Qur’an translation of the week #114: Pioneering or “well-meaning but incompetent”?- Mirza Hairat Dihlavi’s 1916 English Qur’an translation

In 1916, Mirza Hairat Dihlavi (d. 1928), an intellectual and journalist from British India, printed an English Qur’an translation in three volumes. At the time, this was a pioneering endeavor. Mirza Hairat was the editor of a newspaper and had published on a wide range of subjects in Urdu before, including an introduction to Qur’anic exegesis. Now he turned his attention to English, responding, in his own words, to “a crying need since long,” which had “been all along recognized as such, by all thoughtful Muslims.” His work was the third complete translation of the Qur’an into English composed by a Muslim, but he may well have believed it to be the first. Of the previous two, one had come from an Ahmadiyya context and was therefore presumably deemed unreliable by non-Ahmadiyya Muslims if they were even aware of it (see https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-84-the-holy-qur%CA%BEan-with-a-commentary-the-first-english-translation-composed-by-a-muslim/), and the other one had been self-published in Bengal and probably not come to Mirza Hairat’s attention (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-77-a-time-of-experimentation-a-chronological-quran-translation-in-early-twentieth-century-british-india/).

In British India, or at least in northern India, there were none of the debates on the permissibility of translating the Qur’an that ulama and Muslim intellectuals engaged in from Tatarstan to Istanbul and from Cairo to Batavia at the time. Qur’an translation was already an established, well-respected and popular genre in India by the mid-nineteenth century, and due to the wide availability of the printing press, translations into Urdu and other languages spoken by Muslims on the subcontinent were ubiquitous. However, funding the project was apparently a problem, so much so that Mirza Hairat devotes practically his entire foreword to it.

Mirza Hairat first underlines the “extraordinary munificence of a large-hearted, liberal-minded, charitable and zealous Muslim gentleman named Mr. Mahomed Abdul Sattar Sahib, one of the merchant princes of Colombo, Ceylon,” who had funded the printing of his Qur’an translation. Mirza Hairat then laments “the regrettable indifference, so widely prevalent among the Muslims of the world” – a standard trope of Muslim reformist discourses. He indicates that he plans on adding one volume of “Introduction” to his translation, which will contain a commentary on the Qur’an and “will also form a complete and exhaustive reply to the manifold criticisms of the Koran by various Christian authors, such as Drs. Sale, Rodwell and Palmer and Sir W. Muir.” He expresses the hope that it “will prove to be a unique commentary of the Koran, as the world has not yet seen.” He urges “zealous and benevolent Muslims who have at heart the advancement of their dear religion, so hard pressed on all sides by wealthier religions,” to subscribe to this volume and fund its publication, asking for an amount that “even a single wealthy Muslim, who squanders thousands of rupees daily, for his worldly pleasures, can easily afford to give.” This not very subtle attempt at shaming Muslims into subscribing is followed by an unflattering comparison with the generosity of wealthy Christians and then with some references to Qur’anic verses. Mirza Hairat concludes with a call on Muslims to “hasten and compete for ‘Gardens beneath which rivers flow, to live therein forever, which is the greatest bliss.’” All this is reminiscent of the spirit of the famous reformist journal al-ʿUrwa al-Wuthqā, published in the 1880s by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muḥammad ʿAbduh, who had also invoked the rewards of the Hereafter by calling on Muslims to join a special type of jihad, namely, the jihad of giving some of their wealth towards funding the journal.

Just as in the case of his more famous predecessors, Mirza Hairat’s plea was apparently unsuccessful because the commentary was never published. The translation itself offers very little information in addition to its rendition of the source text, other than a small number of explanations in footnotes or brackets. This was quite characteristic of the modern English style of Qur’an translation that was shaped by biblical and Orientalist models. For example, unlike previous Urdu translators, Mirza Hairat provides none of the casually included contextual information on speakers, addressees and agents that facilitate understanding what an unspecified Arabic verb such as qāla (“he said”) is referring to. His translation includes segments such as

“He said, ‘Thou shalt surely find me patient, if God so wisheth, and I will not disobey thy order.’

He said, ‘If thou wilt follow me, then do not ask me about any thing [sic], until I myself tell thee about it.’” (Q 18:69–70)

The vast majority of earlier Muslim translators had not hesitated to identify the first speaker as Moses and the second, who is unnamed in the Qur’an, as al-Khiḍr. However, this was not in line with European ideas of faithful translation, which Mirza Hairat obviously subscribed to – at least when writing in English.

Mirza Hairat’s translation was reprinted once in Delhi in 1930 and then largely faded into oblivion. Abdur Raheem Kidwai later summarily described Mirza Hairat, as well as Mirza Abu’l-Fazl and other early translators, as “well meaning [sic] but very poorly equipped and incompetent Muslims of British India,” thereby explaining why their works gained no recognition.

Another potential reason that comes to mind is sectarian: Mirza Hairat was an Imami Shi’i. For that matter, almost none of the English Qur’an translations produced by British Indian Muslims until the 1950s were by Sunnis; most translators came from the Ahmadiyya movements or were Shi’is. However, Mirza Hairat seemed to be much more interested in countering the threat of Christian missionaries than in defending Shi’i beliefs. The only evidence of Shi’i doctrines is his translation of Q 5:6, which gives instructions for ritual ablution (wuḍūʾ) that Imami Shi’is understand slightly differently from Sunnis due to following a different reading tradition (qirāʾa). But Mirza Hairat was no apologist for Shi’a Islam. He was part of a cosmopolitan milieu of urban intellectuals who engaged with a wide range of ideas and had no particular denominational loyalties. Some Shi’is even accused him of apostasy for questioning the historicity of the Battle of Karbalāʾ. While Mirza Hairat’s translation does not come across as a zealously Shi’i work, his lack of access to Sunni networks of distribution, or to the global missionary networks of the Ahmadiyya movements, might have played a role in its lack of resonance.

It is clear that Mirza Hairat was extremely aware of modern rationalist approaches to the Qur’an. For example, he translates Q 2:60 (2:57 according to his count) fairly conventionally as “And when Moses asked water for his people We said, ‘Strike the rock with thy rod.’ There burst forth from it twelve springs.” However, in a footnote he mentions a possible alternative translation of “Strike the rock with thy rod”, namely, “Go with thy people to the hills.” This interpretation, which replaces a miracle with a version of events that has nothing supernatural about it, was present in Ahmadiyya exegesis, and this was probably known to Mirza Hairat because he had in earlier years engaged in intense polemics with the Ahmadiyya. But, well before that, it had already been proposed in the Urdu Qur’anic commentary by Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), which was a central reference for modernist Muslims in British India.

Another example of an Indian modernist interpretation in Mirza Hairat’s translation is found in Q 9:112. The verse contains a list of virtues that characterize believers who will attain Paradise, including the attribute al-sāʾiḥūn (lit. “those who wander”). This term had been a subject of controversy among exegetes but had predominantly been understood to mean “those who fast”. That has also been the interpretation followed by earlier Orientalist translators such as Sale, Rodwell and Palmer. Mirza Hairat, however, translates it as “[those] who go forth in the path of God,” which is probably a rendition of the Arabic al-jāhidūna, derived from the same root as jihad. This was an established interpretation but only a minority of exegetes followed it. However, it was particularly popular in South Asia because it had been embraced by Shah Wali Allah (1803–1860) and his descendants, renowned authors of Persian and Urdu Qur’an translations. Another proponent of this interpretation was, once again, Sayyid Ahmad Khan. It may well be that Mirza Hairat primarily relied on extant Urdu translations and commentaries when writing his Qur’an translation, which explains the Indian flavor of his exegetical choices.

Kidwai’s criticism was probably mostly aimed at the style of Mirza Hairat’s translation. It is very literal and often syntactically clunky, for example when Q 1:4 (iyyāka naʿbudu wa-iyyāka nastaʿīn) is translated as “Thee alone we worship and Thee alone we ask help of.”

A few of his choices seem quite remarkable. For example, Q 55 (Sūrat al-Raḥmān), which is one of the most strikingly structured surahs of the Qur’an, contains the deliberate repetition of the line fa-bi-ayyi ālāʾi rabbikumā tukadhdhibūni (“And which of your Lord’s marvels do you deny?”, in the dual, denoting two addressees or groups of addressees) every second or third verse throughout a segment of 65 verses, making for a total of 31 occurrences of that question, which gives the sura a very intense, suggestive quality. Mirza Hairat, however, made the strange decision of translating this verse in three different ways and alternating between them:

“Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye two reject?”

“So which of the bounties of your Lord will ye both gainsay?”

“Then which of the blessings of your Lord will ye twain deny?”

He also alternates between starting these lines with “Then” and “So.” Maybe the idea behind this was to capture all nuances of the Arabic question; but it is hard to avoid the impression that Mirza Hairat had simply been taught to avoid repetitions of all kinds when writing in English because this was “bad style.” In implementing that lesson, he comes across as trying to correct a stylistically inferior source text, which was probably not his intention.

Mirza Hairat’s translation represents the spirit of a time when Muslims were only just starting to experiment with the medium of English and its literary possibilities and limitations. They were simultaneously navigating the Orientalist legacy of Qur’an translation and their own exegetical traditions, the local as well as the global, and the premodern as well as the contemporaneous.

Johanna Pink

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