Qur’an translation of the week #151: ‘The Qur’an’ – a Qur’an translation by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister

This week we will take a closer look at ‘The Qur’an: The Eternal Revelation Vouchsafed to Muhammad,’ an English Qur’an translation authored by Sir Zafarullah Khan (d. 1985), who served as Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister.

Sir Zafarullah Khan was born in 1893 in Sialkot where he attended primary school at the American Mission School. Receiving a Western education at an early age proved pivotal to his further education and his later political career: in 1911, Zafarullah Khan moved to London, where he received his Bachelor of Law’s degree from the University of London. After returning to India, he started to practice as lawyer alongside his father, who had already made a name of himself as a lawyer. A year later, Zafarullah Khan settled in Lahore, where he continued his work as a lawyer and also began lecturing at the law college there. In Lahore, Zafarullah Khan was able to expand his social network, and this enabled him to play an active role in British-Indian politics. His rise to political fame was rapid. In 1935, he became Minister of Railways, and four years later he was appointed to represent India at the League of Nations. After partition, Zafarullah Khan became Pakistan’s first foreign Minister, a responsibility he held for seven years. In 1970, he was elected as President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a position he held until 1973.

In addition to having a very successful political career, Zafarullah Khan gave lectures on religious and political issues. He authored books on human rights, the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, on the punishment of apostasy in Islam and modernity and Islam. His religious views were inspired by his Ahmadi background: Zafarullah Khan joined the movement in 1907, when he offered allegiance to its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908). The Ahmadiyya movement is known for its missionary work, which it advances primarily through religious literature, lectures and dialogue, and has a long history of publishing translations of the Qur’an in many languages so as to provide Ahmadi missionaries with effective tools for proselytization. As part of this drive, Zafarullah Khan was tasked with translating the Qur’an into English. By that time the Ahmadiyya community had already published an English translation, however, Zafarullah Khan’s translation was to be based on Tafsīr-i ṣaghīr, an Urdu translation written by Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad (d. 1965), the then head of the Ahmadiyya community, and published in 1957. In terms of command of English, Zafarullah Khan was ideally suited to carry out this project, but he had not enjoyed an in-depth religious education that would have enabled him to solve all the exegetical issues a translator has to face during the translation process. This led Zafarullah Khan to consult scholars from the Ahmadiyya community, who would oversee the enterprise and revise his manuscript.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Zafarullah Khan started to work on his translation. We do know that he began translating the Qur’an when he was in Pakistan, and continued to work on it while living in The Hague between 1958-1961 when he served as Vice President of the International Court of Justice. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Zafarullah Khan drafted his manuscript around 1960 in The Hague, after which he sent his drafts to the Ahmadi scholars in Pakistan who had been appointed as project supervisors. After they had assessed the drafts, the manuscript was sent to the office in charge of the publication of the translation. However, when Zafarullah Khan returned to Rabwah in the mid 1960s and contacted the office to inquire the status quo of his translation, to his surprise, the manuscript was nowhere to be found. This meant that he had to start his work again from scratch, following which he was able to finally publish his translation in 1971. The translation seems to have been a success, partly because of Zafarullah’s prominence, but also because it could be distributed through the Ahmadiyya community and its translation network, and a second edition appeared immediately afterwards, in the following year. Further revisions and reprints followed in the 1970s and 1980s. The translation was last reprinted in 2012.

I have consulted the 1981 reprint for my observations in this blog. The rendition begins with an introduction by Sir Zafarullah Khan on various topics such as safeguarding of the Qur’an, original sin and the meaning of jinn. The translation was published in columns with the English and Arabic running as parallel text. In comparison to most previous translations, Zafarullah Khan opted for a peculiar style of verse numbering. Instead of placing the numbers at the beginning of each verse, he divided the verses into sections and inserted the number in brackets at the end of each paragraph. He apparently decided on this approach to ensure a better reading flow of the target text. For this reason, Zafarullah Khan also abstains from using brackets, rather he translates verses freely, as he understood them. This is evident, for example, in his rendition of Q 4:157, which he translates as follows:

‘And their saying: We did kill the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah; whereas they slew him not, nor did they compass his death upon the cross, but he was made to appear to them like one crucified to death; and those who have differed in the matter of his having been taken down alive from the cross are certainly in a state of doubt concerning it, they have no definite knowledge about it, but only follow a conjecture; they certainly did not compass his death in the manner they allege.’

This verse illustrates the way that the translation exhibits, in some passages, an interpretative approach instead of a literal approach, and therefore represents his own personal understanding of this and other passages. Certainly, this verse on the question on Jesus’ crucifixion is one that has historically been controversial, and there are lot of options when it comes to how to translate it. Quoting a more literal translation that also upholds the position that Jesus survived the crucifixion may usefully demonstrate how different translations can be. For instance, Muhammad Asad opted for the same exegetical choice and translates the verses as follows:

‘And their boast, “Behold, we have slain the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, [who claimed to be] an apostle of God!” However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so; and, verily, those who hold conflicting views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere conjecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him.’

Why did Zafarullah Khan opt for his particular approach in his Qur’an translation? The introduction sheds light on this question when it states that the translation is intended to be a ‘modest effort at making a beginner’s study of the Qur’an a cheering, even an absorbing and profitable experience.’ Furthermore, it is stated that ‘the Arabic idiom has been retained except where adherence to it would make the meaning elusive and difficult to discover.’ In other words, the translation was designed for a non-specialist readership who desired to engage for the first time with the meanings of the Qur’an without being exposed to all the different potential interpretations. This is also the reason why Zafarullah Khan did not include any footnotes in his rendition: he intended the readership to engage exclusively with the Qur’anic text.

Finally, his decision to keep the translation concise also exhibits Zafarullah Khan’s pragmatism. As a politician and lawyer, he had become familiar with everyday life in Europe and had established good contacts with the political elite. He knew that people have busy lives, and not every reader can afford to deal with a voluminous translation or to explore ambiguous passages in more detail. He regarded it as his task to produce a translation that would enable a busy readership to read and ponder on the meanings of the Qur’an without insertions that could distract the reader.

Kamran Ahmad Khan

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