See other parts:
- Part One: (See Below) The Historical Development of the Arabic Bible
- Part Two: My Personal Journey in Bible Translation
- Part Three: Translation Philosophy
- Part Four: The Need for a Paradigm Shift in Bible Translation
- Part Five: Translating Son and Father terminology
This paper is based on almost forty years of involvement in Bible translation in various Middle Eastern languages. My career as a Bible translator began in 1973 when I embarked on a tour of the Arab countries trying to understand the distinct dialects and how they relate to each other and to the classical/formal Arabic taught in schools. I was searching for an answer to this puzzling question: “How can I produce an Arabic Bible that communicates the Christian message to the majority of Arabs, namely Muslims?”
In addition to my experience and research that I have personally conducted in a number of these countries, I collected a number of books written by Christians and Muslims on a particular topic. By comparing the terms and idioms used to express the same thoughts, I was able to arrive at the meanings as perceived by the two cultural groups, Christians and Muslims.
My goal was to produce a translation that serves the Church and at the same time communicates clearly and accurately to Muslims.
Part I: The Historical Development of the Arabic Bible
The Arabic translations of the Bible have an older history than that of the English Bible. Scores of Arabic versions had been in existence when the first English Bible known as the Wycliffe Bible was completed in England shortly after John Wycliffe’s death in 1384.
There is no conclusive evidence that Arabic was among the languages to which the Bible was translated before Islam. However, Anton Baumstark (1872-1948) was convinced that the gospel had existed in Arabic in pre-Islamic times. He argues that a certain Armenian monk, Euthymius (377-473) evangelized the Arabs. Naturally then he must have used at least one gospel or selections from the New Testament in his work. Irfan Shahid argued that the Najran tribes in Southern Arabia had been Christianized and that their primary language was Arabic. Therefore their Church liturgy could not have been Syriac since Najran is far removed from Syria and Palestine. He writes: “…there was a Gospel in South Arabia around 520 AD. Whether the whole of the Bible or only a part of it was translated is not clear; it is safe to assume that of the books of the Bible, the Gospels and the Psalms, and possibly the Pentateuch, were the first to be translated.” 
Others argue however that the language of Christians was Syria/Aramaic, which was the liturgical language. If any Christian Scriptures existed in Arabic, they were probably only portions of the New Testament translated from Syriac.
Even if no portion of the Bible was ever translated to Arabic, the fact that there were many Christians among the Arabs allows us to speculate that they may have orally translated portions of the Bible from Aramaic, the ‘lingua franca’ of the time.
Early Christian-Muslim Relations:
The first century of Islam (7th Century AD) was difficult for Christians living under Islamic rule. Muslim rulers considered them ‘Dhimmis’ (subjects) under the tutelage of Islam. Christians, on the other hand, saw Muslims as oppressors. The main language of Christians in the Middle East at that time was Syriac or Aramaic. In the second century of Islam, Christians began to write apologetic literature in Arabic countering Muslim polemics. Griffith writes:
“Perhaps it was in response to this Christian apologetic offensive in Arabic that, in some of the renditions of the “Covenant of Umar” dating from the first Abbasid century, we find among the conditions which the Christians should observe, the agreement that they would not use the language of the Muslims. Under the caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 86l) this stipulation was at least theoretically strengthened to the point of prohibiting Christians even from teaching Arabic to their children.” Despite this serious restriction, Christians managed to produce several translations of the New Testament in Arabic.
Early Arabic Bible Translations:
Beginning with the eighth century, Muslim-Christian encounters sparked a flurry of debates that led to a rich body of literature by Christian apologists defending the faith against Islamic polemics. As a result, and particularly in the ninth century, many embarked on translating the gospels and other portions of the Bible to Arabic.
Sidney Griffith embarked on a serious inquiry into the appearance of the Arabic Bible in the early Islamic period. In 1985 he wrote a well-researched article detailing the development of the early Arabic manuscripts. Griffith found out that the first known Arabic manuscripts of portions of the New Testament date back to 867 A.D. It was translated by Bishr Ibin Assiri and was known as the Sinai Arabic MS 151. This was published in the latter part of 20th Century by Harvey Staal. Around that time and later other translations appeared such as the Sinai Arabic MS 72, MS 154, and MS 155.
Perhaps the most comprehensive study of Arabic manuscripts of the gospels was conducted by Lebanese Scholar Hikmat Kashouh who recently published his phenomenal volume of 761 pages under the title “The Arabic Versions of the Gospels.” Kashouh cites a 1902 German researcher, Caspar RenÃ© Gregory who listed one hundred and thirty seven Arabic Manuscripts of the NT and identified their locations in the various European Libraries and museums including the Vatican.
These Arabic translations fall under three major categories depending on the language from which they were translated being Syriac, Coptic or Greek. Of critical importance is the fact that Muslim Arab literature written by Al-Ghazali, At-Tabari, Ibn Ishaq and many others contain biblical quotes in Arabic. This indicates that either the Arabic scriptures were available to them or that they translated those particular portions they included in their writings.
One noteworthy common feature of all these translations from Greek, Coptic and Syriac is that they all utilize Christian, not Muslim terminology. This is a significant observation because Christians were living as subjects to Islam and would have been tempted to compromise or reduce the pressure on them. Yet they were consistent in faithfully retaining the language of the Church in the Bible.
An Early Attempt to Islamize the Arabic Bible:
The one time when Christians were asked to Islamize the Bible to accommodate Islamic thought, they refused to do so. It was in 12th Century when Patriarch John was ordered by the Arab ruler to contextualize the Bible with these orders:
“Translate your gospel for me into the Saracen language, i.e., Arabic but do not mention Christ’s name, that he is God, or baptism or the cross.” Fortified by the Lord, his Beatitude said, “Far be it that I should subtract a single yod or stroke from the Gospel”, even if all the arrows and lances in your camp should transfix me.” When he saw that he would not be convinced, he gave the order, “Go, write what you want”. So, he assembled the bishops, and he brought help from the Tanukaye, the Aqulaye, and the Tuaye, who were knowledgeable in both the Arabic and in the Syriac language, and he commanded them to translate the Gospel into the Arabic language.”
The Arabic Bible in the Protestant Era:
Until the twentieth century, Bible translations in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages were based on the original languages and some cases on Coptic and Syriac manuscripts. The protestant reformation of the sixteenth century turned the tide. The focus in Biblical scholarship shifted from the East to the West. Most prominent among all the English language translations was the King James Bible first published in 1611 which became the favorite Bible for the English-speaking world until recently.
The availability of scripture in the vernacular brought about an emphasis on evangelizing the Muslims by western missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A wave of modern translations hit the Western world towards the middle of the twentieth century. The discovery of many Greek papyri documents in Egypt at the turn of the century and in following years, contributed a great deal to a new trend in Bible translation. Much of New Testament vocabulary which once was thought of as highly classical, was proven by these papyri to be part of everyday life of the people in New Testament times. Christian linguists observed that God spoke the language of the people. This realization inspired many modern speech versions in the first half of the twentieth century both in England and the USA.
A Major Shift in Bible Translation Theory:
These 20th century non-literal translations triggered a significant revolution in the theory and practice of Bible translation. Their sweeping popularity was a clear indication that people began to look for a Bible that actually speaks the language of the heart, the mother tongue. American translators were contextualizing the English Bible to an American audience with the goal of letting God sound American. One example of the cultural contextualization of the New Living Bible for instance is found in Romans 16:16 “greet each other with a holy kiss” is translated as “Greet each other in Christian love.” The rationale behind it must have been that the Middle Eastern times of Jesus people greeted each other with a kiss, but Americans do not.
James Moffatt produced the first translation of the Bible that diverged from the traditional philosophy of literal translation. The New Testament was published in 1913 and the full Bible thirteen years later. Moffatt taught that to achieve an accurate translation, we need to break the tradition of word for word transfer. The Moffatt Bible was controversial because it incorporated interpretations which were met with opposition by many Christian scholars. The language was more readable than the King James. Although it was not completely a paraphrase, it became the first serious modern translation that set the stage for a number of paraphrases that were a lot more daring such as,
- J.B.Phillips, 1958
- Cotton Patch Gospel, 1968
- The Living Bible, 1971
- Good News Bible or Today’s English Version, 1976
- The Message, 2002 Eugene Peterson.
The New International Version, 1979, struck a balance between the literal conservative translations and the paraphrased Bibles. This contributed to its success and popularity for half a century. The NIV also became a model for other Bible translators who tried to achieve clarity with accuracy.
The Influence of English Bibles on Arabic Translations:
With the exception of the Van Dyck translation which was influenced by the King James Version, it was not until the twentieth century that English translations started influencing the philosophy and style of Arabic translations. The Jesuit New Testament of 1969 leaned heavily on the Jerusalem Bible first published in French (La Bible de JÃ©rusalem) in 1956 then in English in 1966. ‘Kitab al Hayat’ (Word of Life) was partially modeled after the NIV which was beginning to become popular. Today’s Arabic New Testament, 1993 better known as the “Common Translation” is practically a translation of the the Good News Bible or Today’s English New Testament. It was later modified against Kitab al Hayat and other Arabic translations that have become available.
Theories of Bible translation were coming from the West. Nida, Wonderly, Taber and others enjoyed great influence among Bible Translation agencies. My own training came from their materials and the teachings by trainers who were influenced by them.
Islamized Bible Translation Projects:
Traditionally literal translation philosophy was being replaced by a more progressive and freer approach. Some have experimented with a high level of contextualized Bible that went so far as to adopt Qur’anic terminology and even Islamic theology. Here are the most serious attempts to Islamize the Bible.
Paul Ferree: American named Paul Ferree spent thirteen years creating a Muslim Idiom translation of the Entire New Testament. In 1959 he only printed Gospels, Acts and Romans in one book. I am in possession of a copy plus the entire manuscript of the New Testament which he gave me. That project failed due to massive opposition by Church leaders and was never distributed.
David Owen: He was an American graduate of Fuller School of World Mission, hired a Palestinian Muslim, Adnan Baidun to translate the Diatessaron into Arabic. The Diatessaron is a chronological harmony of the Gospels from the late second century. The work which took thriteen years was published in 1987 under the title ‘Seerat Almaseeh’ (The life of the Messiah). It reads like a Qur’an in that it uses Qur’anic terminology and style including rhyme. David printed 2000 copies, but the project came to a halt and never made it to the open market.
Sobhi Malek: In 1990 the New Testament under the title of “The Noble Gospel” ‘Al-Injeel Al-Shareef’ was published by Sobhi Malek. The entire Bible followed in 1999. This is a semi-contextualized translation that uses Muslim religious terminology especially names such as Isa for Jesus rather than Yasou’.
Mazhar Mallouhi: This recent work was sponsored by Frontiers through Mazhar Mallouhi, a Syrian convert who calls himself a Sufi Muslim follower of Christ. “The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ” was published in 2004 and uses modern Arabic, unlike Owen’s, but is a Muslim Idiom Translation because it uses Qur’anic names of biblical characters. The main feature of this work is it is the first to daringly remove all references to God as Father and most references to Jesus being the Son.
Opposition to Islamized or contextualized translations into Arabic have been passionate by Christians and Muslims alike. Dudley Woodberry who himself is not opposed, wrote an article quoted Gabriel Habib, the Greek Orthodox director of the Middle East Christian Council, who in a letter to many evangelical leaders in North America, asserted:
Unfortunately, we have all too frequently attempted to “contextualize” our sharing of the gospel-at the risk of diminishing the value of the churches’ spiritual heritage. The loss of such a precious spiritual heritage in our efforts to communicate the message of Christ diminishes the real potential of accumulated spiritual experience. 
Muslims have accused Christians of deception and trickery in using Islamic terminology in the Bible Translations. Woodberry writes: “Whatever the final outcome, it is significant that the Muslim community felt these words and exclamations were exclusively their own.”
It is not not absolutely certain that the Bible existed in Arabic before Islam. If it did, it was either translated orally or in written form from the Syriac. Over 137 manuscripts in Arabic existed however before the dawn of the 20th Century. The Arabic translations were free from Western influence until the missionary era beginning with the 19th century. More recently, in the last 50 years, several attempts were made to Islamize the Arabic Bible by utilizing Qur’anic terminology. History teaches us that this is not a wise idea as it confuses both Christians and Muslims and hinders the communication of a clear message among them.
 As Director for the Middle East and North Africa I supervised translation projects in Arabic and Kurdish. And helped in the initial phase of translations into Farsi, Turkish, and Kabyle for Living Bibles International which later merged with the International Bible Society, now Biblica.