Has anyone altered the Quran?

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 20 January 2023

“Surely We have revealed the Re­min­d­er, and surely We are its Guardian.” — ch. 15: Al-Ḥijr, v. 9

اِنَّا نَحۡنُ نَزَّلۡنَا الذِّکۡرَ وَ اِنَّا لَہٗ لَحٰفِظُوۡنَ ﴿۹

“Surely it is a bountiful (noble, honourable) Quran, in a book that is protected, which none touches but the purified ones.” — ch. 56: Al-Wāqi‘ah, v. 77–79

اِنَّہٗ لَقُرۡاٰنٌ کَرِیۡمٌ ﴿ۙ۷۷  فِیۡ کِتٰبٍ مَّکۡنُوۡنٍ ﴿ۙ۷۸   لَّا یَمَسُّہٗۤ اِلَّا الۡمُطَہَّرُوۡنَ ﴿ؕ۷۹

“…and surely it is an Invincible Book: falsehood cannot come at it from before it or behind it — a revelation from the Wise, the Praised One.” — ch. 41: Ḥā Mīm, v. 41–42

وَ اِنَّہٗ لَکِتٰبٌ عَزِیۡزٌ ﴿ۙ۴۱  لَّا یَاۡتِیۡہِ الۡبَاطِلُ مِنۡۢ بَیۡنِ یَدَیۡہِ وَ لَا مِنۡ خَلۡفِہٖ ؕ تَنۡزِیۡلٌ مِّنۡ حَکِیۡمٍ حَمِیۡدٍ ﴿۴۲

My reason for speaking on this topic is that allegations have been made recently by extremist anti-Ahmadiyya groups and campaigners that the Qurans published by Ahmadi organisations contain alterations or what is called taḥrīf. It hasn’t been made clear what these so-called alterations are, but slogan such as “Ahmadis have altered the Quran” are a cheap and nasty way of inciting the innocent Muslim public. So I have recited verses of the Quran in which Allah has promised that He Himself will guard the Quran from being corrupted or tainted by any human being. The first verse tells us that since Allah Himself has revealed the Quran, consequently He is also its Guardian. The second verse speaks of the Quran being in a “protected” book and says that only “the purified” can touch it. This not only means that a person should be in a state of physical purity when handling the Quran, but also that he or she can only understand and appreciate its teachings if he approaches it with a pure mind and heart. Its finer points are unfolded into the hearts of those who have purified their souls through worship and good deeds. In the third verse the Quran is described as “invincible”, something which resists all attacks. Other translators have translated this word as “unassailable” and “unconquerable”. The verse goes on to say: “falsehood cannot come at it from before or behind it”. This means that falsehood could not have entered into the Quran at the time when it was being revealed (this is “before it”), and it cannot enter into it later on at any time in history, neither at the time when it was compiled into book-form nor later on (this is “behind it”). So Allah does not need any protestors on the streets, using threats of violence, to safeguard the Quran in its original form.

The question of altering the Arabic text of the Quran doesn’t arise because that text is obtained by Ahmadiyya publishers from standard Muslim sources from which other Muslims obtain it. It is very easy to check that the Arabic text in our Quran publica­tions is identical with, and exactly the same as, the text in general Muslim publica­tions.

It might be that the allegations of these protestors are directed at Ahmadiyya trans­lations and they might mean that our translations into English, Urdu etc. have altered the true meanings of the Quran. But we would point out that our critics them­selves accept several different English translations and several different Urdu translations of the Quran. Let us take just the verse Bismillāh ir-Raḥmān ir-Raḥīm. There are at least eight different translations of this verse in the various English translations of the Quran done by Muslims (leaving aside Ahmadis). Pickthall has the same as Maulana Muhammad Ali: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful”. Others have: “The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace” (Asad), “Most Gracious, Most Merciful” (Yusuf Ali), “The Merciful, The Compassionate” (Dr Laleh Bakhtiar), “the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy” (Abdel Haleem), “The All-Merciful, The Ever-Merciful” (Ghali). Each of these translators had seen the transla­tions done earlier and he or she decided to make changes in it. So which is the unaltered Quran, out of all these translations, and which are the altered ones? Now people may say that all these different translations are expressing the same meanings but only using different words. That is a fair point as such, but I will now look at what the translators them­selves said about the changes they thought necessary to make.

Let me refer you to the well-known and well-respected English translation and commentary by Muhammad Asad, first published in 1981. Asad writes in the Foreword to his translation that all the previous translators had learnt Arabic only from books and had never lived with the bedouins of Arabia who, he says, still speak the Arabic idiom close to what it was in the Holy Prophet’s time. He himself learnt Arabic by staying with them and this, he believes, equips him to do justice to translating the Quran. His opinion is that the previous translators, despite their great scholarship, missed seeing the inner meaning of the Arabic of the Quran and their translations deviate far from its spirit. Asad says that because previous translators did not learn Arabic directly from the mouths of the Bedouins of Arabia, their translations are “distant, and faulty, echoes” of the meaning and spirit of the Quran.

I am not passing any judgment here on whether Muhammad Asad was right or wrong about previous translators and their knowledge of Arabic. What I am pointing out is that translators who are accepted by the general Muslim public have regarded previous translators, who are also accepted by the general Muslim public, as having produced faulty translations. And they changed the earlier translations in significant ways. If the later translators are right, then the earlier ones had produced translations not correctly reflecting the Quran, and if the earlier translators were right then the later ones have “altered” the Quran from its right state to a wrong state.

Now let me refer to another English translation of the Quran with commentary which was pub­lished around 1984 in Saudi Arabia by approval of the Kingdom of that country. It is a revised version of an earlier well-known translation and commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. The preface to this Saudi publication says about previous translators of the Quran into English that “their works have generally been private attempts, greatly influenced by their own prejudices”. So a Royal Decree was issued by the King of Saudi Arabia in 1979 to produce a revised and corrected translation. The preface says that they wanted to select an existing translation “as a base for further work as well as source of reference, with the objective of revising its contents and correcting any faults in view of the objections raised against it”. They say that they selected Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation for this purpose. The preface goes on to say that a committee was set up which revised and corrected this translation “with the aid of other translations available”. (See p. vi.)

So in the opinion of the publishers of this official Saudi translation, all the previous English translations were defective and faulty, and they selected Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation as being the least defective, and they then corrected it to produce their new edition in 1984. For about fifty years before this, millions of Muslims had been reading the earlier English translations, and treating them as authentic and done by orthodox Sunni Muslims, such as the one by Marmaduke Pickthall, and of course by Yusuf Ali (we don’t mention here Maulana Muhammad Ali’s). Then this Saudi committee came along and produced a translation to correct their errors. So the question we pose is this: Which is the unaltered Quran and which is the altered Quran? If the Saudi publishers are right, it means that the previous trans­lations including Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s were “altered” Qurans. And if Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation is correct then the Saudi one is the “altered” Quran.

There is a biography of Yusuf Ali written by a renowned Pakistani historian and author, Prof. K.K. Aziz, published from Lahore in 2010. In it he gives details of how, several years after Yusuf Ali’s death, his translation and commentary were changed by other publishers at various times, at their own whim and according to their own opinion, and published as Yusuf Ali’s translation and commentary. Prof. Aziz calls this as “unconcealed tampering with his translation and commentary of the Quran” (p. 70 of the biography). In case of this revised Saudi edition that I have mentioned, Prof. K.K. Aziz is so outraged by the liberty taken by these publishers that in his book he reproduces the whole of the preface of this Saudi publication. The professor concludes: “Here ends a valuable exposé of Saudi tampering amounting to vandalism and intellectual dis­honesty” (p. 80). He further accuses them, and other such publishers, of “vandalising, expurgating and bowdlerising (these last two terms mean removing material from the work)” Yusuf Ali’s work (p. 81).

What we read today as Yusuf Ali’s work, in any edition published after his death, is an altered, and “tampered with”, version of his original work. The alterations they made don’t only relate to merely verbal changes. Parts of his commentary were removed because the publishers disagreed with his interpretations. This is the case of the most widely-accepted English translation and commentary of the Quran by the Muslim world. Yet you will find that our opponents, who are so concerned and perturbed that Ahmadis have altered the Quran, are not at all bothered that their own recognised translators of recent times have tampered with, and dishonestly altered, the translations done earlier, which were also done by their own recognised translators.

In conclusion, as Muslims let us not accuse one another of altering the Quran because it is protected against alteration by Allah Himself. And if we disagree with a translator’s opinion or interpretation, we should merely say that they gave a wrong interpretation or meaning, and not throw inflammatory allegations against them of altering the Quran. May Allah enable us to be temperate and civil in this regard — ameen.