The Incredible Story of the First English-Language Interpretation of the QuranAugust 6, 2019 2023-11-26 15:30
The Incredible Story of the First English-Language Interpretation of the Quran
The Incredible Story of the First English-Language Interpretation of the Quran
Our younger generation will find it hard to believe, but about a hundred years ago it was almost impossible to find an English interpretation of the Quran in a mainstream bookstore. Today, you are likely to find a number of English translations. But many deem the 1930, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran as the OG–the first, the one that broke the Quran-English/West divide.
Pickthall’s spelling of the word “Quran” certainly dates his book. Muslims were such a fringe group in Britain during the early 20th century that Islamic scholars apparently felt the need to spell the word phonetically so readers would know how it was supposed to be pronounced. But despite its age, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran remains one of the most popular English-language interpretations of the Quran and is recognized by many as being the most accurate ever produced.
We’ll be examining the amazing life of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall and his journey to completing what he considered to be his magnum opus in this article. This is the story of the first English-language interpretation of the Quran.
Why Is It Called an “Interpretation”
We refer to Pickthall’s work as an “interpretation” of the Quran rather than calling it a “translation.” This is because Islamic scholars teach us that the Quran was delivered to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ by God in the language and words we read from the mushaf (the complete bounded written copy of the Quran). It utilizes a form of poetic rhetoric that is lost when read or recited in any other language. Therefore, it is impossible to fully understand the Quran unless it is presented in its original tongue.
“Translators” decide which word best depicts the Arabic equivalent, or if there isn’t one, then they expound on the meaning with a set of words or sentences to convey the meaning of the Quran from their lethis ns. In this way, their “translations” are actually interpretations because they are based on the understanding and word choice of the author and not the choice of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى. Pickthall himself shared belief. In fact, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran opens with a message from the author in which he states:
“Every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Koran, that inimitable symphony, the very sound of which moves men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Koran – and peradventure something of the charm – in English. It can never take the place of the Koran in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so.”
As we can see from the above extract, written by the hand of Pickthall himself, referring to his book as anything other than an “interpretation” would be doing a disservice to himself, his work, and, of course, the Quran. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran aims only to familiarize English speakers with the contents of the Quran and the core teachings of Islam. If you want to fully understand every note of what Pickthall described as an “inimitable symphony,” you’re going to have to experience the Quran in its original classical Arabic through the words in which it was revealed.
Is It Really The First Interpretation?
The Prophet Muhammadﷺ lived from around 570 CE to 632 CE. During his lifetime, the Quran was transmitted orally by the Prophet ﷺ memorized and recited by his companions, and his wider followers. There were always some of the Prophet’s ﷺ companions who could write that wrote down the verses immediately after it was revealed and recited to them. The best known example of this is the conversion story of Umar رضي الله عنه, who walked in on his sister and husband who were being taught verses of the Quran but quickly hid the pages of the mushaf from him out of fear. The companions never put together a complete mushaf in the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ because while he was alive, some verses were still being revealed and other verses were being abrogated. In the caliphate of Abu Bakr رضي الله عنه, within two years of the death of the Prophetﷺ, the Muslims commissioned and completed the first official mushaf. In the caliphate of Uthman رضي الله عنه, a second commission was issued for a mushaf and a committee put together one that became known as the Uthmanic script, which was adjusted from the previous one o include all the different qira’aat (recitations).
Pickthall’s English interpretation was completed 1300 years after this. Surely within that time somebody else produced an English interpretation of the Quran? It couldn’t have taken more than a millennium for somebody to conceive of the idea. Or could it have? Is Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Koran really the first English-language interpretation of the Muslim holy book? The answer is not a simple one.
Prior to Pickthall’s interpretation, numerous attempts were made to produce an English-language version of the Quran. The earliest of these have been traced back to the 17th century. It was during this time that Alexander Ross put forth The Alcoran of Mahomet. The title alone contains a glaring error as this was not the “Alcoran” of Muhammad ﷺ as is the name of the Prophet ﷺ terribly misspelled. If pronounced phonetically, it would also result in a mispronunciation of his (ﷺ) name. This is a far greater error than Pickthall’s spelling of “Quran” and renders the entire publication unreliable. To make matters worse, Ross’ The Alcoran of Mahomet was not written based upon or even referencing the (Arabic) Quran. Instead, he merely translated a French interpretation of the Quran into English, all but guaranteeing the original message of the book was diluted, if not entirely lost.
Throughout the 1600s, multiple scholars attempted to produce an English-language interpretation of the Quran, but all committed the same sin as Ross by translating an interpretation written in another language. Numerous translations were made of additional French interpretations, while many other translations were made of Latin interpretations. Unsurprisingly, none succeeded in providing a reliable interpretation of the Quran in English.
In the 1800s, Arabic had begun to be studied by Western scholars. As a result, a number of British intellectuals attempted to write an English-language version of the Quran translated directly from its original Arabic. However, none of the native English speakers who took on this task were Muslims. They approached the Quran with skepticism, if not an air of Christian superiority and orientalism. For the most part, this meant their renditions of the Quran were merely works of curiosity, produced and read for novelty and not out of any genuine theological motivation. Consequently, these English-language interpretations of the Quran cannot be considered accurate or reliable as they are lacking the conviction of a believer. In some cases, they even contain deliberate mistranslations in order to paint Islam, Muhammad, and Muslims in a negative light.
It should be noted that there were indeed a number of English-language Quranic interpretations produced by Muslims during the 19th century. The issue with these copies, of course, is that the Muslim authors were not native English speakers. Many of them grew up speaking Arabic, which was useful in understanding the Quran in its original form, but ultimately meant they were facing an impossible challenge in crafting an English interpretation of the book. Although these authors undoubtedly understood the core messages of Islam – and far more – the fact that English was not their native tongue made it impossible for them to produce a wholly accurate and readable English-language interpretation of the Quran.
In short, it seems like everybody who attempted to publish an English-language interpretation of the Quran prior to the 20th century faced some significant challenge. Some could speak English but were not Muslim, meaning they were incapable of conveying the reverence and awe the Quran commands. Others were Muslims but did not speak English as their first language, meaning they were incapable of adequately articulating the contents of the classical Arabic Quran into English. Therefore, nobody was in a position to give English readers a full Quranic experience.
It was not until Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall began work on The Meaning of the Glorious Koran that an English-language interpretation of the Quran was attempted by somebody who was both a Muslim and a native English speaker, and one who read and wrote classical Arabic like a native. For this reason, Pickthall’s work is widely considered to be the first true English-language interpretation of the Quran.
Does this mean you can now read the Quran in English? Check out our article on reading the Quran in English here.
Who Was Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall?
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall was not raised as a Muslim. In fact, his situation was quite the opposite. He was born Marmaduke William Pickthall in London on the 7th of April, 1875. His father, Charles Greyson Pickthall was deeply religious and even served as a clergyman for the Anglican community of Chillesford, Suffolk. The younger Pickthall was a sickly child and suffered health issues almost from the moment he took his first breath. At just six months old, he was diagnosed with measles. This diagnosis was almost immediately followed by a diagnosis of bronchitis. Measles complicated by bronchitis could have proven fatal, but something – be it chance or fate – saved Pickthall’s life and allowed him to enter adolescence with minimal health issues.
Pickthall was educated in some of Britain’s finest places of learning, including Harrow School, where he became a childhood friend of Winston Churchill. It was during his time at Harrow School that the budding scholar began developing an interest in political and theological issues that would ultimately lead to his conversion to Islam.
Upon completing his education, Pickthall became something of an adventurer. He traveled all across the Middle East, visiting some areas that were largely unknown to even the British empire at the time. During his travels, he penned a series of books inspired by Middle Eastern and South Asian culture. These included The Valley of the Kings (1909), The Myopes (1907), and the short story collection Children of the Nile (1906) . He even wrote what could be considered a precursor to his post-conversion Islamic publications, The House of Islam (1906).
When Did He Become A Muslim?
Although he shocked even his closest friends when he announced he had become a Muslim, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s conversion to Islam was gradual. It’s safe to say he developed some sort of interest in Islam during his time in Harrow School, although there’s no concrete evidence to suggest that. It was not until he began traveling the Middle East that Pickthall began openly demonstrating his relationships with Muslims and discussing their religion in his writings.
In 1915, the United Kingdom was churning out anti-Turkish propaganda at an alarming rate. Muslims in the country were being asked – if not forced – to aid in the production of this propaganda. Pickthall, though not a Muslim at the time, was vocal in his opposition to this practice. A long time apologist of the Ottoman Empire, he refused to aid the British government in their propaganda battle with the Turks. He even went so far as to state that he would fight for Britain in the First World War providing he would only do battle against the Germans and not go up against Turkey’s forces. He ultimately ended up joining Britain in the war, but was only tasked with managing an influenza hospital.
By the time he signed up to the British army, Pickthall was already a seasoned traveler and considered something of an authority on Islam. In 1917, a year before the First World War came to its merciful end, he was asked to give a talk to the Muslim Literary Society in London’s Notting Hill. The talk took place on the 29th of November and bore the title “Islam and Progress.” Given the subject matter of the speech, Pickthall deemed it the perfect time to formally announce his conversion to Islam. This announcement signified a more concentrated effort on his part to participate in Islamic causes.
In 1919, Pickthall joined the Islamic Information Bureau. Based in London, the IIB was known for Muslim Outlook, a weekly publication which allowed Pickthall to continue writing about Islamic matters while trying to forge his own identity as a Muslim. Of course, the Muslim Pickthall shared one major similarity with his pre-conversion counterpart: an unwavering desire to travel. In 1920, Pickthall abandoned his post at the Islamic Information Bureau and left London. With his wife in tow, he headed to India. There, he served as the editor of The Bombay Chronicle. It was during this period that he began work on his masterpiece.
When Did He Translate The Quran?
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall began toying with the idea of attempting an English-language interpretation of the Quran immediately following his conversion in 1917. For a long time, the idea remained just that. Confined to his own mind, the project seemed too grand to ever warrant serious consideration. As time progressed, however, one can assume Pickthall became increasingly frustrated with the linguistic and theological inaccuracies present in the English-language Qurans which were available in early 20th century Britain. By the time he left for India to take the helm of The Bombay Chronicle, he may well have already decided to finally produce what was to become The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Nevertheless, he did not actually begin working on the project in earnest for almost another decade.
In 1928, Pickthall took a sabbatical from his journalistic work to fully dedicate himself to his translation efforts. The project was authorized by Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and Pickthall also received the backing and financial support of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was employing him at the time. So grateful was he for the support of the Nizam that he began the finished product with a dedication reading:
His Exalted Highness
The translator expresses his gratitude for the most generous grant of leave which enabled him to complete this work while in His Exalted Highness’s (sic) Service”
Throughout the production of The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, Pickthall displayed remarkable dedication and endurance. He completed the project in just two years, which is truly something to marvel at since no work like it could be used as a reference or even to contrast with. It becomes all the more impressive when you consider the fact he also wrote explanatory notes for each surah. On some occasions, these notes were quite brief, but others went on for multiple pages. He even included in the book a mini biography of the Prophet Muhammadﷺ.
His ability to complete such a massive project in such little time speaks volumes about Pickthall’s love of the Quran and determination to spread Islam throughout the Western world. It almost seems as though he wrote it with a sense of urgency, believing that each passing second the West did not hear the Quran’s message was a second too long.
What Did The Critics Say?
The Meaning of the Glorious Koran was released in 1930 and was warmly received by both Muslims and critics alike. Islamic scholars were quick to note the incredible accuracy of Pickthall’s interpretation and it was instantly elevated above all other English-language Quran attempts before it. Literary critics praised Pickthall for his ability to take an Arabic holy book of almost 1500 years in age and make it relevant for English readers in the 20th century.The Times Literary Supplement even went so far as to brand the book “a great literary achievement.”
Pickthall, however, was quick to warn against idolizing the book. He reminded whoever he could that while the contents of The Meaning of the Glorious Koran were certainly captivating, they collectively stated that nothing and nobody deserves praise other than God. But despite not always being receptive towards the immense praise heaped upon himself and his book, Pickthall considered The Meaning of the Glorious Koran his greatest achievement. In fact, he was so thoroughly convinced that the project was the summit of his life both as an author and a Muslim that he never penned another book again.
What Happened To The Author?
Pickthall remained abroad for five years after The Meaning of the Glorious Koran was published. He finally returned to England at the beginning of 1935. What he saw when he arrived back in his home country was an England which had greatly evolved from the land he had known before leaving for India in 1920. England, much like the rest of the United Kingdom, had miraculously repaired itself after the chaos of World War One. Presumably spurred on by their winning effort in that battle, its people had embarked on a profitable streak of commerce and enterprise. But it wasn’t just the economy of England which had changed so drastically since Pickthall was last a resident of the country. Its theological fabric had been irrevocably transformed, taking its first strides towards the multi-cultural society we know today. Muslims were being embraced more heartily than ever before, as was Islam. Some English people were even converting to Islam on the strength of Pickthall’s work. He had almost single-handedly changed the face of Islam in the Western world forever.
After retiring, Pickthall took up residence in St. Ives, Cornwall, where he remained until his death on the 19th of May, 1936. He lies buried in the Muslim section of Surrey’s Brookwood Cemetery. Interestingly, this is the same resting place as Islamic scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Ali himself published a widely-acclaimed English-language interpretation of the Quran in 1934.
Epilogue: The Journey Continues
Although Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall passed away in 1936, his legacy lives on in the form of The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. For a brief period, it seemed like the book was going to be shelved (and not in the way a book wants to be shelved).
For several decades after Pickthall’s death, some semi-prominent Muslim scholars voiced their disapproval of his work. Although most people now recognize these criticisms for what they were – an attempt by perhaps some jealous authors to rob Pickthall of his status as the producer of the first true English-language interpretation of the Quran and claim it as their own – they were initially treated with concern.
One of the first people to express unhappiness with Pickthall’s translation was Muhammad Asad, who believed himself to be better equipped to produce an English interpretation of the Quran. Asad did indeed put forth his own offering. Unfortunately, his work suffered from the same issues which plagued the other non-native English speakers who tried to translate the Quran. Meanwhile, Professor Ahemd Ali produced an interpretation that was suspiciously similar to The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, but claimed he had corrected supposed mistakes in Pickthall’s book.
The debate as to the accuracy of Pickhtall’s work was finally put to rest in 1982, when the Islamic Ideological Council of Pakistan conducted an intense study to establish its merit. They concluded that The Meaning of the Glorious Koran was an exceedingly accurate interpretation of the Quran and that any criticism of the book was unfounded. As a result of this ruling, Pickthall’s book continues to be printed to this day. New and old copies can be found in mosques, online, and in stores. As a budding Islamophile, I picked up my tattered copy of the book in a second-hand book shop in Dublin, a reminder of just how far Islam has progressed in the West since Pickthall first announced his conversion all the way back in 1917.
Wherever you find it, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Koran remains the eternal masterpiece of one of the most crucial figures in the history of Islam.