The Untranslatability of the Quran, with Examples Drawn from Surah al-Fatiha

The Untranslatability of the Quran, with Examples Drawn from Surah al-Fatiha

The inimitability of the Holy Quran is a canonical belief of Muslims. The Quran represents the peak of linguistic eloquence. So how do translators and linguists tackle the task of getting across the precise import of the Arabic text without compromising its actual meaning? Nazmina Dhanji highlights some of the difficulties.

For Muslims, the Quran is the word of Allah verbatim in Arabic – the language that He chose to reveal it in. It contains varying types of speech, including devotions, liturgical passages, narrative stories, admonishments and instructions that are expressed in both literal and figurative styles. Being a text at the highest degree of eloquence, the Quran as a whole poses a serious challenge for translators and linguists alike, as it employs many stylistic, linguistic and rhetorical features, and literary devices such as metaphor, assonance, epithet, irony, repetition, polysemy, metonymy, simile, synonymy and homonymy.

Even for non-Muslim Arabs, the Quran is the book that best represents the Arabic language, because the whole Arabic grammar is based on it, and in order to see its impressive stylistic devices, both orthographically and phonologically, and to feel their effects, it is necessary to understand the Arabic language. For a reader who does not do so, the translator can only transfer the essence of the Quran’s message into the target language, but not imitate the original’s stylistic particularities.

It goes without saying that since Arabic is not English, this entails that the Arabic Quran is not its English translation. Accordingly, expressions such as translation of the “meaning(s) of the Quran” and “translating the untranslatable” are commonly used in writings on Quran translation. Each expression in its own way implies that rendering the Quran into a foreign language with sufficient accuracy is accompanied by many linguistic problems, as no two languages are identical either in the meaning given to the corresponding symbols or in the ways in which such symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences. Lexical, syntactic and semantic problems arise when translating the meaning of the Holy Quran into English.

Translators often mention the lack of ‘equivalence’ or the absence of the equivalent of some Islamic terms, compelling the translator to convey them in a communicative manner. The untranslatability of texts, then, is a natural consequence of differences between languages on a linguistic level – their morphology, structure and grammar are often so diverse that the possibility of equivalence on these levels is virtually impossible. Untranslatability is also a consequence of the differences in time between the appearance of the original text and the later translation, and this may be why many translations go out of date just as our readings of a certain text can go out of date. In any case, the remit of this article is not to delve into translation theory and the elusive quest for ‘equivalence’ between languages, a topic that has been hotly debated in the field of translation for decades.

What this article does hope to do, however, is to demonstrate some lexical, syntactic and semantic problems that arise with examples of words and verses from Surah al-Fatiha – the Opening chapter of the Quran, and one that is at the tip of our tongues at least 10 times a day, as we recite it in every canonical prayer, and whose translation or meanings we are already well-acquainted with. We will be going through the Surah chronologically, highlighting 4-5 essential subtleties from it (highlighted below) specifically relating to God and His Attributes that end up getting lost in translation, unless we have knowledge of the Arabic language. I aim to demonstrate how English translations simply cannot capture the nuances that come from the root[1] meanings of these words. This is by no means a tafsīr or exegesis of the Surah, which by itself would fill a few hundred pages.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll be drawing on three of the most popular translations used in academic studies, namely M. A. S Abdel Haleem’s The Quran: A New Translation, Ali Quli Qarai’s Phrase-by-Phrase Translation of the Quran, and Pickthall’s Meaning of the Glorious Quran. The aim here is neither to compare the translations to each other nor to critique the esteemed translators’ choices of words, but simply to showcase through a deeper delve into the Arabic roots of these words and phrases how – despite the skill and linguistic prowess of the translators – English translations simply cannot capture their essence; and consequently how this may impact our acts of worship in turn, and how essential it is to read and understand the text directly in Arabic.

(1) بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful

(2) الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ ‎

All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of all the worlds

(3) الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ ‎

the All-beneficent, the All-merciful

(4) مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ ‎

Master of the Day of Retribution

(5) إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ ‎

You [alone] do we worship, and to You [alone] do we turn for help

(6) اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ ‎

Guide us on the straight path

(7) صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ﴾‏

the path of those whom You have blessed — such as have not incurred Your wrath, nor are astray

(Ali Quli Qarai’s translation)


الْحَمْدُ al-ḥamd

All three translators have translated this opening word as Praise or All praise, a word that falls short of conveying the complete meaning of the word ḥamd which is actually a combination of both praise and gratitude. When one recites this phrase, he/she is both praising God and thanking Him at the same time, expressing their gratitude for all their blessings and all that is good in their lives, as well as praising and approving of God’s plans for them, even if they are not in line with their own.

Having said that, certain scholars of language and exegesis have also held the opinion that praise and thanks are two sides of the same coin and hold the meaning of gratitude such as al-Tabari, whereas others differentiated between the two and further qualified them based on the types of favours for which one would express ḥamd to Him, or whether the ḥamd was verbally expressed or felt in the heart, or whether ḥamd was for God’s intrinsic attributes or His bestowal of favours, etc. In spite of the hair-splitting, none of the scholars throughout the ages have excluded gratitude and thanks from the primary definition of the word ḥamd. The bottom line, therefore, is that the word ‘praise’ in English simply does not express or bring to mind the gratitude and appreciation that the Arabic word ḥamd naturally encompasses within it, and which should flow out of us towards our Creator as we ‘praise’ Him.

الله Allah

Allah is the common Arabic word for God. In the English language, the word generally refers to God in Islam – the same God worshipped by all three Abrahamic faiths and other monotheistic faiths. The word is largely thought to be derived by contraction from al-ilāh, which means “The God”, and is linguistically related to the Aramaic words Elah and (ʼAlâhâ) and the Hebrew word El (Elohim) for God. When it comes to the etymology of the word Allah, this too has been discussed extensively by classical Arab philologists. Some believed that the root of Allah was la-ya-ha: to be lofty, high; others traced it back to wa-la-ha: to be infatuated or lose one’s mind. The majority of scholars held the opinion that it came from a-la-ha, which itself encompassed various meanings: to worship; to be bewildered, perplexed; to give protection, meaning that the derivative Allah included all of these meanings too: a being that perplexes and bewilders the senses, whilst being worthy of worship and offering protection. All of these roots combined offer us the precise definition of ‘God’ to help us form a much better idea and comprehension of the One who cannot be conceptualised. The word ‘God’ in English, unfortunately, does not do much to evoke these same feelings of bewilderment before a Being so perfect and so worthy of worship and seeking refuge in, as it is often glossed over and its lofty meaning forgotten through common usage.

A point worth mentioning here is the pronoun هُوَ huwa often used by Allah to refer to Himself in the Quran, and translated as ‘He’. Why is the masculine pronoun huwa used to refer to a God who transcends any human attribute, including gender? Whilst our discussions around the two words ḥamd and Allah pertained to their philology and etymology, the discussion around gender is rooted in Arabic grammar, or rather, grammar in general.

Modern linguists distinguish between natural gender and grammatical gender. Natural gender is determined by physiology: an animal with a male sex organ is naturally masculine, and an animal with a female sex organ is naturally feminine. Grammatical gender, however, is determined by language convention, not physiology. To clearly understand the distinction between natural and grammatical gender, one must examine languages like French, Spanish or Arabic, where nouns are always grammatically masculine or feminine, even when they don’t have a natural gender.

Maison (French for “house”), for example, is grammatically feminine, hence one refers to it with the same pronoun that one uses for “Charlotte” or “Layla”, i.e., elle (French for “she”). Bayt (Arabic for “house”), however, is grammatically masculine, so one refers to it with the same pronoun that one uses for “Adam” or “Muhammad”, i.e., huwa (Arabic for “he”).

The distinction between natural and grammatical gender is vague in English because words are only grammatically masculine or feminine if they are correspondingly naturally masculine or feminine[2]. When a word doesn’t have a natural gender – like “house” – it is grammatically neutral and one refers to it with the neuter pronoun, “it”, not the masculine pronoun “he”, nor the feminine pronoun “she”.

The presence of the neuter gender in English and its absence in Arabic (or French) causes linguistic mismatch. A consequence of this mismatch is that in English, if one uses the masculine or feminine pronoun to refer to something that is without natural gender, one is representing the thing as a person, usually for powerful rhetorical effect. This rhetorical device is called personification, and is often used by poets to personify virtues or vices, or love and death.

Languages like Arabic, however, have no neuter gender, so ‘it’ doesn’t actually exist in Arabic. Such masculine or feminine pronominal references carry no connotations of humanness. The femininity of naar (Arabic for “fire”) or the masculinity of maa’ (Arabic for “water”) is grammatical gender, based purely on language convention. It is normal and expected, in other words, to refer to naar with hiya (Arabic for “she”), and to maa’ with huwa (Arabic for “he”) without any suggestions of humanness.

The Quran, therefore, refers to Allah using the masculine pronoun huwa because the word “Allah” is grammatically masculine, not because Allah is naturally masculine (Allah be our refuge from saying that!). In English, using “He” for something without natural gender connotes personification, but not in Arabic. There is no implied anthropomorphism whatsoever.

To affirm a natural gender for Allah, Most High, blatantly contradicts the clear Quranic verse, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.” (Quran, 42:11) This can be confusing for people unacquainted with languages that have grammatical gender as well as non-Muslims, not only because purely grammatical masculinity is alien to the English mind, but also because no religion besides Islam affirms divine transcendence with such emphasis.

Christians, for example, imagine that the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) himself was God (Allah be our refuge!) and that he was also a man. Polytheism, too, anthropomorphises its gods. Idols everywhere inevitably assume human or animal form, and humans and animals are both biologically gendered. With the exception of Islam, every religion that believes in a personal god anthropomorphises its deity to some extent. Absolute divine transcendence requires tawhid (pure divine unity). To a Muslim who is grounded in the transcendent tawhid of Islam, ascribing biological gender to God is unimaginable heresy. Allah does refer to Himself in the Quran using the masculine pronoun huwa, but this is in the context of an uncompromising Quranic transcendence. He says, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.” (42:11) In this context, the masculinity of huwa with respect to Allah is a purely grammatical masculinity without even a hint of anthropomorphism.

The question arises here: If huwa here implies no anthropomorphism, then neither would hiya. Why, then, choose huwa over hiya? By convention of the Arabic language, grammatical masculinity is the default, and grammatical femininity is the exception. Since most words are grammatically masculine, the expected grammatical gender of the word Allah is masculinity. There are further very interesting discussions around this issue elaborated by Abd al-Hakim Murad in his article Islam, Irigaray and the Retrieval of Gender, where he explains how certain rhetorical connotations of femininity are also used to describe Allah, Most High.

رَبٌّ rabb

All three English translations of the Quran have rabb al-ālamīn down as ‘Lord of the Worlds’, and rabb translated largely as Lord, and this is true for the majority of other translations too, sometimes alternated with Master. Whilst the root of the word rabb: ra-ba-ba does have the sense of ownership and mastership from which the word ‘Lord’ is derived, it is certainly not the only meaning of the word rabb, which encompasses many other meanings by virtue of its multifaceted root.

The original root ra-ba-ba is defined as: to own, to be a master; to have authority over something; to control; to raise, bring up (a child); to foster, nurture, look after; to guide and set straight. Already we can see that there is much more to the meaning of rabb than can be expressed by a single word in English, and that the word Lord certainly doesn’t conjure up to the imagination.

However, there is a lot more to this root and many other ‘doubled roots’ like eg) where the last two radicals are the same, in this case: ba-ba. Philologists such as Raghib al-Isfahani grouped these three-consonant doubled roots together with similar roots whose last radical ended in a weak letter (either wa or ya), stating that the latter root was a subset of the former, and reflected similar meanings that overlapped. In this case he grouped ra-ba-wa as a subset of the original root ra-ba-ba, and held that their meanings very closely overlapped. When we look at the definition of ra-ba-wa, we find: to raise, to bring up, to educate, to nurture, to nourish, to teach, to cultivate, to make something grow to maturity, to bring to fruition. We can see the overlap, and now fully understand that our rabb who we call upon in this Surah several times a day is not just ‘Lord of the Worlds’, but also The One who has authority over everyone in them, who can do as He pleases for their benefit, who nourishes them, cherishes them, looks after them, raises them to fruition. Understanding rabb from its original Arabic automatically endears us to Allah and makes us yearn for His special care and nurturing, and to reach out to Him sincerely and with humility.

الرَّحْمٰن الرَّحِيْم: al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm

Common translations of this phrase are: Most Beneficent, Most Merciful; Most Kind, Most Merciful; All-Beneficent, All-Merciful; All-Compassionate, All-Merciful, and Abdel Haleem’s ‘Lord of Mercy, Giver of Mercy’. They both come from the root ra-ḥi-ma in Arabic, meaning primarily: to be merciful, to spare, to let off, to have compassion, to save from suffering. Whilst they are both included in the ninety-nine most beautiful Names of God, the adjective raḥmān is exclusively for God, whereas the name raḥīm can equally be used to describe merciful humans. They are both considered to be hyperbolic or intensive forms of the simple active participle rāḥim: one who is merciful, which is why they are often translated using phrases prefixed by ‘All’ like All-Merciful.

Traditional Quranic exegesis ascribes to God a ‘general mercy’ and a ‘specific mercy’ and often the words raḥmān and raḥīm are explained in these terms; that is, that the first name refers to the fact that God is merciful to all of creation without distinction, and that the second name refers to His mercy which will be shown on the Day of Judgment specifically to those who believe in Him. The use of the word ‘beneficent’ and often, as in many other translations, ‘compassionate’ for raḥmān seems to be etymologically unjustifiable since the word beneficent comes from the Latin ‘bene facere’, to ‘do good’, which is more akin to the word muḥsin in Arabic, whilst compassionate comes also from a Latin root ‘compatior’ meaning to ‘suffer with’. The English connotation of mercy invariably connotes a mercy that follows wrongdoing, akin to forgiveness and letting off the hook, whereas the Arabic ra-ḥi-ma is quite different.

Going back to the root meaning of ra-ḥi-ma to help us understand the Arabic concept of ‘mercy’ better, we find very close connotations with the word raḥim ‘womb’ also from the same root: the womb that nurtures a seed and makes it grow from the realm of mere possibility, nurturing it to its full capacity without any assistance or input from the fetus itself. Bearing this in mind allows to understand the nature of Allah’s Mercy being an initiating mercy that originates our creation, that nurtures us every step of the way, that allows us to breathe without any volition or control on our part, that keeps our heart beating without any effort, that nurtures us from a state of insignificant possibility to great humans with limitless potential.

These two terms, then, exhibit a high degree of untranslatability and the subtlety of their meanings can only be conveyed very approximately, both in conveying the accuracy of their root meaning as well as their individual distinct connotation. Even scholars of Arabic, both ancient and modern, disagree as to the precise meanings of the two terms and whether they both express hyperbole. Other scholars have contended that though having the same base meaning, they both denote various shades of meaning where raḥman by virtue of its sound pattern faʿlān signifies regeneration and revival, whereas the form of raḥim, on the sound pattern faʿīl, indicates consistency and unchangeability. The Quran, therefore, uses both these adjectives to assert that Allah’s attribute of mercy is ever regenerated yet unchangeable. The problem lies in the semantic denotations of regeneration and consistency which simply cannot be captured in translation through a single word.

مَالِكٌ master, owner

Our final word in this article is also a Name of Allah, Mālik yawm al-dīn: Master of the Day of Recompense. Here it’s worth noting that this word ملك was recited in two different ways from the very beginning of revelation: mālik (with a long aa sound) and malik (with a short a sound), and they both have different meanings: mālik = owner, possessor, whilst malik = king, sovereign – both pertaining to God.

The Prophet Muhammad (S) himself taught a handful of specific verses in multiple ways that often accommodated for minor differences in dialect and pronunciation, and which are known as ‘variant’ or ‘multiple readings’ in the field of Quranic Studies. According to Azami, one reason behind this phenomenon was the divergence of accents and dialects in Arabia and the need to accommodate them. A second reason, which seems much more plausible especially since the Prophet (S)’s actions were all divinely guided, was to better illuminate the various shades of meaning within a particular verse by supplying two wordings, each one sanctioned by Allah.

This particular example of multiple readings in Surah al-Fātiḥa – again impossible to capture with a single English word – shows us that Allah is both the King and the Sovereign who governs the Day of Recompense, as well as its controller and owner. He is not merely a Creator or a First Cause who created then distanced Himself away from His creatures, but is very much invested in their growth, their wellbeing, their journey and their final destination.

When we understand even just this handful of words representing Allah’s divine attributes from Surah al-Fātiḥa properly, through their original Arabic roots, they can transform our understanding of Allah Himself, endearing Him to us further every time we recite them, and humbling us before Him in the prayer. We learn to appreciate the beauty of these words, their underlying depth, and the progression in them through the structure of the Surah, introducing Allah first as the One deity worthy of worship, offering protection and refuge, Who bewilders us when we try to comprehend Him; to then the Rabb: the nourisher and cherisher, the one who owns us and makes us to grow; to the Raḥmān and Raḥīm, who consistently nurtures us to take us to our full potential so we can meet Him as the King, the Owner on the Day we shall be recompensed for all that we did.

A translation of the Quran, then, is the work of man, and by necessity flawed; it cannot reproduce the miraculous qualities of the divinely authored original which is inimitable and, as a whole, untranslatable. Ibn Qutayba traced the roots of this untranslatability to a God-given superiority enjoyed by the Arabic language, particularly its capacity for metaphorical figures of speech. He says: “…no translator is able to put it [the Quran] into any other language, in a manner similar to the translation of the Gospel from Syriac into Ethiopic and Greek, and similar also to the translation of the Torah and Psalms and all God’s books into Arabic, for (the languages of) the non-Arabs are not as rich as that of the Arabs in metaphor.”

Regardless of one’s views on the doctrine of divine word and the superiority of the Arabic language, it is not difficult to uphold the idea that the Arabic Quran cannot be reproduced in another language while maintaining an equivalent effect. Because of the intricate way in which the fabric of the Quran is woven, its integrity and integrality as a unique opus, and the many levels which combine to produce its overall effect, it seems inevitable that there will occur significant losses in translation. Which is why we’re encouraged to learn Arabic as a language and understand the Quran directly from the Arabic that God chose to reveal it in, and which He proudly asserts as a fact:

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

Indeed We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran so that you may understand.

(Quran, 12:2)


Nazmina Dhanji is the founder of Arabiq Online. She is a polyglot, speaking seven languages with Arabic being her favourite.



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[1] As is it the case in other Semitic languages such as Hebrew or Aramaic, the Arabic verb consists of a basic root of usually three consonants, eg: k-t-b (to write) and this root can be augmented by suffixes, prefixes, consonants and vowel lengthening to conjugate the verb or to form new lexemes. We can apply up to 12 affixation models to this verb to create words of different word classes, and additional verbs of different forms, which are in turn conjugated to make yet more words. These word-formation processes provide the opportunity to let the language flourish and to create a lot of phonological stylistic devices such as rhymes, assonances or alliterations. Hence once cannot translate the verses literally, because phonological stylistic devices cannot be transferred from the Arabic original into the English text whilst conveying the same meaning. Thus the translator has to decide whether the content or the form is more important and surely the content is more essential than the style. A verse in the Quran can contain as many as 15 rhetorical devices, which evidently cannot all be translated into the target language.

[2] This wasn’t always the case. Old English, like Arabic and French, had no neuter gender. As the neuter gender became more common, the use of masculine and feminine pronominal references for things without natural gender increasingly connoted personification. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comments on the gradual incorporation of the neuter gender over centuries, saying, “It is not easy to say when grammatical gender ceased to be used, this differing according to dialect.” The OED then quotes masculine pronominal references to inanimate things from the 13th to the 19th centuries. (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford University Press, 1971) 1.1269)


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