Observations on Translations of Classical Islamic Texts
- The Life of Muhammad: A Critique of Guillaume’s English Translation
- Moinul Haq’s Translation of Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir
- On the Translation of al-Suyuti’s al-Itqan
Waqar Akbar Cheema
Muhammad Ibn Sa’d’s (d. 2330/845) work “Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir” or “Tabaqat al-Kubra” is an important source of information regarding life and times of early Muslims including a detailed account of events and aspects the life of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).
Part of the work covering the life of the Prophet was translated into English by S. Moinul Haq in two volumes which were published in 1967 and 1972 by Pakistan Historical Society. Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi has subsequently reprinted it a few times.
In the introduction S. Moinul Haq mentions;
The English translation is based on Prof. Sachau’s edition (Leiden, 1904-21), but a few variants noticed in its Beirut reprint (1956) have been mentioned.
– Vol.1, xxiii
Here we shall mention some observations to the translation compared with the original text.
1. Ibn Mas’ud on Uthman’s Endeavor on Masahif
Ibn Sa’d has brought a narration about Ibn Mas’ud’s reaction to Uthman’s efforts in confiscating personal copies of the Qur’an as he sought to circulate and bring everyone to follow a standard mushaf prepared by a committee headed by Zaid bin Thabit. Original Arabic goes as;
عن شقيق بن سلمة، قال: خطبنا عبد الله بن مسعود حين أمر في المصاحف بما أمر، قال: فذكر الغلول فقال: إنه من يغل يأت بما غل يوم القيامة، فغلوا المصاحف، فلأن أقرأ على قراءة من أحب أحب إلي من أن أقرأ على قراءة زيد بن ثابت، فوالذي لا إله غيره، لقد أخذت من في رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم بضعا وسبعين سورة، وزيد بن ثابت غلام له ذؤابتان يلعب مع الغلمان
– Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Editor Eduard Sachau (Leiden: Brill 1909) Vol.2, Part 2, 105 (Online Source)
Moinul Haq’s translation makes it;
Shaqiq Ibn Salamah [said]: ‘Abd Allah Ibn Mas’ud delivered a sermon to us when the order concerning uniform reading of the Qur’an was issued, as it was issued. He mentioned about the deceit and said: Who so deceived will bring his deceit on the Day of Resurrection. The people have been guilty of deceit in the reading of the Qur’an. I like it better to read according to the recitation of him (Prophet) whom I love more than that of Zayd Ibn Thabit. By Him besides Whom there is no god! I learnt more than seventy surahs from the lips of the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, while Zayd Ibn Thabit was a youth, having two locks and playing with the youth.
– Vol. 2, 444
We have three issues here:
1) Translation of الغل as deceit instead of hiding is misplaced. Whereas hiding does involve a sense of deceit here it gives quite a different and unclear meaning.
2) While undoubtedly the whole issue around personal copies (masahif) of Qur’an was to do away with a certain controversy on recitation, the report itself mentions only the copies (masahif) and not recitation/reading. Inserting the mention of recitation in the report provides a room for unwarranted and misleading interpretation.
3) Most dangerous and silly mistake is in the translation of the phrase “فغلوا المصاحف” as “The people have been guilty of deceit in the reading of the Qur’an.” The translation suggests Ibn Mas’ud accused others of deceit whereas he actually ordered his companions to hide their personal copies and to not to give them up to those charged to collect them and destroy them. It is actually an instruction (imperative mood) rather than a description (indicative mood). Therefore, its rightful translation is, “[Ibn Mas’ud instructed]: ‘Hide the masahif.’” In fact undoing this most evident yet careless mistake would lead to correction of other mistakes. The actual imperative sense does not accept the wrongly assumed meaning of “deceit”. And “hiding” in turn would suggest that it was about something tangible as masahif (copies) of Qur’an and not about recitation or reading.
To complement our observation here we refer to John Burton’s paraphrase of the episode in his work Collection of the Qur’an. He puts it as;
‘Abdullah allegedly bade his pupils and followers to lay up their Qur’an’s in hiding and to withhold them from ‘Uthman’s agents charged with their destruction. Unfortunately for the hadith, this report can easily be shown to be derived from an indifferent exegesis of Q 3.161, a verse quite unrelated to the issue.
– Collection of the Qur’an, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 202
2. Very Old: Khadija or her uncle?
Ibn Sa’d records a narration of Ibn ‘Abbas regarding the marriage of Khadija to the Prophet (ﷺ).
عن ابن عباس قال: زوج عمرو بن أسد بن عبد العزى بن قصي خديجة بنت خويلد النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، وهو يومئذ شيخ كبير لم يبق لأسد لصلبه يومئذ غيره، ولم يلد عمرو بن أسد شيئا
Moinul Haq translates it as;
Ibn ‘Abbas said: ‘Amr Ibn Asad Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Uzza Ibn Qusayyi gave Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid to the Prophet, may Allah bless him, in marriage, and at that time she was very old and none of the children of Asad was living then, and ‘Amr Ibn Asad left no childen.
– Vol.1, 149
Here we have a mistake. Right translation of underlined Arabic phrase is “at that time he was very old” referring to ‘Amr bin Asad. Moreover, the subsequent line should be “and none of the children of Asad except him (i.e. ‘Amr) was living then.”
Further reading: The Age of Khadija at the Time of her Marriage with the Prophet
* This page is updated on “as and when” basis*
Published : March 5, 2017