A Matter of Style Variations in Quranic Linguistics


INTRODUCTION

Upon finding out the differences and similarities of the two sets of Medinan and Meccan surah from the two versions: The Message of the Quran -English language translation of the meaning of the Quran by Muhammad Asad and The Holy Quran -English language translation of the meaning of the Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, this writer has directed questions to experts in the field of Linguistics and Islam. The questions are those this writer has regarding the differences and similarities of the surah in relation to the original text. This writer then looks closely at each translator’s style of translating the same original text (the Quran).

The first noticeable thing that this writer came across is that Muhammad Asad begins his book on the left with pages running from the left side to the right side of his book whereas Abdullah Yusuf Ali begins his book from the right with pages running from the right side to the left side of his book. It is a known fact that any book written in Arabic, including the Quran in its original text, has its pages running from the right to the left side of the book as The Holy Quran -English language translation of the meaning of the Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

THE STYLISTIC ANALYSIS OF TWO SETS OF MEDINAN AND MECCAN SURAH BY MUHAMMAD ASAD AND ABDULLAH YUSUF ALI

With regard to language and style variations, the language of the set of Medinan and Meccan surah from  The Message of the Quran– English language translation of the meaning of the Quran by Muhammad Asad is generally found to be Modern English, adult, religious-class, educated language. On the other hand, the language of the same set of Medinan and Meccan surah from The Holy Quran– English language translation of the meaning Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali is generally found to be Classical English, adult, religious-class, educated language. Some of the words used that give that Classical English effect are ‘ye’ instead of you, ‘doth’ instead of does. For example, in verse seven of Surah As-Saff,

(A) by MA

(7)  And who could be more wicked than one who invents [such] a lie about [a message from] God, seeing that he is [but] being called to self-surrender unto Him?

But God does not bestow His guidance upon evil-doing folk.

(A) by AYA

7.  Who doth greater wrong

     Than one who forges

     Falsehood against Allah,

     Ever as he is being invited

     To Islam? And Allah

     Guides not those

     Who do wrong.

Muhammad Asad provides a more narrative prosaic style while Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a more poetic-like style. This can be discerned in the arrangement of verses by each translator. For example, in verses sixteen to eighteen of of Surah Al-Mursalat:

(B) by MA

(16) Did We not destroy [so many of] those [sinners] of olden days? (17) And We shall let them be followed by those of later times: (18) [for] thus do We deal with such as are lost in sin.

(B) by AYA

16.  Did We not destroy

       The men of old.

       (For their evil)?

 

17.  So shall We make

       Later (generations)

       Follow them.

18.  Thus do We deal

        With men of sin.

The medium is written language but the two sets of Medinan and Meccan surah from the two versions of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran contain representations of spoken language. For example, in verse fourteen of Surah As-Saff:

(A) by MA

(14)   O YOU who have attained to faith! Be helpers [in the cause of God – even as Jesus, the son of Mary, said unto the white-garbed ones,] “Who will be my helpers in God’s cause?”- whereupon the white-garbed [disciples] replied, “We shall be [thy] helpers [in the cause] of God!”

And so [it happened that] some of the children of Israel came to believe [ in the apostleship of Jesus] whereas others denied the truth. But [now] We have given strength against their foes unto those who have [truly] attained to faith: and they have become the ones that shall prevail.

(A) by AYA

14. O ye who believe!

Be ye helpers of Allah:

As said Jesus the son of Mary

To the Disciples, “who will be

My helpers to (the work

Of) Allah?” Said the Disciples,

“We are Allah’s helpers!”

Then a portion of the Children

Of Israel believed, and

A portion disbelieved:

But we gave power

To those who believed

Against their enemies,

And they became

The ones that prevailed.

The tenor is generally formal in the two sets of Medinan and Meccan surah from the two versions of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran. However, in verse six of the sixty-first surah, As-Saff, the children of Israel insulted Allah’s words. In this instance, the tenor becomes informal, impolite.

(A) by MA

(6) And [this happened, too,] when Jesus, the son of Mary, said: “O children of Israel! Behold, I am an apostle of God unto you, [sent] to confirm the truth of whatever there still remains of the Torah, and to give [you] the glad tiding of an apostle who shall come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.” 

But when he [whose coming Jesus had foretold] came unto them with all evidence of the truth, they said: “this [alleged message of his] is [nothing but] spellbinding eloquence!”

(A) by AYA

6.   And remember, Jesus,

     The son of Mary, said:

     ” O Children of Israel!

     I am the messenger of Allah

     (Sent) to you, confirming

     The Taurat (which came)

     Before me, and giving

     Glad Tidings of a messenger

     To come after me,

     Whose name shall be Ahmad”

     But when he came to them

     With Clear Signs,

     They said, “This is

     Evident sorcery !”

The tenor of verses two and three of Surah As-Saff carry a disappointed question (in verse two), leading to a sad but firm reminder (in verse three) so much so that verse three sounds like an appeal or persuasion.

(A) by MA

(2)     O YOU who have attained to faith! Why do you say one thing and do another? (3) Most loathsome is it in the sight of God that you say what you do not do!

(A) by AYA                      

2.  O ye who believe!

     Why say ye that

     Which ye do not?

 

3.  Grievously hateful is it

     In the sight of Allah

     That ye say that

     Which ye do not.

In verse forty-eight of Surah Al-Mursalat, the tenor becomes impolite, informal due to the disobedience of the disbelievers. When they were told to bow down before God, they disobeyed.

(B) by MA

(48) and when they are told, “Bow down [before God]”, do not bow down:

(B) by AYA

48.  And when it is said

      To them, “Prostrate yourselves!”

      They do not so.

The domain of the two sets of Medinan and Meccan surah from the two versions of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran is generally the language of instruction reaching out for all to believe in Allah, His Messengers and the Day of Judgement. For example, in verse eleven of surah As-Saff,

(A) by MA

(11)You are to believe in God and His Apostle, and to strive hard in God’s cause with your possessions and your lives! this is for your own good – if you but knew it!

(A) by AYA

11.  That ye believe in Allah

       And His Messenger, and that

       Ye strive (your utmost)

        In the Cause of Allah,

       With your wealth

       And your persons:

       That will be best for you,

       If ye but knew!

In verse thirty-six of Surah Al-Mursalat, Abdullah Yusuf Ali uses the word “pleas”, making it the language of the law in this instance. In verse forty-eight of Surah Al-Mursalat, Abdullah Yusuf Ali uses the word “prostrate”, making it the language of religion; consequently, the language of instruction in religion in this instance.

(B) by MA

(36)  nor be allowed to proffer excuses!

(B) by AYA

36.  Nor will it be

      Open to them

     To put forth pleas.

(B) by MA

(48) and when they are told, “Bow down [before God]”, do not bow down:

(B) by AYA

48.  And when it is said

      To them, “Prostrate yourselves!”

      They do not so.

There is accessibility in the language used to describe Paradise. For example, in verses forty-one and forty-two of the seventy-seventh surah, Al-Mursalat. In both versions, the descriptive words -cool shades and springs, fruits- are familiar to all to help create a clear picture of Paradise.

(B) by MA

(41)     [AS AGAINST this,] behold, the God-conscious shall dwell amidst [cooling] shades and springs, (42) and [partake of] whatever fruit they may desire;

(B) by AYA

SECTION 2

 

41.  As to the Righteous,

      They shall be amidst

      (Cool) shades and springs

      (Of water).

 

42.  And (they shall have)

      Fruits, – all they desire.

It is basically agreed upon that Muhammad Asad provides a clearer and  more accurate translation of the meaning of the Quran than Abdullah Yusuf Ali. The experts feel that Muhammad Asad seems to go that extra mile for the sake of clarity and this is noticeable in some instances. The words in [ ] make that difference in clarity whereas Abdullah Yusuf Ali leaves it vague. The experts commented that although Abdullah Yusuf Ali aimed at a free  translation, they find his translation to be fairly literal and in some instances, shades of meaning are missed. For example, in verses one to six in Surah Al-Mursalat:

(B) by MA             

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE DISPENSER OF GRACE :

 

(1)     CONSIDER   these [messages] sent forth in waves

(2) and then storming on with a tempest’s force!

(3)Consider these [messages] that spread [the truth] far and wide,

(4)thus separating [right and wrong] with all clarity,

(5) and then giving forth a reminder,

(6) [promising] freedom from blame or [offering] a warning!

 (B) by AYA

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

 

1.      By the (Winds) Sent Forth

      One after another (To man’s profit);

 

2.   Which then blow violently

      In tempestuous Gusts;

 

3.  And scatter (things)

     Far and wide;

 

4.  Then separate them,

     One from another;

 

5.  Then spread abroad

     A Reminder;

 

6.  Whether of Justification

     Or of Warning ;

 The title of the sixty-first surah is As-Saff.  However, Muhammad Asad translates the title of this surah to be “The Ranks” and Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates the title of this surah to be “Battle Array”. Opinions differ as to which title is appropriate. “The Ranks” by Muhammad Asad is said to be suitable since it describes layers, hierarchy or strata of people whereas “The Ranks” is felt to be not suitable in that it is vague. It could describe academic rank, social rank and so on.  “Battle Array” by Abdullah Yusuf Ali is direct and to the point, it describes the soldiers arrangement in warfare. In other words, Muhammad Asad translates the title literally into English whereas Abdullah Yusuf Ali gives an interpretation of the title, taking into consideration the context of the surah.

The experts did emphasize the fact that in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version, God is substituted with Allah. The word “God” used by Muhammad Asad has been specifically put as “Allah” by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. “Allah” has been used throughout Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s book. It is a unanimous feeling that “Allah” should be used in translated versions of the Quran in any language instead of “God”. Muhammad Asad uses “The Dispenser of Grace” whereas Abdullah Yusuf Ali uses “Most Merciful”, one being a paraphrase of the other. It is observed that “Most Merciful” is widely used and is more acceptable. Another widely used way in translated versions is “Most Benevolent”.

(A) by MA

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE DISPENSER OF GRACE:

(A) by AYA

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most

Merciful.

Different expressions are used to describe the disbelieving children of Israel – “iniquitous folk” by Muhammad Asad and “rebellious transgressors” by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. According to the dictionary, iniquitous means wicked and carries a streak of cruelty in the meaning whereas rebellious transgressors means those who break the law.  Given this, the experts have varying opinions as to which meaning is closer to the original meaning in the Quran.  It is said that Muhammad Asad’s “iniquitous folk” is closer to the original meaning and yet it also has been said that Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s “rebellious transgressors” is closer. After reading verse five from both versions, this writer in more inclined to agree with “iniquitous folk” since these “folks” caused Prophet Moses so much wrath. They did not simply break the law but they caused Prophet Moses grief even after knowing that Prophet Moses is an apostle of God. Verse five of surah As-Saff:

(A) by MA

(5)Now when Moses spoke to his people, [it was this same truth that he had in mind:] “O my people!  Why do you cause me grief, the while you know that I am an apostle of God sent unto you?”

And so, when they swerved from the right way, God let their hearts swerve from the truth: for God does not bestow His guidance upon iniquitous folk.

(A) by AYA

5.  And remember, Moses said

     To his people:  “O my people!

     Why do ye vex and insult

     Me, though ye know

    That I am the Messenger

     Of Allah (sent) to you?”

     Then when they went wrong,

     Allah let their hearts go wrong.

     For Allah guides not those

     Who are rebellious transgressors.

Verse eleven of both translated versions are quite similar except for a few different words used:  “possessions” in Muhammad Asad’s version and “wealth” in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version. Taking into consideration of the context of this surah, possessions and wealth mean everything one has worked for and own so far in one’s life.  “Your lives” in Muhammad Asad’s version and “your persons” in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version. These words basically mean one’s life as well as the lives of the people one is responsible for. Given this, the experts commented that both Muhammad Asad and Abdullah Yusuf Ali have not given a complete interpretation of these words. “You” is used to refer to the believers in Muhammad Asad’s version and “ye” is used to refer to the believers in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version, the former adhering to Modern English and the latter adhering to Classical English. Verse eleven of surah As-Saff:

(A) by MA

(11)You are to believe in God and His Apostle, and to strive hard in God’s cause with your possessions and your lives! this is for your own good – if you but knew it!

(A) by AYA

11.  That ye believe in Allah

       And His Messenger, and that

       Ye strive (your utmost)

       In the Cause of Allah,

       With your wealth

       And your persons:

       That will be best for you,

       If ye but knew!

Muhammad Asad uses more forceful words than Abdullah Yusuf Ali about the stars – “effaced” and “become dim” respectively. It is agreed that Muhammad Asad uses a more accurate description of the stars than Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It is also mentioned that the words to describe the stars should rightfully be forceful since the rest of the verses nine to eleven have very forceful descriptions of the signs of the Day of Judgement. Verse eight of surah Al-Mursalat:

(B) by MA

(8)Thus, [it will come to pass] when the stars are effaced,

(B) by AYA

8.  Then when the stars

     Become dim;

Muhammad Asad uses “the Day of Distinction” and Abdullah Yusuf Ali uses “the Day of Sorting Out”.  Both translated versions mean “the Day of Judgement”.  Muhammad Asad goes on to further explain this “Day of Distinction” with “[between the true and the false]!”. The experts commented that literally the Arabic word “fasl” means to sort out. Thus, in this case, both translators have translated the essence of the word. However, Muhammad Asad goes on to attempt to clarify further by adding the words “[between the true and the false]”.  The experts feel his addition does make a difference in clarifying the verses and that Abdullah Yusuf Ali has left it vague. Both translated versions begin with the same few words ” For the Day of ….”. Verse thirteen of surah Al-Mursalat:

(B) by MA

(13) For the Day of Distinction [between the true and the false]!

(B) by AYA

13. For the Day of Sorting out.

Both translated versions continue to describe the fire in Hell by using different metaphors – “like giant fiery ropes” in Muhammad Asad’s version and “As if there were (A string of) yellow camels (Marching swiftly).” in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version. This writer questions the fact that verses twenty-nine to thirty-three do not appear in speech form in Muhammad Asad’s version whereas they appear to be in speech form in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version.  The answer to this varies in opinion.  It is said with certainty by one expert that these verses are not in speech form and it is also said with certainty by another expert that these verses are all in speech form in the original Quran.  This writer happens to be more inclined to think that verses thirty  and thirty-one are God’s speech. But verses thirty-two and thirty-three, where the sparks are described, are not in speech form. This writer feels this way because in verses forty-one to forty-three, when Paradise was mentioned, God’s speech does not include the description of Paradise. Similarly, this writer feels that God’s speech does not include the description of the sparks in Hell. For all the description in verses thirty to thirty-three, the experts agree that Muhammad Asad has presented more accurate descriptions. Verses twenty-nine to thirty-three and verses forty-one to forty three:

(B) by MA

(29) GO ON towards that [resurrection] which you were wont to call a lie!

(B) by AYA

29.   (It will be said:)

       “Depart ye to that

       Which ye used to reject

        As false!

(B) by MA

(30) Go on towards the threefold shadow(31) that will offer no [cooling] shade and will be of no avail against the flame (32) which – behold! will throw up sparks like [burning] logs, (33) like giant fiery ropes!

(B) by AYA

30.  “Depart ye to a shadow

        (Of smoke ascending)

         In three columns,

 

31.  “(Which yields) no shade

        Of coolness, and is

        Of no use against

        The fierce Blaze.

 

32.  “Indeed it throws about

        Sparks (huge) as Forts,

 

33.  “As if there were

       (A string of) yellow camels

       (Marching swiftly).”

(B) by MA

(41)  [AS AGAINST this,] behold, the God-conscious shall dwell amidst [cooling] shades and springs, (42) and [partake of] whatever fruit they may desire; (43) [and they will be told:] “Eat and drink in good cheer in return for what you did [in life]!”

(B) by AYA

SECTION 2

 

41.  As to the Righteous,

      They shall be amidst

      (Cool) shades and springs

      (Of water).

 

42.  And (they shall have)

      Fruits, – all they desire.

 

43.  “Eat ye and drink ye

        To your heart’s content:

The Day of Judgement is described as “Day of Distinction” in Muhammad Asad’s version and “Day of Sorting out” in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version. Although one is a paraphrase of the other, the experts have commented that in this instance, Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s description of “Day of Sorting out” is a literal translation and Muhammad Asad has provided a more of an interpretation.  The translators use different expressions to mean one’s ancestors who have sinned before and who have been destroyed-“those sinners of olden times” and “those before (you)”. The experts commented that Muhammad Asad’s expression provides a clearer explanation. Muhammad Asad indicated the opening of a speech to be continued throughout verse thirty-nine.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali does not mark any speech form in verses thirty-eight and thirty-nine. Verse thirty-eight and thirty-nine appear in speech form in Muhammad Asad’s version whereas in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version the verses do not appear in speech form. The experts agree that these two verses should appear in speech form and that Muhammad Asad gives a better translation for verses thirty-eight and thirty-nine. Verses thirty-eight and thirty-nine of surah Al-Mursalat:

(B) by MA

 (38) that Day of Distinction [between the true and the false, when they will be told]: “We have brought you together with those [sinners] of olden times; (39) and if you [think that you] have a subterfuge left, try to outwit Me!”

(B) by AYA

38.  That will be a Day

      Of Sorting Out! We shall

      Gather you together

     And those before (you)!

 

39.  Now, if ye have

      A trick (or plot),

     Use it against Me!

Different vocabulary is used – “in good cheer” by Muhammad Asad and “to your heart’s content” by Abdullah Yusuf Ali; both translators try to capture the inner feelings by these words. The experts agree that Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s version should have marked the closing of the speech at the end of verse forty-three. Verse forty-three of surah Al-Mursalat:

(B) by MA

(43)  [and they will be told:] “Eat and drink in good cheer in return for what you did [in life]!”

(B) by AYA

43.  “Eat ye and drink ye

        To your heart’s content:

        For that ye worked

        (Righteousness).

The experts recommend that this writer use The Message of the Quran- English language translation of the meaning of the Quran by Muhammad Asad for teaching purposes.

The experts commented that both translators have strived to provide the readers with as much understanding as possible of the meaning of the Quran in their own way. The experts also reminded this writer that it is not within her scope to compare the translated versions with the original Quran by herself. There is no general concensus on which is the closest translated version to the original Quran and each scholar or expert may have his reasons for not thinking so – each translator can only do his best according to his own capacity.

With regard to using extracts from different surah as literary texts in the literature classroom, the experts do feel that it is a good idea.  It gives an opportunity to expose the beauty of the Quran. A word of caution was given by the experts to this writer that the Quran should be handled very carefully by the teacher and the students.

CONCLUSION 

Two versions of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran were used in this study.  Between the two versions, the experts are of the opinion that Muhammad Asad’s translated version is a clearer and more accurate translation than Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translated version.

Before the incorporation of any English language translations of the meaning of the Quran is to be done, some recommended measures should be taken:

A careful selection of which English language translation of the meaning of the Quran should be made. Lecturers may decide to use English translated versions of the Quran by other translators.

Lecturers who decide to use the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran should be willing to constantly improve their own background in Islam so that a positive “feel” for Islam shows through when they teach.

Thus, optimally, English language lecturers should be willing to spend extra time consulting additional relevant texts and qualified lecturers from other departments to improve and enrich their presentation of “English-Quranic” lessons.  There should be cooperation among academicians to make possible the imparting of sound knowledge to the students so that they can go out into the world to be useful and knowledgeable Muslims and/or citizens.  Non-Arabic speaking lecturers can obtain information concerning topics spoken of in the Quran, including the reasons for and circumstances at the time of particular revelations from clearly and systematically presented work. Towards Understanding the Qur’an by Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (Volumes 1-5), is one such recommended source of information about the Quran.

The experts have also mentioned as a word of caution about the proper handling of Quranic verses when using them as literary texts in the literature classroom.

A distinction is made between the English language translation of the meaning of the Quran and the original Quran as revealed in Arabic.  For the purposes of this study, copies of extracts from various surah of English language translations of the meaning of the Quran by Muhammad Asad and Abdullah Yusuf Ali are distributed to students without the Quranic (Arabic) verses beside it, only the English translated portion.

These copies of extracts are used as literary texts in the literature classroom.  The experts agree that these texts should be used as any other text.  The teachers whether Muslims or non-Muslims are expected to tell the students where the text originated from (as with any other text) and at this point, all students, whether Muslim or non-Muslims will be aware that these verses are from the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran by Muhammad Asad and Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

As a concluding point, it is hoped that the seeds initiating this study have been showered with sufficient supportive “nutrients” to germinate a growing field of Quran-based English language and literature instruction.

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By Dr Lubna Almenoar