Qur’an translation of the week #59: The first complete verbatim Urdu Qur’an translation

In previous posts (QTOTW 39 and 46), we have introduced the Persian Qur’an translation authored by Shāh Walī Allāh Dihlawī (1703–1762), and his son Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir Dihlawī’s Urdu translation, both of which had a huge impact on subsequent Qur’an translations produced in the Indian subcontinent during the nineteenth century. Father and son both opted for an idiomatic style in their translations, aspiring to provide an intelligible target text which would be accessible to the average layperson. Moreover, in the prefaces to their respective translations, both criticized literal translations as impeding an understanding of the Qur’an’s meaning. It is therefore all the more surprising that Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir Dihlawī’s older brother, Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn (1749–1817), composed a verbatim translation in Urdu. Unlike the other two translations, which are scarcely used today, Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn’s translation is still very popular but has received little attention in Western scholarship.

Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn was born in 1749 in Delhi. It is reported that his father sent him to learn Urdu with Mīr Dard (d. 1785), a prominent Sufi leader and a master of Urdu poetry. Later, Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn taught at the Madrasa-yi Raḥīmiyya, an Islamic seminary, which was run by his older brother after his father’s death. He is the author of a number of works in Urdu, most notably his verbatim translation of the Qur’an into Urdu (published without a title), and Tafsīr-i Rafīʿī, an exegesis of the second sura of the Qur’an.

As mentioned above, in his Urdu Qu’ran translation Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn chose to leave the syntax of the source text unchanged, replicating it in his interlinear translation. I have not been able to find any source that sheds light on why Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn chose this particular method, which differed greatly from the approach adopted by his father in his Persian translation. It may be that his translation was composed for the purpose of teaching Arabic to students at the Madrasa-yi Raḥīmiyya, who were only familiar with Urdu. This hypothesis is supported by the statement of one of Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn’s contemporaries, Muḥammad ḥaqqānī, who also translated the Qur’an into Urdu. In the preface to his translation, published in in 1792, he denounced his students’ lack of knowledge of Arabic and Persian, saying:

‘People who can read Persian are hard to find, not to mention Arabic. In this country, Hindustan, teachers who teach from books in Arabic and Persian have to explain the meaning in Hindi (Urdu) so that the students can comprehend, otherwise not a word registers and they understand nothing’ (translation from Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s ‘Changing Literary Patterns in Eighteenth-Century North India: Quranic Translations and the Development of Urdu Prose,’ with some amendments).

It is very likely that Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn had a similar readership in mind when he was preparing his translation. As Urdu became more popular as a language of learning, the concomitant decrease in knowledge of Persian and Arabic posed enormous challenges to schools in Delhi, and it is possible that Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn wrote his translation at least partly as a teaching aid intended to help the students of the Madrasa-yi Raḥīmiyya to learn the Arabic language.

This theory is supported by the fact that Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn incorporated many Arabic and Persian loanwords into his translation, which made the target text at least semantically similar to his father’s work. For example, Shāh Walī Allāh translates the term muttaqīn in Q 2:2 as parhīsgārān (‘righteous’). We find the same choice (parhīsgāron) in Rafīʿ al-Dīn’s translation, whereas his younger brother Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir translated it as dar wālon ko (‘those who fear’) in his Urdu translation. There are many other instances where Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn and Shāh Walī Allāh use the same words, but the cases where they differ are of greater interest. For instance, all three translations produced by the Shāh family deliver different translations to convey the idea of the furqān that was given to Moses in Q 2:53: Shāh Walī Allāh translates it with ḥujjat (‘proof’), whereas Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir chooses the term chukūtā (‘decision’) in his idiomatic translation, and Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn uses the word muʿjiza (‘miracle’). There are also several instances where both brothers make the same choice, but differ from their father. For example, Shāh Walī Allāh decided to render Allāh into Persian by using the word khudā (‘God’). His sons could have made the same choice, but both decided to leave Allāh untranslated. As can be seen from these three simple examples, it seems that Rafīʿ al-Dīn produced his own rendition of the Qur’an, which differed from his father’s Persian translation. However, commonalities in the translations do suggest that Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn took his father’s work into account during the translation process, and some of the decisions made in his verbatim translation do seem to be inspired by Shāh Walī Allāh’s Persian rendition.

Although Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn chose a traditional method for his translation, and his text was arguably less accessible than either his father’s or his brother’s at the time of their publication, in the longer term his decision lent his translation a distinct advantage over theirs: while the language (syntax and vocabulary) used in the other two translations became obsolete over the course of time, the language used by Shāh Rafīʿ al-Dīn is still understandable to today’s Urdu readers. This is the reason his translation still enjoys great popularity and is still used today by those learning the language and meanings of the Qur’an.

Sohaib Saeed

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