Chapter 3: Later Translations: Muhammad Asad and his ‘Message of the Quran’
Centenary of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English Translation of the Quran (Background, History and Influence on Later Translations)
Compiled by Dr. Zahid Aziz
The Message of the Quran by Muhammad Asad is a very well-known translation and commentary of the Quran. A convert to Islam of Austrian origin, Asad (d. 1992) lived in India and Pakistan for a number of years around the time of independence and frequently called upon Maulana Muhammad Ali in Lahore. While Asad’s complete edition was first published in 1980, one volume had been published earlier in 1964 consisting of the first nine chapters of the Quran. The name of the publisher on the title page is: Muslim World League, Mecca (known in Arabic as Rabita al-‛Alam al-Islami). Inside the volume, Asad begins as follows:
“I wish to express my deep gratitude to the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League … Shaykh Muhammad Sarur as-Sabban, whose moral and material support, so generously and selflessly accorded to me … has enabled me to accomplish my task in peace and freedom; to the Council of the Muslim World League, Mecca, who have honoured me by their sponsorship of this publication…”
It was only after its publication that it occurred to the sponsors to go through the views which Asad had expressed in his commentary. Upon examining it, they withdrew their support of his work. The following is stated in an obituary of Asad published in the British Muslim magazine Impact International:
“The League had lent its name as a sponsor and had bought several thousand copies for distribution all over the world. Members of the League’s Constituent Council, which included some very distinguished and independent Islamic scholars from the Muslim world … assumed that the League had satisfied itself that the rendering was faithful and its explanations within the range of general consensus since it had been sponsored by a responsible Islamic body… ‘No they had not’, explained the secretary general. A committee of scholars appointed to review the work found it was too controversial to be distributed on behalf of the Muslim World League.”1
As the article says, some of his interpretations were controversial, and this was because:
“Asad had been greatly influenced by the liberal apologetics of the late 19th and early 20th century Muslim scholars, specially Shaikh Muhammad Abduhu and his disciple, Rashid Rida, who sought to find a version that they thought would be more easily acceptable to the so called western mind.”
The obituary gives the following examples of matters on which Asad took a “rationalistic view” unacceptable to his sponsors:
“…miracles, the historicity of Abraham (sws) passing the test of fire, the nightly journey and ascension of heaven by Muhammad (sws), the recalling of Jesus (sws) alive into Heaven, or even the Heaven (Jannah) itself etc.”
And it adds that:
“Asad is not alone in taking such a ‘rationalistic’ view while reading the Qur’ān. What he seems to have done is to put together a number of individual ‘rationalizations’ under one cover.”
Asad went on to complete his translation and commentary and the full work was published in 1980. He made no alteration to the interpretations published in the earlier first volume, to which such serious exception had been taken by the Muslim World League.
In a letter to a journal published in its issue for October 1981, Asad mentioned this episode. This was the second issue of a new journal called Arabia: The Islamic World Review, in which an article about his life and work had appeared in the first issue, and Asad wrote this letter clarifying and commenting upon that article. He presents three examples of those of his interpretations to which
“several, although by no means all, of the then members of Rabita’s council took exception … and condemned the whole work out of hand.”
He then explains his reasons for those interpretations. In those three examples, and on the issues mentioned in the obituary quoted above, and on certain other questions, where Asad has differed from the traditional views held by the majority of Muslims, his interpretations are very close to those expressed by Maulana Muhammad Ali, and in fact often they are identical.
We give below a list of such points of agreement, taking first the three examples in Asad’s letter.2
1. Death of Jesus:
Asad writes in his letter:
“Other persons, again, objected vehemently to my contention (expressed in my commentary) that nowhere in the Quran is to be found a statement to the effect that God raised Jesus bodily to heaven.… In my note 172 on verse 158 of An-Nisa (pp. 134–135) I gave my reasons for the interpretation adopted by me.”
If we refer to that note, Asad had written in it:
“Compare 3:55, where God says to Jesus, “Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me.” The verb rafa‛a hu (lit., “he raised him” or “elevated him”) has always, whenever the act of raf‛ (“elevating”) of a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of “honouring” or “exalting”. Nowhere in the Quran is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven.”
Maulana Muhammad Ali translated these opening words of 3:55 as:
“When Allah said: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence”.
Asad has translated them in exactly the same way. (See here for our earlier discussion in connection with Abdullah Yusuf Ali). In explanation of “exalting”, the Maulana writes under 3:55 in his second footnote:
“Raf‛ signifies raising or elevating, and also exalting or making honourable. But where the raf‛ of a man to Allah is spoken of in the Quran … it is always in the latter sense, for raising a man in his body to Himself implies that the Divine Being is limited to a place.”3
Compare this with Asad’s note quoted above and it will be seen that he wrote exactly the same.
Asad writes in his letter:
“Still another member of the Rabita objected to my statement that Islam does not permit concubinage.”
In his commentary Asad had written under 4:25 in note 32:
“This passage lays down in an unequivocal manner that sexual relations with female slaves are permitted only on the basis of marriage; … consequently, concubinage is ruled out.”
Compare this with Maulana Muhammad Ali’s note on 4:25:
“This verse lays down the conditions under which those taken prisoners in war may be taken in marriage. I do not find any verse in the Holy Quran or any instance in the Prophet’s life, sanctioning what is called concubinage.”
Asad says in his letter that he has been accused of denying the existence of angels because in his explanation of 3:124–125 relating to angels being sent to aid the believers in battle (note 93 under 3:125) he wrote that this:
“signifies, metaphorically, a strengthening of the believers’ hearts through spiritual forces coming from God”.
Maulana Muhammad Ali had written as follows:
“What was the object of the coming of the angels? … to strengthen the Muslims by improving their position in the field of battle and by strengthening their hearts. … The believers thus being strengthened … the object of sending the angels was achieved…”4
“It is nowhere stated in the Holy Quran that the angels actually fought … as a result of the coming of the angels, calm fell upon the Muslims, their hearts being strengthened…”5
The obituary of Asad, from which we quoted above, also mentioned as examples his interpretation of miracles, Abraham being cast into the fire, and the night journey and ascension to heaven (isra and mi‛raj) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.
On miracles in general, Asad writes under 6:109 in note 94:
“Thus, what is commonly described as a “miracle” constitutes, in fact, an unusual message from God, indicating —sometimes in a symbolic manner — a spiritual truth which would otherwise have remained hidden from man’s intellect. But even such extraordinary, “miraculous” messages cannot be regarded as “supernatural”: for the so-called “laws of nature” are only a perceptible manifestation of “God’s way” (sunnat Allah) in respect of His creation — and, consequently, everything that exists and happens, or could conceivably exist or happen, is “natural” in the innermost sense of this word, irrespective of whether it conforms to the ordinary course of events or goes beyond it.”
This is exactly the same as the Ahmadiyya view, propounded by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, that a miracle takes place within the laws of God, even though it may appear to infringe the laws of nature as known to man in his imperfect knowledge.
In connection with the miracle granted to Moses, of his rod turning into a serpent, Asad writes that this has a
while Maulana Muhammad Ali writes in the same place:
“What was shown to Moses on this occasion had a deeper significance beneath under it”.6
As to Abraham, Asad writes under 21:69 in his footnote 64:
“Nowhere does the Quran state that Abraham was actually, bodily thrown into the fire and miraculously kept alive in it… On the other hand, the many elaborate (and conflicting) stories with which the classical commentators have embroidered their interpretation of the above verse can invariably be traced back to Talmudic legends and may, therefore, be disregarded. What the Quran gives us here, as well as in 29:24 and 37:97, is apparently an allegorical allusion to the fire of persecution which Abraham had to suffer.”
Maulana Muhammad Ali wrote:
“The fire was turned into coolness and peace for Abraham. There are many stories related in the commentaries as to the size of this fire and the time Abraham remained therein. Reliable commentators, however, do not accept them as they are baseless.… The Holy Quran does not state anywhere that Abraham was actually cast into a fire.… According to 29:24, Allah delivered him from the fire, … Verse 71 [ch. 21] states that the delivery was brought about by means of a journey to another land.”7
“As in 21:69, so here, it is not stated that Abraham was actually cast into the fire. On the other hand, the plan was either to slay or to burn him, and therefore the fire may only stand for the opposition which these plans involved.”8
As to the night journey and ascension of the Holy Prophet, Asad explains his conclusions in detail in Appendix IV added to his commentary. We quote from it below:
“The most convincing argument in favour of a spiritual interpretation of both the Night Journey and the Ascension is forthcoming from the highly allegorical descriptions found in the authentic Traditions relating to this double experience: descriptions, that is, which are so obviously symbolic that they preclude any possibility of interpreting them literally, in “physical” terms.…
…it is obvious that the Prophet himself regarded this prelude to the Ascension — and therefore the Ascension itself and, ipso facto, the Night Journey to Jerusalem — as purely spiritual experiences. … there is no cogent reason to believe in a “bodily” Night Journey and Ascension, …
… the fact of his having had such an experience by far transcends any miracle of bodily ascension, for it presupposes a personality of tremendous spiritual perfection — the very thing which we expect from a true Prophet of God.”
Maulana Muhammad Ali wrote on this subject:
“…the Ascension was not a translation of the body, but the spiritual experience of the Holy Prophet…”9
“There has been a difference of opinion among the learned as to whether the Holy Prophet’s Ascension was bodily or spiritual; the majority adhere to the first view, but among those who hold the latter view there are personages of sound opinion, such as Aishah and Muawiyah. In view of the plain words of the Quran, however, which refer to the Ascension as being the vision which We showed thee, the opinion of the majority must be rejected. The sayings of the Holy Prophet support this view. … and he was shown great wonders, but it was in spirit that he was carried, and it was with the spiritual eye that he saw those wonders, not in body and with the physical eye, for things spiritual can only be seen with the spiritual eye.”10
We may here add four other issues: the nature of the miracles of Jesus, duration of punishment in hell, what are jinn, and abrogation of verses of the Quran (nasikh, mansukh).
5. Miracles of Jesus:
Asad writes under 3:49 in note 38:
“It is probable that the “raising of the dead” by Jesus is a metaphorical description of his giving new life to people who were spiritually dead; cf. 6:122. … If this interpretation is — as I believe — correct, then the “healing of the blind and the leper” has a similar significance: namely, an inner regeneration of people who were spiritually diseased and blind to the truth.”
Maulana Muhammad Ali writes under the same verse:
“…the use of the word mauta, i.e. the dead, and of their being raised to life, is frequent in the Holy Quran in a spiritual sense: “Is he who was dead, then We raised him to life … like him whose likeness is that of one in darkness” (6:122). … The prophets are raised only for quickening to life those who are spiritually dead, and it is to this quickening through Jesus Christ that the Holy Quran refers here.”11
“The prophet’s healing is spiritual, not healing of the physical diseases. The Quran speaks of the blind and the deaf frequently, but it never means those who have lost the senses of seeing and hearing.”12
6. Duration of Punishment of Hell:
Asad writes under 6:128 in his note 114:
“Some of the great Muslim theologians conclude from the above and from the similar phrase occurring in 11:107 (as well as from several well-authenticated sayings of the Prophet) that — contrary to the bliss of paradise, which will be of unlimited duration — the suffering of the sinners in the life to come will be limited by God’s mercy.”
He repeats the same view under other verses; for example, when commenting on 78:23 he writes in note 12 that the suffering of hell shall be for
“a limited period of time, and not eternity”.
Maulana Muhammad Ali wrote in his footnote on 11:107:
“The limitation on the duration of abiding in hell … shows clearly that the punishment of hell is not everlasting.”
The Maulana’s footnote is quite lengthy, providing references and quotations to establish this conclusion. It should be noted that most Muslim theologians have held that the duration of hell is limited only for Muslim sinners, and that for non-Muslims it is for eternity. Therefore on this issue too, Asad differs with the majority Muslim view in the same way as Maulana Muhammad Ali differed from it.
As to paradise, Asad writes in his footnote 135 to 11:108 that the mention in this verse, that those who enter it shall abide in it
“except as thy Lord please — a gift never to be cut off”,
means they shall abide in it
“unless He opens up to man a new, yet higher stage of evolution”.
Maulana Muhammad Ali had expressed the same idea under other verses (39:20 and 66:8); for example, under 66:8 he wrote that paradise
“is also the starting-point of a never-ceasing spiritual advancement … spiritual progress in that life will be endless.”
7. Interpretation of Jinn:
Asad’s view is not as clear-cut as that of Maulana Muhammad Ali but still it has reflections of the latter’s opinion that, sometimes, the jinn mentioned in the Quran are human beings. Under 6:128, in which Allah addresses the jinn as
“O community of jinn”,
Asad writes in note 112:
“Thus, to my mind, the allocution ya ma‛shar al-jinn does not denote, “O you community of [evil] invisible beings” but, rather, “O you who are [or “have lived”] in close communion with [evil] invisible beings”: in other words, it is addressed to the misguided human beings…”
Under the same verse Maulana Muhammad Ali wrote:
“In this verse jinn are spoken of as friends of men, and v. 129 speaks of the iniquitous as befriending one another, while in v. 130 men and jinn are spoken of as a single ma‘shar or community, … The context thus makes it clear that by the jinn here are meant the leaders of evil…”
In 46:29–32 and 72:1–14 groups of jinn are mentioned as listening to the Quran and accepting its message. These are generally considered to be some sort of beings other than humans. Asad writes in his note 1 on 72:1 that jinn here:
“may possibly signify “hitherto unseen beings”, namely, strangers who had never before been seen by the people among and to whom the Quran was then being revealed.”
Maulana Muhammad Ali has interpreted the jinn of ch. 46 as
“leaders of certain Jewish tribes”
and those of ch. 72 as Christians, being called jinn because of
“living outside Arabia”.
Lastly, as to the abrogation of some verses of the Quran by other verses, an entrenched belief widely held among Muslims, Asad rejects this doctrine and puts forward reasons almost identical to those given by Maulana Muhammad Ali. Below we quote extracts from Asad in his note 87 under 2:106 and compare them to the Maulana’s statements in his note on the same verse.
- Asad: “The principle laid down in this passage — relating to the supersession of the Biblical dispensation by that of the Quran — has given rise to an erroneous interpretation by many Muslim theologians. The word ayah (‘message’) occurring in this context is also used to denote a ‘verse’ of the Quran … some scholars conclude from the above passage that certain verses of the Quran have been ‘abrogated’…”
- Ali: “It will thus be seen that the reference here is to the abrogation of the Jewish law. That some of the Quranic verses were abrogated by others, though a generally accepted doctrine, is due to a misconception of the words of this verse. The word ayat occurring here has been wrongly understood to mean a verse of the Quran.”
- Asad: “…there does not exist a single reliable Tradition to the effect that the Prophet ever, declared a verse of the Quran to have been ‘abrogated’.”
- Ali: “Nor is there a single report traceable to the Prophet that such and such a verse was abrogated.”
- Asad: “At the root of the so-called ‘doctrine of abrogation’ may lie the inability of some of the early commentators to reconcile one Quranic passage with another: a difficulty which was overcome by declaring that one of the verses in question had been ‘abrogated’.”
- Ali: “What happened really was this that when a commentator could not reconcile one verse with another, he held the verse to be abrogated by the other, but another who, giving deeper thought, was able to effect a reconciliation between the two, rejected abrogation.”
- Asad: “This arbitrary procedure explains also why there is no unanimity whatsoever among the upholders of the ‘doctrine of abrogation’ as to which, and how many, Quran verses have been affected by it;”
- Ali: “Another consideration which shows the erroneousness of the doctrine that any verse of the Quran was abrogated by another is the hopeless disagreement of the upholders of this view. In the first place there is no agreement as to the number of the verses which are alleged to have been abrogated;…”
- Asad: “…the apparent difficulty in interpreting the above Quranic passage disappears immediately if the term ayah is understood, correctly, as ‘message’…”
- Ali: “Similar words occur elsewhere: ‘And when We change a message (ayat) for a message (ayat)…’ (16:101). …the word ayat, occurring there twice, could only mean a message or a communication from God, and the first message meant the previous scriptures and by the second message was meant the Quran.”
- Asad: “…and if we read this verse in conjunction with the preceding one, which states that the Jews and the Christians refuse to accept any revelation which might supersede that of the Bible: for, if read in this way, the abrogation relates to the earlier divine messages and not to any part of the Quran itself.”
- Ali: “The two previous sections deal, more or less, with a particular Jewish objection to the revelation of the Prophet, viz., that they could not accept a new revelation which was not granted to an Israelite. The answer is given partly in v. 105, and partly in the verse under discussion. … In the latter [they are told] that … if one law, i.e. the Jewish law, was abrogated, one better than it was given through the Holy Prophet.”
- Asad: “In short, the ‘doctrine of abrogation’ has no basis whatever in historical fact, and must be rejected.”
- Ali: “This seems to be the basis on which the theory of abrogation of Quranic verses rests, and this basis is demolished by the Holy Quran…”
We have cited at length above the similarity of views between Asad and Maulana Muhammad Ali on issues where they both differ from the traditional, widely-held meanings in the same way. It was on the expression of such views that the Maulana’s commentary has been attacked as unorthodox. It was because of these interpretations that the Christian critic writing in The Moslem World, as quoted earlier, described the Maulana’s commentary as
“so saturated with the peculiar doctrines of the Ahmadiyya sect”.
On account of the same interpretations, the Maulana has been bitterly condemned by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in his book Qadianism — A Critical Study, who writes that
“Muhammad Ali interprets Quranic verses in a highly arbitrary and exotic manner. He goes to a ridiculous length of casuistry in order to support his interpretation on the basis of the feeblest of evidences.”13
Similar criticism of the Maulana’s commentary has been made by some other Muslim writers.
Some have criticized Asad’s commentary for the same reason, but many more Muslims are prepared to accept non-traditional views from him than the same views from Maulana Muhammad Ali. A well-known American Muslim organization, CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), has for some time been appealing for donations to “Sponsor a Quran”, and selected Asad’s The Message of the Quran as the translation which it sponsors for distribution from these funds. Thus the Maulana’s representation of the teachings of the Quran on many important issues is reaching a wide readership who may be reluctant to study his work directly for fear of its alleged unorthodoxy. It is a pity that people accept or reject an interpretation depending on who has expressed it rather than on the merits of the interpretation itself. There may come a time when the Muslim world in general will realize this injustice and give due recognition to the pioneering work of Maulana Muhammad Ali.
We have established in this chapter that it was Maulana Muhammad Ali who opened the door for Muslims to the work of translating the Quran and he was among Muslims the pioneer in bringing it before the modern world. He trod entirely new ground, and other Muslims followed his lead. The well-known English translations that appeared in the following years were all influenced by his work. Many translators passed through the door which he opened and continue to do so till today.
It is also important to point out that Maulana Muhammad Ali was the head of a religious community, and he constantly urged and motivated that community to the service of the Quran, i.e., to teach it to people, to do research on it, to publish it, and to have it translated into other languages. The path on which he set his community, it still follows.
- Impact International, 10th April-7th May 1992. Reproduced by the Pakistani monthly Islamic journal Renaissance at the link: www.monthly-renaissance.com/issue/content.aspx?id=416 ↩
- Arabia: The Islamic World Review, October 1981; see also The Light, Lahore, Pakistan, organ of the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Lahore, February 8, 1982, p. 1–2, 19–24; The Islamic Guardian, London, organ of the British branch of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Anjuman, July-September 1982, p. 19–21. ↩
- All quotations from Maulana Muhammad Ali’s footnotes given hereunder are from his revised edition, first published in 1951. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, note on 3:124. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, note on 8:10. ↩
- Asad, note 14 on 20:21, and M. M. Ali, note on 20:20. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, note on 21:69. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, note on 29:24. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, note on 17:1. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, note on 17:60. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, 3rd note on 3:49. ↩
- Maulana Muhammad Ali, 2nd note on 3:49. ↩
- Qadianism — A Critical Study, by S. Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Lucknow, India, 1980 edition, p. 140. ↩