Marmaduke Muhammad Pickthall’s Translation of the Qurʾān (1930)
Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation of the Qurʾān was published in New York in 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf. It was the result of an intense period of work afforded him by a two-year leave given by the Nizam of Hyderabad, for whom he worked as a courtier. He stated that his was “the first translation of the Qurʾān by an Englishman who is a Muslim”, by implication calling into question the English translations previously made by generations of compatriots who were not declared believers.
Marmaduke Pickthall was born in London on April 7, 1875 into a family of Anglican clerics. His father was the rector of a country parish in Suffolk who died when he was young. His education was conventionally upper middle-class, but after two years at Harrow School he withdrew, “coming near to having a serious mental breakdown.”
Pickthall’s predilection for languages and geography led to him spend several years studying in France and Italy; acquiring French and Italian, he added German and Spanish through home tuition. However, despite his excellence as a linguist, his attempt in 1894 to enter the Consular Service for Turkey, Persia and the Levant was unsuccessful. In search of escape from his native land, aged eighteen Pickthall travelled to the Near East, where, eschewing expatriates, he chose instead the company of a local dragoman who introduced him to the ordinary people of Palestine. Enchanted by their way of life and quickly acquiring their Arabic vernacular, he was close to conversion to the Muslim faith, but was dissuaded from doing so by the Shaykhul-Islam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, on account of his youth and distance from home.
Pickthall put his youthful experiences in the Levant to use in his literary fiction on eastern subjects such as in the novels, Saïd the Fisherman (1903) and The Children of the Nile (1908). He continued to visit Egypt and Palestine, and to write regular articles about the Near East, in the few years prior to the outbreak of World War I, focusing on what he considered to be Britain’s ill-considered foreign policy toward the Ottoman Empire. From 1914 onwards his political support for Turkey brought him close, in the opinion of some, to betraying his own country which was fighting on the opposite side.
In November 1917 he declared himself a Muslim and in 1919 acted as temporary Imam of the Woking Mosque in Surrey. Employing his knowledge of Arabic, in his ḥuṭbah sermons he introduced his own translations of Qur’anic verses.
In 1920 Pickthall left England for India to take up the job of editor of the Bombay Chronicle. Forced to resign in 1924 owing to a change of ownership, he entered on his last career move to Hyderabad, first as principal of Chadaragat High School for Boys, and then as courtier to the Nizam of Hyderabad, during which period he was granted his leave to translate the Qurʾān. From 1927 to 1935 he edited the journal, Islamic Culture. Then he returned to England, where he spent only one year of retirement before his death the following year, in 1936.
The Meaning of the Glorious Koran
In the foreword, Marmaduke Pickthall implicitly, reverently, and with all due modesty explains the title he chose for his translation: “But the result is not the Glorious Qurʾān, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qurʾān – and peradventure some of the charm – in English. It can never take the place of the Qurʾān in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so.”
Pickthall’s translation of the Qurʾān stands as one of the most impressive cross-cultural artefacts of the period. While Pickthall was producing his work, two Indian translators who had fallen under the influence of the British, Maulana Muhammad Ali and Abdullah Yusuf Ali, were undertaking translations of their own. All three engaged with the British Empire, and were in important particulars favourable to Islamic Modernism of the kind that had first been developed in India by Sayyid Ahmad Khan of Aligarh, although in Pickthall’s case the Progressive Islam of Ottoman Turkey espoused by some of the Young Turk movement was equally influential.
In his introduction Pickthall states that the sincerity of his faith will help him: “it may be reasonably claimed that no Holy Scripture can be fairly presented by one who disbelieves its inspiration and its message.” He writes that previous English translations have misrepresented the Qurʾān, because they “include comments that are offensive to Muslims” and “employ a style of language which Muslims at once recognize as unworthy.”
On the Qurʾān’s morality, Pickthall writes about sūrah 2: “All through the sūrah runs the note of warning, which sounds indeed throughout the whole Qurʾān, that it is not the mere profession of a creed, but righteous conduct, which is the true religion.” This refusal of the sectarian is most evident in that he does not translate al-mu’minīn or al-muslimūn as ‘Muslims’, but rather as “those who surrender” and al-Islam as “The Surrender.” (verses 19, 52, 64, 84, sūrah 3). This may reflect the non-sectarian attitudes of the English converts to Islam whom Pickthall initially associated with. He wished to present the Qurʾān “to English Muslims” as a rational and fair-minded text. In the introduction to sūra 30, he stresses Allah’s fairness. “His mercy, like his Law, surrounds all things, and the standard of his judgment is the same for all. He is not remote, nor indifferent, partial or capricious…and no one, by the lip profession of a creed, is able to escape His law of consequences.”
In these introductions, when he quotes his sources at length, it is interesting that Pickthall presents the Prophet Muhammad as a man amongst his fellow men and women, sometimes subject to doubts and anxieties (sūrah 93) concerned about the effects of his decisions on those around him and sensitive to the rights of women (sūrahs 33 and 66) and the Muslims as people who longed for peace before the truce of Ḥudaybiyyah (sūrah 48). These passages repeat themes in Pickthall’s biography of the Prophet found in his “Introduction”. Possibly Pickthall, by choosing these junctures to elaborate on, was countering negative, prejudiced views of Muhammad and Islam.
The Qurʾān abounds in repeated motifs, and Pickthall consistently translates these identically: this gives his translation a consistency. Sometimes, Pickthall will alert the reader to a recurrent motif with a footnote, as in verse 2, sūrah 10 and verse 7, sūrah 11, where the reader is referred from “Your Lord is Allah who created the heavens and the earth in six days” to verse 47, sūrah 22, to verse 5, sūrah 32 and to verse 4, sūrah 70, where the linking theme is revealed to be the difference between human and divine measurements of time. However, his work does not feature consistent cross-referencing or a concordance.
The most obvious feature of Pickthall’s translation is that he chose to render the Qurʾān in Jacobean English, the language of the King James Version of the Bible. No doubt this reflected his Anglican upbringing. In addition, Pickthall probably would have been aware of the Jacobean Biblical style adopted by previous English translators such as Sale and Rodwell. This archaic register is characterized by different forms of pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine), fusty adverbs (thenceforth, therefrom, whence from) and suffixed second and third person verbs (bringeth and bringest).Though the Bible may have influenced how he thought a sacred text might sound, Pickthall saw the Qurʾān as related to but distinct from the Bible and Torah, calling its central thesis “amazingly original.” In his introduction to sūrah 3 he pushes back against “(Edwin) Muir and other Christian writers,” who accuse the Qurʾān of taking its content from Christian and Judaic scripture. Pickthall writes: “This is absurd because the whole of the Qurʾān is against it.” Similarly, in his note to verse 103, sūrah 16, he explains that the idolators (al-mušrikūn) falsely claimed that a Christian slave taught Muhammad the Qurʾān. In establishing these markers he was unequivocally distinguishing his position from centuries of Orientalist denigration of the Qurʾān.
Though some have thought the archaic style unwieldy, we think that readers might be more flummoxed by his occasional use of Anglicisms such as “aught” and “nought” and his choice of rarely-used verbs like “avail” and “vouchsafe” and “appertain”. The archaic style seems to be something he settled on later, rather than earlier, because his brief Qur’anic translations in the Islamic Review and Muslim India from 1917 to 1919 are markedly more colloquial. This stylistic choice was probably his attempt to capture the elevated tone and formal elegance of Qur’anic Arabic (fuṣḥā).
Pickthall’s choice of this old-fashioned register does at times present problems, usually when he, attempting to mirror the syntax of the Arabic, duplicates wordy, awkward phrases, as in verses 40-44, sūrah 13, where he chooses to preserve the Arabic parallel construction “wa minhum man”. So we took each one in his sin; of them was he on whom We sent a hurricane; and of them was he who was overtaken by the (Awful) cry; and of them was he whom We caused the Earth to swallow; and of them was he whom we drowned.” (Emphasis ours)
Pickthall’s fastidious adherence to Arabic syntax, however, often effectively captures parallel phrasings. For example, in verse 41, sūrah 29, Pickthall’s “The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house…” takes care to repeat the form of the similitude, whereas Haleem, for example, chooses to use the more idiomatic “…can be compared to spiders building themselves houses.”
It is precisely because of the combination of fidelity to Arabic phrasing, long sentences constructed with coordinating conjunctions, and frequent bracketed interpolations that readers may find some of the law-giving passages in Pickthall’s translation long-winded and difficult, as in verse 12, sūrah 4: And if a man or woman have a distant heir (having left neither parent nor child), and he (or she) have a brother or a sister (only on the mother’s side) then to each of them twain (the brother and the sister) the sixth, and if they be more than two, then they shall be sharers in the third, after any legacy that may have been bequeathed or debt (contracted) not injuring (the heirs by willing away more than a third of the heritage) hath been paid.
Because Pickthall’s idiom remains archaic throughout, he has difficult rendering the Qurʾān’s ʾiltifāt, or ‘turning,’ its sublime gliding from one form of rhetoric to another. Instead, there is an encompassing sameness of style; consequently, the people in the Qurʾān seem to speak in the same manner as Allah. In verses 3-5, sūrah 12, Allah’s voice (“We narrate unto thee (Muhammad), the best of narratives in that we have inspired in thee this Qurʾān, though aforetime thou wast of the heedless”) is not readily distinguishable from Joseph’s father’s voice (“Thus thy Lord will prefer thee and will teach thee the interpretation of events and will perfect his grace upon thee….”). It is arguable that this consistent register blurs or flattens the distinctions and juxtapositions between kinds of speech so central to ʾiltifāt. Similarly, when direct speech is reported, Pickthall’s translation can seem at times excessively wordy and antique, as in verses 68-70, sūrah 18: “He said: Lo! Thou canst not bear with me. How canst thou bear with that whereof thou canst not compass any knowledge? He said: Allah willing, thou shalt find me patient and I shall not in aught gainsay thee.”
Because Pickthall, striving for a literal translation, wanted each verse to be fully comprehensible, he frequently used interpolations in parentheses to add clarity, as in verses 62-63, sūrah 2: “Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad)…” and “And (remember, O children of Israel) when we made a covenant…”). In the sūrahs that tell stories, we see Pickthall the skilled novelist at work, making sure in these brackets that the reader knows who is speaking, what is fully meant, and what is happening. For example, in verses 46 and 83, sūrah 12, Pickthall has “(And when he came to Joseph in the prison, he exclaimed): Joseph! O thou truthful one!” and “(And when they came unto their father and had spoken thus to him) he said: Nay, but your minds have beguiled you into something. (My course is) comely patience!”
Pickthall’s diction tends to be literal. An interesting example is verse 138, sūrah 2, where he translates ṣibġata as “colour” and “colouring”: “(We take our) colour from Allah, and who is better than Allah at colouring.” Ṣibġata does indeed mean colour, but it also denotes to dye or fix a colour by plunging fabric into water and, more figuratively, to invite someone into something; Yusuf Ali and Haleem, more open to extended meanings, have used “baptism” to render this word. Pickthall’s diction can at times seem eccentric when compared to other versions. In verse 34, sūrah 4, where the subject is responding to disobedient spouses, Sahih, Yusuf Ali and Muhammad translated ‘idribūhunna as “strike them (lightly)” or “beat them (lightly),” while Muhammad Asad took pains to qualify his “beat them” by citing hadith and tafsīr: the striking should be mostly symbolic and not cause injury, et cetera. Pickthall, instead, translates it as “scourge them,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “to whip; to cause great suffering” and has connotations of archaic cruelty.
Sometimes Pickthall runs up against unavoidable problems in translating the everyday particulars of the Arab, and often the pagan Arab, way of life; equivalences are needed, and this vocabulary sometimes reflects a kind of literary English pastoral as in verse 20, sūrah 57, “the likeness of vegetation after rain, whereof the growth is pleasing to the husbandman”; elsewhere, “bondman”, “guerdon,” “tilth,” or “cattle-fold” are similarly dated nouns. However, Pickthall helpfully supplies interpretations of pagan Arab beliefs where the literal sense is opaque, as in verses 4-5, sūrah 113 where he explains the pagan Arab divination practice of blowing on knots, having settled for the more generic “evil of malignant witchcraft” in the translation proper.
Pickthall went to Cairo in 1928 to work on his translation, where he met and received help with ancient Arabic words and revisions from a Dr. Krenkow, Sheikh Mustafa al-Maraghi, a former rector of Al-Azhar University, and Muhammad al-Ghamrawi of the Cairo College of Medicine. It is likely that he was familiar with Edward Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon.
His work is decidedly light on references to commentary (tafsīr); it is plain that he considered the translation to be his primary task. The majority of his references to tafsīr are his introductions to the sūrahs. He typically notes the verse from which the sūrah’s name comes, and establishes the date and circumstances of revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl), relying on the Arab historian Ibn Hisham’s Sīrah, and to a lesser extent Ibn Khaldun’s Sīrah. He also occasionally quotes the German scholar Theodor Nöldeke.
When stating a consensus opinion drawn from tafsīr, Pickthall relies upon a range of attributive formulas: “some commentators”, “some Arab commentators”, et cetera, but the consensuses he cites are not always in accordance with the more comprehensive analyses of opinions in, for example, The Study Qur’ān. For instance, in verses 46-76 of sūrah 55, Pickthall says that “some have held” that these are predictions of future Muslim victories, rather than descriptions of Paradise; and in his introduction to sūrah 86, Pickthall says that “some say” that the morning star (Ṭāriq) refers to a comet presaging the coming of Muhammad, but neither The Study Quran nor Abdel Haleem’s Qurʾān translation reference these interpretations.
With regard to the authors of tafsīr, Pickthall says he consulted al-Zamaḫšarī’s al-Kaššāf ʿan ḥaqāʾiq ġawāmiḍ al-tanzīl wa ʿuyūn al-ʾaqāwīl fī wujūh al-taʾwīl (12th c.), al-Bayḍāwī’s ʾAnwār al-tanzīl wa ʾasrār al-taʾwīl (13th c.), and al-Suyūṭī and al-Maḥallī’s Tafsīr al-Ğalālayn (15-16th c.) The latter two were known as muḫtaṣarāt, or summaries. These works were influential, as they were used to teach tafsīr. Al-Zamaḫšarī’s and al-Bayḍāwī’s exegeses are also intimately related, the latter work based on the former. In choosing these commentaries, Pickthall consequently had access to a representative range of Classical Sunnī commentary. Al-Zamaḫšarī, despite his Muʿtazilī leanings, relied on the Ḥanafī School to interpret legal verses, and was a great proponent of philology. Al-Maḥallī and al-Bayḍāwī were Šāfʿī jurists; and al-Suyūṭī was an expert on ḥadīṯ and the early Muslims. There is evidence from The Study Quran that some of Pickthall’s citations also reflect the views of al-Qurṭubī, Ibn al-Ğawzī, al-Baġawī, and Ibn Kaṯīr. In the absence of more complete explanatory notes, we concur with A.R. Kidwai’s judgment that “their influence on his understanding cannot be measured.”
Only rarely does Pickthall include a Sufic or mystical opinion. Exceptions are in verse 75 of sūrah 38, where he offers the interpretation of Allah saying “I have created with both my hands” as “The Muslim mystics explain this as meaning with both the glorious and the terrific attributes of God”; or in verse 31 sūrah 2 where he repeats a Sufic interpretation of “the names of things” that Allah taught Adam. This paucity of any reference to mystical or allegorical interpretations is most noticeable in the early, apocalyptic Makkan sūrahs; references to mystical and allegorical readings abound in other translations.
Reception and reprints
Pickthall’s translation initially met with resistance from the ʿulamaʾ at Al-Ahzar University in Cairo, some of whom questioned the propriety of translating the Qurʾān. Shaykh Muhammad Shakir criticized Pickthall’s project in the Al-Ahram newspaper, and Pickthall defended his work in Islamic Culture. Although the rector of Al-Ahzar called it the “best of all translations’, he did not authorize its use in Egypt. Pickthall responded, “The reason given for the ban is that I have translated idiomatic and metaphorical Arabic phrases literally into English, thus showing that I have not understood their real meaning.” This kind of criticism reoccurred in the 1980s in Pakistan and India, with Ahmad Ali and Allama Razi Mujtahad commenting on what they saw as Pickthall’s limited knowledge of Arabic and the translation’s inaccuracies, and these criticisms were echoed by another Qurʾān translator, Muhammad Asad.
However, when The Meaning of the Glorious Koran was published in 1930, it was enthusiastically welcomed in the English literary world. It was reviewed and admired by Lord George Lloyd, the former High Commissioner of Egypt; by Sir Denison Ross, linguist and founder of the London School of Oriental Studies; and by the Indian Ahmadiyya Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali, among others. The Times Literary Supplement called it “a literary masterpiece.”
Pickthall’s translation was published again in 1938, in a bilingual version, by the Government Press in Hyderabad, and it was acquired by Allen and Unwin in 1939, and then again by the New American Library in 1953. Since passing into the public domain, it has been in print continuously to the present. The World Catalogue lists more than 200 reprints as of 2022. More than 90 years after its first publication, Pickthall’s translation is still part of the scholarly debate about Qurʾān translation, with many journal articles including Pickthall’s renderings when discussing varied translation issues. Many Qurʾān websites (e.g., quran.com, al-islam.org/quran, and al-quran.info) feature Pickthall’s translation along with the Arabic text. Some recent reprints proclaim themselves to be “new” or “revised” editions of his original, their title pages nonetheless crediting Pickthall as translator. However, according to A.R. Kidwai, “recent translators have been found unscrupulously lifting material ad verbatim” from his work, without quoting his name.
Pickthall’s translation, though somewhat archaic in style, is remarkably consistent and does attempt to stay close to the syntactical patterns of the Arabic. Moreover, it has been generally accepted in the Muslim world as a reliable guide to the meaning of the Qurʾān, at least the ẓāhir, or outward meaning, which, after all, was Pickthall’s intention. It is not especially authoritative when it comes to a full account of interpretations in the tafsīr, and does not trade in sophisticated linguistic, mystical or allegorical readings of the Qurʾān. It remains a valuable reference point for scholars of Qurʾān translation and for English-speaking Muslims: it has endured.
For more information
The XML source of this edition originates from the website tanzil.net. The text was emended by Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé, who also encoded it in XML-TEI. We do not present yet the introduction and the critical apparatus. For initial bibliographical guidelines, please see:
Abdel Haleem (Muhammad), Understanding the Qur’ān: Themes and Style, London, Bloomsbury, 2010.
Bleyhesh Al-Amri (Waleed), “Qur’ān Translation / Issues and Challenges: An Interview with Waleed Bleyesh Al-Amri”, Aligarh Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, October 2019 (available online).
Clark (Peter), Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim, London, Quartet, 1986.
Kidwai (Abdur Raheem), “Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s English Translation of the Quran (1930): An Assessment”, in Marmaduke Pickthall: Islam and the Modern World, ed. Geoffrey Nash, Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2017, pp. 231-247.
Kidwai (Abdur Raheem), God’s Word, Man’s Interpretation: A Critical Study of the 21st Century English Translations of the Quran, Delhi, Viva Books, 2018.
Mohammed (Khaleel), “Assessing English Translations of the Qur’an”, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, pp. 58-71.
Nasr (Seyyed Hossein) (ed.), The Study Qur’an: A New Translation and Commentary, New York, Harper-Collins, 2015.
Pickthall (Marmaduke), “The Qur’an”, The Islamic Review and Muslim India, vol. 6, no. 7, July, 1919, pp. 9–16 (available online)
Pickthall (Muriel), “Personalia”, Islamic Culture, vol. 11, 1937, pp. 138-42 (p. 138).