The Grammarphobia Blog

Translating the Koran

Q: I was reading an English translation of the Koran and came across a passage that didn’t sound grammatically correct: “There is no god but I.” I looked at another translation and it used the pronoun “Me.” So which is correct?

A: The passage you’re referring to is Sura 21 (The Prophets), Aya 25. (A sura is a chapter and an aya is a verse.)

There have been many English translations of the Koran, by Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

The Scottish writer Alexander Ross is credited with the first, but his 1634 translation was actually an English version of a French translation of the Arabic.

In fact, the next English translation, a 1734 work by George Sale, was based in large part on an earlier Latin translation.

Here’s the complete version of the verse you’re asking about, from a copy of the Koran in our library, N. J. Dawood’s 1956 translation:

“We inspired all the apostles whom We sent before you, saying: ‘There is no god but Me. Therefore serve Me.’ ”

We looked at several of the more popular English translations and found that most, though not all, use the pronoun “Me.”

Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s 1934 translation, for example, uses “I,” but Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall’s 1930 version and M. H. Shakir’s 1983 interpretation use “Me.” (Pickthall translates the key phrase as “save Me.”)

Which pronoun is correct in English?

The word “but” can be a conjunction or a preposition.

As a conjunction, it expresses opposition or contradiction, and would be followed by a subject pronoun like “he” or “they” or “I.”

However, as a preposition it means, among other things, “except,” and would be followed by an object pronoun like “him” or “them” or “me.”

Though some traditionalists may disagree, the Oxford English Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agree with us that “but” is a preposition when it means “except.”

So we’d recommend using “Me” in English translations of that verse from the Koran.

If you’d like to read more, we had a blog item a couple of years ago about the two faces of “but.”

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