English Articles

Edward William Lane on interpreting the Holy Qur’an

Muhammad Sultan Shah

Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, GC University, Lahore, Pakistan Edward William Lane (1801–1876) was a British orientalist, translator and lexicographer. His timeless work An Arabic–English lexicon has been appreciated by all researchers working in the field of Arabic and Islamic Studies. Lane’s stay in Egypt enabled him to learn Arabic directly from the native people. He adopted some habits of the Muslim community and mixed with them freely. He was very tolerant in his behaviour and neitherridiculed Islam nor criticized it. Lane translated some extracts from the Qur’an and published them as a book. His introduction borrows information from the preliminarydiscourse of George Sale and Lane amended it in such a way that it became acceptable toMuslims. This article examines Lane’s translation and compares it with Sale’s rendering. Italso discusses his Lexicon and translations of fragments of the Qur’an therein.Keywords: translation; selections; orientalist; lexicon; Qur’an; Islam; ArabicEdward William Lane was born in Hereford, England, on 17 September 1801. He was the third son of the Revd Theophilus Lane, LLD, a Prebendary of Hereford; and his mother was Sophia Gardiner, a niece of the artist Gainsborough. At first his education was conducted by his father, after whose sudden death in 1814 he was placed successively at the grammar schools in Bath and Hereford, where he distinguished himself by his unusual power of application and by an almost equal mastery of classics and mathematics. The latter formed his principal study, for he was determined to take a degree at Cambridge, and then enter the Church. Lane’s aspiration to study at Cambridge was never fulfilled; he visited the university, but was never enrolled at a college. His mathematical training had been thorough, as is shown by the fact that immediately after giving up the idea of Cambridge, he obtained a copy of the honours degree papers for the year and discovered that he could without difficulty solve every problem but one. He often related that, going to bed weary with puzzling out this single stumbling-block, he suddenly woke in the middle of the night, lit his candle and wrote out the answer without hesitation. Lane went to London to join his elder brother Richard (afterwards renowned for his skill in lithography, which was recognized by the Royal Academy in his election to an associate ship), and there he spent some time in engraving. Although this profession was also soon abandoned, the years devoted to it were not wasted At the same time, he devoted his leisure to the study of Arabic, in which he soon acquired great proficiency. Lane could not by his nature be idle for a moment, and the hours unfilled by his art were given up to hard reading, to the extent that he began to grudge the necessary time for food and exercise and his health consequently suffered. He contracted typhus, from which he barely recovered, and then found that his poor health was not conducive to hisworking as an engraver. A man who was so weak, partly from the exhaustion of chronic bronchitis, and partly from the effects of the fever, that he sometimes could not walk along a street without holding on for support, was not fit to bend over a copper-plate all day, and he therefore determined to adopt a different way of life.

He decided that taking up residence abroad was necessary; and he naturally turned to the East, where he might at the same time recover his health and pursue his favourite study.  Arberry, however, thinks that the purpose of his first visit to Egypt was somewhat different: pricked by his enthusiasm for Arabic into thinking that he might obtain employment in government service in the Levant, Lane decided that a visit to Egypt would not only improve his precarious state of health, but also lead to an interesting career. According to his own statement, he was motivated by ‘a zealous attachment to the study of oriental literature, and a particular desire to render myself familiar with the language of the Arabs.

He further states that he came to Egypt ‘chiefly for the purpose of studying the language and literatureof its modern inhabitants etc.’ (ibid., 5). So, on 18 July 1825, he embarked on the 212-ton brig Findlay, bound for Alexandria. Thevoyage took two months, and might have ended in disaster in a hurricane off Tunis but forthe unexpected skill of a passenger (Arberry 1997, 88). The captain seems to have been incompetent, and no other members of the crew understood navigation. On a dark and stormy night, when the ship was in danger of being wrecked, the captain asked Lane to take the helm. Fortunately navigation had formed part of his mathematical studies, so, although he was little more than a boy and this was his first voyage, he took the wheel and had to be lashed to it to avoid being swept overboard. The storm abated and he was able to bring to ship safely into harbor at Malta on 4 August. After more adventures, he arrived off the coast of Egypt on 19 September.

The Findlay anchored at Alexandria in the late afternoon and Lane was too impatient to wait tillthe next day before going ashore. He landed filled with profound emotion, feeling, he writes, like an Eastern bridegroom about to lift the veil of his as yet unseen bride (Lane-Poole 1870, 15–17). His first visit to Egypt lasted four years(1825–1829) and he visited various parts of the country and acquired a number of Arabic books, such as ‘Aja¯’ib al-a¯tha¯r by the Egyptian historian‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti and al-Maqrizi’s Al-khi_ta_ t, and collected the material for his book Description of Egypt (Lane 2000). According to his grand-nephew Stanley Lane-Poole, ‘the years 1825–28 are the only time in which he could be called a traveller’ . His second trip to Egypt was from 1833 to 1835, during which he collected material for An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians (Lane 1846). He engaged two professors, of Arabic and of Muslim religion and law, as his regular salaried teachers. He returned to London in 1835, where he remained until 1842, and published his English translation of Alf layla wa-layla under the title The thousand and one nights (Lane 1877), which is, according to Arberry, a scholarly yet eminently readable translation (Arberry 1943, 20). While he was in London, he also compiled his Selections from the Kur-‘an (Lane 1843). His third trip to Egypt was the longest, lasting from 1842 to 1849. This time, the purpose of his stay in Cairo was to collect data for his Arabic–English lexicon. Shaykh Ibrahim al-Desuqi remained his language master during this period (Lane-Poole 1877, xiii), and he spent the rest of his life engaged in the work of compiling his lexicon.

Lane and Islam E.W. Lane adopted the Arabic name ‘Mansoor’, and he frequently referred to himself by this name in his correspondence to Robert Hay, varying it, when times were particularly hard, to ‘Al-Fackeer Mansoor’, meaning ‘the needy Mansoor’ (Ahmed 1978, 32). According to Leila Ahmed, he is referred to as ‘Lane Mansoor Effendi’, ‘Edward Mansoor Lane’ or simply ‘Mansoor’ in his correspondence (ibid.). Jason Thompson says that the name he took for himself in Egypt was ‘Mansoor Effendi’

During his first trip to Egypt, he preferred to live among the local people and separated himself as much as possible from Europeans. Speaking the language of the country, and conforming to the manners of his Muslim neighbors by not using knives and forks and abstaining from wine and pork, he was treated amiably by all the natives with whom he had any contact and he seems himself to have found pork and alcohol distasteful. From long residence in Cairo, his habits became those of the Egyptians and he found it difficult to lay them aside, even when he brought the accomplishments of an English gentleman into London. Soon after his return from the Middle East, he whispered to Charles Knight, who sat beside him at dinner, ‘I cannot endure these chairs. I will tuck my legs under me and then I shall be comfortable.

During Lane’s first visit to Egypt, and on later visits, he frequently attended prayers at the mosques. He himself says, ‘I was in the frequent habit of visiting mosques, where I prayed, either by myself, or with the congregation, or reposed’ (quoted in Ahmed 1978, 34), but according to Stanley Lane-Poole, he did so ‘only because without this conforming to the ways of the people he could never have acquired that knowledge of their character which he afterwards turned to so great an account’ (Lane-Poole 1870, 131).

Lane adopted some Muslim customs. For example, before beginning each day’s work, he recited the Bismillah, the opening words of the Qur’an: ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful’. He had helped an Arab by giving him some medicine.

Lane asked him for Zam Zam and he gave him two tin flasks of the sacred water and one small, oblong and flat cake of a kind of greyish earth brought from Medina (Lane 1846, 2: 76). The shaykh with whom he worked during his last stay in Egypt, and who spent many hours with Lane almost every day for eight years, was fully persuaded that Lane ‘believed in Jinn . . . [and] in the mission of Mohammad, and of Christ’ (Amin 1965, 49). This is not to be taken as evidence that Lane was a Muslim: the shaykh, who was persuaded of Lane’s belief in the jinn, was also amazed Lane did not profess Islam (ibid.). According to Lane-Poole, his great-uncle ‘preserved the single earnest faith of his childhood’; he had certainly modified his views on some of the minor points, but in essential doctrines of Evangelical Christianity his belief never changed (Lane-Poole 1877, 131).

The Selections from the Kur-’an, Lane’s third publication, was a translation of selected extracts from the Qur’an. The project was perhaps suggested to him by Carlyle’s lecture on Muhammad (Carlyle 1841). But it is possible that Lane’s personal difficulties also played some part now in directing him to this work, and that the work, undertaken for the purpose of objective study, also served a more personal need, as had his visits to the mosques in Cairo. For Lane did not takeIslam lightly, nor did he now approach his task lightly. He wrote when beginning his selected translations that he was engaged upon a work ‘of very great difficulty’, and that he did not ‘mean to say what it is, until I find that I succeed in it’ (Ahmed 1978, 40).

Stanley Lane-Poole introduces this work in his memoir of Edward William Lane prefixed toPart 6 of An Arabic–English lexicon:

Lane . . . arranged a volume of ‘Selections from the Kur-‘an,’ with an introduction, notes, and an interwoven commentary. The book did not appear till 1843, when its author was in Egypt and unable to correct the proofs. Consequently it is defaced by considerable typographical errors, and its publication in that state was a continual source of annoyance to Lane. The notion was an excellent one. He wished to collect together all the important doctrinal parts of the Kur-‘an, in order to show what the religion of Mohammad really was according to the Prophet’s own words: and he omitted all those passages which weary or disgust the student and render the Kur-‘an an impossible book for general reading. The result is a small volume which gives the ordinary reader a very fair notion of the contents of the Kur-‘an and of the circumstances of its origin. (Lane 1877, xxviii)

In the preface to the Selections from the Kur-‘an, Lane says of its purpose:

Why is the Kur-‘an so much neglected in this country while we possess a translation of it in our language, celebrated for its general accuracy, and enriched with an abundance of learned andcurious notes? To this it may be answered –

First, the arrangement of its contents perplexes and fatigues the most patient of readers by a real or apparent want of connexion. –

Secondly, the book abounds with passages unintelligible without explanations . . . Thirdly, to a largeclass of readers it is a book absolutely prohibited . . . To obviate these objections, the following extracts have been selected, translated, explained, and methodically arranged. (Lane 1843, iii–iv)

Lane benefited from Sale’s translation especially in his introduction, and this is acknowledged in the title: ‘Selections from the Kur-‘an, commonly called in England, The Koran: with an interwoven commentary: Translated from the Arabic, methodically arranged, and illustrated by notes, chiefly from Sale’s edition: to which is prefixed an introduction taken from Sale’s preliminary discourse, with correction and additions’.

The work was carried out while he was in England but when the book was at the press in  1843, the author was in Egypt for the third time, so the production was marred by many misprints (Arberry 1997, 107). Nevertheless, the book was so successful that it went out of print and it become difficult to obtain a copy. A new revised and enlarged edition with some alterations was therefore published by his great-nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole, in 1879. He omitted many of the notes and the interwoven commentary was condensed and set as footnotes. Lane-Poole added further extracts, indicated in the text by an obelus (see Lane 1879, cxiv).

Theodor Noldeke has said, ‘Considerable extracts from the Koran are well translated in E.W. Lane’s Selections from the Kur’an’ (Noldeke 2004, 93). Jason Thompson says that Lane produced a highly credible work (Thompson 1996, 573) but Arberry thinks that the Selections are not a great book, and had a very moderate reception (Arberry 1997, 107). When Stanley Lane-Poole published The speeches and table-talk of the Prophet Mohammad, he mentioned it in the references given at the end of his introduction: ‘Lane’s Selections from the Kur-‘an, to which I must refer the reader for further information on Mohammad and Islam, and especially concerning the portions of the Koran dealing with the Jewish legends purposely omitted from the present work’ (Lane-Poole 1882, lvi; see also 187, 189). J.M. Rodwell also consulted Lane’s Selections when preparing his translation of the Qur’an, acknowledging with regard to the translation of Basmalah, ‘The rendering I have adopted is that of Mr. Lane in his extracts from the Koran’ (Rodwell 1861, 1).

According to A.J. Arberry, Lane’s Selections certainly served a most valuable purpose in its time, and may still be read with profit, as well as a rather austere pleasure (Arberry 1953, 12). As there are some similarities between his selections and Lane’s, Arberry clarifies: ‘It happens that in 1843. It also happens that I conceived the idea of writing a book in which I would try to make the study and understanding of the Koran easier for the general English reader; I drew a sketch of topics and an arrangement of contents which agreed remarkably with the scheme devised by Lane’s book, with many others, on my worktable’ (ibid., 11).

According to Lane-Poole, Lane’s introduction was abridged from Sale’s preliminary discourse, with but some additions from his own knowledge (Lane 1879, vii). Sale’s discourse was too detailed and lengthy and also contains many objectionable remarks about the Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an. Lane selected three topics from Sale’s preliminary discourse: on the Arabs before Muhammad, on the establishment of Islam, and on the Qur’an. According to Leila Ahmed, the first and third sections are reproduced virtually without change (Ahmed 1978, 179).

The second section, called ‘Of the establishment of el-Islam’, is an account of Muhammad’s life and of the propagation of Islam. Lane-Poole changed its title to ‘Mohammad’ when he edited the book (Lane 1879, xxxvii). According to Leila Ahmed, Lane has slightly changed Sale’s discourse in this section (Ahmed 1978, 179–80), chiefly by omitting such expressions or descriptions relating to Muhammad or Islam to which a Muslim could not have subscribed. For instance, the following passages, which figured in Sale’s discourse, are omitted in Lane’s introduction:

1. ‘It is scarce to be doubted but that Mohammed had a violent desire of being 
reckoned an extraordinary person, which he could attain to by no means more 
effectively, than by pretending to be a messenger sent from God, to inform
 mankind of his will’ (Sale 1890, 21).
2. ‘That Mohammed was, as the Arabs are by complexion, a great lover of women’

3. ‘The scheme of religion which Mohammed framed, and the design and artful 
contrivance of those written revelations (as he pretended them to be) which 
compose his
 Koran’ (ibid., 33).

4. ‘And in several places of the Koran, which he pretended were revealed 
during his stay at Mecca’ (ibid., 37).

5. ‘Mohammedism was no other than a human invention’ (ibid., 38).

6. ‘Mohammed escaped miraculously, as they pretend, to Abu Becr’s house’
 (ibid., 39).

One example of Lane’s alterations is the following:

George Sale wrote:

After he began by this advantageous match to live at his ease it was that he formed the scheme of establishing a new religion, or, as he expressed it, of replanting the only true and ancient one, professed by Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets, by destroying the gross idolatry into which the generality of his countrymen had fallen. (Ibid., 30)

Lane altered this to:

After fifteen years from the period of his marriage, his age now being forty, he announced for the first time, that he was sent by God . . . to restore the only true and ancient religion, which had been professed by Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and all the prophets. (Lane 1843, 53)

The language used by Sale and Lane is entirely different; where the former is inclined to insult the Prophet of Islam, the latter is respectful to a great extent.

The third section of Lane’s introduction is titled ‘The Kur-‘an’. Of course, its contents were derived from Sale’s ‘On the Koran itself’, but Lane was very careful while sifting the material.

Sale wrote some sentences that would be objectionable to Muslims, such as:

1. ‘He has not only employed his utmost skill in these his pretended revelations
’ (Sale 1890,48).

2. ‘The great doctrine then of the Koran is the unity of God; to restore which
 point Mohammed pretended was the chief end of his mission’ (ibid., 49).

3. ‘The Koran was invented by Mohammed’ (ibid.).

4. ‘Mohammed was really the author and chief contriver of the Koran’ (ibid.,

Lane’s sifting excluded all such remarks from his introduction and he begins this section with the following tradition:

The Muslim who reads the Kur-‘an is like the orange-fruit, whose smell and taste are sweet; and the Muslim who reads not the Kur-‘an is like the date, which hath no smell, but its taste is sweet and the hypocrite who reads not the Kur-‘an is like the colocynth, without a smell, and with a bitter taste; and the hypocrite who reads it is like the sweet basil, whose smell is sweet, but its taste is bitter. (Lane 1879, c)

Lane not only sifted Sale’s account but also inserted positive sentences. At the beginning, he adds:

It is an immense merit in the Kur-‘an that there is no doubt as to its genuineness. The ‘Word of the Lord’ came to Mohammad, and he uttered it, and the people wrote it down or committed to memory; and that very word we can now read with full confidence that it has remained unchanged through nearly thirteen hundred years. (Ibid.)

In Lane-Poole’s edition, the Selections are divided into two parts. The first is about Islam and the second about other religions as they are regarded in Islam. In the first, extracts are grouped under the following headings: The opening prayer, premonition, God, Muhammad and the Qur’an, the resurrection, paradise and hell, predestination, angels and jinn, true and false religion, believers and unbelievers. In the second, he translates extracts from the Qur’an under the following headings: Prophets, apostles and divine books, Adam and Eve, Abel and Cain, Noah and the flood, ‘Ad and Thamud, Dhu al-Qarnayn, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brethren, Job, Shu‘ayb, Moses and his people, Saul, David, Soloman, Jonah, Ezra, the Messiah.

It is pertinent to mention here that Stanley Lane-Poole published his own similar work entitled the speeches and table-talk of the Prophet Mohammad in 1882. He had edited, revised and enlarged Lane’s Selection from the Kur-‘an in 1878 and it was published in 1879. Lane-Poole’s approach towards the Qur’an, the Prophet and Islam is slightly different from Lane’s.

Lane openly acknowledges in his preface: ‘I have had Sale’s version constantly open by my side, and have always followed it when I found reason to prefer it to my own; but it has more frequently happened that my translation of a passage has proved, on comparison, to agree . . . with his’ (Lane 1843, v). He also acknowledges in his preface that he made free use of Sale’s notes. According to Leila Ahmed, Lane checked Sale’s notes against the Arabic commentaries from which they were ostensibly derived, and discovered, as he states in his preface, what had not been known till then: that Sale’s notes were derived from Maracci’s Latin Koran and the notes to it, and not directly from Arabic works. Lane’s occasional additions are the fruit of his own direct consultation of Arabic sources  (Ahmed 1978, 183–4).

Consider the translation of seven verses from the beginning of al-Baqara:

A.L.M. Respecting this Book there is no doubt; it is a guidance for them that fear Him, who believe in the unseen, and perform the prayer, and of what We have bestowed on them expend and who believe in that which hath been sent down to thee, and what hath been sent down before thee, and have firm assurance of the life to come. Those follow a right direction from their Lord, and those they are who shall prosper. As for those who have disbelieved, it will be equal to them whether thou admonish them or admonish them not: they will not believe. God hath sealed their hearts and their ears, and over their eyes is a covering, and for them is [ordained] a great punishment.

(Lane 1879, 4)

By comparing this extract with the Sale’s translation (Sale 1890, 2), its characteristics can be highlighted. First, his language is very plain and easily understandable. Second, the first letter of pronouns used for God is a capital. Third, he retains the literal meaning of Arabic words in his translation. His and Sale’s translations of Arabic words are compared below:

Arabic Sale’s translation Lane’s translation al-ghayb the mysteries of faith the unseen yu¯qinu¯n distribute alms (they) expend Unlike Sale, Lane translates al-mulk as ‘the dominion’, as in Q 68:1: ‘Blessed be He in whose hand is the dominion and who is all-powerful’ (Lane 1879, 6) and he renders ‘Rabb al-‘a¯lamı¯n’ as ‘the Lord of the world’ (ibid., 1, 6). This compound word has been incorrectly translated even by some Muslim translators.

In some extracts Lane’s rendering is similar or very close to Sale’s, as in the following


Sale’s translation Lane’s translation

When the sun shall be folded up;

When the sun shall be wrapped up,

And when the stars shall fall;

And when the stars shall fall down,

And when the mountains shall be made to pass away;

And when the mountains shall be made to pass away,

And when the camels ten months gone with young shall be neglected

And when the camels ten months gone with young shall be neglected

And when the wild beasts shall be gathered together;

And when the wild beasts shall be gathered together,

And when the seas shall boil;

 And when the seas shall overflow,

And when the souls shall be joined again to their

bodies. (Sale 1890, 438)

And when the souls shall be joined to their bodies.

(Lane 1879, 22)

However, there are also many differences between the translations, as is evident from the following example:

Sale’s translation Lane’s translation

And companions of the right hand (how happy shall the companions of the right hand be!) shall have their abode among lote-trees free from thorns, and trees mauz loaded regularly with their produce from top to bottom;

And the people of the right hand – what [shall be] the people of right hand!

[They shall dwell] among lote-trees without thorns and bananas loaded with fruit, under an extended shade, And a shade ever-spread, near a flowing water, And water ever-flowing, and amidst fruits in abundance, And fruits abundant, which shall not fail nor shall be forbidden to be gathered:

Unstayed and unforbidden, and they shall repose themselves on lofty beds. And couches raised. Verily we have created the damsels of paradise by a peculiar creation:

Verily we have created them by a [peculiar] creation, and we have made them virgins, And have made them virgins, beloved by their husbands, of equal age with them; Beloved of their husbands, of equal age [with them], for the delight of the companions of the right hand. For the people of the right hand, there shall be many of the former religions, and many of the latter. (Sale 1890, 397)

A crowd of the former generations And a crowd ofthe latter generations. (Lane 1879, 25–6) Lane’s interwoven commentary can be seen (in italics) in the following examples:

1. And remember Our servant Job [Eiyoob] when he called unto his Lord, Verily the Devil hath afflicted me with calamity and pain. (The affliction is attributed to the devil, though all was from God.) And it was said unto him, Strike the earth with thy foot. And he did so; whereupon a fountain of water sprang forth. And it was said, This is cool water for thee to wash with, and to drink. So he washed himself and drank; and every disease that he had, external and internal, quitted him. And We gave unto him his family, and as many more with them (that is, God raised to life for him those of his children who had died, and blest him with as many more), in Our mercy and as an admonition unto those who are endowed

with faculties of understanding. (Q 38.41–3; Lane 1879, 93–4)

2. Remember when the wife of ‘Imran said, (when she became aged, and desired offspring, wherefore she supplicated God, and became sensible of pregnancy,) O my Lord verily I devote unto Thee what is in my womb, to be dedicated to the service of Thy holy house: then accept [it] from me; for Thou art the Hearer of prayer, the Knower of intentions. And

‘Imran perished while she was pregnant. And when she gave birth to it, (namely her daughter; and she was hoping that it might be a boy; since none but boys were dedicated) she said, O my Lord, verily I have brought forth a female, (and God well knew what she had brought forth), and the male is not as the female, the latter not being fit for the service [of the temple]; and I have named her Mary [Maryam]; and I beg thy protection for her and her offspring from the accursed Devil. (In the traditions [it is said], No child is born but the devil hath touched it at the time of its birth, wherefore it first raised its voice by crying, excepting Mary and her son.). (Q 3.35–6; Lane 1879, 149)

According to Stanley Lane-Poole, the words in italics are inserted from the commentary of the Jala¯layn and those in square brackets are Lane’s additions, inserted where the difference between the Arabic and English idioms required them (ibid., 2).

An Arabic–English lexicon

Lane’s greatest achievement is his Arabic–English lexicon. According to Lane, the Ta¯j al-‘aru¯s by Sayyid Murta da al-Zabı¯dı¯ (d.1205/1791) was the source from which he drew most of the contents of his Lexicon. The publication of the Lexicon more than confirmed the high expectations that had been formed of it. As French orientalist Jules Mohl (d.1876) said, each article is a perfect monograph, recording all that can be recorded on the subject (Lane-Poole 1877, 127).

Each statement is followed by initials indicating the authorities from which it was derived, except where Lane has interwoven, within brackets, his own remarks and criticisms. Thus the work is, from the point of view of authoritativeness, as sufficient for the student as if he possessed all the original manuscripts from which it is compiled. And where the native writers’ method is obscure and meaning follows meaning in no regular sequence, Lane has succeeded in arranging each article in logical order, distinguishing between primary and secondary meanings, and making the various significations of each root a connected whole, instead of a chaotic mixture of inexplicable contradictions. The value of the manner as well as of the matter was instantly recognised by the orientalists of Europe. There was no question of rivalry: all and each were agreed absolutely to submit to an authority which they saw to be above dispute.

The greatest Arabist in Germany, Dr Friedrich Dieterici, used to send Lane from time to time monographs of his own, inscribed with the words ‘Unserem Grossmeister’, and the like; and his homage is but an example of the reverence felt by all for the ‘Schatzmeister der arabischen Sprache’ (Lane-Poole 1877, 127–8). After a preliminary study, Lane began to compose his own lexicon from the Ta¯j and from other dictionaries he had collected (Lane-Poole 1877, xxxiv). The transcription of his own copy and its collation extended over a period more than 13 years (Arberry 1943, 110–11).

The first part appeared in 1863 and the second followed two years later. The third was published in 1867 and the fourth was printed in 1870, but the whole edition of 1,000 copies was unfortunately burnt before it reached the publisher, with the exception of a single copy, and the entire part had to be printed again and therefore did not appear till 1872. After the necessary two years’ interval, the fifth part was published in 1874. The sixth part was half-printed (as far as p.2386) when its author died on 10 August 1876. He had reached the letter Qa¯ f, the twenty-first letter of the Arabic alphabet, before his death. Afterwards, his great-nephew, Stanley Lane- Poole, continued the work and completed this volume in 1877. To this part a memoir of Edward William Lane was prefixed by Lane-Poole which bears July 1877 as completion date.

The seventh part was published in 1885 and the eighth in 1893. The whole lexicon comprises 3064 pages. According to Jason Thompson, Stanley Lane-Poole did a creditable job, but 294 M.S. Shah could not match the level of his great-uncle (Thompson 1997, 260). Lane-Poole never attempted the second series of volumes for rarer words that Lane had projected. Miroslav Krek has reported that G.F. Freytag’s interleaved copy of the Lexicon has been acquired from England, which through internal evidence, proved to be Lane’s working copy, containing some of his notations and rare words not found in his Lexicon. The manuscript notes constitute parts of the unpublished second book of the lexicon, intended to contain rare expressions, but which never reached print (Krek 1969, 419–20).

Lane’s Lexicon constituted a great advance towards understanding the Qur’an in English because anybody having a basic knowledge of Arabic could use it to search for the meaning of qur’anic words. Famous translators of the Qur’an have used it while rendering the scripture into English. E.H. Palmer referred to Lane’s Lexicon in the introduction to his translation (Palmer 1880, lxxviii–lxxix), and ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (1983, xiv) and Muhammad Asad (1980, x) have acknowledged it as a work of reference.

Lane has translated a large number of verses or parts of verses in this voluminous work on lexicography. Some examples are quoted here:

1. According to Lane, idh is a word denoting past time. He indicates seven autho
rities in brackets in abbreviated form. Then he quotes three instances of its us
e in the Qur’an, with an English translation:

a. Q 2.30 [And when thy Lord said unto the angels]

b. Q 2.125 [And when Abraham was rearing the foundations]

c. Q 9.40 [If ye will not aid him, verily God aided him when those who disbelieved expelled him, being the second of two, when they two were in the cave, when he

was saying to his companion, Grieve not thou, for God is with us] (Lane 1863–

1893, 1: 38)

The translation of these parts of verses is different from George Sale’s, which had been published prior to the Lexicon.

2. According to Lane, the word ra_ hma means mercy, pity or compassion. He 
quotes parts of the following verses and adds his own translation.

a. Q 21.75 [And We caused him to enter into our mercy]

b. Q 3.74 [And God distinguishes with his gift of prophecy(ra _ hma) whom He wills, or his prophetic office or commission] (ibid., 3:1056)

3. According to Lane the verb _ hamala means ‘He bore it, carried it, took it 
up and carried it, conveyed it, or carried it off or away’. Explaining its 
different derivatives, he quotes qur’anic texts from the following verses 
that contain this word, followed by his own English rendering:

a. Q 24.53 [He shall bear, on the day of resurrection, a heavy burden]

b. Q 7.189 [She bore a light burden]

c. Q 29.60 [And how many a beast is there that does not bear its sustenance]

d. Q 24.53 [Upon him rests only that which he has had imposed upon him; and upon you, that which ye have had imposed upon you]

e. Q 2.286 [O our Lord, and do not Thou impose upon us a burden, like as Thou imposedst it upon those before us: O our Lord, and do not Thou impose upon us that which we have not power to bear] (ibid., 2: 64–7)

According to Jason Thompson, ‘Lane’s Arabic–English Lexicon remains a definitive reference tool to this day’ (Thompson 1997, 260), and ‘few scholars have exerted as much long-term influence on Middle Eastern studies as Lane’ (ibid., 243), while Arberry has said of the Lexicon, ‘Lane’s lexicon is perhaps the greatest contribution to Arabic scholarship made by any single Islam and  European scholar, and is to be reckoned among the most noteworthy services ever performed by any philologist for any language’ (Arberry 1997, 19–20).

Edward Said, who sees the ‘orientalist ego’ in Lane, acknowledges his status among orientalists as follows: ‘He was an authority whose use was an imperative for anyone writing or thinking about the Orient, not just about Egypt’ (Said 2003, 23, 158). Thomas Patrick Hughes aptly says, ‘It is impossible for anyone to write upon the subject of Muhammadanism without being largely indebted, not only to Sir William Muir’s books, but also the works of late Mr. Lane’ (Hughes 1885, vi) and Leila Ahmed rightly calls him, ‘the greatest orientalist Britain has ever produced’ (Ahmed 1978, vi).

Edward William Lane occupies a unique place among Western orientalists. Prior to him not all but many scholars had been working with the intention of belittling Islam. Some translations of the Qur’an were professedly aimed at refuting it by making its readers aware of what were called the ‘absurdities’ in the scripture. Such orientalists alleged that the Prophet Muhammad had borrowed a lot from Judaeo-Christian traditions and included it in the text of the Qur’an.

Muslims think that they mistranslated many verses of their scripture, for there was either wilful distortion in the meaning of the text or errors due to lack of knowledge of Arabic and the Islamic sciences. But Lane was free from such ‘orientalist’ attitudes and he made sincere efforts to render the Qur’an precisely. His translation may be regarded as sympathetic as he avoided the use of words that might hurt the followers of Islam and the extracts translated by him manifest the utmost care and accuracy.

Lane was more a lexicographer and translator than a theologian. He had a great love of Arabic language and culture, which is why he showed such openness towards Islam while adhering to the religion he had inherited from his parents. He abridged George Sale’s discourse in the introduction to his Selections so that he either omitted all the expressions that could offend Muslims or changed them in such a way that they might become acceptable to the adherents of Islam. Lane’s integrity in translation, mastery of the Arabic language and zeal for knowledge made him popular in the Muslim world.

So it can be concluded that Edward William Lane rendered great service to the Qur’an, not only through his Selections but also by his Lexicon. His translations included in the latter seem more mature than in his Selections, and had he published his Selections after his lexicographical work, his translation would have been unparalleled among all orientalists.


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Arberry, Arthur J. 1953. The Holy Koran: An introduction with selections. London: George Allen & Unwin.

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87–121. 2nd ed. London: Curzon.

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Knight, Charles. 1864. Passages of a working life during half a century, with a prelude of early reminiscences.

3 vols. New York: AMS Press.

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American University in Cairo Press.

Lane-Poole, Stanley. 1870. Life of Edward William Lane. London: Williams and Norgate.

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Lane-Poole, Stanley. 1882. The speeches and table-talk of the Prophet Mohammad. London: Macmillan and Co.

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Sale, George. 1890. The Koran: Commonly called the alkoran of Mohammed, translated into English from the original Arabic with explanatory notes taken from the most approved commentators, to which is prefixed a preliminary discourse. London: Frederick Warne and Co.

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Studies 28, no. 4: 565–83.

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