What do you know about Marmaduke Pickthall

Translate the Koran, but how?

The reason for the following explanations is a selection of Koran texts published by me in September 2005 in my own translation, which is arranged according to thematic aspects and provided with brief explanations. [1] As part of the religious forum "Islam in Europe", I worked in Working Group D on "May the Koran be read historically and hermeneutically?" I have put forward some considerations about my own approach as a translator, which cannot claim to be complete, but only bring up a few points that are essential for me.

Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936) [2], the first English Muslim to translate the Koran into his mother tongue (1930) [3], has put a short foreword in front of his translation in which he discusses several aspects that are extremely important for every Koran translator Language brings. First I quote the beginning:

The aim of this work is to present to English readers what Muslims the world over hold to be the meaning of the .words of the Koran, and the nature of that book, in not unworthy language and concisely, with a view of the requirements of English Muslims. It may be reasonably claimed that no Holy Scripture can be fairly presented by one who disbelieves its inspiration and its message; and this is the first English translation of the Koran by an Englishman who is a Muslim.

With this, Pickthall is addressing for the first time a problem that is a unique fact in the history of religion: that the Koran was only translated into European languages ​​by non-Muslims until well into the 20th century. Only in parenthesis I would like to remark that to this day, for example, I have not received a complete islamicor Buddhist Bible translation is known. But back to Pickthall. He continues in his foreword as follows:

Some of the translations include commentation offensive to Muslims and almost all employ a style of language which Muslims at once recognize as unworthy. The Koran cannot be translated. That is the belief of old fashioned Sheykhs and the view of the present writer.

Nevertheless, Pickthall "translates" the Koran and describes it as follows:

The Book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Koran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy.

Two things above all can be recorded as serious criticism of Pickthall: Pickthall rightly points to the often hostile comments that can be found in the Koran translations by non-Muslims, and he criticizes the often inappropriate, "unworthy" language. He also raises the question of whether someone who is non-Muslim is even able to translate the Koran. Even if this question was recently answered in the negative by Ahmed von Denffer [4], I would definitely like to contradict it; Despite criticism in detail, translations such as those by Friedrich Rückert and Max Henning [5] have also received high recognition from the Muslim side, despite all the criticism of details.

Why was the Koran translated at all in Europe? [6] The purpose of the older Koran translations was initially clearly polemical. In order to be able to fight Islam as the main opponent of Christianity in its original homeland, precise knowledge of its holy scriptures was required. [ 7] Petrus Venerabilis (1092-1156), the inaugurator of the first Latin translation of the Koran, like some later Christian translators or contenders of the Koran, was concerned not only with refuting the Koran, but also with showing that the Koran, so to speak, was the "worse bible" is. Therefore one looked for all possible inconsistencies in the Koran and found them. [8] Exactly 400 years later, this Latin translation appeared in print in Basel: it was the first complete translation of the Koran into a European language. [9] But that was only possible after a heated argument about whether a book like the Koran should be published in a "Christian" city like Basel. Martin Luther (1483-1546), who in 1542 spoke out in a letter to the City Council of Basel for the release of the print, found the words as justification for the publication:

that you can do nothing more disgraceful to Mahmet or Turcken, do more harm (more than with all weapons), because that you bring your alcoran to the Christians, in which they must see, like a cursed, decent, desperate book it be, full of lies, fables and all the growths that the turcken mountains and adorn [conceal and gloss over], and to trademarks [to prove] reluctantly to see that one interprets the alcoran into other languages. For they want to foul, that [that it] brings you great waste to all sensible hearts. [10]

Here, in a characteristic and, for the subsequent period, highly influential way, a justification is given from a Christian point of view for why Muslims generally reject "translations" of the Koran: they are all too aware of the "weaknesses" of the Koran. One consequence of this view is that the Christian authors of the Koran translations produced in the following period mostly feel obliged to point out the alleged errors of the Koran in comments or more detailed refutations and, if necessary, to correct them. The most extensive work that was written in this spirit was to be the Arabic-Latin edition of the Koran, published in 1698 by the Italian Father Ludovico Marracci (1612-1700). [11] In addition to the Arabic text, a very reliable Latin translation and excerpts from the most important Arabic commentaries, which have largely been translated into Latin, Marracci's text contains an extensive refutatio on the basis of Catholic Church doctrine that goes into all relevant disputes in minute detail.

That Pickthall's criticism of the "hostile comments" was by no means unjustified in his time can be shown by the voluminous work of Marracci; but since it is written in Latin, it is only accessible to a few specialists today. And many of the translations that appeared after that, to which Pickthall's accusation may apply, no longer play a role in today's discourse. Of course, even in translations that are still in use today, there are occasional comments that lack the necessary respect; an example is the translation of Sura 2.26. In the translation by L. Ullmann [12], which is still widely used today and first published in Krefeld in 1840, the translation is as follows:

Indeed, God need not be ashamed when he takes parables of insects and even smaller ones, for believers know that only truth comes from their Lord ...

He notes: "Here M. defends his often petty and deity-not worthy sayings and speeches, which he often utters on her behalf." [13]

In an edition revised by LW Winter, both the text and the note are slightly changed: "Certainly, Allah is not too great to give little parables of mosquitoes or even smaller ones ..." Note: "Mohammed, do not set up Allah's unworthy parables'. Allah's rule even for the smallest living beings finds expression here. "[14]

The second point of Pickthall's criticism is more important, namely that the language of the translation is often inadequate. It would be a long story to elaborate on. I will therefore limit myself to a few comments on the first Latin translation and the German translation by Rudi Paret. [15] Characteristic of the old Latin translation [16] is the largely paraphrase-referential style, which eliminates any direct speech, as well as the attempt to make the "erratic" style of the Koran "more logical", e.g. B. by converting associated sentences (parataxes) into subordinate (hypotaxes), etc. Whole sentences are also left out, i.e. H. the Koran turns into a surprisingly short book. Quite different, however, Paret's translation. Completely in the sense of Islamic translation conventions with regard to the Koran, Paret writes: [17]

Since the translation - which is supposed to serve a distinctly historical understanding - is not actually intended for edifying purposes, but rather simply aims to make the original understandable in terms of its meaning, refrains from using an upscale form of expression in the choice I have taken a certain freedom of expression, as long as the meaning of the wording remains clearly recognizable. Pronounced arabisms (or semitisms) such as the preference for paronomasia, i. H. for the syntactic connection of word forms of one and the same stem are avoided as much as possible [...].

Although one cannot deny Paret's honesty in his work, his style has not infrequently completely misappropriated his tone, which has been criticized by both orientalist critics and Muslim translators. To quote just one critic here:

What should one say when the rendering of the Koranic revelation mixes office German with harmless, flippant colloquial language and southern German reminiscences to often disarming and often explosive involuntary comedy? God has 'never had a child' (Sura 25,2), the day of judgment is when 'things get dicey' (Sura 68,42) [...] 'schemes are forged' and 'lies hatched' , and of course there is 'braising' in Hell. [18]

In contrast, I made the attempt to find a "worthy" language, an elevated language level that avoids the terrain of everyday language.

That may lead to some "archaisms", but I believe that this is justified by the fact that the Arabic Koran also keeps the greatest possible distance from everyday language. To such a "worthy" language belongs above all the external form of the language. For this purpose I tried to give the text a little rhythm in the German translation and to divide it into individual lines. As an example I will take Sura 13, Verse 2, a verse that will occupy us again below in a different context and will be quoted there in the translation by Paret; in my translation the verse is as follows:

It is God who raised the heavens
Without any supports that you could see;
Then he stands up, taking the throne,
And made the sun and the moon subordinate:
Each one runs up to the specified deadline.
He has everything in his hand.
He sets the characters apart.
Maybe you are sure
That you will meet your Lord!

The rhythm also affects the longer prose passages in the Koran. The break in lines should by no means mean a kind of "re-poetization", but should be understood as a kind of reading aid for the ring Lecture. The Koran is designed to read out, presented to become. [19] The aim of my translations is to meet this requirement.

Since the rhyme is often the decisive stylistic device, especially in the older suras, it makes sense to use the rhyme in the translation as well, as z. B. Friedrich Rückert did this more often in his translation. I have only decided to do so where it was possible without major difficulties, such as B. in Sura 81: 1-14: [20]

1 When the sun gathers
2 When the star's shine fades
3 When the mountains are moved
4 When highly pregnant camels are no longer cared for,
5 When the wild animals run together
6 When the seas are overflowing
7 When the souls are brought together
8 When the buried is heard
9 For what guilt she was killed;
10 When the books are opened
11 When the sky is worn away
12 When the hellfire is kindled
13 When the garden is brought close:
14 Then the soul knows what it is accomplishing.

But another point now seems to me to be of great importance, to which von Denffer and Hofmann in particular rightly drew attention. One can summarize their criticism of the previous (Christian!) Koran translations in such a way that precisely the specifically religious vocabulary of the Koran is consciously or unconsciously influenced by biblical (or even later) theological concepts. Von Denffer rightly criticizes Paret for occasionally using the Arabic word amr "Thing, matter, command" in its translation is the Greek word logos used e.g. B. Sura 13.2;

It is God who lifted up the heavens without you seeing any support and then sat on the throne (to rule the world). And he put the sun and the moon in the service (of men) - each (of the two stars) runs (its orbit) for a certain period of time. He directs (from his throne?) The Logos. He sets the signs (or: verses) apart. Perhaps you would be convinced that you (one day) will meet your Lord.

With the word logos is alluded to a certain theological concept in the Gospel of John, which in my opinion cannot be proven in the Koran. The translation here is much simpler and more plausible: "He controls all things" (Henning) or "He controls the course of things" (Rückert) or "He has everything in his hand" (Bobzin).

Equally problematic is the translation "Heiden" (Paret) or even "Polytheisten" (Khoury) for the word so common and characteristic in the Koran musrik. If one follows the exact use of the word (with its associated verbal forms) in the Koran, the following becomes clear. At one point (Sura 20:32) it says of Moses that he asks God to put Aaron at his side as a "companion" in his cause. A musrik is therefore someone who gives God a (more or less equal) companion. According to the Koranic usage, however, it is by no means established that only the followers of the ancient Arabic pagan religion mušrikūn goods - this term can also be applied to Christians. Hence it seems evident that neither "pagan", "idolater", nor "polytheist" are happy and accurate translations.

As for the translation of the word, after all Allah concerns, I am of the opinion that it absolutely has to be reproduced with "God", [21] in order to make the religious-historical connection of the three monotheistic religions clear, as is also clearly required by a passage in the Koran (29,46) :

And argue with the book owners in the most beautiful way
But not with those who do wrong by them.
And speak:
We believe in what is revealed to us
And what has been revealed to you.
And our God and your God are one.
And we are devoted to him.

Not only in this verse, but also in many other places in the Koran, the "book owners" (arab. ahl al-kitāb) not only the speech, but they are also addressed directly. This always means Jews and Christians. Their writings are assumed to be known in the Koran. A translation of the Koran must therefore take into account the biblical and extra-biblical sources [22] and carefully weigh up the questions of the respective differences.

[23] Only with a few words can I address the important question of what I actually want to translate; What was originally intended, or the "meaning" that the later, classic interpreters found in the Koran? That is probably the most difficult question a Quran translator faces. Because not a single comment (arab. tafsīr) from the extensive tafsīr[24] literature reveals the "original" meaning, which rather has to be laboriously developed by means of a combinatorial procedure that takes many sources into account, without this always being possible. In my opinion, the whole wealth of Islamic commentary literature has not yet been taken into account. Incidentally, it is not necessarily the oldest comments that offer the most original or the best; Many later, even fairly recent, commentaries always offer a wealth of interpretative approaches that are worth considering.

Another general shortcoming of previous Koran translations is the lack of systematic consideration of the various text traditions (or "readings", arab. qirā’āt[25]) of the Koran. I will give you two examples of this. In Sura 1, Verse 4, it says in the most widely distributed edition of the Koran, which was published in Cairo in 1923, māliki yaumi d-dīni "of the ruler on the day of judgment". In the textual tradition that is still alive today in the Maghreb countries, however, it says: maliki yaumi d-dīni "the king's on the day of judgment". Weighty arguments can be made for both versions of the text. "King" is, in my opinion, both more concrete and more suitable visually. Another example is the end of sura 85. There it says in verse 21f after the Cairin text: bal huwa qur’ānun maǧīdun | fī lauhin mahfūzin; Paret translates: "No! It is a praiseworthy Koran (what is being proclaimed here) | (in the original up in heaven?) On a well-kept table". The Maghreb tradition reads the last word mahfūzun (instead of mahfuzin), which becomes a predicate (instead of an attribute), so that one has to translate: "No! It is a praiseworthy lecture | that is kept on a blackboard." Here the difference in meaning is no longer of a more stylistic nature, but could also have dogmatic consequences. However, drawing them is not the job of a Koran translator.


In 2005 my Quran reading book. Important texts newly translated and commented on (Freiburg: Herder). Marmaduke Pickthall, the first English Muslim to translate the Koran into his mother tongue (1930), particularly criticized the "unworthy" language of the previous non-Muslim translations. I tried to find a "worthy" form of language, a higher level of language that avoids the terrain of everyday language (which Paret, for example, did not!). That may lead to some "archaisms", but I believe that this is justified by the fact that the Arabic Koran also keeps the greatest possible distance from everyday language. As far as the artistic means are concerned, I have only tried in exceptional cases, e.g. B. to imitate the rhyme (e.g. in sura 81, 1-14 or sura 96, 1-5). It was more important to me to make the sentences rhythmic. You have to have the courage to Sometimes to "break" long and complexly constructed sentences in Arabic, but still let them vibrate as a whole. What do I translate? The "sense" of the later, or what was originally intended? That is probably the most difficult question a Quran translator faces. Not a single comment from the extensive Tafsir literature reveals the "original" meaning; it has to be laboriously developed using a combinatorial procedure that takes many sources into account. In my opinion, the whole wealth of Islamic commentary literature has not yet been taken into account. The Koran is addressed in many places to the "people of the book". Their writings are assumed to be "known", as it were. A responsible interpretation of the Koran must therefore take into account the biblical sources and carefully weigh up the questions of the respective differences. Finally, the religious terminology to be used must be observed. How can it be translated into a language that is not shaped by Islam? Is "Allah" to be translated as "God" or not? These and many other questions need to be discussed in this context.


[1] Hartmut Bobzin, Koran Reading Book. Important text newly translated and commented, Freiburg i. Br. 2005.

[2] For his biography see Peter Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim, London / Melbourne / New York 1986.

[3] The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. An Explanatory Translation, London: George Allen & Unwin (originally Alfred A. Knopf) - The translation had an enormous success and is still widespread among English Muslims today. For older English translations see Hartmut Bobzin, Translations of the Qur’an, in: Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Vol. 5, 340-358; Ismet Binark / Halit Eren, World Bibliography of Translations of the Meanings of the Holy Qur’an: Printed Translations 1515-1980, Istanbul 1986.

[4] The Koran. The Holy Scriptures of Islam in German translation with the commentaries by Jalalain, Tabari and other excellent classical interpretations of the Koran, Islamabad / Munich 1996, pp. XVIIIff., Especially p. XXI

[5] Murad Wilfried Hofmann has revised it in a Muslim spirit, see The Koran. The holy book of Islam. From the Arabic by Max Henning. Revision and introduction by Murad Wilfried Hofmann, Istanbul 1998. Cf. there the foreword, which deals in detail with the problem addressed.

[6] Cf. on the following Hartmut Bobzin, The Koran in the Age of Reformation (Beirut texts and studies 42), Beirut / Stuttgart 1995; ders., "Art. Pre-1800 Preoccupations of Qur'ānic Studies", in: Encyclopaedia of Qur'ān, Vol. 4, Leiden 2004, 235-253, and Art. "Translations of the Qur'ān", as above Note 3.

[7] This was, to emphasize this, a confrontation with the weapons of the spirit, and not of a military nature.

[8] See Hartmut Bobzin, "A Treasury of Heresies". Christian Polemics against the Koran, in: Stefan Wild (Ed.), The Qur’an as Text, Leiden / New York / Cologne 1996, 157-175, esp.p. 166.

[9] Theodor Bibliander, Machumetis Sarracenorum principis, eiusque successorum vita, ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran ... 3 vols., Basel 1543, 21550.

[10] Luther's works, Weimar edition, Letters Vol. 10, 161 f, lines 32-39. See Bobzin, The Koran in the Age of Reformation (note 6), p. 203.

[11] Ludovico Marracci (Ed.), Alcorani textus universus. Ex correctioribus Arabum exemplaribus summa fide, atque pulcherrimis characteribus descriptus, Eademque fide, ac pari diligentia ex Arabico idiomote in Latinum translatus, Appositis unicuique capiti notis, atque refutatione, Patavii 1698.

[12] Lion Baruch Ullmann, 1804-43, was last chief rabbi in Krefeld; he was a student of the Bonn orientalist Georg Wilhelm Freytag (1788-1861), to whom the Koran translation is also dedicated. The first name "Ludwig" appears in later editions.

[13] The Koran. Newly translated word for word from Arabic and provided with explanatory notes by Dr. L. Ullmann, Krefeld 1840, 3 (NB: the verses are not numbered in this edition!). In this context, I will not go into the repeated criticism of the poor quality of this translation.

[14] The Koran. After the translation by Ludwig Ullmann, revised and explained by Leo W.-Winter, Munich 91959. As you can see, Winter is well aware of the problems with Ullmann's comment.

[15] Rudi Paret, The Koran. Translation. Stuttgart et al. 1962; 21982.

[18] Stefan Wild, "The gruesome wasteland of the holy book". Western values ​​of the Koranic style, in: God is beautiful and he loves beauty. FS for Annemarie Schimmel on April 7, 1992, Bern and others. 1994, 429-447, here 446. Cf. also Navid Kermani, God is beautiful. The aesthetic experience of the Koran, Munich 1999, especially chap. 2.

[19] Cf. Hartmut Bobzin, Der Koran. An introduction, Munich 52004, 18f; William Albert Graham, Beyond the Written Word. Oral aspects of scripture in the history of religion, Cambridge 1987, esp. Part III: "An Arabic Reciting": Qur’ān as Spoken Book, pp. 79ff.

[20] I do not give more detailed explanations of the text in this context; see also the KoranLeseBuch (note 1), p. 79f.

[21] For a more detailed explanation, see KoranLeseBuch (note 1), p. 36

[22] Anders Ahmad von Denffer in the preface to his translation of the Koran (note 4), p. XXXIV.

[23] That is Paret's stated intention. The numerous additions to the text in brackets, however, often reflect the views of later interpreters.

[24] Cf. on this the classic work by Ignaz Goldziher, The directions of the Islamic Koran interpretation, Leiden 1920. Cf. also the more recent overview articles on this topic in the Outline of Arabic Philology and in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān.

[25] Cf. Bobzin, Koran (note 19), p. 111ff.


© Hartmut Bobzin

"Translate the Koran, but how?", In: Urs Altermatt et al. (Ed.): "Der Islam in Europa", Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2006, pp. 143-151.

Further work by Hartmut Bobzin