Centenary of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English Translation of the Quran (Background, History and Influence on Later Translations)
Compiled by Dr. Zahid Aziz
Chapter 1: Work on the Translation: Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement sets goal
Shortly after starting to establish the Ahmadiyya Movement, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Founder, wrote in 1891 of his objective to present Islam to the West, in order to counter the mass of criticism directed at it both by Christian missionaries and modern thought. Appealing to the general Muslim community to render him help and assistance, he wrote in his book Izala Auham:
“I have been asked what should be done to spread the teachings of Islam in America and Europe … It is undoubtedly true that Europe and America have a large collection of objections against Islam, inculcated through those engaged in [Christian] Mission work, and that their philosophy and natural sciences give rise to another sort of criticism. … To meet these objections, a chosen man is needed who should have a river of knowledge flowing in his vast breast and whose knowledge should have been specially broadened and deepened by Divine inspiration. This work cannot be done by those who do not possess comprehensive vision…
I would advise that … writings of an excellent and high standard should be sent into these countries. If my people help me heart and soul, I wish to prepare a commentary of the Quran which should be sent to them after it has been rendered into the English language. I cannot refrain from stating clearly that this is my work, and that definitely no one else can do it as I can, or as he can who is an offshoot of mine and thus is included in me.”1
The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement thus made it as one of his most important goals to have the Quran translated into English, with a commentary, and presented to the West. Moreover, he declared that he would re-establish the long-neglected, right principles for understanding the Quran. The resulting true knowledge of the teachings of this Holy Book would equip Muslims to present the Quran to the modern world in a way that would satisfy its doubts about faith and religion and answer its objections to Islam. We summarise the principles which he taught in chapter 5 of this book.
At that time, the only English translations of the Quran that existed had been produced by British Christian critics of Islam. The first one was by George Sale, published in 1734, followed by Rev. J.M. Rodwell’s translation in 1861, and Prof. E.H. Palmer in 1880. The first two were well-known, while Palmer’s work appeared in the Sacred Books of the East series (volumes 6 and 9). These translators represented the Holy Prophet Muhammad as an imposter, deceiving the public in his claim to be receiving revelation, as suffering from mental disorders and serious moral flaws, and as one who was motivated by his low and base desires.
George Sale, in his note ‘To the Reader’, writes that, except for those who have a very low opinion of Christianity or very little knowledge of it, no one
“can apprehend any danger from so manifest a forgery”
as the Quran (p. iii). He goes on to add that it is Protestants alone, among Christians, who
“are able to attack the Koran with success; and for them, I trust, Providence has reserved the glory of its overthrow” (p. iv).
On the next page, he refers to the Holy Prophet in these words:
“for how criminal soever Muhammad may have been in imposing a false religion on mankind” (p. v).
According to Rodwell, while
“in all he did and wrote, Muhammad was actuated by a sincere desire”
to reform his countrymen, but the earnestness of his convictions led him to use
“any means, not even excluding deceit and falsehood” (p. xxi, xxii).
He adds that the Holy Prophet
“was probably, more or less, throughout his whole career, the victim of a certain amount of self-deception. A cataleptic (or, epileptic) subject from his early youth, born — according to the traditions — of a highly nervous and excitable mother, he would be peculiarly liable to morbid and fantastic hallucinations, and alternations of excitement and depression” (p. xxii).
In his translation, Rodwell writes in a footnote near the end of the chapter ‘Joseph’ of the Quran, quoting the opinion of Sir William Muir, that the Holy Prophet, in presenting the events of Joseph’s life as having been revealed to him,
“must have entered upon a course of wilful dissimulation and deceit in claiming inspiration for them” (p. 292).
In case of Palmer, in his Introduction he acknowledges that, if we consider the following that the Holy Prophet attracted, this proves
“that he could have been no mere impostor” (p. xlvi),
but speaking of his first revelations he writes:
“From youth upwards he had suffered from a nervous disorder … the symptoms of which … are almost always accompanied with hallucinations, abnormal exercise of the mental functions, and not unfrequently with a certain amount of deception, both voluntary and otherwise. … Persons afflicted with epileptic or hysterical symptoms were supposed by the Arabs, as by so many other nations, to be possessed… Dark thoughts of suicide presented themselves to his mind…” (p. xx, xxi, xxii).
It is quite evident that these translators proceeded with the belief that the Quran, although it may contain some good, was nonetheless at its root a product of deception and mental disorder of the Holy Prophet. They have then tried to find support for their preconceptions when explaining various passages of the Quran. As this was leading to a gross misrepresentation of Islam, Maulana Muhammad Ali wrote as follows in the Preface to his English translation of the Quran:
“That a need was felt for a translation of the Holy Book of Islam with full explanatory notes from the pen of a Muslim in spite of the existing translations is universally admitted. Whether this translation satisfies that need, only time will decide.”2
In 1891, when the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement wrote of his desire to have the Quran translated into English and sent to Western countries, he did not know Maulana Muhammad Ali, who was then a teenager at school. He joined the Ahmadiyya Movement in 1897, and three years later decided to devote his life to serve the cause of Islam under the tutelage of the Founder. Shortly thereafter, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad announced his intention to start a magazine in English, aimed at a Western readership as well as English-educated Muslims in India. In this announcement, he expressed his anxiety and unbearable pain at the fact that
“all those truths, the spiritual knowledge, the sound arguments in support of the religion of Islam”,
which he was presenting to people in Urdu and to some extent in Arabic,
“have not yet benefited the English-educated people of this country or the seekers-after-truth of Europe.”
He appointed Maulana Muhammad Ali as editor of this magazine, and it was launched in January 1902 with the title The Review of Religions. How this equipped him to produce, later on, his English translation of the Quran is mentioned by him in his Preface to the revised, 1951, edition of that translation. Replying to a Christian missionary critic, he writes:
“For full nine years before taking up this translation I was engaged in studying every aspect of the European criticism of Islam as well as of Christianity and religion in general, as I had specially to deal with these subjects in The Review of Religions, of which I was the first editor. I had thus an occasion to go through both the higher criticism of religion by advanced thinkers and what I may call the narrower criticism of Islam by the Christian missionaries who had no eye for the broader principles of Islam and its cosmopolitan teachings, and the unparalleled transformation wrought by Islam.”3
By 1907 the need for an English translation of the Holy Quran by a Muslim was being widely felt among the educated Muslims, and many Indian newspapers were alluding to it. There was a proposal by two well-known Muslim figures living in the U.S.A., Maulana Barkatullah of Bhopal (d. 1927) and Alexander Russell Webb (d. 1916), that they would translate the Quran into English if Muslims of India could raise the funds for them to do so. The editor of the Ahmadiyya community newspaper Al-Hakam wrote an article in this connection in August 1907, in which he stated:
“I do not see any option but to accept that an English translation of the Quran is a dire necessity, but to do this work a scholar is required who, on the one hand, if not a thorough master of the entire breadth of the Arabic language, can at least be called a specialist of Arabic, and along with this he should have full command over the English language and complete mastery in writing it. Besides this, he should have a bond of attachment and love with God the Most High; moreover, his heart should be full of fervour for the propagation of Islam and pain at its present condition… In addition, he should be thoroughly acquainted with the needs of the time and be fully aware of all the objections against Islam that are put forward by heretics, atheists, philosophers, Arya Hindus, Christians, scientists and others, so that in regard to those places in the Quran where these people have stumbled, he should show the light of guidance.”
He adds that such a suitable man is Maulana Muhammad Ali:
“…it is a fact, which, if people do not realise it now, they will do so in the future, that this revered person is the worthy young man Maulvi Muhammad Ali, M.A. By writing in defence of Islam and expounding its truth through The Review of Religions he has established the reputation of his pen in Asia and Europe so firmly that figures like Russell Webb and philosophers like Tolstoy acknowledge that the concepts of Islam presented in this magazine give satisfaction to the soul. In Europe and America, articles of this magazine have been read with great interest and valued very highly.”4
As The Review of Religions was being circulated to the Western English-speaking world, and sent as far as the USA, the producers of this magazine must undoubtedly have realized the need for a reliable English translation of the Quran from the Muslim point of view, and they may well have received enquiries from readers as to a recommended translation that they could study.
- Izala Auham, p. 771–773. ↩
- In the Year 2002 edition, see page I-10. The wording here was written by the Maulana in the Preface to the Revised Edition of 1951, in which he has quoted from the Preface to the original 1917 edition with some amendments. The words “from the pen of a Muslim” were added by him in the Revised Edition. ↩
- In the Year 2002 edition, see pages I-13 – I-14. ↩
- Al-Hakam, 17 August 1907, p. 7. ↩