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: Translation by M.H. Shakir
We now come to a most interesting episode, which was for long a perplexing matter. An English translation of the Quran bearing the name M.H. Shakir, consisting of a translation only, without any notes, and bereft of any preface by the translator, or any information about him, came into wide circulation around 1980. It became very popular in print. The first US edition was published by Tahrike Tarsile Quran, New York, in 1982, who re-published it several times in subsequent years.
When the Internet came into general use, it appeared on several websites, becoming probably the most widely accessible English translation of the Quran available online, including on websites of some US universities. Some academic and other websites made available three translations for comparison which were displayed in parallel for each verse: Pickthall, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and M.H. Shakir. It was stated in some places that the initials M.H. stood for Mohammedali Habib. Many online sources identified him as an Egyptian judge and religious scholar connected with Al-Azhar.
To anyone familiar with Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation it was obvious that Shakir’s language was exactly the same as the Maulana’s in his 1917 edition except for certain small changes made to accommodate traditional interpretations. The changes were that titles of a few chapters were altered, the abbreviations known as muqatta‛at (for example, Alif, Lam, Mim) were shown literally without translation, names of prophets were given in the Arabic form (for example, Musa instead of Moses), and some words in the stories of the past prophets were amended to reflect the generally received interpretations. It was rather amusing to find that some changes were not applied consistently. In case of the issue of the death of Jesus, the translation of 3:55 was altered to reflect the belief that Jesus was taken up to heaven alive, but the same change was obviously forgotten to be made in 5:117 and the translation of that verse continued to indicate the Ahmadiyya interpretation that Jesus is not alive. Other than these changes in a few places, the so-called Shakir translation was identical with Maulana Muhammad Ali’s 1917 edition of his translation of the Quran.
In October 2005, the writer of these lines, Zahid Aziz, after uncovering the facts outlined above, published an article on the website ahmadiyya.org.1 That article concluded that the Egyptian judge Shakir could not possibly have any connection with this translation, as that person is the same Sheykh Muhammad Shakir who is mentioned by Pickthall as opposing the very idea of translating the Quran (and who knew no English). The mystery of who was Shakir remained unresolved.
A few months later, in March 2006, I received an email from someone who had read my article, introducing himself as a descendant of this “Shakir” and informing me that “Shakir” was in fact a very well-known Pakistani banker by the name of Mohammedali Habib of the Habib financial dynasty of Pakistan. The following information which he supplied appears to be authentic and consistent with other facts:
- “His real name was Mohammedali Habib. He took on Shakir as a pen name.”
- “The late Mr. Mohammedali Habib was well known throughout the country (Pakistan) for having devoted his life to the cause of humanity. … This translation was completed by him on the 14th Shaban and the very next day he suffered a severe heart attack and passed away on the 20th of Ramadhan, i.e. 30th March 1959.”
- “M.H. Shakir did not speak Arabic. He supervised the translation of the Quran which was done by a group of people.”
Thereupon I published a sequel to my first article on the Ahmadiyya.org website, to which the reader may refer for full details.2 Of course, the descendant’s statement that the translation
“was done by a group of people”
is not accurate, since they did not do any translation but merely took the 1917 edition of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation and made the changes which I have listed above, leaving the rest identical to the Maulana’s work.
Since then, two interesting facts have come to light. There is a comprehensive bibliography of translations of the Quran entitled World Bibliography of Translations of the Meanings of the Holy Quran, 1515–1980, compiled by Ismet Binark and Halit Eren, published in Istanbul in 1986. On page 93 it lists the Shakir translation as having been published by Habib Bank, Karachi, 1968. This confirms the Habib Bank connection.
Even more interestingly, in the biography of Maulana Muhammad Ali, a document written by the Maulana is quoted in which he mentioned funds received for free distribution of his books from external donors. He writes:
“Just one such sum of 7,500 Rupees was donated by Seth Muhammad Ali Habib”.3
This is undoubtedly “Shakir”. It may be added that Maulana Muhammad Ali visited Karachi during 1949, 1950 and 1951, where, among his other activities, he appealed to the prominent Muslims of Karachi for donations for free distribution of his books to Western countries, and Muhammad Ali Habib had settled in Karachi after the partition of India. Describing a special visit in November-December 1949 for just this purpose, it is recorded in his biography:
“…Maulana Muhammad Ali in his second brief stay in Karachi promoted his proposal for the free distribution of five thousand sets of books before government officials, businessmen, industrialists and other affluent persons belonging to the general Muslim community. The Almighty answered his prayers, and those of a large number of members of the Jama‘at, and as a result of these efforts arrangements were completed during his stay to enable the distribution of 3500 sets whose total cost was 250,000 Rupees.”4
It is highly probable that Muhammad Ali Habib was present at one of these appeals, but what is certain is that he made a donation for the free distribution of the books of Maulana Muhammad Ali, the foremost among these being his translation of the Quran.
- See the link: www.ahmadiyya.org/movement/shakir.htm ↩
- See the link: www.ahmadiyya.org/movement/shakir-2.htm ↩
- Urdu biography Mujahid-i Kabir, p. 286, and its English translation A Mighty Striving, p. 321. The title Seth is used for a financier or businessman. ↩
- Urdu biography Mujahid-i Kabir, p. 311; A Mighty Striving, p. 375. ↩