Chapter 2: Publication and Reviews: Muhammad Ali Jauhar
Centenary of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English Translation of the Quran (Background, History and Influence on Later Translations)
Compiled by Dr. Zahid Aziz
One of the most famous Muslim nationalist leaders in India before independence was Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar (d. 1931), who was also founder of an English and an Urdu newspaper (entitled The Comrade and Hamdard, respectively). In his autobiography, he writes as follows about his impressions of this translation:
“It was about this time [December 1918] that a kind friend sent to us a gift than which nothing could be more acceptable, a copy of the Quran for my brother [Shaukat Ali] and one for myself … with an austerely faithful translation in English and copious footnotes based on a close study of commentaries of the Quran and of such Biblical literature as could throw light upon the latest Holy Writ. This was the work of my learned namesake, Maulvi Muhammad Ali of Lahore, leader of a fairly numerous religious community, some of whose members were doing missionary work in England. … The translation and the notes which supplied the antidote so greatly needed for the poison squirted in the footnotes of English translators of the Quran like Sale, Rodwell and Palmer, the fine printing, both English and Arabic, the India paper and the exquisite binding in green limp Morocco with characteristic Oriental Tughra or ornamental calligraphy in gold, all demonstrated the labour of love and devoted zeal that so many willing workers had obviously contributed. This beautiful book acted like the maddening music of the Sarod, according to the Persian proverb, on the mentally deranged, and in the frame of mind in which I then was I wrote back to my friend who had sent these copies of the Quran that nothing would please me better than to go to Europe as soon as I could get out of the ‘bounds’ prescribed by my internment and preach to these war maniacs from every park and at every street corner, if not within the dubious precincts of every public house, about a faith that was meant to silence all this clamour of warring nations in the one unifying peace of Islam.”1
He also wrote a letter in February 1918 to the sender of the gift, Dr Mirza Yaqub Beg, who was a leading Lahore Ahmadiyya figure. This letter, published in the Islamic Review, begins as follows:
“I have to commence this letter with profuse apologies for being so late in acknowledging your most precious gifts on Shaukat’s behalf and my own. Need I assure you that you could not have sent to us anything more acceptable than the beautiful copies of the Holy Quran rendered into English by my learned and revered namesake, Maulana Mohammad Ali Saheb. I had read the specimen pages in the ISLAMIC REVIEW, that welcome reminder of our dear brave Khwaja’s mission in Europe, and I was anxiously awaiting the announcement that copies could be had in India, or even in England.”
He writes later:
“I feel I must express the opinion formed from an examination of the outward form of the publication, the beautiful printing, the excellent India paper, and the sumptuous limp green Morocco binding, and the several exquisite tughras, all indicating the love and affection that those who undertook this great task feel for the greatest Book of all ages and climes. … I have the greatest possible love and affection for the Great Book, and so naturally I examined this edition with critical and jealous eyes. You will therefore be glad to know that I am amply satisfied! This is no empty compliment…
As for the contents, I have gone through the Preface, and here and there through some introductory notes prefacing the various chapters and footnotes, and have, of course, glanced through the sectional headings and the index, and greatly admire the general arrangement. As for the English rendering, I am impressed so far as I have read with the simplicity and precision and the adherence to the text which indicate the reverence due to God’s own Word from a true believer. I am a slow reader of things of such tremendous import, and it will take me some time yet to go carefully through the whole Book. But I do not pretend to be a scholar of Arabic, or a theologian, and whatever opinion I shall express hereafter will also be the opinion of a layman, and you must accept it for what it is worth. But the great thing is that the great task has been accomplished, and there now exists in at least one European language a rendering of the holy Quran done by a true believer and not by a scoffer, by one who believes every word of the Book to be God’s own, every word to be true and full of light, every word consistent with what has gone before and comes after, every word capable of easy interpretation, and not a rendering done by one whose sole object is to present the Holy Book to Europe as a concoction of an ignorant rhapsodist masquerading as a prophet, and exposing a voluptuary’s character and tendencies and an adventurer’s opportunism. The difference is apparent on every page, and Europe will not, I hope, be slow to see it.”
He ends as follows:
“Well, I must now take leave of you. If you see Maulvi Mohammad Ali thank him for me as a Moslem who feels proud of his devoted and fruitful labours, and shares with him the privilege of at least the most beloved of names in the entire world.
If you write to my stalwart Khwaja sen him my kisses for his shaggy old beard. My best salams to you and also Shaukat’s.
Yours very sincerely and gratefully,
P.S. By the way, offer a suggestion from me to Maulvi M.A. In the next volume let him also include a short history of the Prophet and of Islam in the early days, arranged purely from the verses of the Quran, and also a summary of the various Qasas as told in the Quran, and a geographical Note.”2