Qur’an translation of the week #184: Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani’s The Meanings of the Noble Qur’an with Explanatory Notes

The Meanings of the Noble Qur’an with Explanatory Notes by Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani (b. 1943), first published in 2007, is rooted in the Deobandi movement which originated in India in the nineteenth century and promotes a conservative brand of Islamic revivalism that upholds the authority of traditional Hanafi scholarship. As a result of the global movement of South Asian Muslims within the British Empire, and the vast increase in labour migration following World War Two, the Deobandi movement nowadays has a worldwide following, which has ensured Taqi Usmani’s work a favourable reception at an international level.

Taqi Usmani was born in Deoband, in British India, to Mufti Muhammad Shafi, one of the most prominent Deobandi scholars of his time. Muhammad Shafi moved to Pakistan with his family after the partition of India, where he founded Darul Uloom Karachi, an offshoot of Darul Uloom Deoband, the foundational institution of the Deobandi movement. His son, Taqi Usmani, studied at Darul Uloom Karachi, became a teacher there, and later obtained various important position in Islamic legal bodies in Pakistan; he also founded an Islamic bank and is the chairman of the sharia board of the State Bank of Pakistan. He is a member of a number of international Islamic institutions as well, including the Muslim World League.

Taqi Usmani’s Qur’an translation was a by-product of his participation in a committee that translated into English his father’s Urdu Qur’an commentary (tafsīr), Maʿarif ul-Qurʾan, first published in 1972. Work on this project spanned several decades and was completed in 2004. While he was translating the tafsīr, Taqi Usmani and his team were faced with the question of which English Qur’an translation to use, and found that the use of any existing translation inevitably led to problems because it would not always match the content of the tafsīr. Taqi Usmani therefore decided to translate the Qur’an anew specifically for use in the Maʿarif ul-Qurʾan translation. He subsequently published a revised edition of this translation separately, with brief annotation, for readers who are not looking for an extensive tafsīr.

The first edition of Taqi Usmani’s translation was published in 2007 by Maktaba Ma’ariful Quran, which is affiliated with Dar al-Ulum in Karachi, and was of somewhat mediocre quality. In 2020, the London-based publisher Turath printed a luxury edition in British (as opposed to the original version’s American) English with improved typesetting and a slightly different title, The Noble Qur’an: Meaning with Explanatory Notes. The translation has frequently been used and reproduced on websites, typically without the commentary and other paratexts that are part of the printed edition. These include a foreword, an introduction to the Qur’an and its interpretation (missing from the Turath edition), introductions to the suras, footnotes and a thematic index.

The translator’s Deobandi orientation is already abundantly clear in the introduction, which Taqi Usmani, after having given an overview of the history of the Qur’an, and its recitation and interpretation, concludes with a section entitled ‘Last – But Not the Least!’ (sic). In this, he distinguishes between two objectives of the Qur’an: first, drawing attention to the fundamentals of faith, and second, promulgating laws regarding worship as well as social, economic and political matters. While the fundamentals of faith may (at least to a certain extent) be grasped by lay readers, according to Taqi Usmani, understanding the Qur’anic laws requires competent experts. He complains about a ‘superficial trend’ towards considering the Qur’an ‘an easy book of guidance’ that anyone can interpret, even without knowledge of Arabic, which, he asserts, is ‘an irrational and dangerous attitude’. After all, he argues, if the Qur’an was straightforward to understand on every level, the Prophet would not have been entrusted with teaching its meaning to his followers. A proper understanding of Qur’anic legislation, in his opinion, requires a thorough grounding in Arabic, ḥadīth and tafsīr. Taqi Usmani concludes this polemic against modernists who think that traditional scholarship is dispensable with a ḥadīth: ‘Whoever interprets the Holy Qur’ān without proper knowledge should seek his abode in the Fire (of Hell).’ The underlying purpose of this whole diatribe is to bolster the authority of Islamic scholars (ʿulamāʾ), which is a keystone of the Deobandi system.

The translation – like many recent English translations, especially from the revivalist spectrum – is written in modern English, as opposed to archaic ‘King James style’, and aims to stay as close to the Arabic syntax as possible. This sometimes comes at the expense of fluency. For example, the phrase wa-lahum ʿadhābun ʿaẓīm in Q 2:7 is rendered as ‘and for them awaits a mighty punishment’. Sometimes, especially in suras 8 through 114 whose translation apparently was not copy-edited by a native speaker of English, the English is not even quite correct, for example when sābiqū (Q 57:21) is rendered as ‘Compete each other’. The translation is often expanded to include additions in brackets. Sometimes these are uncontroversial and merely make the text easier to read, but sometimes they provide a specific interpretation, as in Usmani’s rendition of Q 24:3:

A man who is a fornicator does not (like to) marry but a woman who is a fornicator or a polytheist; and a woman who is a fornicator does not (like to) marry but a man who is a fornicator or a polytheist. And this (i.e. preferring to marry such spouses) has been prohibited for the believers.

Taqi Usmani mentions in the note on this verse that it has been interpreted in other ways, without specifying these. For example, the fifteenth-century Tafsīr al-Jalālayn interprets the verse as a recommendation, rather than a statement about individual preferences. Usmani attributes his interpretation to the renowned Deobandi Ashraf ʿAlī Thānawī (1863–1943), and states that he chose it because he considers it to be the most straightforward. While he is transparent about his preference for one particular interpretation among several in this particular note, the translation is often reproduced elsewhere without the notes, in which case his opinion comes across as the only possible interpretation of the verse.

As in this example, Usmani’s notes predominantly rely on Deobandi scholarship, especially the Maʿarif ul-Qurʾan. Anthropomorphic verses, for example about God’s throne (ʿarsh) and stool (kursī), are translated literally without further comment. In some cases, there is a discernible tendency towards apologetics, where Taqi Usmani tries to justify, mitigate or reinterpret Qur’anic statements that might today be considered problematic. Thus, with regard to verses that concern the status of non-Muslims, he repeatedly goes out of his way to explain them in an exclusivist manner. For example, with regard to Q 2:62 (translated by Taqi Usmani as ‘Surely, those who believed in Allah, and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabians, – whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day, and does good deeds – all such people will have their reward with their Lord, and there will be no reason for them to fear, no shall they grieve’), a note clarifies that the only way for Jews, Christians and Sabians to attain the reward mentioned in the verse is to accept the prophethood of Muḥammad and embrace Islam. The note on Q 9:29 which addresses the jizya (originally denoting a ‘tribute’, later often understood to mean ‘tax’) that must be paid by the ahl al-kitāb (People of the Book) deserves to be quoted in full:  

Jizyah is a tax levied by an Islamic state on its Non-Muslim citizens in exchange of the protection offered to their lives, wealth, honor and the civil rights recognized for them. The principle is that they may profess their own faith if they so wish, but they must submit to the laws of Shari’ah in all civil and criminal matters, except in their family laws. Jizyah is a token of such a submission. They are not legally required to pay Zakāh, a ritual levy imposed on the Muslims, but they may enjoy the benefits of any social welfare scheme offered by the state to its citizens. Jizyah is one of the resources from which such schemes may be offered to its Non-Muslim citizens.

A point to note here is that this verse has described Jizyah as a levy imposed only on the Jews and Christians, but according to the Holy Prophet, Jizyah is to be imposed on all Non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state. The reason why the verse has mentioned only the People of the Book is probably that it was revealed in the context of the expedition of Tabūk, which was launched against the Christians.

The first aspect that is noteworthy here is the consistent use of the language and concepts of modern statehood. The second is the expansion of the category of jizya payers to all non-Muslims, beyond Christians and Jews, which has a long history in India where the majority of non-Muslims are neither Christians nor Jews. These two aspects combined serve to make the verse directly applicable to a contemporary South Asian state such as Pakistan, which is in line with Usmani’s view of Islamic statehood.

Taqi Usmani was the first Deobandi ʿālim to write an English Qur’an translation. That this only occurred in 2005 might seem surprising, but is consistent with the fact that traditional Sunni scholars from South Asia were generally late to enter the fray when compared to, for example, South Asian Shi’is and Ahmadis, as far as Qur’an translations into European languages are concerned. For a long time they prioritized Urdu translations; maybe their training often simply did not enable them to express themselves in English to a sufficient degree. Given Taqi Usmani’s training, affiliations and identity, his work immediately attracted a following and received high praise. This was clearly based to a large extent on his authority as a scholar, which inspired readers, and particularly conservative Sunni readers with a South Asian background, to trust his interpretations. Beyond that, reader reviews highlighted the accessible language and the ratio between text and annotation, which they judged to be ‘just right’.

Taqi Usmani’s English Qur’an translation is part of the story of the globalization of the South Asian religious field, which occurred in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries on an unprecedented scale. It started in the context of the British Empire and continued with mass labour migration to the Middle East, Europe and the United States. As a result, all these regions played a part in the evolution of South Asian Islamic discourses and also became sites of the tensions between different trends, such as Aligarh-style modernists, Deobandis, and ahl-e ḥadīth. The contribution of South Asian Muslims to the field of Qur’an translation is not only part and parcel of the emergence of the modern translation movement in the early twentieth century, but it continues to be crucial until today: its importance cannot be overstated.

Johanna Pink

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