Qur'an Translations

I am looking to get a copy of the Qur’an to both read through and to use as a reference. Initially I was just going to go to the book store and pick up whatever they had on the shelf, but then I recalled reading, both here and elsewhere, that there are a lot of English translations that skew the religion in a bad light. So I am curious to hear from those more knowledgeable than myself, what translation would you suggest?

I have Pickthall’s translation. I have never studied it other than reading it, so I don’t know about its theological accuracy. I do know that the English used is somewhat hard to parse in places, and if I had made a more informed choice, I would have gone with another translation.


On their website, the American Society for Muslim Advancement recommends The Koran Interpreted by A. J. Arberry. According to their capsule description, it uses spellings which Muslims prefer—which to my agnostic eye makes “Koran” rather than “Qu’ran” a bit whimsical. But then, I have an odd sense of whimsy.

Here’s a relevant email exchange:

> Dear <Arab friend of mine from college who studies comparative lit>,
> <friend> and I are going to read the Koran (Q’ran?). Could you recommend a
> translation? I hear you know a little Arabic, and might have looked at a
> Koran once or twice…
> Thanks,
> J. A. J.

Ello there,

My favorite is AJ Arberry’s, its humble and does interesting things like put implied statements in the parenthetical rather than introducing interpretation as translation. Its also more poetically minded, while others try to make seem more like narrative (hence catering to the bible-minded crowd). Dawood’s translation is perhaps the easiest to get a hold of, but I also consider it to be quite atrocious. The man was a publisher, and readability seemed to be more of a priority than you know, faithfulness to the text and all that. Ahmed Ali is popular with english speaking muslims, but I really don’t like it. Can’t go wrong with Arberry, even if its a little dated. There are a bunch of new ones from oxford and some other publishers, but none have really gotten great reviews or anything, but rather try to split hairs over academic interpretations.

Now this might seem weird, but I strongly suggest that you read the Quran backwards. What I mean is that the surahs (or chapters) in the Q are ordered by length, with the longest first to the shortest one last. Now starting with the Surah of the Cow is like teaching a kid to swim by throwing him in the deep end. The ordering of the surahs is a later innovation, finding the exact chronology of the surahs is like one of the holy grails of Islamic scholarship. So start off with the shorter surahs and work your way to the longer ones. The shorter ones tend to be more poetic/philosophical, the longer ones more legalistic/moralistic. But do read the first one (Al Fatiha) first, which is less than a page in length but its the most important one in Islamic ritual.

I also recommend reading Michael Cook’s “The Koran: A Very Short Introduction”. Its witty and erudite, and it explains things quite clearly. But watch out, he is sort of considered to be a revisionist historian, but I think he spells out the moments when he is going against what the majority of muslims actually think. Just sort of skim it, me thinks.

Here is a little effort from yours truly that was actually part of my comp lit BA. Its the story of Joseph, the only complete narrative in the Q (surah 12), and I included the intro describing the translations.

Good luck, a lot of people complain about it being hard to read and so forth. I think if you have the right attitude, its actually a lot of fun.

           &lt;Arab friend of mine from college who studies comparative lit&gt;

-------------------------------End of emails-------------------
Now, It is a year after that exchange, and <friend> and I are almost done. (It shouldn’t take you a year, but we read over the phone.) We have been using Arberry, with Dawood as a reference, especially for idioms. <Arab friend> also told me that Arberry is the closest to replicating the experience that Arabic speakers have when reading the Koran. In short, it seems very foreign at first (because it is!), but is worth the effort.

As you can see, he also included his own translation of Surah 12, with many footnotes, and I can forward it to you if you email me(Is my email address displayed?).