Book Review – Ali Quli Qara’i, The Quran With a Phrase-by-Phrase Translation

Book Review

Ali Quli Qara’i, The Quran With a Phrase-by-Phrase Translation, London: ICAS Press, 2004, 32+942 pp.; ISBN 1 904063 17.

Reviewed by Dr. Hamid Algar

On more than one occasion, the Quran insists on its own irreducible Arabicity: “Indeed We sent it down as an Arabic Quran in order that you might understand” (12:2) ; “ An Arabic Quran, devoid of all crookedness, in order that you might be wary of God” (39:28).

There is, moreover, a vast disparity between the divine word coming from the source of revelation, characterized as it is by a miraculous multiplicity of meanings, and the human word of the translator, who is compelled by the nature of things to make finite choices among a range of possible meanings. If “translation” be taken in etymologically precise sense of “carrying over” the meanings of speech from one language into another, in a reasonably exhaustive and authoritative manner, there can be no doubt that the Quran is on one level untranslatable. Nonetheless, the attempt to render at least some of its meanings accessible to the reader (or listener) unacquainted with Arabic is both ancient and legitimate.

One of the earliest essays in rendering the meanings of the Quran in a language other than Arabic, Abu al-Muzaffar Isfarā’ini’s Tāj al-Tarājim fi Tafsir al-Quran li’ l-A ‘ājim, written in Persian some time in the fifth/eleventh century, reports indeed that Salmān al-Farsi was given permission by the Prophet- peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny- to “write the Quran in Persian for the benefit of his people (qaum)”.  Isfara’ini also argues convincingly that verses proclaiming the universality of the Quranic message imply the permissibility, even necessity, of making its meanings available, to the extent that is possible, in languages other than Arabic: “All the intelligent are well aware that the Arabs and those belonging to other peoples who know Arabic are far fewer in number than those who do not know Arabic. It is nonetheless necessary that religion, law and revelation be conveyed to them, and this will not be possible unless the divine commands are translated into a language that is accessible to them.” 1 It might additionally be argued that precisely the verses that stress the Arabicity of the Quran point also to the permissibility of translation: The Quran reminds the first audience it addressed that it was revealed in their language in order to facilitate their comprehension of its message. It follows that this purpose can be attained among non-Arab peoples only by conveying to them the meanings of the Quran in their own languages; the Quran is a book to be understood as well as revered.

The primacy of the Arabic Quran has, however, been maintained at all times. Most early translations of the Quran done by Muslim hands (first in Persian and then in Turkish) were intended as aids to the reading and understanding of the Arabic text; imitative paraphrases rather than translations, they closely followed the syntax of the original and were written interspersed between its lines, in a suitably smaller script and sometimes in different coloured ink. Translations by Muslims that distanced themselves from the Arabic syntax and were intended to stand in their own right as renditions of the Quranic meanings were a rarity until recent times. 2

Most English translations of the Quran done by Muslims have followed the model of autonomous presentation of its meanings; they have been printed separate from the Arabic text and not made subordinate to its distinctive syntax and idioms; at the most, translation and text have been printed on facing pages or in adjoining columns, with the verses spatially coordinated with each other. There are clear advantages to this approach, for it permits a continuous presentation of the text in a linguistic form more or less familiar to the reader, and it is suited to the needs of the student, whether Muslim or non-Muslim but particularly the latter, who has no acquaintance with the Arabic  text and neither the means nor the intention to acquire it. On the other hand, such separate presentation may create the illusion of an equivalence, however approximate, between the revealed text and the translation elaborated by a human mind; the English seems to stand in for the Arabic.

What Ali Quli Qara’i has accomplished in his deliberately entitled The Quran with An English Paraphrase3 is a revival of the art of translation as an adjunct to the understanding of the original, skillfully adapted to the needs of the English-speaking ( or English-reading) student of the Quran. The translation is coordinated with the original, in terms both of arrangement and of idiom. An interlinear English translation, following the model of ancient Persian and Turkish renderings which placed the translation immediately beneath the relevant portion of the original, would clearly have been impossible, for Arabic and other languages written in its script run from right to left, and English, from left to right. Qara’i has therefore placed each phrase of his translation opposite the corresponding Arabic phrase, on the same page, moreover, not on a facing page. The beginning and ending of each verse are indicated not only by number, but also by indentation, facilitating the measured reading of the translation. As for the problem of idiom, Qara’i rightly distinguishes between three categories: Arabic idioms that although unfamiliar to an English-speaker easily yield their meaning when translated literally; others that are comprehensible when subjected only to slight paraphrasing; and others again that must be totally reworked in order to be understandable. Basing himself on this categorization, he has opted always for the maximum degree of closeness to the Arabic compatible with comprehensibility, thereby coordinating translation with original in the most substantial of ways.

Although Qara’i envisions his translation as a paraphrase of the Quranic meanings, as a tool for gaining access to the original, it must be stressed that his translation reads extremely well even if regular cross-reference to the Arabic not be the purpose of the reader. Unlike the early interlinear translations in Persian and Turkish where native syntax and idiom were entirely sacrificed to the Arabic they were intended to mirror, Qara’i’s paraphrase does no violence to the normal sentence structure of English, nor does it invite the reader to imagine what certain oblique or unfamiliar phrase may mean. As a result, any student of the Quran may consult his rendering with pleasure and profit, even if he does not intend to use it as a bridge to the sublime Arabic original. The language Qara’i has chosen is clear, chaste, straightforward and dignified, distant from both the archaisms and the modernisms that have been affected by other English translators of the Quran.

Translation inevitably involves a modicum of interpretation; this is true even of a literary text, still more of a Revealed one. It is, however, incumbent on the translator always to subordinate interpretation to the primary task of translation; not to impose on the text any personal views he might hold; and, insofar as he draws on sources for interpretation beyond the text itself, to choose those that are most authoritative and to identify them. Qara’i has been successful in all three respects. Wherever the translation needs interpretive expansion for the sake of comprehensibility, Qara’i does what is needed in succinct footnotes; there is no trace of arbitrary personal opinion; and all the authorities upon which he draws in matters of exegesis are the classical commentaries of both Sunni and Shi’i scholars. For good reason, he accords special weight to the traditions of the Imams of the Prophet’s household- may peace and blessings be upon him and upon them. This does not necessarily constitute a distinctively Shi’i emphasis, for most early Sunni exegeses of the Quran derive, by way of Ibn ‘Abbas, from ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (‘a), the first of the Imams.

Qara’i precedes his paraphrase of the Quranic meanings with a preface in which he describes not only the method of translation he has used but also-more importantly-that universal and existential motive which ought to impel man to the study of the Quran: the primordial need to learn of one’s origin, nature, purpose of being and destination. It is plain, indeed, that a serious and profound appreciation of the Quranic message has animated the whole of Qara’i’s successful labours. We warmly recommend his translation to all with a serious interest in the Quran.

Hamid Algar
Department of Near Eastern Studies
University of California
Berkeley, Ca. 94720-1940


  1. Isfarā’ini, Tāj al-Tarājim fi Tafsir al-Qur’ān li ’l-A ‘ājim, eds.
    Najib Māyil Hiravi and ‘Ali Akbar Ilāhi Khurāsāni, Tehran, 1375 SH/1996, I, p. 8.
  2. On the history of Qurān translation in Persian, see Ahmad Golchin-i Ma ‘āni, Hezar Sāl Tafsir-i Pārsi, Tehran, 1342/1963. No general account of translations into various Muslim languages exists; for a partial list, see however Muhammad Hamidullah, The Quran in every language, Haiderabad-Deccan, 1947.
  3. An earlier impression of the book, published by the Centre for Translation of the Holy Qurān, Qum, bore this title.