Qur’an translation of the week #171: Muhammad Ali’s Urdu Translation: Bayān al-Qurʾān

This week we will take a closer look at Muhammad Ali’s 1923 Urdu translation, Bayān al-Qurʾān.

Muhammad Ali, a prominent Ahmadi scholar, ascended to the leadership of the Lahore branch following a schism within the Ahmadiyya movement in 1914. In a previous post, we introduced Muhammad Ali and his influential English Qur’an translation of 1917 (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-106-the-first-influential-muslim-authored-translation-of-the-quran-into-english/ ). Six years later, he also published an Urdu translation, accompanied by extensive annotations. This endeavor sought to provide Urdu readers on the Indian subcontinent with a comprehensive rendition that gives voice to the Lahore branch’s nuanced understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an.

While Muhammad Ali was not the first Indian Muslim scholar to undertake Qur’anic translation in multiple languages, his approach was quite different from that of predecessors such as Dr. Abdul Hakim Khan (d. 1919) and Mirza Hairat Dilhawi (d. 1928) who initially released their Urdu renditions before their English counterparts. Ali pursued a different trajectory, publishing his Urdu translation subsequent to the completion and dissemination of his English work. This sequencing underscores the Lahore branch’s missionary agenda, revealing their perception of a pressing need for a translation tailored for a European readership. However, Muhammad Ali’s English translation was not accessible for all his followers, and much less so for the common Indian reader who only had command of Urdu. Bayān al-Qurʾān was designed to bridge this gap and furnish a fitting commentary for both Lahore branch members and the broader Indian populace.

Although Muhammad Ali’s English translation was published prior to Bayān al-Qurʾān, in 1913 he was simultaneously preparing the Urdu script for Bayān al-Qurʾān while working on the manuscript of his English translation. Mawlawī Nūr al-Dīn (d. 1914), the first caliph of the Ahmadiyya movement, initially supervised the project and instructed Muhammad Ali during the translation process. Upon Nūr al-Dīn’s demise in 1914, Muhammad Ali ascended to lead the emerging Lahore branch, which refrained from pledging allegiance to the new caliph. During this time, Muhammad Ali focused on finalizing his English translation, and this led to a temporary stall in the progress of his Urdu rendition. In 1918, Muhammad Ali resumed work on the project, but realizing that his translation of the second sura alone spanned over 500 pages, he restarted the entire work, this time striving to be more concise in his commentary. Despite his efforts, the final work was still extensive and was published in three volumes, with the first volume being published in 1922, the second in 1923 and the final volume in 1924.

Compared to his English translation, Bayān al-Qurʾān is distinguished by a number of striking features. Notably, the Urdu rendition is much more extensive than Ali’s previous work. Ali elaborates in the preface to Bayān al-Qurʾān that he included detailed discussions on the lexical meanings of Arabic terms which were not part of the English rendition. He decided to take this step in order to present a much more detailed work to his Muslim readership. By doing so, Muhammad Ali envisioned, his work could function as a syllabus for Qur’an teachings. He was, however, well aware that the general reader would not benefit from these discussions and advised them to skip this part in case they were not familiar with the subtleties of the Arabic language. The English and Urdu texts also deviate significantly when it comes to the translation layout, with the columnar format of the English version replaced by an interlinear arrangement in Bayān al-Qurʾān. This shift stemmed from practical considerations – the extensive annotations in the Urdu rendition necessitated this alteration, and it also aligned with the preferences of the target Indian readership. Differences can also be observed in the target text; while Muhammad Ali’s English translation featured chapter divisions supplemented by headings related to their respective subjects, these headings are absent in Bayān al-Qurʾān. This omission underscores Muhammad Ali’s decision to adhere to traditional norms prevailing in India and characteristic of South Asian Qur’anic translations, rather than introducing innovative approaches to the Indian Muslim audience.

In Bayān al-Qurʾān Muhammad Ali relied heavily on the footnotes he had already incorporated into his English tradition. These footnotes were often coupled with English scholarship and their inclusion into the Urdu rendition introduced new ideas based on European research to his Indian readership. One illustrative example can be found in relation to the ‘fellows of the cave’ (aṣḥāb al-kahf) who are mentioned in Sura 18. Here, Muhammad Ali delves into the question of who these cave-dwelling individuals could potentially be, as outlined in the Qur’an. Casting aside the notion of a connection to the ‘Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,’ he postulates various scenarios for the origins of this narrative. He puts forward an interesting proposition that it pertains to a biblical figure, Joseph of Arimathea, who is often linked to the crucifixion of Jesus. Muhammad Ali references an article suggesting that Joseph was dispatched by St. Philip to Glastonbury, in the British county of Somerset. According to this account, Joseph and his companions erected the first British church, which was later transformed into Glastonbury Abbey.  In essence, Muhammad Ali puts forward the exegetical option that the events involving the aṣḥāb al-kahf might have transpired in Great Britain, a proposition that likely represents the first ever instance of this interpretive possibility. Furthermore, it underscores Muhammad Ali’s endeavor to substantiate the Qur’an’s veracity through historical records while simultaneously counteracting views espoused by Orientalists and Christian scholars. Through his Urdu translation, Muhammad Ali introduces select subjects from European scholarship to his South Asian readership, skillfully distilling intricate discussions. A case in point is his treatment of Joseph of Arimathea; in contrast to his more elaborate annotations in his English commentary, his remarks in the Urdu rendition are succinct. Probably, Muhammad Ali was also aware that European readers might find the British connection more captivating and pertinent than their Indian counterparts.

It is worth noting that the association between Joseph of Arimathea and his companions with the aṣḥāb al-kahf was absent from the later English edition released in 1951, an omission that implies Muhammad Ali subsequently rejected this hypothesis. However, given that Muhammad Ali did not undertake a revision of his Urdu translation, this putative link between Great Britain and the aṣḥāb al-kahf persists within the most recently edition of Bayān al-Qurʾān, which was published in 1980.

Kamran Ahmad Khan

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