ALTHOUGH THE QURAN was sent down as “an Arabic recitation,” [1] the vast majority of Muslims do not believe that its language is of this world. Rather, “it is as though the poverty-stricken coagulation which is the language of mortal man were under the formidable pressure of the Heavenly Word broken into a thousand fragments.”[2] The Quran itself alludes to this awesome power:

Had We made this Quran descend upon a mountain, thou wouldst have seen it humbled, rent asunder by the fear of God. These are the parables We set forth for mankind, that haply they may reflect. [Surat Al-Hasr, 59:21]

From this perspective, translating the Quran into any language is a daunting task, for it entails conveying the absolute and infinite by means of the relative and finite.

Reflecting upon the inimitability of the Quran has led many to conclude that the nature of Quranic Arabic is among the greatest miracles of Islam. To those who say it is a human fabrication, the text says,

Then bring a surah like it . . . if you are truthful. [Surat Yunus,10:38]

Another verse asserts that all of humanity could not produce its like:

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Surely if mankind and jinn banded together to bring the like of this Quran, they would not bring the like thereof, even if they supported one another. [Surat Al-Isra’,17:88]

Those who have endeavored to translate the Quran realize this truth most acutely. As A. J. Arberry states in the introduction to The Koran Interpreted,

The rhetoric and rhythm of the Arabic of the Koran are so characteristic, so powerful, so highly emotive, that any version whatsoever is bound in the nature of things to be but a poor copy of the glittering splendour of the original.[3]

And in his introduction to The Glorious Quran, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall states,

The Quran cannot be translated. That is the belief of the traditional Sheykhs and of the present writer.[4]

Arabic Syntax

At the center of this Qur’anic inimitability is its continual thematic and linguistic alternation, which many scholars of the Arabic language consider to be among the Quran’s “remarkable and exquisite subtleties.” [5] Through such alternation the Quran comes across as both static and dynamic, retaining the quality of the spoken word and the medium of the written. Such linguistic alternations (iltifat) can be difficult to translate, since they defy or transcend the norms of human speech.[6] Iltifat has been recognized as an attribute of eloquence (balaghah) in all forms of Arabic. But it figures far more prominently in the Quran than in poetry or prose. Its most common form is the alternation between persons: from third to first, first to third, third to second, or second to third. An example can be found in Surat Ibrahim, 14:13:

So their Lord revealed unto them, “We shall surely destroy the wrongdoers.”

The shift in the Divine Voice from third-person singular to first-person plural brings the reality of Divine Justice into immediate relief: many people believe they face a distant reckoning from a transcendent Lord, though He is in fact immanently present and His Justice is immediate. In other verses this same technique brings into focus the omnipresence of God’s guiding Mercy. In this way the syntactical structure of many verses is believed to pull even the recalcitrant soul toward God by engendering the awareness that no matter how far a human being may be from God, God is nearer to him than his jugular vein. [Surat Qaf,50:16]

The best-known instance of iltifat is found in the opening surah of the Quran:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee we worship and from Thee we seek help. Guide us upon the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast blessed, not of those who incur wrath, nor of those who are astray.

The first four verses (first two sentences) speak of God as a transcendent third person, whereas the next verses bring God into an immediate relationship with human beings. This sudden shift from Divine Transcendence to Divine Immanence is even more dramatic in Arabic. Although something of this and the many other instances of iltifat can be rendered in translation, even those who have mastered both languages have yet to render them in a manner that fully captures the dramatic effect this sudden shift in the original Arabic can have on readers or listeners.

Grammatical Structure

The iltifat, or alternation between tenses or persons, can be difficult for those reading a translation, but there are other difficulties as well. Foremost among these are the many grammatical structures in the Quran that are open to multiple interpretations that cannot be rendered in translation. A famous example is 21:107, which is translated by A. J. Arberry as follows:

We have not sent thee, save as a mercy unto all beings. [7]

Muhammad Abdel Haleem renders it:

It was only as a mercy that We sent you [the Prophet] to all people.[8]

In the The Study Quran it is translated,

And We sent thee not, save as a mercy unto the worlds.

But it could also be rendered,

We did not send thee, save out of mercy for the worlds.

These four variations reflect the manner in which the Arabic word rahmah, “mercy,” can be interpreted as modifying either the pronoun “you” or the verb “to send.” Both are valid grammatical readings, but the Arabic of the text allows readers to understand both that the sending of the Prophet was done out of mercy and that he himself is a mercy. Yet the translator must choose to limit the polyvalent Arabic text to a single meaning or render a dual translation that would convey both meanings. In such instances translation not only inhibits the language of the Quran, but also limits the multiple theological implications of the verse.

The polyvalence of Quranic Arabic can also be found in the possible referents for a single pronoun, a problem often discussed in the exegetical tradition. For example, the most common translation of 2:177 is roughly as follows:

It is not piety to turn your faces to the east and the west. Rather, piety is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; and who gives wealth, despite loving it, to kinsfolk, orphans, the indigent, the traveler, beggars . . . (emphasis added)

This translation follows the predominant interpretation. The first-person masculine pronoun, which is rendered “it” in the preceding translation can, however, be interpreted as referring to God rather than to wealth. In which case it would be translated:

It is not piety to turn your faces to the east and the west. Rather, piety is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; and who gives wealth, out of love for God, to kinsfolk, orphans, the indigent, the traveler, beggars . . . (emphasis added)

The two translations differ in whether one reads the first-person singular pronoun in the Arabic phrase ʿala hubbihi (indicated by italics in each translation) as a reference to wealth or to God. Both readings are viable in the Arabic. In this way the Qur’anic text opens onto two directions, implying that one must give both despite the love of worldly wealth and out of love for God. Yet the translator into any European language must choose one option or provide a prolix translation that compromises the flow of the original. Not only do most such translations limit readers to a single interpretation; they also veil the manner in which the Quran, through the subtle placement of a single pronoun, alludes to the fact that true piety requires both love of God and overcoming attachment to the things of this world.

Qur’anic Terms

In addition to the syntactical and grammatical obstacles mentioned above, the translator of the Quran into any European language faces the challenge of finding equivalent words for central Qur’anic concepts. As the Quran is part of the Abrahamic tradition and presents itself as a continuation of the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels, many concepts are similar. But other concepts are very different in nature. For example, both Christianity and Islam stress the importance of repentance. The word that conveys this concept in Arabic is tawbah and the verbal form is tuba/yatubu, the literal meaning of which is “to turn”; thus when one repents one is said to turn unto God, or taba ila’Llah. But this phrase also indicates that one has returned from sin to God, or sinfulness to godliness, which relates to the Qur’anic conception of the human being as inherently good, rather than stained by “original sin.”

The human side of tawbah can still be partially conveyed by the word “repentance.” However, the Quran also refers to God as having tawbah toward human beings, and there is no way to convey this reciprocity with a single word in English. Such reciprocity is evident in many verses, such as 5:39: Whosoever repents (taba) after his wrongdoing, and makes amends, God will relent (yatubu) unto him. In fact, the verb taba/yatubu refers to God more often than it does to human beings, since from a Qur’anic perspective it is only when God turns or relents to human beings that they are able to truly turn to Him in sincere repentance. Hence one of the Divine Names is Al-Tawwab, “the Turner” or “the Relenting.” The principality [centrality] of God’s tawbah is seen in 9:118, a literal translation of which reads,

Then He turned to them, that they would turn to Him. Truly God is the Turner, the Merciful.

One can see that translating God as “the Turner” fails to convey exactly what is meant and robs this central Qur’anic concept of its subtle majesty. Following the lead of previous translations, the translation in The Study Quran reads: Then He relented unto them, that they might repent. Truly God is Relenting, Merciful. This comes closer to the original meaning, but still sacrifices the reciprocity that grabs readers or listeners in Arabic and provides a visceral awareness of the key Qur’anic concept that our ability to turn to God in repentance is entirely contingent upon God’s turning to us with mercy and forgiveness.

The inadequacy of English equivalents for Arabic words may be most evident in the word din, usually translated “religion.” The etymology of “religion” is very different from that of din. The two words thus convey different concepts. The etymology of “religion” has been debated for centuries. Some maintain, as did Cicero, that it comes from relegere, meaning, “to treat carefully.” Others follow the fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius, who maintains that it derives from religare, “to bind.” As Lactantius writes, “We are tied to God and bound to Him (religati) by the bond of piety, and it is from this, and not, as Cicero holds, from careful consideration (relegendo), that religion has received its name.”[9] Although the interpretation of Lactantius has prevailed in Christian circles, neither derivation is adequate for rendering din.

The Arabic root for din comes from the verb dana/yadinu, which means both “to owe a debt” and “to be obedient” or “to follow.”[10] With regard to the former, din indicates that human beings are in debt to God, to whom they owe their entire existence. In relation to the latter, it connotes that human beings should submit to God’s Power.[11] Thus 9:29, wa la yadinuna din al-haqq, is only partially translated when Pickthall renders it, “and [they] follow not the religion of truth,” since it also implies that they “pay not the true debt.” Likewise, 3:19 loses part of its meaning when translated, “Truly the religion (din) with God is Islam.” On one hand, it implies that the debt (din) to God is submission (islam). On the other, it implies that obedience (din) to God is submission (islam). All three meanings are fully present in the Arabic, but cannot all be rendered in a single English translation.[12] Thus, although the Arabic word din and the English word “religion” both connote piety and voluntary submission to the Will of God, they do so in different ways that have affected the overall interpretation of the word within each religious universe.


From an Islamic perspective, the subtleties of Qur’anic Arabic and its sudden thematic shifts lead to much consternation when read as the composition of mortals. It is thus believed that they can only be fully understood when read as the Discourse of the Eternal—the Divine Word being seen as pure substance and not as mere accident. From one perspective, it is in fact by assuming the appearance of accident that this substance is able to draw the soul out of accident and return it to pure substance. This understanding is best expressed by the philosopher Frithjof Schuon, who writes:

The Quran is, like the world, at the same time one and multiple. The world is a multiplicity which disperses and divides; the Quran is a multiplicity which draws together and leads to Unity. The multiplicity of the holy Book—the diversity of its words, sentences, pictures, and stories—fills the soul and then absorbs it and imperceptibly transposes it into the climate of serenity and immutability by a sort of divine “cunning.” The soul, which is accustomed to the flux of phenomena, yields to this flux without resistance; it lives in phenomena and is by them divided and dispersed—even more than that, it actually becomes what it thinks and does. The revealed Discourse has the virtue that it accepts this tendency while at the same time reversing the movement thanks to the celestial nature of the content and the language, so that the fishes of the soul swim without distrust and with their habitual rhythm into the divine net.[13]

Such subtle transformations can be found in every dimension of the Quran, from its rapid transition between themes and topics, to the grammatical and syntactical nuances, only a few of which have been mentioned here. They are all woven into a sublime mosaic that, from an Islamic perspective, cannot be fully rendered into a language other than the sacred language of Arabic, chosen by God. As such, Muslims maintain that the Quran will always defy any attempt to be conveyed by that which is relative, for it is meant to transmute the dispersion of fragmented human souls such that the relative comes to be a reflection of the Absolute.

From this perspective, the Quran cannot be translated on the linguistic plane. The only true translation of the Quran possible is of an existential order: only those who have assimilated the revelation or immersed themselves in its teachings so thoroughly that its meanings speak through their thoughts, words, and deeds can be said to represent an effective translation of the Noble Book. For Muslims of all sects and creeds, this is in fact the way of the Prophet Muhammad, for when asked about his character, his wife responded, The character of God’s Prophet was the Quran. [14]


* This article was excerpted from The Study Quran.


[1] 12:2; 20:113; 39:28; 42:7; 43:3.

[2] Frithjof Schuon, Understanding Islam, trans. D. M. Matheson (London: Mandala, 1989), 44.

[3] A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 1:24.

[4] Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, The Glorious Quran (Chicago: Kazi, 1994), iii.

[5] Ibn al-Athīr, Al-Jāmiʿ al-kabīr fī sinaʿāt al-manẓūm min al-kalām wa-’l-manthūr, ed. M. Jawād and J. Saʿūd (Iraq: n.p., 1956), 98.

[6] The most comprehensive examination of iltifāt in any European language is that of Muhammad Abdel Haleem in Understanding the Quran: Themes and Style (London: Tauris, 1999), 184–210.

[7] Arberry, Koran Interpreted, 2:26.

[8] M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, trans., The Qurʾan (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), 208. Abdel Haleem adds a translation closer to that of Arberry in a note: “We sent you [the Prophet] only as a mercy to all people.”

[9] Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 4.28.

[10] Some scholars have proposed that dīn is a loanword borrowed from the Persian word den, meaning “systemic religion.” However, the variety of uses of dīn and words from the same root in the Quran and pre-Islamic poetry demonstrates that it has variegated meanings that are not all captured by the Persian word den.

[11] For a full discussion of the meaning of dīn in the Quran, see Toshihiko Izutsu, God and Man in the Koran (Salem, NH: Ayer, 1987), chap. 8.

[12] The situation is further complicated by the way dīn is used in pre-Quranic poetry, where it implies “wont” or “custom.” Thus one could say, “He followed the custom (dīn) of his people.”

[13] Schuon, Understanding Islam, 50.

[14] Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj, al-Saḥīḥ, Kitāb ṣalāt al-musāfirīn (Book of the Prayer of Travelers), ḥadīth 18; Nisāʾī, Sunan, Kitāb qiyām al-layl (Book of the Night Vigil), ḥadīth 2.


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