Qur’an translation of the week #122: In defence of miracles- Badshah Husain’s Shi’i English Qur’an translation

In 1931, the Indian Shi’i activist A.F. Badshah Husain started publishing an English Qur’an translation ‘according to Shia traditions and principles.’ In this translation, which has to the best of our knowledge never been completed, Husain aimed to defend both the Qur’an and Imami Shi’i doctrines against British Orientalists, Islamic modernists and, in particular, the Ahmadiyya, a reformist movement (which, due to a schism, consisted of two branches) that was originated in Northern India and was active globally. His impassioned attacks against interpretations of the Qur’an that tried to explain away prophetic miracles are the most characteristic feature of this translation.

Not much is known about Husain. According to his foreword, he was talked into producing his Qur’an ‘translation with commentary’ by Ayatollah Najm al-Ḥasan, also known as Najm al-Millat or Najm al-ʿUlamāʾ (1863–1938), a Shi’i jurist with close ties to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq and founder of the oldest and most important Imami Shi’i institutions in India. Among the schools he founded was the Madrasat al-Wāʿiẓīn (‘College of Preachers’), which was established in 1919 and aimed to help Indian Shi’i ulama to improve their preaching skills and train them as missionaries. This happened in a context in which Imami Shi’is were promulgating their doctrines with increasing confidence both inside and outside India, mirroring the activities of Christian missionaries and also those of the Ahmadiyya movement, particularly the Lahore Ahmadiyya branch. This context might explain why Shi’is and Ahmadis dominated the production of English Qur’an translations in India in the decades before independence, when most Sunni ulama were still concentrating their efforts on Urdu and other South Asian languages.

Badshah Husain was apparently chosen to translate the Qur’an into English because he had a ‘Western education,’ presumably a British one, and held a BA degree. He complains in his foreword about his insufficient knowledge of Arabic; about his lack of familiarity with other relevant languages as well as Islamic literature; and about the scarcity of time and resources he was dealing with due to his ‘all-occupying official life.’ Nevertheless, he was persuaded by Najm al-Ḥasan to undertake the task, ‘however imperfectly,’ because of the pressing need for such a translation ‘according to the traditions current among Musalmans from the earliest times particularly in the Shia church.’ His purpose was to dissipate all objections that had been raised by critics against the Qur’an and Islam. Husain also denounces in his foreword the attempts of modernists ‘to get rid as much as possible of any “beliefs”, especially those relating to the supernatural.’ In fact, he argues, with a good knowledge of modern science and philosophy, especially spiritualism, ‘“Faith in the Unseen” is much easier in these days […] than it was any time before.’ He apologizes for repeatedly referring throughout his translation to ‘the Ahmadi Commentary,’ by which he means the English Qur’an translation and commentary of the President of the Lahore Ahmadiyya, Maulana Muhammad Ali, first published in 1917. This was the first English Qur’an translation written by a Muslim that had any success, and refuting it might well have been the main reason for which Najm al-Ḥasan and Badshah Husain saw such a pressing need for another English Qur’an translation.

According to Husain, the production of this work was greatly delayed because of the obstacles he was facing, which led him to finally publish an incomplete version of the first volume, containing the translation of and commentary on the first two suras, in the hopes of completing the work later. The publication was made possible by a donation from Zanzibar; Husain explicitly mentions the donor in the foreword in the hope that further donations would follow. The second volume was published in 1936. According to some sources, up to eleven volumes appeared, but this cannot be substantiated and seems doubtful. In any case, the translation and commentary remained incomplete and there were no subsequent editions.

The translation proper uses archaic English, as did all English Qur’an translations at the time. Husain clearly knew and engaged with previous English translations, such as those by Rodwell, Palmer and Muhammad Ali, all of which he explicitly mentions, sometimes approvingly and sometimes disapprovingly. However, he did not copy from any of them but composed his own translation, an endeavour which was obviously hindered by the fact that he was not a native speaker of English. Consider his rendition of Q 2:8–12:

8. And of men there are some who say: We believe in God and the last day, but there are not at all believers.

9. They would deceive God and those who do believe but they deceive not save themselves, and they do not perceive.

10. There is ailment in their hearts and God hath increased to them their ailment, and for them there is a grievous woe (azab) for that they wont to lie.

11. And then it is said to them, Do not make mischief in the land they say, Nay, rather we set things right.

12. Behold! Verily they! They themselves are mischief-makers, but they perceive it not.

Husain’s focus was probably not so much on the translation as on the substantial paratext, though. The first volume contains an introduction of 128 pages on the Prophet, the Imams and the Qur’an, which includes long defences of the Qur’an’s miraculous nature and of the Shi’i version of early Islamic history, complete with attacks against Abū Bakr and other figures revered by Sunnis. In the introduction, Husain draws on a wide range of English and Arabic sources, though he might have only had second-hand knowledge of the Arabic sources. He insists that the introduction – which he meant to expand further in future editions – is indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand the translation.

The bulk of the translation and commentary is made up of lengthy notes on nearly all of the verses that he has translated. Many of these notes contain his own reflections on the precise meanings and nuances of the Qur’anic language. For example, in a note on Q 2:21 (Yā ayyuhā l-nāsu ʿbudū rabbakum), which he translates as ‘O ye men! Serve (with adoration) your Lord,’ he explains the selection of the term rabb (‘Lord’) over other names of God against the backdrop of a tradition about ʿAlī, the Prophet’s cousin whom Shi’is consider to be the first Imam. According to the tradition, ʿAlī distinguished between three types of obedience: that of a slave, motivated by fear; that of a merchant, motivated by the hope for gain; and that of a free man, motivated by thankfulness. The third meaning, according to Husain, relates to the term rabb which describes God as a protector and nourisher, instilling thankfulness in humans.

Many of his notes aim to refute opinions that are critical of Islam or contradict traditional Shi’i views. In arguing against them, Husain draws on a wide range of English sources, including the works of British Orientalists such as William Muir, whom he considers the fiercest critic of Islam among them and whose opinions he often seeks to correct. Another set of opponents, not explicitly named, consists of Sunnis against whom he seeks to defend Shi’i doctrines. For example, he repeatedly affirms the Shi’i conviction that ʿAlī and his descendants had an exclusive right to the imamate. This is the case with Q 2:27, which he translates as ‘Those who break the covenant of God after the fixing there-of and cut off that which God hath bidden to be attached and make mischief in the land, these it is that are the losers.’ In his note on the verse, he argues that ‘the words have special reference to those who do not recieve [sic] the Imamate of Our Lord Ali and the Imams after him.’

It is abundantly clear, though, that Husain is more preoccupied with polemicizing against ‘the Ahmadi commentator’ than with defending Shi’i doctrines. His commentary is full of vehement attacks against Muhammad Ali’s attempts to interpret the stories of prophetic miracles, such as the lifting of a mountain or the parting of the Red Sea, in a rational, scientifically explicable manner. Muhammad Ali’s approach is reflected in his translations of individual verses, to which Husain clearly seeks to deliver counter-translations.

For example, Q 2:55–56 is commonly understood to refer to some of the Children of Israel who challenged Moses, were struck by a thunderbolt, died and then were returned to life. However, Muhammad Ali, who was very much following the modernist and rationalist tradition of Sayyid Ahmadi Khan (1817–1898), translated the segment as follows:

‘[…] so the punishment overtook you while you looked on. Then We raised you up after your stupor […]’

Badshah Husain translates the same segment, much more literally, emphasizing the fact that the term which Muhammad Ali rendered as ‘stupor’ is in the original Arabic mawt (‘death’):

‘[…] thereupon did a thunder bolt smite you, while (yet) ye looked on. Then did we raise you after your death (Maut) […]’

In a similar fashion, Muhammad Ali reinterpreted Q 2:60, which is normally understood to signify that Moses struck a rock with his staff, whereupon twelve springs gushed forth from it, to mean that Moses sought with his staff a way into the mountain, from which flowed twelve springs. Again, this is an interpretation that Husain does emphatically not share, neither in his translation nor his commentary.

Instead, in his commentary Husain shows the utmost contempt for such attempts at explaining away prophetic miracles. In his opinion, Muhammad Ali went out of his way to avoid the clear meaning of the Qur’anic text. He also ignored the equally clear stories in the Jewish and Christian scriptures and exegetical traditions even though ‘the Jews certainly knew their text better than later translators.’

Husain’s problem with rationalist interpretations of the Qur’an is not merely one of semantics and sources, however. He sees these interpretations as attempts to negate the very existence of supernatural events and of humans endowed by God with supernatural powers. In a lengthy discussion of Q 2:47, which speaks of the favours bestowed on the Children of Israel by God, he postulates that, since ‘there arose more prophets from among them than in the rest of the world put together,’ they must have been ‘a race pre-eminently descended from the prophets,’ which gave them some higher spiritualistic powers by heredity. These powers are not necessarily connected to religious virtues, though, but might just as well coincide with unbelief. Husain then discusses the ‘analogous’ case of the sayyids, the descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad, who occupy a particularly important place in Shi’i beliefs. Here, too, he argues that while not every sayyid’s religious and moral character might be beyond reproach, ‘the continued transmission of special gifts in particular families is a matter of common knowledge.’ He claims that there is a mass of evidence for this which is such that everyone in India must have heard of instances of these families, and points to some examples of present-days miracles. He believes that the main goal of the Qur’anic stories of prophetic miracles was to prepare people to expect similar things from the descendants of the Prophet and accept the spiritual superiority of the sayyids. His argument constitutes a fascinating amalgam between Shi’i doctrines, local veneration of saints and contemporaneous ‘scientific’ theories of race.

His desire to oppose the interpretation of Muhammad Ali is such that he even rejects one of the most commonplace arguments in modern Muslim thought, namely the idea that Q 2:256 mandates religious tolerance. In the Indian Muslim context, which was multireligious and infused with apologetics against Christian missionaries and colonisers, Q 2:256 (lā ikrāha fī l-dīni, which Husain translates as ‘there is no compulsion in religion’) was, and continues to be, commonly cited by Muslims in debates with critics of Islam to demonstrate that Islam was not spread by the sword and that it is tolerant of other religions. This was a centrepiece of Ahmadiyya beliefs and was connected to their rejection of any understanding of jihad in the sense of armed warfare, even when colonial rule was concerned. They were frequently criticized by other Muslims for their refusal to allow militant resistance against British rule, but Husain goes further than this. He outright rejects the notion that Islam should not be spread by force.

He argues that Q 2:256 might not permit declaring a non-Muslim Muslim against their will, but it does not ‘mean that there should be no exercise of force in the interests of religion.’ Force may be used to subdue unbelievers and keep them from obstructing the expansion of Islam, he says, referring to the practice of the Prophet. Furthermore, he claims, a widespread ill in many human societies is religious indolence, i.e., the lack of motivation to seriously reflect on and learn about religious matters. This, according to Husain, was a feature of pagan societies but it is also prevalent in the ‘over-advanced’ segments of the population of Europe, Japan and similar countries. In his opinion, it can only be remedied by compulsion, namely, by preventing people from living ‘as pleasantly and felicitously as they might. The situation must be made bad for them. Then they will be forced to open their eyes and reflect from time to time how far their old creeds are worth suffering all this for.’ While Husain concedes that this might initially lead to hypocrisy, as it did in the Medinan period, he is convinced that hypocrites will in time become true converts, as they did within a century after the Prophet’s death. In addition, he points to the history of Islam in India and of Christianity in Europe. ‘By mere preaching Islam might not have spread in the country to this day … How Christianity has spread in the West all the world knows.’

Badshah Husain’s commentary is evidence of the fierce debates in which Muslim intellectuals in India were involved in the decades before independence. The authority to define Islam and the meaning of its sacred scripture was the subject of an ongoing battle between Sunnis, Shi’is and Ahmadis, between Muslim modernists, fundamentalists and traditionalists, and between Orientalists, Christian missionaries and representatives of Islam. Badshah Husain’s translation was an, albeit only marginally successful, attempt to defend the beliefs of Shi’i traditionalists against Christians, Orientalists, Sunnis, and above all against modernists, as represented by the Lahore Ahmadiyya. From Husain’s point of view, the modernists denied the existence of a spiritual, supernatural component of religion that, to him, was so tangible that he understood it in hereditary terms – as being embodied in the descendants of the Prophets until his day.

Johanna Pink

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