Al-Qur’an A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 572 pages.)

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Asma Afsaruddin



Ahmed Ali’s book is a much welcome addition to the multiple editions now
available of Islam’s holy book in English rendition. As the dust jacket informs
us, this translation of the Qur’an’s meaning was first published in the United
States in 1988. Now reprinted and handsomely reproduced in a handy size,
these factors and its esthetics and readability make this volume suitable for
general and classroom use. Educators who wish to assign a good translation
of the Qur’an’s meaning, particularly for undergraduates, will find this work
an obvious choice out of the plethora of choices currently available.
Ali’s work avoids the linguistic archaism of Muhammad Marmaduke
Pickthall’s otherwise excellent rendition, jarring to the ears of a typical 20-
year-old today reared on television English. A. J. Arberry’s translation, celebrated
for its lyrical richness and its being supposedly (but not quite)
evocative of the Arabic original, is stilted in parts and even inaccurate on
occasion. When I assigned it for my undergraduate class on Islam a few
years ago, at times I had to stop and disentangle the occasional fractured
syntax for my students and reconstruct the original Arabic in my mind to
extricate the literal meaning, sometimes sacrificed for literary effect.
My next choice was T. B. Irving’s rendition of the Qur’an’s meaning into
what he called American English. Although largely accurate, the rendition’s
pedestrian nature, which bordered on the colloquial, was disappointingly
inadequate to the task. Although the meaning was clear, the majesty of transcendental
verbum dei was not evoked. N. J. Dawood’s widely used rendition
is certainly adequate, but the prose is occasionally limp and uninspiring, and
thus unsatisfying at a deeper level.
Ali’s work straddles a happy medium between contemporaneity in
style and elegance of diction, both achieved without any sacrifice in ...

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