Qur’an translation of the week #77: A time of experimentation – A chronological Qur’an translation in early twentieth-century British India

In 1911 and 1912, an Indian Muslim academic called Mirza Abu’l-Fadl published a work entitled The Qur’ân: Arabic Text and English Translation: Arranged Chronologically: With an Abstract in his home town of Allahabad. This was only the second Qur’an translation into English, or any other Western European language, by a Muslim. While Qur’an translations into Urdu and other Indian languages were already flourishing in British India around the turn of the twentieth century, from 1905 onwards, in the context of the British Empire, more and more Muslims decided to use English as the medium of their translation. English was not their first language, and often not even their second, but it held high prestige and promised access to new audiences, including Europeans.

Mirza Abu’l-Fadl (1865–1956) was a native of East Bengal and came from an Imami Shi’i family. His main academic expertise was in Sanskrit, and he acquired a doctoral degree in the field of Sanskrit scholarship in Berlin around the turn of the century. During this time, he was influenced by German Orientalist scholarship, particularly that of Theodor Nöldeke, who paid great attention to the issue of the chronology of the Qur’anic suras in his Geschichte des Qorâns (1860). Mirza Abu’l-Fadl later settled in Allahabad, where he published his chronological Qur’an translation in two volumes, long before other and more famous Muslim scholars, such as the Palestinian Muḥammad ʿIzza Darwaza (1888–1984), or the Moroccan Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī (1935–2010), started writing chronological Qur’anic commentaries and Qur’an translations.

The specific order in which Abu’l-Fadl arranged the suras in this translation shows the deep influence that German Orientalists exerted on him. He did not follow the systems of earlier Muslim scholars such as al-Suyūṭī (1445–1505); rather, he adopted Theodor Nöldeke’s system. However, he made two changes to Nöldeke’s chronology, both of which related to the order of the early Meccan suras. The first is probably based on Muslim tradition (that Q 93 precedes Q 94) whereas the second (that Q 105 is ranked as the fourth sura) might have been inspired by the German Orientalist Hubert Grimme (1864–1942).

In addition to being familiar with German Orientalist scholarship, Mirza Abu’l-Fadl was well aware of existing English Qur’an translations by non-Muslim Orientalists, especially those by George Sale (1734), J.M. Rodwell (1861) and E.H. Palmer (1880). Rodwell had already arranged the surahs chronologically in his translation, thereby setting a precedent that Abu’l-Fadl followed (although he did not agree with Rodwell’s perspective on chronology). Stylistically, Palmer’s translation, which at the time was the most recently published, served as a blueprint to Abu’l-Fadl for his own. However, despite being influenced by these earlier translations, Abu’l-Fadl did make his own choices and express his own ideas. A particularly striking case is his translation of the beginning of Q 96 (Sūrat al-ʿAlaq), which in his arrangement is the first sura of the Qur’an:

1 Cry! in the name of thy LORD who created—

2 Created man from thick blood!

3 Cry! by thy LORD the most beneficent,

4 Who taught by the pen,

5 Taught man what he knew not.

Abu’l-Fadl explained his distinctive and expressive choice to translate the Arabic imperative iqraʾ as ‘Cry!’ in the very brief preface to his translation by arguing that ‘the Qur’ân was never given as a book: it is a Prophet’s cry to his people.’

This argument implicitly criticized previous non-Muslim English-language translators who had treated the Qur’an as a scripture that was either ‘read’ or ‘recited’. It might be linked to a revivalist reading of the Qur’anic message as a daʿwa, or ‘call’; or it might be inspired by the German Orientalists Abu’l-Fadl had studied with, some of whom strove to vividly imagine the mindscape and environment of the prophet and situate their reading of the Qur’an in this imaginary. That same approach might have informed Abu’l-Fadl’s decision to arrange the suras chronologically.

A feature that distinguishes Abu’l-Fadl’s translation from the works of his non-Muslim predecessors is the inclusion of the Arabic text of the Qur’an, for which he used metal type rather than the lithographic prints that were common in India. This had a rather negative impact on the quality of the typesetting, which was generally bad – something that Abu’l-Fadl was aware of, since he wrote in his foreword ‘I am fully conscious of the shortcomings of my present endeavour to which the Indian Printer’s Devil has contributed most strongly.’

Abu’l-Fadl followed the verse numbering system of the edition by Gustav Flügel (1834), which was used by European Orientalists but not usually in India. Like Flügel, he placed the number at the beginning of the verse, not at its end, as later Muslim muṣḥafs usually did.

The translation contains sparse notes, which come at the end of the second volume and provide additional information on specific terms or verses, but with a very uneven distribution across the Qur’an. For these notes, Abu’l-Fadl mostly drew on mainstream Qur’an commentaries and presented some of the common exegetical opinions they contain. However, he occasionally went beyond this and offered ideas that were based on biblical or Orientalist scholarship. There is also some evidence of modern rationalist ideas that were rampant in India at the time, especially in the context of Muslim-Christian polemics. Often, he provided the Orientalist/biblical/modernist reading as an alternative option to the conventional Muslim understanding or tried to harmonize both.

For example, Muslim scholars usually take the term al-nabī al-ummī (Q 7:157, 7:158) to mean ‘the illiterate Prophet’ (i.e. Muḥammad), although some exegetes provide other options. Several nineteenth-century Orientalists, however, held that it means ‘the apostle of the Gentiles’, meaning that Muḥammad was sent to a people that was neither Jewish nor Christian. Many Muslims were highly critical of this opinion: first, because it was often used to deny Muḥammad’s illiteracy, which they considered to be one aspect of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, and second, because it implicitly denied the universality of Muḥammad’s message as a call directed at all mankind, including Jews and Christians. Mirza Abu’l-Fadl, however, simply provided both options – ‘the unlettered Prophet’, or ‘the Prophet of the Gentiles’ – in his note.

Likewise, he identified Moses’ father-in-law, who is unnamed in the Qur’an, as Shuʿayb, in line with the Muslim exegetical tradition, but equated Shuʿayb with the biblical Jethro. Furthermore, the jinn, according to Abu’l-Fadl, could either be ‘aerial beings’ or a people from Mesopotamia, and thus human. The latter theory conformed to a modernist paradigm that provided natural explanations for supernatural phenomena mentioned in the Qur’an.

The same zeitgeist brought forth many historical theories about events narrated in the Qur’an, often involving recent archeological evidence or knowledge about regions and periods that had not been known to classical exegetes. These play a great role in Sayyid Aḥmad Khān’s (1817–1898) Urdu tafsīr, which in turn is probably the source of Abu’l-Fadl’s curious claim that the Qur’anic figure Dhū l-Qarnayn is ‘the Chinese king Che-Whangte, or Che-Hwangte, the founder of the Tsin dynasty, B.C. 248.’ (He meant Qin Shi Huang [247–221 BC] whose name is linked with the building of the Great Wall of China, which Sayyid Aḥmad Khān had identified with the barrier against Gog and Magog that is mentioned in the Qur’anic story of Dhū l-Qarnayn.)

There is no direct reference to Shi’i ideas in the translation or the notes, but it is clear that Abu’l-Fadl identified as Shi’i from his translation of Q 5:6, a verse that describes ritual washing (wuḍūʾ). The Imami Shi’is read and implement this verse differently from the Sunnis. Mirza Abu’l-Fadl does not address the difference but he clearly follows the Shi’i understanding. In this context, it is worth mentioning that, up until the 1950s, a remarkable number of Imami Shi’is from British India partially or fully translated the Qur’an into English; more than Sunnis, despite the fact that they were a Muslim minority. The reasons behind this phenomenon would be interesting to explore.

Abu’l-Fadl’s translation apparently saw three subsequent editions, the last of which was printed in Bombay in 1955. It seems to have little impact, though, maybe because there was no clear target readership it appealed to. It followed many Orientalist conventions, such as using Flügel’s text and verse numbering system, and employing Roman numerals (with some mistakes), which might have alienated potential Indian Muslim readers, but could hardly reach academic readers in Europe either. Nor was Abu’l-Fadl embedded in a daʿwa network, like the Ahmadiyya translators or, two decades later, Abdullah Yusuf Ali. He was not part of any larger Muslim associations that might have promoted his work and, unlike Marmaduke Pickthall, he did not have a high-ranking and rich sponsor’s support either.

Still, his translation is intriguing because it provides us a glimpse into the formative period of Muslim Qur’an translation where, unconstrained by established rules and standards, translators were free to navigate a wide range of sources and creatively combine Orientalist and Muslim scholarship, as well as premodern and contemporary sources. It was a time of experimentation in which many possibilities were explored: different styles, formats, layouts, and titles, semantic choices and interpretive moves. Some of them proved to be successful, some were dead ends, and some – such as the idea of a chronologically arranged Qur’an translation – were only picked up again by Muslim translators many decades later.

Johanna Pink

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