Muhammad Hamidullah’s French Translation,
As Revised By the King Fahd Complex (2000)
The Muhammad Hamidullah’s French translation of the Qur’ān is certainly the easiest version to find on the internet. Even though it is usually attributed to Muhammad Hamidullah, it is in fact a revised version based on his original translation.
Muhammad Hamidullah: biographical elements
Muhammad Hamidullah’s French translation was published in 1959 and produced in collaboration with the translator and historian of religions Michel Léturmy (1921-2002). The text has been re-edited a dozen times between its first publication date and the year 2000: the exact number of its editions depends on whether we include or not the pirated copies. Nonetheless, this translation is often considered as the first French version composed by a Muslim. However, it was preceded by less-known Muslim translations: Ahmed Laïmèche and Benaouda Ben Daoud (1931), Octave Pesle and Ahmed Tidjani (1936), and Ameur Ghédira (1957).
Hamidullah was born on 19th February 1908, in Hyderabad, a former Muslim principality and present capital city of the Indian state of Telangana. He came from a family of Sunni Muslim scholars, and began studying Islamic sciences at the al-Ǧāmi‘a al-Niẓāmiyya theological institute, a higher education establishment devoted to denominational education, founded in 1876. He then studied at the ‘Uṯmaniyya university, also in Hyderabad, where he got a degree in International Islamic law. He also received the title of ḥāfiẓ (“حافظ”) awarded to those who memorized the entire Qur’ān. His university sent him to Germany for his research; and in 1932, Hamidullah defended a PhD dissertation on “The Principle of Neutrality in International Muslim Law” (“Die Neutralität im Islamischen Völkerrecht”) at the University of Bonn. Three years later, he obtained another doctorate in Literature from the Sorbonne University for a dissertation entitled: “Documents on Muslim Diplomacy at the Time of the Prophet and Orthodox Khalifs” (“Documents sur la diplomatie musulmane à l’époque du Prophète et des Khalifes orthodoxes”). Hamidullah then returned to the Indian subcontinent to teach Islamic law at his former university, but his opposition to the annexation of Hyderabad by the new Indian state obliged him to go into exile in Paris in 1948, where he stayed until 1996.
Hamidullah continued his research on Islam in Europe while traveling to a few foreign countries, and more particularly to the newly formed State of Pakistan where he participated in the writing of the constitution in 1950. He also travelled to Turkey where he regularly taught at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Istanbul. Incidentally, in the first edition of his translation of the Qur’ān, he introduces himself as a professor attached to this university. Hamidullah was appointed as a Senior Research Fellow at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) in 1954, with the support of the man he used to call “master”, the Catholic orientalist and Islamicist Louis Massignon (1883-1962), and of Henry Laoust (1905-1983), a specialist of Hanbali school of thought.
While living in an environment where the Muslim Brotherhood movement was expanding, Hamidullah met some of its prominent members, among which Saïd Ramadan (1926-1995), son-in-law of Hassan el-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the movement. Hamidullah was also active in Christian-Muslim dialogue in France, as his articles on the subject testify. In 1962, he founded the "French Muslim Students Association" (“Association des Etudiants Islamiques de France”) for young French Muslims; just a decade after having contributed to the creation of the first Muslim cultural center in France. His translation of the Qur’ān seemed to follow through on the idea of introducing Islam to French speaking European Muslims, with the help of one of their fellow believers. One can observe this preoccupation in his writings; for instance, in his article entitled “The Muslims’ Holy Qur’ān” (“Le Saint Coran des Musulmans”) he recommends reading translations of the Qur’ān written by Muslims: “one should choose translations done by Muslims in order to avoid reading the biased point of view of those who do not share our faith”.
Hamidullah’s health problems, probably due to his old age (88), forced him to leave France in 1996 and accept an invitation from a family member based in Florida. He died in December 2002, in the United States.
Muhammad Hamidullah’s work
Hamidullah spoke and wrote in several languages (French, English, Urdu, Arab, Turkish, German, etc.). He wrote more than forty books during his career and a substantial number of articles including one hundred and sixty-four that were written in French. One of his concerns was the place of Muslims in India. But Hamidullah dedicated the most important part of his work to Islamic law, the Qur’ān, the sīra, i.e. the biography of the prophet of Islam. He studied for instance Muḥammad’s diplomatic activities and the links between economic thinking and the Muslim religion.
Hamidullah differed, however, from the contemporary Islamic studies specialist Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), by showing a certain form of conservatism. He did not use all the critical tools of modern science in his research, particularly in history. Consequently, several French academics including the historian and Islamic studies specialist Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004) did not fully acknowledge Hamidullah’s work. While recognizing his “great knowledge”, Rodinson regretted, for instance, that Hamidullah’s book “The Prophet of Islam” (“Le Prophète de l’Islam”) vindicated slavery during medieval times describing it as “a humanitarian need”. Hamidullah also received harsh criticism on his translation of the Qur’ān from the Arabic poetics specialist Jamel Eddine Bencheikh (1930-2005) who doubted his linguistic competence: “it seems that the translator does not know French, which is unfortunate. And it seems that he does not know Arabic, which is troubling”.
Hamidullah’s translation of the Qur’ān is characterized by a style that he wished to be as faithful as possible to the original, sometimes at the risk of confusing readers who do not know Arabic. For instance, the term Naṣārā (“نصارى”), usually translated as “Christians”, became “Nazarenes” in his book; but he made sure to explain in the footnotes that this term meant “Christians”. He added to his comment on Q 2:113: “Nāṣira – Nazareth – is Jesus’ country. The word is not pejorative”. As Louis Massignon pointed it out in the preface of the first edition, Hamidullah was clearly driven by the desire of “translating the Qur’ān into French as he recites it in Arabic, with bare faith”. Indeed, Hamidullah built his translation in denominational perspective, which explains the long and quite eulogistic introduction in which he discussed various subjects such as the style of the Qur’ān, the history of its redaction, its content, the order of the verses, the particular interest it gives to the “People of the Bible” and not to other religions, as well as the question of women in the text.
Hamidullah’s position on revising translations
Among the dozen of re-editions indicated at the beginning of the present note, textual modifications and evolutions – significant or not – can be perceived within the text: you will find more details about the different editions in Maurice Bormann’s article mentioned in our bibliography. However, the most widely disseminated version, the one presented here, has the particularity of being heavily revised without Muhammad Hamidullah’s consent. This revision was carried out by the Muslim World League through the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’ān. Founded in 1984 and based in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the King Fahd Complex is under the authority of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Its main mission is to print and distribute copies of the Qur’ān throughout the world.
Hamidullah was against revisions being done on translations of the Qur’ān, and this became obvious well before his own work was revised in 1990 and 2000. In an open letter published in 1989 in the quarterly journal “The Muslim” (“Le Musulman”), which was addressed to King Fahd, Hamidullah expressed his disapproval of modifications made in the English version composed by the British-Indian translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872-1953). The latter’s work is considered to be one the most widely known version of the Qur’ān among anglophone Muslims. Hamidullah wrote: There is nothing wrong in changing an author’s words during his lifetime and with his permission. But changing terms used by a deceased author, without knowing his opinion nor his explanations, can be considered a falsification of history. It seems that instead of pointing out Yusuf Ali’s “mistakes” – if there are any – one makes readers believe that they are reading the original translation. Instead of that one should add footnotes to Yusuf Ali’s translation to explain why the editor suggests some modifications to the original version, but we should never delete or replace the original text.
Furthermore, in the same letter, Hamidullah criticized his fellow-believers’ tendency to use the expression “translation of the meaning of the Qur’ān”. For him: “translation means to convey the meaning of words from one language to another”. Consequently, saying “translation of meaning would mean conveying the meaning of the meaning”, which, in his opinion, is an “unnecessary redundancy”. Hamidullah’s letter ends with a request addressed directly to King Fahd (1921-2005): “when editing texts [translations]”, he (the King Fahd) should “order his subordinates” to “respect what the author wrote, and not replace it with anything else but distinct and separate notes”.
This recommendation seemed not to have been followed by the Complex, as his own
translation endured the same fate as Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s work: even its
initial title "The Holy Qur’ān, Complete Translation and
Notes by Muhammad Hamidullah with the Collaboration of Michel
Léturmy", became "The Holy Qur’ān and the French
Translation of the Meaning of its Verses". To avoid discrediting the
Muslim World League, Hamidullah discreetly opposed this first 1990 version.
However, he privately shared with his closest friends his strong opposition to the translation, as it can be observed
in the letters he exchanged with his student Daniel-Youssof Leclercq. In a
letter he wrote on 12th February 1992,
Hamidullah refuses to take responsibility for the new translation:
I thank you for your yesterday’s letter. Please do not tell the
Muslim World League anything about their French translation of the
Qur’ān. They did what they could. I thought the article that praised the translation was written by you.
I have read the work. The Complex wrote in the introduction that my translation was the best – what an honour – but then they submitted it to four committees, who corrected it one by one. As usual, they did not give the names of [any] translators. Fortunately, they take full responsibility themselves. Hamidullah raised the issue again in another letter written to the same person on 8th July 1992: Do not be angry: I was not happy of the eulogy you made of the translation published by [Saudi] Arabia. Do you have it? What do you think about 63/4 خشب مسندة ? They mention my name in the introduction, but fortunately not as the translator. I am not responsible towards God. Muhammad Hamidullah was ninety-two years old when the second edition was published in 2000. If he had knowledge about it, his reaction remains unknown to us.
The editors of the version released in 2000
The second edition, which I present here, was written under the direction of three African religious personalities: Fodé Soriba Camara, Mohamed Ahmed Lo and Ahmad Mouhammad al-Amine al-Chinquity, respectively of Guinean, Senegalese, and Mauritanian nationality. One should be careful not to confuse the latter with Mohammed al-Amine al-Shinqiti (1905-1974), a well-known religious scholar who was also Mauritanian.
Fodé Soriba Camara is a former translator, diplomat and Minister of Islamic Affairs in Guinea. He is known to have published an article entiltled "Study on the French translation of the meaning of the Qur’ān by Régis Blachère" (“Dirāsat tarǧamat ma’ānī al-qur’ān al-karīm ilā l-luġat al-faransiyya al-latī a‘addahā riǧis balāšīr”). In this study, Camara contests Blanchère’s knowledge of the Arabic language and accuses him of “pursuing the same goal as all orientalists: to undermine the Qur’ān”. He added that “they spread lies and defamations in their translations in order to convince readers that the Qur’ān was written by the prophet Muḥammad (…)”. Needless to say that the study in question is aimed at creating controversy; and it is obvious that the author himself does not seem to care much about the sweeping generalizations he makes in his study. The text can be consulted on the King Fahd’s Complex website and it is classified among works dedicated to “incorrect translations”.
Graduated from the University of Medina, Mohamed Ahmed Lo is one of the most famous figures of the Salafi movement in West Africa, particularly in Senegal, his country of origin. This notoriety is mostly due to his main book on Sufism “The Sanctification of Individuals in Sufi Thought” (“Taqdīs al-ašḫāṣ fī al-fikr al-ṣūfī”): a book in which he lists and denounces practices and beliefs he considers “deviant” and “unrelated to Islam” which prevail in the mystical current.
Finally, Ahmad Mouhammad al-Amine al-Chinquity (d. in 2013) was a specialist on Mālikī jurisprudence and Qur’ānic exegesis. He worked at the Mauritanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then at the Saudi Ministry of Information, before permanently settling in Saudi Arabia, precisely in Mecca where he taught until his retirement. His most famous book is undoubtedly “The Divine Graces in the Argumentations of Khalil” (“Mawāhib al-ǧalīl min adillat ḫalīl”), a commentary on the notorious summary of the Mālikī school of thought “Précis of Khalil”(“Muḫtaṣar ḫalīl”). The Mālikī madhhab is one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, and it is followed by most Muslims in North and West Africa.
The three mentioned reviewers are all theologians. But Fodé Soriba Camara is the only professional Arabic-to-French translator. I could cautiously suggest that their names define a certain readership, maybe one specifically targeted by King Fahd Complex, namely the French speaking readers from sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, according to a 2016 estimation, a total of more than ninety-four million francophones live in this part of the African continent, with a strong proportion of Muslims in its Western part.
Characteristics of the revised edition
In the following lines I describe a few characteristics of the version presented. To achieve that I compare the latter to the edition Hamidullah revised and completed himself as it was published in 1977 by the Club Français du Livre, the publishing house that released the first edition.
Concerning the French translation of the name Allāh (“الله”), Hamidullah prefers the term “God”. In his open letter to King Fahd, he argued that this was common in certain non-Arabic-speaking countries: “We have shamelessly done it for over a thousand years in Persian, Urdu, Turkish, etc. And indeed, experience has shown that for non-Muslims the word Allah means the God of the Muslims and not the universal God for everyone”. However, the translators of the Complex kept the Arabic form, and justified their choice by stating that “it is how He is called in the Qur’ān”. However, they used the terms “God” (Dieu) and “divinity” (divinité) to render the name ilāh (“إله”). And when this name refers to “Allah”, they usually translated it with the word “God”. But when it is a common name [when it refers to polytheistic deities, as in Q 21:36], they prefer to use the term “divinity”. Yet, they sometimes translated it differently depending on the sūrah, giving the impression of an arbitrary choice: one can compare, for instance, Q 2:163 and Q 16:22, in which the same term ilāh in “wa-ilāhukum ilāhun wāḥid” is rendered differently. In Hamidullah’s original text, these inconsistencies are not present.
Furthermore, the revised version differs from the previous one because of several changes made in the translation of the titles of the sūrahs. To mention a few, in Muhammad Hamidullah’s 1977 translation, sūrahs 5, 6, 7, 8 and 30 are entitled: “The served tray” (“Le plateau servi”), “Limbo” (“Les limbes”), “The abandoned remains” (“Les dépouilles”), “The cave” (“La grotte”) and “The Byzantines” (“Les Byzantins”). These titles were changed here into: “The served table” (“La table servie”), “Al-Araf” (not translated), “The spoils” (“Le butin”), “The cavern” (“La caverne”) and “The Romans” (“Les Romains”).
About terms deriving from the triliteral root s-l-m (“سلم”), both translations are often similar. For instance, Muhammad Hamidullah and his revisers agree on translating muslimūn (“مسلمون”) and aslama (“أسلَم”) by “submitted” and “to submit” as in Q 11:14 and Q 4:125. They agreed as well on the word salm (“سَلْم”) translated as “peace” in Q 48:35. However, some modifications are present: for example, Hamidullah translated the terms islām (“إسلام”) and silm (“سِلْم”) as “Submission” as in Q 3:19 and Q 2:208, whereas translators of the revised version preferred to use the transliterated word “Islam” – which refers more explicitly to the Muslim religion.
Nevertheless, the method is the same: in both translations, priority is given to the interpretation adopted by the majority classical Sunni exegetes. And that reliance on exegesis consequently resulted in a translation that was as close as possible to the original language, at the expense of the targeted language. But differences between the two texts are still noticeable. For instance, in this passage, Q 3:85, Hamidullah’s translation will clearly seem rather welcoming for the non-Muslim reader: “Whosoever desires a religion other than Submission, of that religion nothing shall be received”. This passage is, however, much less welcoming in the revised King Fahd Complex translation: “whoever desires another religion than Islam, shall not be accepted”. One can clearly read here two very different versions of the same verse.
The ideological orientation of the revised version can also be discerned in a term such as Naṣārā (“نصارى”), sometimes translated as “Nazarenes” and other times as “Christians”, depending on whether or not the passage is favorable towards them or not; as in Q 2:62 and 113. The first verse is translated as follows: Certainly, those who believe, those who practice Judaism, the Nazarenes and the Sabians, whoever among them believe in Allah in the Last day and accomplish good deeds, will be rewarded by their Lord: they shall not be afraid and shall never be afflicted. However, the second verse is rendered as follows: The Jews say “The Christians have nothing [true] to stand on”, and the Christians say, “The Jews have nothing to stand on”, although they [both] recite the Scripture. Thus the polytheists speak the same as their words. But Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they used to differ. Since the term “Nazarenes” often refers to the first Christians of Jewish origin, the interpretive choice presented in Q 2:62 may lead to think that contemporary Christians are not concerned by the Divine Promise. In Q 2:113, however, the choice is very different and seems to underline that God’s warning is indeed addressed to them.
In conclusion: the reasons behind the success of this translation
Despite the observations on the revised version, I must admit that it is written in a more accessible, and to be honest, more correct French than Muhammad Hamidullah’s version. By reading Hamidullah’s correspondence and through Jamel Eddine Bencheikh’s review, one can notice that the translator’s syntax has some shortcomings, which can be partly explained by the fact that he was not a native francophone. That being said, the success of this revised version does not probably come from its linguistic quality, but rather from the Saudi religious authorities decision to promote the translation by distributing it for free. This wide distribution is the reason why it is being presented here, but it must be subject to the same contextualization as all other translations of the Qur’ān.
For more information
The XML source of the text presented here originates from the tanzil.net website. It was verified and edited in 2019 by Paul Gaillardon, Maud Ingarao, Myriam-Zahra Sahali, and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé. For initial bibliographical references, please see:
Ghedira (Ameur), trans., Le Coran : Nouvelle traduction par Ameur Ghedira., Lyon, Fleuve Editions (printed by Audin), 1957.
Hamidullah (Muhammad), trans. et notes, with the collaboration of Michel Léturmy, Le Saint Coran, preface by Louis Massignon, Paris, Club français du livre Press, 1959.
Hamidullah (Muhammad), trans. revised and notes, with the collaboration of Michel Léturmy, Le Coran, preface by Louis Massignon, Paris, Club français du livre Press, 1977.
Laïmeche (Ahmed) and Ben Daoud (Benaouda), trans., Le Coran, Lecture par excellence, Oran, Heintz, 1931.
Pesle (Octave) and Tidjani (Ahmed), trans., Le Coran. Translation by Octave Pesle and Ahmed Tidjani, Rabat, F. Moncho Press, 1936.
Avon (Dominique), “Intellectuels musulmans au confluent des sciences humaines et du dialogue interreligieux”, in Un nouvel âge de la théologie ? 1965-1980, Montpellier seminar (June 2007), Paris, Karthala, 2009, p. 349- 361 [on the theological positions defended by Hamidullah in his dialogue with Christians; about the criticism he received on his work, particularly those from Jamel Eddine Bencheikh regarding his translation].
Belabas (Abderrazak), “Les écrits de Muhammad Hamidullah en français: tendances et nouveautés”, Dialogue Méditerranéen, n° 15-16 (mars 2017), p. 24-57 [a substantial amount of information, although the viewpoint is clearly in favour of the revised translation].
Borrmans (Maurice), “Louis Massignon, Muhammad Ḥamidullah et sa traduction française du Coran”, in Islamochristiana, n° 35 (2009), p. 31-49 [our introductory note is largely inspired by this article].
Hamidullah (Muhammad), Le Prophète de l’Islam. Sa vie, son œuvre, Paris, Vrin, 1959 [on the apology of slavery in the 7th century, see p. 462].
Hamidullah (Muhammad), “Lettre ouverte du Pr. M. Hamidullah au Roi Fahd de l’Arabie Saoudite”, in Le Musulman, n° 5 and 6 (Hiver 1989), p. 13.
Larzul (Sylvette), “Hamidullah Muhammad”, dans Dictionnaire des orientalistes de langue française, ed. by François Pouillon, Paris, Karthala, 2008, p. 508-509.
Rodinson (Maxime), Mahomet, Paris, Seuil, 1968 [The methodological criticism of Hamidullah’s writings on slavery and polygamy can be found on pp. 266-267.].
Muhammad Hamidullah’s work is presented in a denominational perspective by his disciple Daniel-Youssof Leclercq, who is also known to have recited the French translation of the Qur’ān: https://mdhamidullah.wordpress.com.
We can also find the open letter to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia on this
Some books written by Hamidullah in English, Urdu and Arabic, can be found on
this website :
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The text in English is the result of a collaborative translation by Claire Gallien, Olivier Justet, Elisabeth Martineau and Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.