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: Starts work on translating
The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement had passed away in May 1908 and Maulana Nur-ud-Din had become Head of the Movement. The Maulana was an illustrious scholar of Islam, as well as being deeply learned in other branches of religious and secular knowledge. Before joining the Ahmadiyya Movement in 1889 he had travelled widely in pursuit of religious knowledge and had stayed in Makkah and Madinah for some time. For his learning, he was held in high esteem by eminent Muslims outside the Ahmadiyya Movement. He had a particularly deep knowledge of, and love for, the Quran which he had studied for many years. His principle of understanding the Quran was that the interpretation of any passage in the Quran should be sought, in the first place, from other passages within this scripture itself. The Quran explains itself. It must also be studied in the light of reason and modern knowledge. The traditional sources, which are Hadith books and classical commentaries, are a valuable help, but they cannot be used to override and undo anything which is clear from the Quran.
It was under the guidance of Maulana Nur-ud-Din that Maulana Muhammad Ali started work on translating the Quran into English in 1909 at Qadian where he lived and worked. At that time, he was secretary of the central executive committee which managed the affairs of the Ahmadiyya Movement (Sadr Anjuman Ahmadiyya), and was also editor of The Review of Religions. These were his official duties. In May 1909, he placed the proposal for translating the Quran before this committee since, after the completion of the work, it would be funding its publication. He indicated in his proposal that if the committee were unable to bear the expenses of the publication
“it is possible that Allah will provide some other means for me”.1
The work of translation he carried out on his own, according to his own judgment, under the advice and guidance of Maulana Nur-ud-Din.
Maulana Muhammad Ali worked on the translation often at home during the night. If no electricity was available, he worked by candle light at night. Whenever he went on leave, he took the work with him. Long afterwards, it was stated in the Foreword to the 1963 edition, which appeared after the Maulana’s death:
“Work on the first edition of the English translation of the Quran took him seven long years (1909–1916). The amount of original research that went into tracing the meanings of the words and verses, finding the underlying sense of Sections and Chapters, and linking it up with the preceding and succeeding text, so that the whole of the Quran was shown to have the thread of a continuous theme running through it — it is simply staggering to think of all this stupendous and most taxing labour put in single handed, day after day, for seven long years. But that is exactly what made Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation the boon of the world of scholarship in the West as well as the East when it appeared in print in 1917. It was a pioneer venture breaking altogether new ground, and the pattern set was followed by all subsequent translations of the Quran by Muslims. … There is no attempt at pedantry or literary flourishes. Nor is there any pandering to preconceived popular notions or a bid for cheap popularity. It is a loyal service to the Word of God aiming at scrupulously honest, faithful rendering.”2
In a report to the committee in 1911, Maulana Muhammad Ali explained that
“to publish only a translation is not very useful and the following additions are necessary”.
Apart from footnotes, these would be an introductory note to each chapter, a summary of each section within a chapter, and an introduction to the whole work.3
Maulana Nur-ud-Din had taken a great interest in the translation. Maulana Muhammad Ali used to visit him regularly to read to him from the place he had reached in the translation, and take guidance from him particularly as regards the commentary.
An incident is reported, probably from 1912, that when Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din came to Qadian after one of his lecture tours of India, he informed Maulana Muhammad Ali that the Nadwat-ul-Ulama (a well-known Islamic instruction institution based in Lucknow) was having the Quran translated into English by Syed Husain Bilgrami (eminent Muslim educationist and civil servant),4 and that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was writing an Urdu commentary of the Quran. So, asked Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din:
“Who would pay any attention to an English or Urdu translation by you?”
Maulana Muhammad Ali mentioned this to Maulana Nur-ud-Din, who replied:
“Let them do whatever they are doing. You do your work. Recognition is ordained by God. Whichever translation is accepted by God, that is the one which will attain renown in the world. During the time of Imam Malik, sixty collections of Hadith called Muwatta were compiled, but recognition was given only to the Muwatta of Imam Malik. None of the others can be found anywhere today, and people only know of the Muwatta of Imam Muhammad after that of Imam Malik. Even the name of any other is not known.”5
Even when Maulana Nur-ud-Din fell so critically ill that speaking exhausted him, in that state of the most serious ailment, he would still receive Maulana Muhammad Ali daily to listen to his translation and notes and give advice. Speaking of those last days, many years later, Maulana Muhammad Ali said:
“It was my good fortune that I had the opportunity to learn the Quran from him even in those days when he was on his death bed. I used to read out to him notes from my English translation of the Holy Quran. He was seriously ill, but even in that state he used to be waiting for when Muhammad Ali would come. And when I came to his presence, that same critically ailing Nur-ud-Din would turn into a young man. The service of the Quran that I have done is just the result of his love for the Holy Quran.”6
The last days of the life of Maulana Nur-ud-Din were chronicled every few days in the Ahmadiyya community newspapers in the form of the latest reports of his condition and engagements on his sick bed. We reproduce below some extracts from these:7
9 February 1914 — … He said: “Ask Maulvi Muhammad Ali sahib about my knowledge of the Quran. Having worked very hard he comes with hundreds of pages and I abridge them. He sometimes says that my opinion is better than all research.” Then he said: “…Maulvi sahib has pleased me very much, I am so happy. What wonderful research he has done on Gog and Magog… He has searched through encyclopaedias.”
14 February 1914 — He is still in a critical condition… he is getting weaker by the day. He listens to Maulvi Muhammad Ali sahib’s translation of the Quran daily. … His courage and determination is very great and his love for the Quran is unequalled. He says: “It is the Quran which is the source of my soul and life.”
16 February 1914 — … When Maulvi Muhammad Ali sahib comes to read the notes of the Holy Quran to him, sometimes even before he begins Hazrat sahib [i.e., Maulana Nur-ud-Din] gives a discourse about the topic of the translation of the day and says that throughout the night he has been consulting books and thinking about it. He does not mean that he actually reads books; what he means is that he keeps running over in his mind what is written in commentaries of the Quran and books of Hadith. Sometimes he quotes from books of Hadith or the Bible, and does it perfectly accurately. He says again and again that his mind is fully healthy and it never stops working on the Quran.
18 February 1914 — While he was in a state of extreme weakness … Maulvi Muhammad Ali sahib came as usual to read out notes from the Holy Quran. … Hazrat sahib said: “It is all the grace of God. What has happened is by His grace and what will happen will be by His grace.” … Then he added: “This translation will inshallah be beneficial in Europe, Africa, America, China, Japan and Australia.”
22 February 1914 — He was very cheerful today. … When told that Maulvi Muhammad Ali sahib had come to read to him the [translation and notes of the] Quran, he said: “He is most welcome. Let him read it. Does my brain ever get tired of it?” Then he pointed towards his bed and said: “Let Maulvi Muhammad Ali sahib come near me.” Then he added: “He is very dear to me.”
An announcement dated 3 March 1914, that is, ten days before the death of Maulana Nur-ud-Din, regarding the English translation of the Quran, was published as an appendix to The Review of Religions, February 1914 issue. On the first page there is a statement by Maulana Nur-ud-Din in which he says:
“Up to today I have listened to the notes of twenty-three parts, which is more than three-quarters of the work. … Even during my illness, I have been listening to the notes and dictating as well. I have spent all my life, from childhood to old age, studying the Holy Quran and pondering over it, and Allah, the Most High, has given me the kind of understanding of His Holy Word that very few other people have. …
I hope for grace from Allah that He will not let go to waste my efforts in the service of His Word. I am also sure that those people who have a connection with me and who love me have also been granted the zeal to serve the Quran. … This translation will inshallah prove to be beneficial in Europe, Africa, America, China, Japan, Australia, etc.”
A footnote to this announcement provided an update, saying:
“By the time this announcement was printed, the footnotes of 26 parts had been completed.”
Later, when the translation was published, the following tribute was paid by Maulana Muhammad Ali in the Preface at the point where he acknowledged his sources:
“And lastly, the greatest religious leader of the present time, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, has inspired me with all that is best in this work. I have drunk deep at the fountain of knowledge which this great Reformer — Mujaddid of the present century and founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement — has made to flow. There is one more person whose name I must mention in this connection, the late Maulawi Hakim Nur-ud-Din, who in his last long illness patiently went through much the greater part of the explanatory notes and made many valuable suggestions. To him, indeed, the Muslim world owes a deep debt of gratitude as the leader of the new turn given to the exposition of the Holy Quran. He has done his work and passed away silently, but it is a fact that he spent the whole of his life in studying the Holy Quran, and must be ranked with the greatest expositors of the Holy Book.”8
- A Mighty Striving, biography of Maulana Muhammad Ali, p. 64–65. ↩
- In the Year 2002 edition, see page I-3. ↩
- A Mighty Striving, p. 66. ↩
- Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes in the Preface to his translation of the Quran in the section on ‘Translations of the Quran’: “My dear friend, the late Nawwab ‛Imad-ul-mulk Saiyid Hussain Bilgrami of Hyderabad, Deccan, translated a portion, but he did not live to complete the work” (p. xv; 1938 edition). ↩
- Article by Dr Basharat Ahmad in the Lahore Ahmadiyya Urdu organ Paigham Sulh, 15 October 1942, p. 6, col. 3. ↩
- Paigham Sulh, 28 April 1943, p. 3. ↩
- These extracts appeared in the following issues of Paigham Sulh respectively: 15 February 1914, p. 1; 17 February 1914, p. 4; 19 February 1914, p. 4; 3 November 1935, p. 2; and 15 November 1935, p. 2. ↩
- In the Year 2002 edition, see page I-11. In the first edition of his translation, Maulana Muhammad Ali has written a further sentence here about Maulana Nur-ud-Din as follows: “It is a pity that his valuable Arabic commentary has not yet been given to the world, but when that manuscript sees the light, it will reveal that he was one of the master minds” (p. xciv, in the 1917, 1920 and 1935 editions). ↩