Finding a decent Qur’an translation is a struggle. I searched for a long time to find an accurate and readable translation. No English rendition of the Qur’an will ever be perfect, but some are “less perfect”than others. This is only my own personal feelings on different translations. It isn’t a comprehensive guide. My philosophy is for everyone to try out different translations and see what they like.
Disclaimer: Please note I don’t agree with every comment made or opinion held by these translators! It’s an unfortunate fact even many female translators espouse sexist views. Also, just because I identify a translation as having a certain notable attribute doesn’t mean it’s a poor translation.
Unique, poetic, thought-provoking, beautiful
AJ Arberry – My favorite Qur’an translation. In my opinion, Arberry’s rendition is one of the most masterful and beautiful ever. Arberry was a Christian with a deep respect for Islam and Sufism. He credited his religious awakening to Sufism and authored a translation of the Qur’an and numerous Sufi texts.
His translation is beautiful, poetic and readable. It isn’t weighed down with excessive commentary or constant parenthesis like so many other translations. The writing is elegant but not stilted or archaic. There are some oddities and minor translation errors. Arberry consistently translated the Arabic word jahannam to the Greek word gehenna. Gehenna would be the perfect word for a Greek Qur’an, but is an odd choice for an English translation. I noticed how Arberry tends to more “traditional” translations (like “beat” in 4:34, “hands cut off” in 5:38) that are undesirable today.
Zaki Hammad – The entire translation is written in verse! This is an obscure translation with a beautiful, literary quality to it.
Aisha Bewley – One of the few translations done by a female translator. Bewley worked to translate the Qur’an with her husband. She is an Islamic scholar and English translator of many famous Arabic manuscripts. Her translation work is truly fantastic. Another interesting attribute is her Sufi religious background. Her translation is the only one I know of based on the Warsh qir’ah. The translation leaves key Arabic words untranslated which limits its accessibility for non-Muslims.
Ali Quli Qara’i – A Twelver Shi’a translation with a poetic feel to it. I’m a sucker for translations written in verse. Qara’i has sparse comments from a Shi’a background. He often offers fascinating information on differences of qir’ah and some Shi’a beliefs. It pairs nicely with Bewley’s translation if you would like to learn about qir’ah but don’t know Arabic well. The translation does have a slight Shi’a bias.
Laleh Bakhtiar – A female and feminist translator! Laleh Bakhtiar is a feminist-oriented Shi’a Sufi scholar. I love the poetic feel of her translation. She’s the most famous for her alternative translation of 4:34.
Ahmed Ali – Ali presents a lucid and readable translation of the Qur’an with a slight liberal and Qur’anist bent. The rare comments are generally well-researched and informative. Ali’s translation and commentary on 4:34 is impressive and intelligent. He often argues more unconventional and progressive opinions. This is the version I find frequently in libraries and bookstores.
Just plain weird
Bijan Moeinian – A little-known translation that is strange, awkward and clunky. The translation is so poor the meaning is constantly obscured. Compare this version to any reputable translation (Arberry, Pickthall, etc) and notice the radical differences.
N, Hereby God swears by the pen and all writing instruments (including the computer keyboards nowadays) that: [68:1 – Moeinian]
Compare this to AJ Arberry’s translation.
Nun. By the Pen, and what they inscribe, [68:1 – Arberry]
Rashad Khalifa – A translation by a man most famous for making messianic claims and claiming at the heart of the Qur’an is a mathematical miracle centered on the number nineteen. Naturally, his translation and commentary are heavily fixated on this.
Edip Yuksel – Another proponent of the nineteen theory whose translation and commentary centers around that. All the disconnected letters in this version are replaced in English with a sort of code of letters and numbers. I have trouble following what on earth these mean, and I can’t be the only one.
The commentary is substantial. I noticed through the course of reading this how many times the authors attack Shi’a and Sunni belief. Sectarianism is unappealing in a translation of any holy text. The commentary is also highly polemical to Jews and Christians. This version does have a more positive attitude as far as women’s issues go.
Is it the Qur’an or Les Miserables?
Ali Unal – In addition to being clunky from so many interjections and parenthesis, the translation has excessive commentary … and some of the most disturbingly misogynistic remarks I’ve ever seen. A commentary offering perspectives on why women are too ignorant and emotional to be notaries or why it’s acceptable to hit women is irredeemable to me.
Mir Ahmed Ali – Ali was a man who liked to write … and write … and write. I’ve never seen an English translation with so much commentary. This is essentially a tafsir. Almost every verse has a paragraph or more of commentary. It overwhelms the text of the Qur’an. You’re reading maybe double or even triple the amount of commentary as opposed to Qur’anic text. The commentary is highly sectarian and polemical as well. This was not a useful translation to me as all. The usefulness would be limited to Twelver Shi’as looking for some intensive Qur’an study who don’t mind a touch of polemics.
Muhammad Asad – Asad was one of the most famous translators of the twentieth century. His translation is great and the commentary is extensive. Nearly every verse has commentary.
This is a book meant for intense study or reference and not casual reading. I failed repeatedly to try to read this version through just like a novel. I’ve found his work more useful as a reference book than as devotional or casual reading. His commentary and translation are the most helpful and liberal of all English commentaries I’ve seen. However, Asad’s translation and commentary reflect his own opinions and biases.
Yusuf Ali – Another famous translator. His translation is often seen as the “default” translation in English. He includes frequent commentary that is sometimes incorrect and frequently self-explanatory or unnecessary. Ali writes the Gospel of Barnabas is factual [4:157, 3:81]. He fails to recognize in his commentary on 33:59 that enslaved women in early Islam did not cover themselves as free women (see the works of Fatima Mernissi and Khaled Abou el Fadl). Ali mistakenly understands that 3:28 says believers should only be friends and associate with other believers. Just like Asad, I’ve found he makes negative remarks about the Jews.
Muhammad Ali – This is the translation used by thousands of Lahori Ahmadi Muslims. They are a tiny Islamic sect separate from the much larger Ahmadi group. Ali had a large influence on later Qur’an translators of the twentieth century. He’s cited as an authority in Yusuf Ali’s translation of 2:65 and called by the honorific Maulvi. The translation and commentary reflect Lahori Ahmadi beliefs. One of the most different Ahmadi beliefs is that Jesus survived the cross and traveled to India where he died. An interesting and objective overview of Muslim views on the crucifixion of Christ is Todd Lawson’s The Crucifixion and the Qur’an. This translation references the Bible frequently, and I am not a huge fan of authors who position the Qur’an as religiously superior to the Bible in a Qur’an translation.
“It’s not a phase, mooooooooom!”
Abul A’ala Maududi – It’s hard to decide whether to file this under the extremists or the translators channeling Tolstoy. Maududi was one of the fathers of Islamism. He authored his commentary Tafheem ul-Qur’an over thirty years in Urdu. It has since been translated into other languages. The commentary is extensive, sexist and intolerant.
That is, those women who become prisoners of war, while their unbelieving husbands are left behind in the War Zone, are not unlawful because their marriage ties are broken by the fact that they have come from the War Zone into the Islamic Zone. It is lawful to marry such women, and it is also lawful for those, in whose possession they are, to have sexual relations with them. [Commentary of Madudi on 4:25 – compare to Asad’s commentary]
It is also erroneous at times. Maududi attests the Gospel of Barnabas is factual when it is widely known as a forgery.
Hilali and Khan – A Saudi-sponsored translation with a Wahhabi religious background. I found a full copy posted on the official website for the Saudi government. This translation is renowned for its extreme, misogynist, and intolerant views embedded in the text and in the commentary. The translation has numerous interjections in parenthesis. Random words are capitalized for no reason within sentences. Arabic words are sporadically left untranslated. The text has many grammatical, translation, and spelling errors which are detailed in this study. There is another fantastic smack-down of this translation by Sheila Musaji on TAM. This translation is practically unintelligible.
Saheeh International – I give this translation the award for the best marketing. The name is clearly chosen to reflect authority and universality. The translation was done by three female converts to Islam. All of them appear to reside in or have connections to Saudi Arabia. I have heard it is a revision of Muhsin Khan. Comparing them side by side, this translation is remarkably similar to Hilali and Khan’s translation. The commentary from the former is gone and replaced with footnotes. The excessive parenthesis are gone and the sporadic Arabisms in the Hilali and Khan version are now translated in Saheeh International. It reads like an improved version of Hilali and Khan.
Taqi Usmani – Usmani is a Pakistani Deobandi scholar. The translation is pretty average fare. This version also has commentary, but I am unable to locate it anywhere online.
(Writing) like [this]/(or that)
MM Ghali – This translation is all over the internet, but I can’t find much information about the translator. I do know this translation has far too many parenthesis and remarks embedded in the text. It feels like almost every verse has additional comments of the author. This translation would have benefited so much from footnotes.
Ahmed and Samira – Another female translator! This book is designed to be a literal, reference translation not meant for casual reading. It offers multiple meanings to each verse.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye
E.H Palmer – Edward Henry Palmer was an orientalist who produced his Qur’an translation in 1880. The language is so outdated it is next to impossible to understand.
And when he saw his shirt rent from behind he said, ‘This is one of your tricks; verily, your tricks are mighty! Joseph! turn aside from this. And do thou, woman, ask pardon for thy fault; verily, thou wert of the sinners.’ [12:28 – 19 in E.H Palmer Qur’an]
I searched this translation online and found 1,373 occurrences of “verily”. I do admire his reasonable amount of footnotes. Verily, I don’t appreciate the lack of any verse numbers.
J.M Rodwell – An 1861 translation of the Qur’an by a Christian orientalist. The language is notably outdated. It’s not the most readable translation. I find it a little more understandable than Palmer’s.
George Sale – Lo, this is the oldest translation I know of dating from 1734. This translation is so old it’s actually older than the US government by several decades. Thomas Jefferson even owned a copy of Sale’s translation.
So many translations, so little time. A number of Qur’an translations I’m familiar with are just stupendously average. They aren’t terrible but also not amazing (Pickthall, Sarwar, Shakir, Dawood, etc). There are the translations I know about but am mostly unfamiliar with (Irving and Itani). Some I have never heard of until perusing Wikipedia (Busool and Khattab). Some I know about (Jones) but have no access too.
This page has short overviews of many different translations. Wikipedia has a list of translations available. Middle East Forum, a terrible website, has reviews of different Qur’an translations.