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

Compiled by Dr. Zahid Aziz

Chapter 3: Later Translations: Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation

This extremely well-known and popular work was first published from 1934 onwards, appearing initially in individual parts (paras). Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953) mentions in the Preface, dated 4th April 1934, his plan

“to issue each Sipara as it is ready, at intervals of not more than three months”

and his hope

“to accelerate the pace”

as the work proceeds. The complete work in one volume seems to have been first published in 1938. In this edition, the Preface of 1934 is now called ‘Preface to the First Edition’. It is followed by a brief ‘Preface to the Third Edition (1938)’, which makes reference to his Preface of 1934, but there is no mention of any second edition.

In the introduction of his translation, Abdullah Yusuf Ali has briefly reviewed existing translations of the Quran in various languages. Coming to English translations, in his paragraph referring to translations by Muslims he writes:

“The Ahmadiyya Sect has also been active in the field. … Its Lahore Anjuman has published Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s translation (first edition in 1917), which has passed through more than one edition. It is a scholarly work, and is equipped with adequate explanatory matter in the notes and the Preface, and a fairly full Index. But the English of the Text is decidedly weak, and is not likely to appeal to those who know no Arabic.” (p. xv, 1938 edition)

To explain the description “decidedly weak”, we may refer to Yusuf Ali’s explanation of his approach to the work of translation. He writes:

“What I wish to present to you is an English Interpretation, side by side with the Arabic text. The English shall be, not a mere substitution of one word for another, but the best expression I can give to the fullest meaning which I can understand from the Arabic text.” (p. iv, 1938 edition)

He has, therefore, given himself much more latitude in the style of language than Maulana Muhammad Ali who constrained himself by the following principle:

“I have tried to be more faithful to the Arabic Text than all existing English translations” (p. I-10).

Yusuf Ali has here used the word “Ahmadiyya Sect”. In some editions of his translation published long after his death, a footnote has been added at this point by the editors of the new edition which is as follows:

“The Muslim Ummah is agreed that since Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadiyan claimed to be a prophet and messenger of Allah, all those who consider him their religious leader are outside the fold of Islam.”

Of course, this was not the view of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, as in his paragraph reviewing the translations by Muslims, he has included the work of the Ahmadiyya Movement, calling it a “sect”.

It may also be added here that currently-available editions of his translation with commentary, as their editors themselves tell us, are revised versions in which his translation and footnotes have been modified in accordance with the views of the sponsors. His preface has also been omitted. In the book A Biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali — A Life Forlorn, the author K.K. Aziz has devoted ten pages to what he calls

“the unconcealed tampering with his translation and commentary of the Quran”.1

He writes that

“the real tampering had begun in 1983”

with the publication of an edition by the Amana Corporation of USA. Subsequent editions published by Amana stated that they contained a

“revised translation and commentary”.

An edition was also published by authority of the King­dom of Saudi Arabia. The publisher’s preface (signed as The Pre­si­dency of Islamic Researches, IFTA, Call and Guidance) states that they wanted to choose a translation

“as a base for further work as well as source of reference, with the objective of revising its contents and correcting any faults in view of the objections raised against it”,

and they selected Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation for this purpose. K.K. Aziz describes this as

“tampering amounting to vandalism and intellectual dishonesty”.2

Yusuf Ali knew well the leading figures of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. In England, he attended functions organised by the Woking Muslim Mission, and delivered speeches at some of them, and was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Woking Mosque.3 Articles by him can be read in the Woking Mission’s magazine the Islamic Review over a long period of years, and he also appears in one or two group photos published in this magazine. He was in Lahore during 1934–37 to finalise his translation, and during this period he was appointed Principal of Islamia College, Lahore.4 This famous college, established by the Anjuman Himayat-i Islam, is just across the road (Brandreth Road) from Ahmadiyya Buildings, the centre of the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Lahore from 1914 to the 1970s. Thus Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s place of employment, when he was completing his translation of the Quran, was close to where Maulana Muhammad Ali worked, and also resided at the time. Some senior members of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Anjuman have reported that Abdullah Yusuf Ali used to send his translation of verses of the Quran to Maulana Muhammad Ali to seek his advice on whether his translation was sufficiently close to the original Ara­bic text of the Quran.5

Be that as it may, it is known that on the issue of whether the Quran says that Jesus died a natural, honourable death, which is the Ahmadiyya view, or he was elevated bodily to heaven by God, without dying while still alive, which is the widely-held orthodox view, Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s initial published translation upheld the Ahmadiyya view. Maulana Muhammad Ali, in his 1951 revised edi­tion of the translation of the Quran, writes in a footnote on the words, as translated by him,

“When Allah said: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die” (3:55),

as follows:

“Yusuf Ali, in his first edition, translated the words as meaning I will cause thee to die, but in the second edition he changed it to I will take thee.”


“his first edition”,

Maulana Muhammad Ali means those parts that were published individually before the entire work came out in one volume in 1938. It is also known that Yusuf Ali’s brief footnote 394 to these words of 3:55 ended as follows:

“But Jesus completed his life and was when he died taken up to God.”

But in the one-volume work this was altered to:

“but Jesus was eventually taken up to God.”6

Interestingly however, a comment by Yusuf Ali still remained which indicates the interpretation that Jesus has died. Translating the statement of Jesus in 19:33 as follows:

“So Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)”

Yusuf Ali writes in his footnote 2485:

“Christ was not crucified (iv. 157). But those who believe that he never died should ponder over this verse.”



  1. A Biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali — A Life Forlorn, by K. K. Aziz, Lahore, 2010, pages 70–80.
  2. In the publisher’s preface to this official Saudi edition of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation, it is stated that the other option the publishers had, instead of adopting an existing translation, was to “prepare a fresh and independent translation, starting from scratch”, but this option “demanded much time and effort, neither of which were available at the time” (p. vi). What the Saudi authorities with their massive resources of scholars, manpower and money could not procure, individual translators were able to provide! Maulana Muhammad Ali worked largely single-handedly, with the assistance of a handful of helpers and a small organization, to translate the Quran from scratch, while he was also engaged in many other works of the Movement.
  3. See his obituary in the Islamic Review, February 1954, p. 35–36.
  4. A Biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali — A Life Forlorn, pages 42–54.
  5. Such a report is found in an article Maulana Muhammad Ali — His influence on contemporary and later Muslim scholars by Choudhry Masud Akhtar, prolific Lahore Ahmadiyya writer and translator, and the report is attributed to Mirza Masud Baig, an eminent officer in the government department of education, who also worked in various administrative and scholarly capacities in the Lahore Ahmadiyya Anjuman from the 1930s till his death in 1983.
  6. This alteration is noted in Jesus in Heaven on Earth by Khwaja Nazir Ahmad, original 1952 edition, p. 228, footnote 2; in the 1998 USA edition this is in Appendix 4, p. 471.