The Life of Muhammad: A Critique of Guillaume’s English Translation

By Dr. ‘Abdul Latif Tibawi

Professor Guillaume is not merely offering a translation of the received text of the biography of Muhammad, as recorded by Ibn Hisham from al-Bakka’i, from Ibn Ishaq. His work is a translation of his own reconstruction of Ibn Ishaq ….

… one gathers from the concluding words on page v that the translator hopes that his translation will ‘help to further cooperation and friendliness between my country and the Islamic world.’ This is an aim which is, of course, more expedient than academic, but it is nevertheless a commendable one, formulated as it is by a student of Islam who is at the same time an Anglican clergyman. It is difficult, however, to see how a profane transformation of the received text of the life of Muhammad such as is attempted by Professor Guillaume is likely to commend itself to the Islamic world.

It seems, on preliminary examination, that a translation of the Sirah into English is not required; but since nevertheless one has now been produced by a well-known writer, it is necessary to give it all the attention it deserves. The reviewer (and the reader) who is in a hurry need have no qualms: the translator has an established reputation; the book is well produced and has the imprimatur of a famous publishing house. But if he has time for close examination, comparison and check, he will find that this translation raises more problems than it solves.

‘It has been my aim,’ he says, ‘to restore so far as is now possible the text of Ibn Ishaq as it left his pen or as he dictated it to his hearers from excerpts in later texts’ (p. xxx). But has this aim been realized? How much in actual fact did the reconstruction text gain from these excerpts? Has Ibn Hisham’s text – indeed, has that of Ibn Ishaq – lost anything in the process? Professor Guillaume’s method is haphazard and far from being inclusive. It involves certain vital rearrangement, omissions, abbreviations, and additions for which little or no reason is given …

In the process of separating Ibn Ishaq’s supposed text from that of Ibn Hisham, and the accompanying process of rearrangement, omission, abbreviations, and additions, the style has also been changed. Thus the dialogue was much shortened in many cases, direct speech was often changed into indirect speech, and change of person is also frequent. As a result, the English translation has many instances of confusion, obscurity, and misunderstandings. This is aggravated by the ill effects of certain subtle twists of vital matters in the life of Muhammad, as will be pointed out …..

Below are considered sections chosen from all parts of Professor Guillaume’s translation, and certain shortcomings  are pointed out in comparison with the Arabic original … Some of the instances pointed below are small inaccuracies which may be pardoned. They are noted only for their cumulative effect together with the really serious mistakes which alter or distort the original. The first section so chosen (pp. 14-16) is on ‘The Beginning of Christianity in Najran,’ preceded by a paragraph on the reign of Dhu Nuwas. Here آخر ملوك حمير  is translated as ‘the last of Yamani Kings,’ and واراه, which in this context clearly refers to Faymiyun, and not to both him and his admirer Salih, is translated as ‘they buried him,’ which should be ‘he buried him.’ Of the other minor inaccuracies two more may be mentioned. For the phrase في بعض الشام  ‘somewhere in Syria’ Professor Guillaume has ‘through Syria’; for بعض أرض العرب  he has ‘the land of the Arabs’; and for سيارة من العرب he has simply ‘a caravan.’ The context in both cases suggests ‘bedouin’ rather than ‘Arab.’ [See p. 89 of translation, where the word أعرابي is wrongly translated as ‘an Arab’; the correct translation in the context is ‘bedouin.’] ….

But more serious than these lapses is some tampering with the original Arabic to an extent which diminishes or alters its meaning. Thus for وبنجران بقايا من أهل دين عيسى بن مريم Professor Guillaume has ‘In Najran there are some people who held the religion of Isa b. Maryam.’ Certainly the second word in this phrase is a crucial one, and there is no warrant for its omission. The footnote explaining that the phrase means literally ‘remnants of the people of ‘Isa’s religion’ will not do, for that is the only meaning. Later in the same passage أن رجلا من بقايا أهل ذلك الدين was rendered simply by ‘a Christian,’ again omitting the same crucial word, but this time without even an explanation. The same phrase occurs a third time and is again omitted without an apology. The significance of this word is more than linguistic; for the historian it conveys a picture of Najran peculiar to the age of Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham, and its omission is a real loss ….

The section on ‘The Apostle Receives the Order to Fight’ (pp. 212-213) is not among the easy parts of the Sira to translate, but because of its obvious importance special care should have been taken to translate exactly and to omit nothing. It is certainly more faithful to translate بيعة العقبة  as the ‘pledge of Aqaba,’ since nothing is gained by the omission of the first word, and some clarity is lost. But there is more serious omission of twelve words of special importance. ‘The first verse which was sent down on this subject ….’ reads Professor Guillaume’s translation. The last three words, ‘on this subject,’ are taken as substitute for the following; في إذنه له في الحرب، .وإحلاله له الدماء والقتال، لمن بغى عليهم. Thus the full passage should read as follows: ‘The first verse which was revealed … allowing him (i.e. Muhammad) go wage war, and making it lawful for him to shed blood, and fighting those who oppressed him and his companions.’ Without this explanatory passage the significance of the verse itself may be missed ….

Inaccuracies are to be fund on almost every page in this translation. Thus when we turn to the section on ‘The Affair of the B. Qaynuqa‘’ (pp. 363-64) we find that the word ‘affair’ is used correctly for the Arabic amr … But Professor Guillaume has also ‘attack’ in the table of contents. If the change was necessary why not use muḥāṣara ‘siege’, which is more accurate than ‘attack’? The next two examples are more serious. First, how did Professor Guillaume persuade himself to omit the polite opening ya ma‘shar from Muhammad’s address to the Jews? Secondly, why the words ‘and they were the allies of the Khazraj’ – which are Ibn Ishaq’s and not an explanation from the translator – are bracketed in such a way as to leave the matter in doubt? But even more serious injustice has been done to Ibn Ishaq by one who set out to restore the text. Ibn Ishaq says ‘‘Asim b. ‘Umar b. Qatada related to me that …’ = حدثني عاصم بن عمر بن قتادة. In Professor Guillaume’s English this becomes ‘‘Asim … said that ….’

Similarly the Arabic for ‘The raid on B. Qurayza’ (pp.461-463) has ghazwa which is correctly translated as ‘raid,’ but the table of contents has ‘attack’ ….

But the worst mistake is his translation of the word jahūla which occurs in the retort of the Jews of Qurayza to Muhammad’s challenge. ‘Has God disgraced you and brought His vengeance upon you?’ The Jews replied defiantly but respectfully: ‘O Abu’l Qasim, you are not ignorant (i.e. whether He has or not?)’ =  ما كنت جهولا. To translate the last word as ‘a barbarous person’ is both mistaken and ill-advised. Jahl here is clearly the opposite of ‘ilm in the sense of knowledge or information. The Jewish retort may thus be paraphrased as: ‘You know that God has neither disgraced us not brought His vengeance upon us’ ….

Professor Guillaume’s rendering ‘Thaqif has surrendered’ in the first sentence on the section on ‘The Year of the Deputations’ (pp.627-31) is at variance with the text, which has aslamat Thaqif = ‘embraced Islam.’ So is his rendering ‘he (i.e. Muhammad) subdued it (i.e. Quraysh) to Islam,’ which should be ‘and it was subdued by Islam’ = ودوخها الإسلام ….

[It] is in the translation of Muhammad’s sermon itself that the more serious mistakes are to be found. It is not adequate to translate ايها الناس by ‘O men!’ when the words were addressed to men and women pilgrims … It is a great pity that Professor Guillaume saw fit to cut out these two words recurring in the body of the sermon, as he cut out amma ba‘du, thus depriving the original of much of its oratorical character ….

On the very first page of the translation there is a footnote to this expression: ‘… according to what they allege, but God knows best.’ The footnote reads: ‘The phrase employed indicates that the writer doubts the statement. There is a saying in Arabic: There is euphemism for everything and the polite way of saying “it is a lie” is “they allege” (za‘amu).’ The use of this and other expressions is discussed in the Introduction (pp. xix-xxi) with an aim similar to that conveyed in by the footnote.

There are accepted rules for weighing evidence in writing history. As Professor Guillaume has here used only part of the evidence and strained it to the extreme, it is worth while to examine the meaning of za‘ama, first in general and then in its particular uses in the Sira.

The basic entry in the dictionary under the za‘ama is ‘ … said; and it is said of the report which may be right or wrong.’ At least four principal uses of the word are given. It may mean ‘he said or reported’; or ‘he thought’; or ‘he promised’; or ‘he guaranteed.’ But there is an important commentary which seems to be the key to a correct understanding of the use of the term in the Sira. Here is a rough translation of it: ‘Za‘ama is used in relating a tradition that lacks a chain of transmitters and is conveyed verbally as a report.’ Almost all that is preceded by the phrase or its derivations in the Sira, as well as similar expressions like fi ma balaghani and fi ma dhukira li are of this category of traditions, which were accepted, related, and passed often followed by the formula, wallahu a‘lam. This is obviously pious caution, not outright doubt or rejection of the report, still less an indication that it is a lie ….

Perhaps the worst mistranslation of the term is that on p. 183, where Ibn Ishaq, quoting al-Zuhri, who was reporting Sa’id b. Musayyam tells of Muhammad’s ascent into heaven. The expression used by Ibn Ishaq is za‘ama al-Zuhri وزعم الزهري عن سعيد بن المسيب  which means in this context ‘al-Zuhri said on the authority of Sa’id b. Musayyab.’ Professor Guillaume translated ‘al-Zuhri alleged as from Sa’id …’ In the footnote he dogmatically states that ‘the verb implies grave doubt as to the speaker’s veracity.’ In the Introduction (p. xx) we are told that this term must have been used deliberately by Ibn Ishaq instead of haddathani as a warning against the authenticity of the report. The reason given for this assumption is that al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq knew each other well and must have met quite often.’ But what if za‘ama here means nothing more than ‘he said,’ without giving chain of transmitters? Clearly Professor Guillaume’s guess is no convincing argument to prove the contrary.

It now remains to consider a few isolated matters.

(a) The Arabic word ‘Allah’, although used in pre-Islamic times acquired in English a distinctly Muslim connotation and association. In translating an historic book such as the Sira, care should be taken not to confuse its pre-Islamic meaning with its new meaning. In Professor Guillaume’s translation there is little evidence to indicate that a clear distinction is made and consistently followed. In the sections dealing with pre-Islamic as well as in those dealing with Islamic times the word is sometimes rendered as ‘God’ and sometimes as ‘Allah.’ It seems that it would have been better to use the first for the pagan period, and the second for the period following Muhammad’s call ….

(b) Professor Guillaume’s translation of the Arabic rasul or Rasul Allah is ‘apostle’ or ‘the apostle.’ Although used by early translators of the Qur’an, this term is objectionable. A preferable translation is ‘Messenger’ or ‘Messenger of God,’ … The main objection to ‘apostle’ is that it is difficult to isolate it from its Christian association. Indeed this difficulty is staring us in the face on p. 104 of Professor Guillaume’s translation. The term is used appropriately in reference to St. John, and inappropriately to Muhammad on the same page. Nor is this all. The word ‘evangelist’ is used on the same page in reference to Muhammad in translation of surah xxxiv, 27: ‘as an evangelist to all men’ ….

It may be considered ungracious to end on a critical note. But the purpose of this critique is to be as honestly critical as the importance of the subject demands. The above discussion speaks for itself. The specialist will no doubt make his own assessment; but to the general reader, and in particular the student of comparative religion, a word of warning is absolutely essential. As it stands, Professor Guillaume’s translation cannot be accepted as a reliable reproduction of the received Arabic text of the Sira.

– Tibawi, A. L., Arabic and Islamic Themes: Historical, Educational and Literacy Studies, (London: Luzac, 1976) 25-52

[Article taken from icraa.org : Islamic Center for Research And Academics]

2 thoughts on “The Life of Muhammad: A Critique of Guillaume’s English Translation

  1. Assalamu alaikum

    This is an interesting review of a translation of arguably the most significant work of sirah available in our arsenal of sirah literature. I would like to point out that Professor Guillaume is actually considered one of the more Islamically well-disposed Orientalist academics, and yet it is telling regarding some of the mistakes he makes. The landmark biographies of Rasulullah by Montgomery Watt, (Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad at Medina) reflect this as well; though it is very refreshing to pursue issues that classical Muslim historians do not deem fit to research simply because they are not religiously related (eg, such as the underlying etiology of the opposition to Rasulullah by the Quraysh of Makkah and the Banu Qaynuqa, Nadir, and Qurayzha other than purely theological, the actual eminence of Rasulullah’s lineage, reflection on the sociological conditions of the pre-Islamic Arabs, etc), there is a considerable amount conjecture that borders on shoddy and even negligent scholarship present among some of these works. For instance, Watt states that the Sahaba would probably have not come out to fight in Badr if they knew that they would have met the Qurayshi army, pointing to the fact that they beat the youth who stated that the army was close rather than the caravan, and ceased to beat them when they testified to the proximity of the caravan instead. He needn’t have pointed to this incident, as the Quran itself witnesses that they desired the caravan. However, to extrapolate from this that they would have deserted Rasulullah is mere conjecture. At times, he writes in the old style of overt chauvinism, claiming that “the Arab may be recklessly daring when his blood is up, but in cold blood he tries to avoid serious danger.” (Muhammad at Medina, 6)

    Most egregious is Watt’s interpretation of the incident of the “Satanic verses.” His explanation is that Muslim scholar do not comprehend the evolution of Rasulullah’s theological beliefs, which is why this story is difficult for us to comprehend. He states that initially, Rsulullah’s understanding of “monotheism was originally…vague and not sot strict that the recognition of inferior divine beings was felt to incompatibile with it. He probably regarded al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat as celestial beings of a lower grade than God, in much the same way as Judaism and Christianity have recognized the existence of angels.” He suggests that later, Rasulullah realized that giving the goddesses (known as Banat Allah) this status would mean that his own status was “not greatly different from their priests and [he would thus] not have much more influence.” It would also, he contends, lower the preeminence of the Kabah with the shrines of the goddesses. Such an audacious contention requires significant evidence to even suggest, yet Watt offers as evidence merely that revelation of Surah Kafirun “suggests that the temptation to compromise was present to Muhammad for a considerable time.” He completely ignores the fact that Rasulullah never worshipped an idol his entire life, and found their existence repugnant even during his pre-Islamic years, as he stated to Bahira. He ignores other verses in the Quran that were revealed prior to Najm, that obviates the possibility of anything but a pure monotheistic ideology that existed from the inception of the risalah.

    Watt and Guillaume are not the only example of presenting conjecture as fact. Leone Caetani, Wilfred Madelung, Michael Fishbein, Schacht, M. V. McDonald, Sean Anthony, Kister, Goldziher, Juynboll—the list goes on. In reality Guillaume is one of the more civil academics, as some of the scholarship on Rasulullah can get downright malevolent. What is so baffling is that some of these are or were august scholars of the highest caliber. Watt himself states in his prologue that very few people can compare with him in knowledge and academic pedigree, and reading his book and the grasp he has on geneology of the Arabs, this is not too bold of a statement. His knowledge of sirah is likely more than most ulama today. Yet, the conclusions he makes are not backed by any evidence.

    One last point: regarding the translation of the Qurazis’ statement “ma kanta jahulan”—barbarous is a very poor translation no doubt. It has also been translated as impulsive, impetuous, and ignorant in other renderings of this narration. However, in my estimation, it is far-fetched to state that the Qurazis rejoined “respectfully” as this review avers. Ma’mar ibn Rashid narrates from Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri from Ibn al Mussyab in his Kitab al Maghazi that Rasulullah called out “ya ikhwa al qirda wa al-khanazir” to which the Qurazis responded “Ya Aba Al-Qasim, ma kunta fahishan!” This would be more in line with the sentiment proffered by Guillaume’s translation (though clearly a mistranslation). This entire narrative has been questioned as spurious, however, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this comment. Wallahu a’lam.

  2. Praise is to Allah for giving us direction through different means and creation us aware of the right attitude to be adopted at all times! May Allah grant His blessings on all who write, read and attain help from this.

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