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June 30th, 2017

From the Preface to the Saudi officially revised translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s work — Why the hurry?

There is an English translation of the Quran endorsed by the Saudi Arab government authorities, published in the mid-1980s, based on Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation. The following is stated in its preface. I have placed some text below in bold:

"A number of individuals have in the past ventured to translate the Quran, but their works have generally been private attempts, greatly influenced by their own prejudices. In order to produce a reliable translation free from personal bias, a Royal decree (No. 19888, dated 16/8/1400 AH) was issued by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz, at that time the deputy prime minister, authorising the General Presidency of the Departments of Islalmic Researches, Ifta, Call and Guidance to undertake the responsibility of revising and correcting a particular translation which would be selected for this purpose and made publicly available later.

To accomplish this enormous task, a number of committees were formed, comprising scholars well-qualified both in Islamic Shari'a and the English language. Some of these scholars were associated with the General Presidency of the Departments of Islamic Researches, Ifta, Call and Guidance.

The first committee was given the task of examining the existing translations and choosing the most suitable one from among them. The committee discovered that there was no translation free from defects and so there were two options open for consideration: the first was to select the best translation available and then adopt it as a base for further work as well as a source of reference, with the objective of revising its contents and correcting any faults in view of the objections raised against it; the second was to prepare a fresh and independent translation, starting from scratch.

It became obvious from studying these translations that the second option demanded much time and effort, neither of which were available at the time. The first option was therefore considered to be more practical, since it met the existing urgent requirements and helped to achieve the desired goal in a comparatively short period of time. The translation by the late Ustadh ABDULLAH YUSUF ALI was consequently chosen for its distinguishing characteristics, such as a highly elegnnt style, a choice of words close to the meaning of the original text, accompanied by scholarly notes and commentaries.

The committee began revising and correcting this translation with the aid of other translations available, by comparing and then adopting best expressions as well as by introducing fresh expressions where necessary. … In the second stage, the entire work of this committee was referred to a number of individuals and organisations who then augmented any deficiencies in the work of the committee.

A third committee was set up to collate all their suggestions. It then compared all such views regarding specific issues, selected the appropriate one(s) and arrived at a text as authentic and defect-free as was humanly possible.

Finally, a fourth committee was formed to look into the findings of the second and third committees and to implement the recommendations made by them…"

It is not clear what the "existing urgent requirements" were, due to which a fresh translation, starting from scratch, could not be done. The Saudi authorities would have been able to command vast resources of manpower, scholars and funds. Why was the required "time and effort" not available at the time? In the past, individual translators working on their own had managed to devote sufficient time and effort. In case of Maulana Muhammad Ali, he was at the same time engaged in much other work when he did his translation single-handed, with only a few helpers to assist in the project, while the organization that he belonged to was facing severe opposition within the Muslim world.

I wonder if the urgency was due to the fact that Muhammad Asad's translation, The Message of the Quran, had been published in 1980. This no doubt was a source of embarrassment for the Saudi authorities, as they had sponsored his work until the first volume, consisting of the first nine surahs, appeared in 1964, and they then realized that his interpretations were not what they liked. So they withdrew their sponsorship and destroyed the copies they had purchased. Perhaps they were worried that his translation might still be regarded by some as supported by them.

But considering that they withdrew their sponsorship of Asad's translation in 1964, one would think they could have produced their own version by the early 1970s, even starting afresh.

See here the cover and acknowledgements page from that volume of Asad's translation, published in 1964. The 'Muslim World League' mentioned there is known in Arabic as Rabita al-`Alam al-Islami.

— Zahid Aziz

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