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: Completion and publication of the English Translation of the Holy Quran
At Lahore, Maulana Muhammad Ali was now Head of an organization which started in a state of the utmost destitution, having no office, no funds and no staff. In these difficult conditions, and with many other important, indispensable matters that required his attention, Maulana Muhammad Ali continued to work on the completion and publication of his English translation of the Holy Quran. The last four parts, out of the thirty parts of the Quran, remained to be completed, and then there was revision of the manuscript, getting it typed, writing the introduction, and some other aspects of the work still to be done. Consequently, he buried himself in this work day and night.
Another urgency was due to the fact that, in 1912, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, a prominent figure in the Ahmadiyya Movement, had gone to England, and had founded a Muslim Mission at the Mosque in Woking, Surrey. He was presenting the message of Islam to the British people by lectures, correspondence, meetings and articles published in his monthly magazine the Islamic Review, launched in February 1913. He was sending reports to Lahore stressing that the English translation of the Holy Quran should be completed as soon as possible because there was an urgent demand for it among converts to Islam as well as Christians and there was no translation available to present the true picture of Islam. In a report of his activities published in May 1914, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, referring to a convert to Islam, one Viscount de Potier, wrote:
“The Viscount has asked me to send him a translation of the Quran. I was compelled to send him Rodwell’s translation. … it is better than the other translations in use. Muslims must learn a lesson from this, and realise how desperately it is required to publish our own translation. Every new Muslim and enquirer has asked me for a translation of the Quran. What can I do except give them Rodwell?”1
At last, after a labour of about seven years, in April 1916 Maulana Muhammad Ali completed work on the English translation and commentary of the Holy Quran. In his Friday sermon on 28 April he gave the good news to the Lahore Ahmadiyya community:
“Today is a day of happiness for me. For years, I have been busy in the work of translating the Holy Quran into English. By the grace of Allah I have completed it today. I am not happy like a student who, at the end of his examination, feels that now he will have free time and can rest for a few days. I am happy because all the time that I was involved in this work I was worried that life is so fickle and it may be that this work would be left incomplete. Of course, Allah is not short of men and it was His work which would have been completed somehow; if He has given strength to a weak person like me to start this work, there is no reason why He could not get it done by someone else. But it gives great pleasure to a person to complete by his own hand in his own life the work that he had started.…
This work is now before you. All of it has been sent to the press. I have received proofs of eight parts (up to this time proofs of 19 parts have arrived — Editor). We need very soon to think about the printing expenses. This is not our only work; there are many others that you have to do. Complete this first. It is a service to Islam; rather, it is purely a service to the Quran. So, be concerned about it and prepare resources for it. May Allah grant this to be done. Ameen.”2
It was decided to have it printed in England because the printing machines that were required for the high quality, fine paper, to be used to produce it in one volume, were not available in India. At that time Maulana Sadr-ud-Din (d. 1981), who later succeeded Maulana Muhammad Ali as Head of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Anjuman in 1951, was Imam of the Mosque at Woking, and he was entrusted with the arrangements for its printing, a task which he accomplished extremely well.
Maulana Muhammad Ali spent the whole of the year 1916 preparing the index and the preface and introduction, and at the same time going through the first proofs which came from England. These proofs were initially read by Maulana Sadr-ud-Din in England, and then read and corrected by Maulana Muhammad Ali in his own hand in Lahore. After that stage, the reading of the second proofs, the correction of the Arabic text, and all the other tasks in connection with the printing were done by Maulana Sadr-ud-Din.
In the Islamic Review, the monthly magazine of the Woking Muslim Mission, the following progress report was published in the issue for June 1916 on the first page:
“As was expected, the announcement of the publication of an English translation of the Holy Quran, with elaborate notes and the Arabic text, aroused world-wide interest, and we have been doing our best to hurry the publication. But unavoidable circumstances have delayed it, for which the gigantic war is greatly responsible. In fact, if we had not already announced the publication, and if we had not found that there is general impatience to read the translation, we would have postponed the publication till the end of the war. Prices of all the materials required for printing that voluminous Book have gone up. We found it sometimes difficult even to get the material wanted. Delays have been caused in post, and so forth. Then we found that the bulk of the Book would be much more than we had first thought; so it was considered necessary to use India paper, the most expensive thin paper, and to enlarge the size of the book in order to reduce the bulk and make it handy. The pages will now run to about thirteen hundred. The English portion is almost finished, and would have reached the hands of the public if the Arabic text had not been considered necessary to go with the translation of the uncorrupted and uncorruptible Last Testament — the final Gospel.
Because of this war it was found not practicable to use type for the Arabic text. So now an expert copyist in India has been engaged to write out the text on the English pages sent from here. That writing is sent back to our engravers, who photograph it and obtain zincos thereof. Then the printing of the text is done in the space left for that purpose in the English translation. As is obvious, this makes the process very elaborate, and has increased the price of the work; but because the calligraphy of the text will be very handsome, those readers who know Arabic will be much pleased with Arabic writing all done by hand. The Book, besides its precious and holy contents, will form an ornament to any library, and will be a unique work of its description. In the next number of the REVIEW we shall be able to give the specimen pages, which will be exactly as in the Book when ready. The price of the Book cannot now be lower than One Pound, which, considering the increased expenses and the expensive material used, will be nothing. We have no doubt that when the compilation reaches the hands of the public they will fully appreciate the labour of love done over it by our esteemed brother Maulvi Muhammad Ali, M.A., LL.B.”
The following year this much-awaited book was out of the press by September. In the Islamic Review, September 1917 (p. 393), its announcement appeared under the heading:
The First English Translation and commentary of the Holy Quran by a Muslim Theologian
It ran as follows:
“THE Maulvi Muhammad Ali, M.A., LL.B., has prepared, after a labour of about nine years, an English translation, with necessary notes and commentary, of the Holy Quran, which has been printed in England and has just come out after unavoidable delays caused by the war. Each copy contains about 1,400 pages, and includes a comprehensive preface showing the special features of Islam as preached in the Holy Book, and an exhaustive discussion of the authenticity of the Holy Book, its original purity and incorruptibility, in which the Maulvi definitely proves that the Holy Book as it stands today is exactly as it was arranged by the Holy Prophet Muhammad himself. Elaborate indexes are also given. The whole cost has come up to £1,500. The price of a leather-bound, gilt-edged copy on good India paper is 20s., to be had of the ISLAMIC REVIEW Office, The Mosque, Woking, Surrey.
Although it has increased the expense greatly, it was thought very necessary that the original text in Arabic, written by expert calligraphists in India, should also accompany the translation of each verse, as can be seen on the sample pages.
The translation is very faithful. The notes and commentary are fully comprehensive and explanatory, and every objection of Western critics has been met and answered. The mistakes of European translators and commentators have been corrected on the authority of old commentators as well as expert Arabic scholars. The relation of one chapter to the other and the connected context of the verses of each chapter have been fully established. An abstract of both chapters and sections is also given.
To those who know the learned translator his very name would be a guarantee to them that the translation is scholarly, and the commentary is based on the authentic traditions of the Great Prophet as interpreted by the authentic Muslim savants. For the benefit of strangers the selection of the sample pages has been such as to give out the characteristics of the translation of the whole, so that the reader of these pages should be able to form some idea of the nature of the whole volume.
It would but be superfluous to dilate upon the need of an English translation by a person who has not only a command over the English language but also over the original (i.e. Arabic) text of a book which holds the most unique position in the world of literature.”
The price of the book, in top quality and leather bound, is given above as 20 shillings, which is £1 (one UK Pound). We can get an idea of what £1 would be in the year 1917 by noticing that the price of the above issue of the Islamic Review was 7 old pence. This means that the price of the book is about 35 times the price of one issue of this magazine (as £1 consisted of 240 old pence).
In the same issue of the Islamic Review, sixteen consecutive pages from this translation are reproduced in facsimile form, starting at the beginning of chapter 1 of the Quran.