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: Comparison of translations in ‘The Moslem World’

The Moslem World was a quarterly founded by a zealous American Christian missionary, Samuel Zwemer, who edited it from 1911 to 1947. His goal and ambition was to convert Muslims to Christianity by refuting the religion of Islam and establishing the truth of the doctrines of the Church. An article appeared in the July 1931 issue entitled Can a Moslem translate the Koran? by W.G. Shellabear. The author was a Christian missionary to Malaya (modern Malaysia) who translated the Bible into the Malay language.1 It is stated near the beginning that the paper proposes to deal with Pickthall’s translation in view of his claim in the Foreword that

“no Holy Scripture can be fairly represented by one who disbelieves its inspiration and its message”.

The article sets out to:

“compare three English translations of the Koran made by men who professed Christianity as their religion with three other translations made by those who believe the doctrines of Islam…” (p. 288)

The three Christian translations are by Sale, Rodwell and Palmer, and the Muslim translations are by Maulana Muhammad Ali, Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar and Marmaduke Pickthall. According to the author, a review of Pickthall’s translation in the Egyptian Gazette, in its issue of 1 January (1931), had stated that

“some years ago he had joined the Indian Ahmadiyya Sect”.

Upon this, Pickthall had written to the editor of the Egyptian Gazette strongly denying that he ever joined the Ahmadiyya sect or entertained the desire to do so. Shellabear adds here:

“It appears however from the reply of the reviewer that even though Mr. Pickthall disclaims joining that sect, he has been so closely identified with Ahmadiyya students that they have come to look upon him as ‘one of us’. Moreover, a care­ful comparison of Mr. Pickthall’s translation with that of the Ahmadiyya translator, Maulvi Muhammad Ali, shows conclusively that Mr. Pickthall’s work is not very much more than a revision of the Ahmadiyya version, with the most glaring peculiarities of the Ahmadiyya doctrines carefully removed, in order that the new version may represent, as we have already quoted above [from Pickthall], ‘what Muslims the world over hold to be the meaning of the words of the Koran’.” (p. 289–290)

Taking as a sample, 40 verses in the 2nd chapter of the Quran, 60 verses in the 3rd chapter, 40 verses in the 19th chapter, and the last 15 chapters in their entirety, Shellabear compared Pickthall’s translation with those of Sale, Rodwell and Maulana Muhammad Ali, and concluded:

“From this careful investigation we have come to the conclusion that Mr. Pickthall’s translation, in all that part of his work which we have examined, resembles very closely the version of Muhammad Ali…” (p. 290)

“Now if we compare the above passage (3:57–63) with the versions of S, R and P, [i.e., Sale, Rodwell and Palmer] we shall see that Mr. Pickthall is very much nearer to MA [Muhammad Ali] than he is to any of the three previous translations, so that one gets the impression that although he may have taken a word here and there from S, R and P, yet he has not followed them so closely as he obviously has followed MA.” (p. 292)

“The dependence of Mr. Pickthall upon the work of MA is also indicated in an occasional footnote, and those who will compare these footnotes with the notes in the 1920 edition of MA, which contains his commentary, will find that throughout chapter 2 almost every footnote is based on the Ahmadiyya commentary.” (p. 292)

“We think it will now be evident to the reader how much Mr. Pickthall is indebted to the version of Maulvi Muhammad Ali, not only for his footnotes, but also for the translation itself.” (p. 293)

“In the passages which we have examined carefully, namely the verses at the beginning of the second, third and nineteenth suras, and the last fifteen, the translation of Pickthall follows MA so closely that one finds very few evidences of original work” (p. 297).

This article concludes as follows:

“Unfortunately Mr. Pickthall appears to have completely ignored all the results of European scholarship in the investigations that have been made as to the meaning of the text of the Koran. One cannot read far in the translation of Maulvi Muhammad Ali or in his Notes without being convinced that before he began his work on the Koran he was already widely read in the Arabic Authorities listed on page cxii, to which frequent reference is made in his Notes; also his quotations from Lane’s Lexicon indicate that he was not altogether oblivious to the results of European scholarship.” (p. 303)

Maulana Muhammad Ali, in the Preface to his later, 1951 revised edition of the English translation of the Quran with commentary, has quoted most of the above passages from this review to show how later translators had benefitted from his 1917 edition.



  1. The Moslem World, v. 21, issue 3, July 1931, p. 287–303.