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: Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation

It has been mentioned above that for some twelve years Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation, in addition to being the first, was the only one by a Muslim in publication in the West, and in fact the only such one generally available at all. Shortly after Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar’s work appeared, the well-known translation of Marmaduke Pickthall, an English Muslim convert, was first published in 1930. Both of these works provide only little in the form of commentary. In Pickthall’s biography by Anne Fremantle, Loyal Enemy, published in 1938 shortly after his death, there is reproduced his own account of the difficulties he faced in revising the draft of his translation with the help of Muslim scholars in Egypt. We give below a summary of the events as related by him.1

Pickthall describes the opposition to his work he faced from certain quarters when he arrived in Egypt. In his own words:

“I learnt that all translation of the Quran, however faithful, was held to be unlawful by a powerful section of the Ulama.”

Pickthall was told by a former Rector of Al-Azhar, who as Rector had been willing to help him in the revision work, that:

“… he had been willing to appoint a committee of the university to revise it with me, but the step had been forbidden by the King [of Egypt], who had somehow been impressed with the idea that translation of the Quran was sinful.”

He discovered that anyone working at Al-Azhar who helped him in revising his translation

“ran the risk of losing their posts through helping me, since they belonged to the Al-Azhar and His Majesty was opposed to all translation of the Quran.”

Eventually, he was introduced to a lecturer in Chemistry:

“a graduate of London University and a close student of the Quran, with whom I worked at the revision happily for some three months.”

When the news of his forthcoming translation became public, an article appeared in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram:

“…of denunciation of translation and the translation of the sacred Book from the pen of Sheykh Muhammad Shakir, a retired professor of Al-Azhar, who (as I learnt) had been leader of the hue-and-cry against Muhammad Ali’s translation. The translator and all who read his translation, or abetted it, or showed approval of it, were condemned to everlasting perdition according to the learned writer; and I was solemnly advised to give up my nefarious work…”

Regarding this “hue-and-cry” against Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation that had taken place a few years earlier, Pickthall notes the following strange contradiction:

“I have already mentioned how a former translation of the Quran by a Muslim [i.e., Maulana Muhammad Ali] was publicly burnt and further copies of it were forbidden to be brought into Egypt. Walking in one of the most crowded streets of Cairo, I saw two English translations by non-Muslims very prominently displayed in the window of a Euro­pean bookshop, one of them having on its paper jacket a picture representing our Prophet and the angel Gabriel! Where, I asked myself, can be the sense in burning and banning a well-intentioned reverent work while these irreverent translations can, under the Capitulations,2 enter freely?”

It can be seen that early translators of the Quran faced stern opposition from orthodox quarters who held that it is forbidden in Islam to translate the Word of God, the Quran. The opposition which Maulana Muhammad Ali had to face on this account was much greater than what Pickthall encountered twelve or thirteen years later. Pickthall writes that before going to Egypt:

“I had heard that a former English translation by a Muslim had been publicly burnt in the courtyard of the Mosque Al-Azhar, and was forbidden entry into Egypt; but had supposed that it was because it was considered to have some flavour of heresy.”

The reference here is to Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation. Now in Egypt Pickthall discovered that it had been proscribed, not because it was considered heretical, i.e., because of being an Ahmadiyya translation, but because a group of powerful Ulama regarded any translation of the Quran to be forbidden in Islam. This shows that the early efforts of the Lahore Ahmadiyya under Maulana Muhammad Ali to produce translations of the Quran, and propagate these widely, led the way in breaking the taboo in the Muslim world that the Quran should not be translated into a non-Arabic language. With that bar removed, we see a hundred years later that there are scores of translations of the Quran by Muslims all over the world, there being more than thirty such publications so far in English alone.

Reverting to Pickthall’s story of his trials and tribulations in Egypt, in response to the denunciation by Sheykh Muhammad Shakir of translating the Quran, some other scholars of Egypt wrote in Al-Ahram supporting the view that the Quran may be translated. Pickthall himself also had a letter published in it raising the question whether it is lawful for an educated English Muslim

“to try to expound the glorious Quran to his people in their own language at the present day.”

As a result of all these reactions, Sheykh Muhammad Shakir retracted his original standpoint and admitted that to translate the Quran

“might be not only lawful but meritorious.”

The changing of the minds of those who opposed translating the Quran is described by Pickthall as emerging “from the cell erected by the schoolmen of the middle ages of Islam, in which we had been talking until then.” After his translation was published in December 1930, Al-Azhar decided to conduct an examination of it by having it “translated word for word back into Arabic.” Pickthall writes:

“It was certainly a great advance beyond the method of condemning without trial pursued in the case of Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s English version…”

Regrettably, this time the Rector of Al-Azhar declared Pickthall’s translation on literary grounds to be

“unfit to be authorized in Egypt”.

Nonetheless Pickthall calls even this as

“something hope­ful”


“…the position that all translation of the Quran is sinful has been quite abandoned. A translation of the Quran by a Muslim has been examined and a literary reason has been given for its condemnation. That is a great step forward.”



  1. Loyal Enemy by Anne Fremantle, Hutchinson and Co., London, 1938, pages 408–419.
  2. The term “Capitulations” refers to the trading and commercial rights given by the Ottomon rulers in their territories to European Christian countries.