Centenary of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English Translation of the Quran (Background, History and Influence on Later Translations)

Compiled by Dr. Zahid Aziz

Chapter 2: Publication and Reviews: Authorities, sources and principles of interpretation

It is important to mention the authorities and sources used by Maulana Muhammad Ali in producing his translation and commentary, and the principles he followed in his interpretation. In his Preface he has listed the names of those classical commentaries of whom he

“made the greatest use”

and the lexicons and other standard works that he consulted, followed by an explanation of his principles of interpretation.1 We may here quote him on those principles:

“The principle of the greatest importance to which I have adhered in interpreting the Holy Quran is that no word of the Holy Book should be interpreted in such a manner as to contradict the plainer teachings of the Holy Quran, a principle to which the Holy Word has itself called the attention of its reader in 3:7; see 3:7a.2 This rule forms the basis of my interpretation of the Quran, and this is a very sound basis, if we remember that the Holy Quran contains metaphors, parables, and allegories side by side with plain teachings.

The Practice (Sunnah) and Sayings of the Holy Prophet, when contained in reliable reports, are the best commentary of the Holy Word, and I have therefore attached the greatest importance to them. Earlier authorities have also been respected, but reports and comments contradicting the Quran itself cannot but be rejected.

I have also kept before me the rule that the meaning to be adopted in any case should be that which suits the context best, and the only other limitation to which I have subjected myself is that the use of that word in that sense is allowed by the lexicons or by Arabic literature. Existing translations have rendered me great help, but I have adopted an interpretation only after fully satisfying myself and having recourse to original authorities.

Many of the stories generally accepted by the commentators find no place in my commentary, except in cases where there is either sufficient historical evidence or the corroborative testimony of some reliable Saying of the Holy Pro­phet. Many of these stories were, I believe, incorporated into Islamic literature by the flow of converts from Judaism and Christianity into Islam.

I must add that the present tendency of Muslim theologians to regard the commentaries of the Middle Ages as the final word on the interpretation of the Holy Quran is very injurious and practically shuts out the great treasures of know­ledge which an exposition of the Holy Book in the new light reveals. A study of the old commentators, to ignore whose great labour would indeed be a sin, also shows how freely they commented upon the Holy Book. The great service which they have done to the cause of Truth would indeed have been lost to the world if they had looked upon their predecessors as uttering the final word on the exposition of the Holy Quran, as most theologians do today.”



  1. In the 1917 edition, and its two reprints, this was on pages xciv–xcv of the Preface. The revised 1951 edition, and its later reprints and editions, contain a ‘Preface to the Revised Edition’, within which Maulana Muhammad Ali has quoted a part of the 1917 preface, including this section on authorities and principles. See pages I-11 and I-12 of the year 2002 edition. In quoting it here, we have divided it into paragraphs for ease of reading.
  2. This is the footnote number in the year 2002 edition, in substitution for the footnote number given by the Maulana originally.