Qur’an translation of the week #191: A Malayalam Qur’an translation by Bahauddeen Muhammed Nadwi

A guest contribution by Suhair Thottupurath, Necmettin Erbakan University, Konya

Non-Arab Muslims have been actively translating the Qur’an for centuries, despite bouts of ideological opposition to the concept of the translatability of the Qur’an in various times and places. The Mappila communities that live in the South Indian state of Kerala accordingly have a rich history of engagement with the Qur’an in the Malayalam language and the Arabi Malayalam script, and Malayalam literature encompasses numerous translations of the Qur’an from diverse interpretive perspectives. The first Arabi Malayalam Qur’an translation was produced in 1867 by MāyinKutty Elaya, a famous scholar from the Malabar cost of South India to a mixed reception from the local Muslim community; some were so outraged as to dare to throw copies into the Arabian Sea. Despite the furore following the publication of Elaya’s translation, many further translations of the Qur’an in the regional vernacular have since been produced. In 1953, Muhammed Maitheen Vakkom completed the first Malayalam Qur’an translation in the Malayalam script, however he was unable to publish it; Kerala University published the work posthumously in 2009. In the interim, the first published Malayalam Qur’an translation in Malayalam script was Parishudha Qur’an (‘The Holy Qur’an’) by CN Ahmed Moulavi, which came out in 1961. Thereafter, many further Malayalam Qur’an translations were published, including KV Muhammad Musliar’s Fatḥ al-Raḥmān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān in 1971.

Bahauddeen Muhammed Nadwi’s Vishudda Qur’ān Vivarthanam (‘Translation of the Holy Qur’an’), published in 2015, was inspired by the perceived need for a new Malayalam Qur’an translation given the significant cultural and technological societal changes that have occurred over recent decades. Bahauddeen Muhammad Nadwi was a co-founder of Darul Huda Islamic University, an Islamic university in South India, and has been its vice chancellor since 2009. His goal when he set out to translate the Qur’an was to produce a comprehensive, single-volume, easily accessible translation that would be accepted by both Keralite intellectuals and the general public. After embarking on this project in 2004, and following a rigorous, nine-year period of hard work and extensive study, Bahauddeen Muhammad Nadwi finished his translation in 2015. It is the first Malayalam translation of the Qur’an to be presented in paragraph style and with a semi-thematic approach, meaning that the verses are translated in their canonical order but arranged in thematic paragraphs.

Vishudda Qur’ān Vivarthanam includes an extended preface intended to give readers a thorough introduction to the core ideas found in the Qur’an. This serves as a valuable resource for those who are reading the Qur’an for the first time. Beginning with the question ‘What is the Qur’an and what is it for?’, Bahaudheen Muhammed Nadwi elucidates the purposes and the unparalleled miraculous nature of the Qur’anic text, exploring its linguistic simplicity – as he sees it – and rhetorical aspects. He expresses his opinion that the Qur’an is a complete religious text, as it is essentially a comprehensive guide to both ideology and personal conduct.

The concluding section of Vishudda Qur’ān vivarthanam includes appendices containing useful maps, which help readers better grasp historical events. These provide clarity on events such as the hijra, the battles of Badr, Uhud, Khandaq, Hudaybiyya, Tabūk, and Khaybar, and the Conquest of Mecca (Fatḥ Makka). The information provided alongside the maps is exceptionally well organized: each map is accompanied by the name of the relevant sura and the number of verses that refer to the event in the Qur’an, and the corresponding page numbers in his commentary. For example, the map of the hijra is accompanied by a reference to ‘Surathul Anfal (Sooktham:30) page number 241 nokukka’ (‘Refer to page number 241, Sūrat al-Anfal:30’), a verse that mentions the reasons for the Muslims’ migration from Mecca to Medina. This approach ensures that readers can easily connect the geographical context with the relevant Qur’anic verses. The translator goes a step further by also including a geographical map depicting the region before the advent of Islam that provides an overview of tribes in that era, thereby providing readers with a comprehensive historical perspective.

The methodology Bahaudheen Muhmmed Nadwi uses in his translation is different from that found in other Malayalam translations of the Holy Qur’an. In addition to the layout of the text which, as mentioned above, arranges groups of verses in paragraphs, he also provides commentary that explains the ‘scientific miracles’ of the Qur’an, as well as the occasions of revelation of its verses, alongside geographical information about specific countries. He employs a variety of stylistic devices to make the translation easily understandable, such as using synonyms, incorporating additional clauses, detailing the referents of pronouns, providing explanations for keywords, and detailing addresses. When it comes to the names of the suras, their specificity, their virtues according to Prophetic ḥadīths, and the reasons behind their names are given. For example, the author explains the name of Sūrat al-Baqara (Q 2) by saying that al-baqara means ‘cow’ and relating the story of the prophet Moses, the Israelites, and the sacrificial cow.

Bahaudheen Muhmmed Nadwi displays a remarkable level of linguistic acumen in his translation work, which is particularly evident in his careful selection of words for different contexts. When translating a given Arabic word, he chooses different renditions to suit the precise context. For instance, the Arabic word qāla is translated as ‘announce’ or ‘proclaim’ in Sūrat al-Ikhlās, Sūrat al-Kāfirūn, and al-Muʿawwidhatayn (Sūrat al-Falaq and Sūrat al-Nās, the ‘Two Protectors’)while it is rendered as ‘yell’ in the context of Pharoah’s words in Sūrat al-Ghāfir, verses 26–28. Additionally, he translates the imperative form of qāla as ‘order’ in certain contexts. This careful approach aims to ensure precision in conveying the intended meaning of the original text.

In his translation, his regional background and its colloquialisms are taken into consideration. For instance, he renders the word hudhud (‘hoopoe’, Sūrat al-Naml, verse 20) as ‘maramkothi’ (‘woodpecker’). Notably, other Malayalam translations, such as Vishudda Qur’ān samboorna paribhasha, Fathu Rahmān,and Vishudda Qur’ān Vyakhyanam (by Mustafal Faizy), also use ‘maramkothi.’ In contrast, prominent English translations such as those by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Abdel Haleem, and Pickthall translate this as ‘hoopoe’. The precise equivalent of hudhud in Malayalam would be ‘puzhukothi’, but the word is rarely used and hoopoes are not frequently sighted in Kerala. For this reason, and because of the similarity in appearance between woodpeckers and hoopoes, Keralites might use the term ‘maramkothi’ interchangeably for both birds, and it is on this practice that he based his translation.

Qur’an translations have had a significant impact on Malayalam literature, and every translator has adopted a different methodology. Scholars from varied Islamic backgrounds have undertaken the task of translating the Qur’an according to their own personal ideologies, and each approach has its own advantages and drawbacks. Due to its distinctive qualities, such as being a one-volume translation with commentary, Vishudda Qur’ān Vivarthanam stands out as a masterpiece among Malayalam translations. Bahauddeen Muhammad Nadwi’s commitment to comprehensibility and clarity is demonstrated by his technical accuracy and has influenced the translation strategies he used, which have resulted in a highly readable text for a general audience. Additionally, his cautious approach in handling isrāʾiliyyāt and emphasis on highlighting scientific facts found in the Qur’an have added another layer of depth to his translation. The overall impact and contribution of this work is notable.

Suhair Thottupurath

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