In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Indian subcontinent witnessed a significant increase in the production of Qurʾan translations into vernacular languages. The continuing rise in literacy rates, accompanied by falling printing costs, enabled more people to engage with the Qur’an and explore its meanings at an individual level. This, in turn, created a greater demand for accessible translations which everyone, even laypeople without any religious education, could work with. Established Urdu translations, such as Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir Dihlawī’s (d. 1827) Mūḍiḥ al-Qurʾān, were still influential and many Muslims in British India drew on Dihlawī’s work. However, his translation was produced in 1790 and used archaic language that was unfamiliar to many late nineteenth-century readers, despite attempts by various later scholars to update it.
Against this background, other scholars sought new ways to make the holy book more accessible to the Muslim public. One of these was Maulawī Nazir Ahmad Dihlawī (1831–1910), also known as ‘Deputy’ Nazir Ahmed, who advocated a more colloquial approach to Qur’an translation. Nazir Ahmad came from a family of distinguished religious scholars from the city of Bijnor in North India. After studying Arabic and Persian under the tutelage of his father, he enrolled at the renowned Delhi College, an institution established by the government which offered an education that followed both European and traditional Islamic models. After completing a degree in Arabic Literature and Philosophy in 1853, he worked as an Arabic teacher until his successful translation of the Indian Penal Code into Urdu earned him the position of Deputy Collector in the Revenue Department. While working there, he embarked on a second career as a novelist and became a prolific author, finding fame with the publication of works such as Mirʾat al-ʿUrūs and Taubat al-Nusūḥ. Following his retirement, he dedicated himself to translating the Qurʼan into Urdu. In the preface to his translation, Nazir Ahmad sheds light on his approach and methodology. He elaborates that he recited portions of the Qurʼan and translated those passages orally, while Maulawī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Muḥammad, who assisted him in the translation process, took dictation. If there was a disagreement between the two scholars over the meaning of a certain verse, they drew on exegetical works and Arabic dictionaries. After completing their first draft, Maulawī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān read the entire text back to Nazir Ahmad, who checked whether the translation was in alignment with the Qur’anic text. After adjustments and revisions, the translation, Qurʾān majīd maʿa farhang-i jadīd, was finally published in 1896.
The physical presentation of the text in this translation was the source of some discussion: Nazir Ahmad and his supporters considered whether the Urdu text should be arranged parallel to or even above the Arabic scripture. However, on the basis that ‘Muslims like to follow the beaten track’ (Musalmān purānī lakīr ki faqīr hain), they eventually decided to publish it as an interlinear translation. In terms of additions and commentary: Nazir Ahmad used brackets to indicate the addition of clarificatory words and phrases in the text itself. Footnotes were used for further explanations and contextualization.
Nazir Ahmad’s work reflects his understanding of what makes a good translation. He differed from the prevailing opinion of religious scholars at the time, who opined that a good translation has to convey the meanings in a way that remains semantically and syntactically close to the source text. In contrast, Nazir Ahmad proposed that a translation must convey the meanings of the source text, but that the language of the target text should be used freely, rather than be restricted by the demands of mirroring the semantics and syntax of the source text. He therefore opted for a fluent style in his target text and used language that corresponded to that encountered by his readers in their daily lives. In fact, Nazir Ahmad’s translation was idiomatic to the extent that he included a glossary of Urdu words that might be unknown to some readers due to provincial differences in Urdu dialects. Furthermore, he incorporated Urdu idioms in his translation, arguing that, sometimes, they provide a suitable way to transmit the meanings of the Qur’an. For example, he translates tilka amāniyyuhum (Q 2:111, ‘those are their [vain] desires’) as ye un kī (apnī) khayālī pulāw hain (‘those are their imaginative Pilaw’). In a footnote, he explains that he preferred to use an Urdu metaphor that conveys the same meaning as the original Arabic instead of clinging to a literal translation by using words such as ārzū (‘desires’) or tawaqquʿāt-i bāṭila (‘false expectations’).
Nazir Ahmad’s colloquial approach caused controversy in religious circles, and religious scholars who favored a more literal approach wrote reviews describing its perceived flaws. For example, in a review entitled ‘Iṣlāḥ-i tarjama-yi Dihlawiyya’, Ashraf ʿAlī Thānawī (1863–1943), a respected Deobandi scholar, criticized the colloquial approach used in the translation, arguing that it led to significant discrepancies in style, register and meaning between the source and target texts. Furthermore, he notes that, in several places, the translation does not consider the ḥanafī view, although the majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent follow the school of Abū ḥanīfa. For instance, in the context of Q 2:196, which discusses the issue of if and when one should offer sacrifice if one is unable to complete the Hajj or Umrah, Nazir Ahmad only notes that a sacrifice should be offered if someone is prevented from completing them, while Ashraf ʿAlī Thanawī deems it necessary to inform the reader that, according to the ḥanafī view, the sacrifice has to reach Mecca.
Ashraf ʿAlī’s review thus reflects scholarly discourses in British India at the time concerning the features of a reputable Qur’an translation. A translation was not only assessed on the basis of whether or not it properly conveyed the meaning of the Qur’an: language, style and the content of explanatory notes were also judged as key characteristics of a good rendition. However, despite the criticism of some scholars, it seems that Nazir Ahmad’s approach appealed to the zeitgeist and his translation was well received by the general Muslim public. In the next ten years, more than 50,000 copies were sold, and the tenth edition of this work was published in 1908.