Reading the Qur’an – part 3 – Translations and Secondary Sources [updated][2x]

[I’ve jumped a head to part 3 since several commentors have asked about translations and secondary material.]

I’ve done one post already on the vagaries of Qur’anic Arabic. Learning Arabic does not really help in learning to read the Qur’an in the sense of its interpretive history, but it does help you appreciate the large semantic range of each word in the Qur’an. (A really good secondary source for this discussion, although somewhat technical, is The Qur’an’s Self-Image.) As a result, when I look up passages, I don’t rely on just one translation, but rather several. I also use languages other than English to help me appreciate how certain Arabic words convey different meanings. I know this isn’t practical for most people, so I will highlight the two translations I use the most. For those of you with the the time and inclination, I recommend having multiple translations around. In terms of choosing a translation, I look up a few different passages and see how certain Arabic phrases are translated. In general, if you’ve heard of the press that’s publishing it, it’s a safe bet. The one exception is a press call Tarikhe Tarsile Qur’an, which specializes in publishing Qur’ans in different languages. I get almost all my non-English translations from them. Avoid the free stuff that the Saudis give out. As Abou Fadl has written about in his essay “Corrupting God’s Book,” in Conference of the Books, what they are giving out is a book called the Koran, but it has almost no relationship to the Arabic text. I’ll start with the secondary sources, and then move on to some of the translations that get regular use on my desk.

Update: If you are thinking about picking up the Qur’an for the first time, you may want to pick up one of the thematic introductions (Kenneth Cragg or Jacques Jomier.) While neither is a complete version of the Qur’an, they are arranged in a more narrative style that most people are used to.

The secondary sources list is long, but I’m trying to present a variety of perspectives through which people can approach the Qur’an. They are in no particular order, except for the first one, which is the book I currently recommend on trying to understand what the Qur’anic revelation is. Plus, it includes a CD of some beautiful recitations.

Secondary Sources [I won’t annotate this list much, except to indicate the highly academic. You can read more about each of the books through the links.]

Approaching the Qur’an [really can’t recommend this book enough.]

The Art of Reciting the Qur’an

Ulum al-Qur’an [good history.]

Qur’an’s Self-Image [academic]

The Qur’an: A Short Introduction [some glossing of complex topics, but it is an introduction.]

The Qur’an: A Very Short Introduction [A surprisingly good introduction for the size, although there are some Orientalizing tendencies.]

Literary Structure and Religious Meaning in the Qur’an [academic.]

Moses in the Qur’an [academic, but nice inter-faith aspect.]

Inquiring of Joseph [somewhat academic, but nice inter-faith aspect.]

Discovering the Qur’an

Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an [academic, but really worth the effort.]

Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an [absolutely fascinating. not too esoteric, but get an introduction first to get the vocabulary.]

Qur’an Translation [combine with On the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’an and you can see the real world implications of my previous post.]

Qur’an: An Introduction

The Qur’an and its Exegesis

Prolegomena to the Qur’an [Ithna’ashari exegesis. Dense, read it only if you are really interested.]

The Qur’an and its Interpreters (vol. 1 and vol. 2) [I feel I must mention it because of the context of this post, and while it is very good, I’m not sure a non-specialist would get much out of it.]

Concordance of the Qur’an [great desk reference.]

For translations, as I said most major presses have a translation. The Qur’an is poetry, so as a personal preference I don’t like prose translations (I’m thinking specifically of the Penguin translation – while not technically wrong, it doesn’t read right. The one exception is the one put out by Oxford, which does a decent job, but the whole prose approach really bothers me.


The ones I use most often

S. V. Mir Ali [the only Shi’ah translation in English I know of.]

Ahmed Ali [a new contemporary translation.]

The classics

Yusuf Ali [KJV of translations.]



Asad [Thanks for the catch Tony.]

New ones



I think I’ve hit all the major translations, and my favorite secondary source books. Feel free to add more in comments.

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14 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an – part 3 – Translations and Secondary Sources [updated][2x]

  1. Thanks for this list. I somehow missed parts 1 and 2 so I’ll have to check them out.
    I was just recently trying to get a hold of a copy of Ulum al-Quran at the NYC Public Library. They listed 2 copies as being there but I could find neither. Just yesterday I figured out that it is available online.

  2. I’m surprised that Muhammad Asad’s translation didn’t make your list. Not because it’s now my primary translation, but it gets high marks from many people that I know.

  3. A few others I’d recommend:
    _Coherence in the Qur’an: A Study of Islahi’s Concept of Nazm in Tadabbur-i-Qur’an_ by Mustansir Mir. Islahi’s own tafsir, _Tadabbur-i-Qur’an_ is only available in Urdu, although there is a project underway to translate it into English.
    _Major Themes of the Qur’an_ by F. Rahman
    A good modern translation is by M. Abdel Haleem, published by OUP.

  4. thabet, thanks for the references. I’ll move Rahman up there for sure. I did mention Haleem’s under my comments on prose translations; is the UK edition in a poetic format? It reads very well for a prose rendering in the US edition.
    I haven’t seen the others you mention, but I will check them out. How tough is Islahi’s Urdu?

  5. It is pretty tough going even for me (though I am not an expert). It is quite technical as his idea of nazm does become quite complex and elaborate; he concentrates on meanings of various Arabic words and idioms too. The good news is that Islahi’s students have started translating his work into English. You can find their project here:
    M.A. Haleem’s work is the one you’ve linked to, yes. I didn’t spot it earlier.

  6. Why did you ask us to avoid the translations distributed by the Saudis when one of the versions they actively promote is the one by Yusuf Ali?

  7. “Towards Understanding the Quraan” by Sayed Abul ala Maududi [Its the English version of Tafhim al Quraan in Urdu]. Translated by Zafar Ishaaq Ansari.

  8. i’m afraid i don’t follow the question. if you’re referring to urdu, it is an indo-european language, so it is closer to persian than arabic.

  9. Please put up links for Quran study:
    textfiles of original in UTF-8
    polyglot for originals
    grammar & syntax
    critical apparatus
    gloss/word lists
    Thank you,

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