. The original Arabic has sounds and sound patterns, rhythm and rhythm patterns, which cannot be duplicated in another language. In addition, the words and phrases of the original Arabic have meanings which cannot be duplicated in other languages, and especially cannot be duplicated in English. No attempt to translate the meanings of the original Arabic meanings into English can be successful. The meanings of the original Arabic words of the Qur’an give us a new understanding of reality.

Even with this understanding, the text of Yusuf Ali’s “translation” is replete with egregious misrepresentations of the original text. After the following explanatory remarks are three examples, chosen at random, of Yusuf Ali’s mistranslations.

The Qur’an is divided into soorahs. The Arabic plural of soorah is suwar. In English, these divisions are usually called chapters. This is not a translation of the Arabic. The word soorah has a completely different meaning. The best way to understand what constitutes a soorah is to recite the Qur’an, beginning to end (or at least extended sections of it). A soorah in the Qur’an is neither a completely separate entity, such as a book of the Bible; nor does it correspond to a chapter in a book of the Bible (with the possible exception of the Book of Psalms). There are 114 suwar in the Qur’an.

Each soorah of the Qur’an is divided into aayaat. The singular of aayaat is ayah. This means “sign” — in the same sense that a red octagonal along the road is considered a “stop sign”, or dark clouds in the sky are considered a sign of rain. Ayah does not mean “verse” — although this is what they are generally called in English. A soorah may have as many as 286 aayaat or as few as three. The first soorah (entitled “al-Faatihah“, “The Opening”) has seven aayaat. The second soorah (“al-Baqarah“, “The Heifer”, from which the Spanish word for cow, “vaca”, is derived) has 286 aayaat. From there to the end, the suwar and their component aayaat tend to get shorter and shorter. It takes less time to recite the last 50 suwar than to recite the second soorah (between 90 and 120 minutes, at a moderate pace).

In my experience — even though I am not an expert reciter — the sound of the Qur’an being recited has a healing effect. It has calmed a crying toddler; he immediately stopped crying and began to laugh with joy. It has caused the persistent bodily spasms of a bedridden and sleep-deprived hospital patient to cease, allowing the man to fall into a much-needed and restful deep sleep.

The first example of a Yusuf Ali mistranslation is the first ayah of the 23rd soorah (“al-Mu’minoon,” “The Believers”):

قَدْ أَفْلَحَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ

(qad aflah-al-mu’minoon)

According to Yusuf Ali: “The believers must (eventually) win through”.

The mistranslation here is in ignoring and contradicting the precise function of the word “qad“. The word “qad” means that the action of the following verb — in this case, “aflaha” — has already happened; it is complete. “Aflaha” can be translated as “caused to be successful”. Combined with the subject — which always follows the verb in a verbal sentence in Arabic — this can be translated as “the believers have been caused to be successful”. Preceded by “qad“, this has already happened. The believers are already successful. No eventual winning through. Already.

Allah goes on to describe the characteristics of the believers — the characteristics of those who are already successful. Yusuf Ali’s mistranslation ruins this message.

The second example of a Yusuf Ali mistranslation is the 14th ayah of the 49th soorah (“al-Hujuraat,” “The Inner Apartments”):

قَالَتِ الْأَعْرَابُ آمَنَّا ۖ قُل لَّمْ تُؤْمِنُوا وَلَٰكِن قُولُوا أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ الْإِيمَانُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ ۖ وَإِن تُطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ لَا يَلِتْكُم مِّنْ أَعْمَالِكُمْ شَيْئًا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

According to Yusuf Ali:

The desert Arabs say, “We believe.” Say, “Ye have no faith; but ye (only) say, ‘We have submitted our wills to Allah,’ For not yet has Faith entered your hearts. But if ye obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not belittle aught of your deeds: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”

There are multiple problems here:

  • The use of archaic language reminiscent of the King James Version of the Bible. This language is religious only in the sense that counterfeit money is money. Worse, it is the language of the people who initiated the policy — abandoning age-old tradition — of defining the enslaved people (those from Africa in particular) as not actually people. (This is what “race” means. There is a human race, and then there are subhuman races. Or else, we should just stop using such words as “race”, “racism”, and “racist”. So-and-so is not a “racist”; he just hates me and my people.) “Ye” is the plural of “thou” — both pronouns already falling out of use at the time the King James Version (using deliberately conservative language) was published. The psychological ploy in not using the word “you” is literally Satanic. (I do not believe Yusuf Ali was deliberately Satanic; I believe he had good intentions. And, of course, Allah knows what was in his heart, and Allah is his judge.)
  • Among the ways in which the English language cannot accurately render the meanings of the Arabic is in the use of upper- and lower-case letters. English has them; Arabic doesn’t. This creates subtle and blatant distinctions of meaning which deviate from the Arabic Qur’an Allah has given us. For example, the capitalization of the word “Faith” — why?
  • Last — and most annoying — is the seemingly deliberate mistranslation of the verb “qooloo“. “Qooloo” is a command — “say” — in the masculine plural of the verb “qaala” (“he said”). “Qaaloo” is the statement — “they said”. This is simple straight-forward grammar.  The pronoun — “ye” — is unnecessary in English, but, if used, must follow the verb — “say ye”. “Ye say” is a statement, not a command. Yusuf Ali’s work seems to be full of seemingly deliberate mistranslations, such as this. Allah knows his heart. Personally, I do not need to know what Yusuf Ali did or why he did it — because I accept the Qur’an which Allah has given us, the Arabic Qur’an.

The third example of a Yusuf Ali mistranslation is the first and second aayaat of the 91st soorah (“ashShams,” “The Sun”):

وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا

وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا

According to Yusuf Ali:

By the Sun and his (glorious) splendour;

By the Moon as she follows him;

Arabic has grammatical gender. Everything is either masculine or feminine, grammatically. This is fixed. In the workings of Arabic grammar it is virtually impossible to refer to the sun in the masculine gender: the sun is feminine gender. In the workings of Arabic grammar it is virtually impossible to refer to the moon in the feminine gender: the moon is masculine gender. This is important. I do not believe that this means that the sun has a vagina or that the moon has a penis, but I do believe this grammatical distinction is important. It means something. But, for some reason, Yusuf Ali decided to reverse the grammatical genders of the sun and the moon — and seems to emphasize the masculine gender of the “Sun” (in his capitalization) by adding (in parentheses) the word “glorious”.

The distinctions that Allah makes, are they trivial? Surely, Allah has not made a mistake — has he? This form of “editing” of Allah’s message renders me speechless.

I have come to the Qur’an — to the message which Allah has sent to us as a guide and a healing — in desperate need.  A wanderer lost in the desert wilderness, a severely wounded man, dying of thirst and desperate for water. I come to a well — and the water (already brackish) has been poisoned.

But Allah has sent down to us his Arabic Qur’an — maaaa’um min-as-samaaaa’ — pure water from the sky.

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