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: Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar

For some twelve years after the first edition was published, Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English translation of the Quran remained the only such work by a Muslim in the West, and in fact the only one by a Muslim to be generally available to the public anywhere. Then in 1929 an English translation of the Quran by Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar (1873–1954) was published, having been printed at the same Unwin Brothers press in Woking. Two addresses are given on the cover page for obtaining the book, one in Singapore and the other the Woking Mosque. The second edition was published in 1973 in Pakistan by the National Book Foundation, Karachi.

The translator was of Indian origin, who, after graduating from the University of Cambridge, England, served in the Malayan Civil Service of the British colonial empire from 1896 to 1928. He was also Mufti of Penang, and served as District Judge of Singapore from 1923–1928. In the Introduction, he has reviewed at some length the “four notable translations of the Holy Quran in English”: George Sale, J.M. Rodwell, E.H. Palmer, and Maulana Muhammad Ali. His review of the Maulana’s translation begins as follows:

“Maulvi Muhammad Ali, like myself, graduated from the Government College, Lahore. For four years (1890–1894) we were in the same college, and for two of these we attended Arabic classes together. Maulvi Muhammad Ali has a very tenacious memory and a mind which is at once subtle and broad. For the last thirty-two years he has devoted himself to the study of Islam, and his writings in Urdu and English, if put together, will form a fair-sized library. The English translation of the Holy Quran is not the only book he has written, but it is the one by which he will perhaps become an immortal amongst those who have written about the Holy Quran.” (p. xxxvi)

Then he describes various features of the work. Regarding the Maulana’s Preface, he writes that it contains:

“a most elaborate and scholarly exposition on the arrangement and collection of the Holy Quran, which forms a complete answer to the criticisms of Western writers on the Quran. No lover of truth and no student of the Holy Quran can do without this authoritative and masterly essay. … Ever since this translation was published in 1917 the Preface thereof has become the vade mecum1 of Muslim students, writers, and lecturers, and there is no doubt as time goes on its value will increase.” (p. xxxvi)

As to the commentary and interpretation, Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar continues:

“The translation is supplemented by very copious notes and commentaries … A mass of learning and research has been accumulated in these notes and comments which any man might be proud of. It took Maulvi Muhammad Ali seven years to accomplish his work, but it might have taken another man twenty or thirty to do as much and that perhaps not so thoroughly. The whole is topped by an exhaustive index which is a work in itself, the thoroughness and usefulness of which can hardly be exaggerated.

The English of the Preface and the notes is unimpeachable, and Maulvi Muhammad Ali has corrected the mistakes of the previous translators in scores of passages … Let no man run away with the idea that Maulvi Muhammad Ali has introduced any new meanings into the translation of his text. If one is not hasty one will always find that Maulvi Muhammad Ali is as great an investigator as he is a scholar. I do not say that he is not novel in some of his comments, but there is no harm in that. Everyone who is honest in his interpretation of the Holy Quran has a right to express his views in his own way. … the whole book is a labour of love for which Muslims and non-Muslims alike are for ever indebted to Maulvi Muhammad Ali.

There is no other translation or commentary of the Holy Quran in the English language to compete with Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s masterpiece. For ten years past I have always carried Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s translation wherever I have been to. It has travelled with me round the globe, has been to Mecca on pilgrimage, to the London Conference of Religions of 1924, and to all other places and assemblies of men that I have been to.

It was reprinted in 1920, and both editions have had phenomenal success and popularity amongst all classes of Muslims.” (p. xxxvii)

Then Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar adds:

“There is only one thing with which I am not satisfied, and that is the construction of a great many passages in the body of the translation. The English of the Preface and the notes, as I said before, is unimpeachable, but the English in scores of passages in the body of the translation has very poor construction… And the pity of it is that it could have been easily put into proper shape. Maulvi Muhammad Ali is able to do that quite easily. But either respect for literal translation, or lack of time, or both combined, have induced him to leave a good many of his passages in a state of splendid isolation.”

He then lists a large number of examples where, he believes, Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation requires improvement and

“to be rewritten”.

He concludes as follows:

“I must repeat the caution that it is the English style of Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s translation that I wish to be corrected. I do not for a moment say that Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s understanding of the text of the Holy Quran is defective, though, of course, in that respect also, every one of us, including myself, has his limitation.” (p. xlii)

We may note here that striking a balance between being faithful to the original Arabic text and maintaining a smoothly-flowing English style is very difficult. When Maulana Muhammad Ali produced a revised edition of his translation, published in 1951, for which see later in this book, he wrote in the Preface:

“As regards the Translation itself, I have tried to make it simpler, though still adhering to the principle adopted in the first edition of being faithful to the Arabic text.”



  1. Meaning a guide that is kept constantly at hand for consultation.