Qur’an translation of the week #78: Tafsīr al-Qur’ān wa-huwa al-Hudā wa ‘l-Furqān’- Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s exegesis and Urdu translation of the Qur’an

What role does modern science play in our understanding of the Qur’an? This week we will look at the Urdu translation/exegesis of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), who tried to bridge the gap between ancient Islamic tradition and modern science. Sayyid Ahmad Khan was born in Delhi in 1817 into an Ashraf family. After the death of his father, he decided to work for the British, becoming part of the colonial legal administration. After the failed mutiny in 1857, he wrote a work on the possible reasons that led to the uprising against British rule. Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s attitude towards India’s colonialist, Christian rulers was mainly one of peaceful coexistence, as he believed the country could benefit from the scientific innovations they brought with them. However, he also recognized that European scientific knowledge posed great challenges to educated Muslims.

Sayyid Khan recognized that modern science is based on evidence and empirical findings, not syllogisms and mere assumptions. Muslims, Hindus, and other religionists who study modern science, Sayyid Ahmad Khan argued, might accept the scientific approach that something can only be accepted as fact once it is empirically proven. However, he pointed out, many views held by contemporary Muslim scholars about the Qur’an were based on approaches and assumptions that were accepted as valid in the Middle Ages but which have since been refuted by empirical evidence. He feared that, as a consequence of the fact that many Islamic scholars based their views in outdated assumptions, those Muslims who engaged with modern science would move away from the religion, which in their eyes would be based on an outdated scripture. Sayyid Khan argued that, because of this, it is imperative that Muslim scholars take a stand on the question of how to deal with modern scientific knowledge, and contended that its ideas and findings should be taken into account when interpreting the Qur’an.


The endeavor to harmonize the findings of modern science with the understanding of the Qur’an acted as the main driving force behind Sayyid Khan’s publication of the first part of his ‘Tafsīr al-Qur’ān wa-huwa al-Hudā wa ’l-Furqān’ in 1880. This exegesis and Urdu translation, the last part of which was published posthumously, covers the first 18 surahs of the Qur’an. In it, Sayyid Ahmad Khan addresses a literate readership who are not fully convinced of their religion because of modern science. His premise was that the Qur’an is the word of God, and science presents information about the laws of nature, the work of God, and thus there should be no contradiction between the Quran and science.

According to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, previous exegetical and theological thought should be understood in the context of Greek philosophy and logic, both of which contributed to the development of Kalām. Premodern scholars tried to find answers that chimed with the state of knowledge of their time, but, since Europeans have now uncovered new scientific findings, these established Muslim interpretations must be critically re-examined. Sayyid Khan was not concerned with questioning holy scripture, which for him undoubtedly represented the Word of God. Rather, he complained that the assumptions on which previous exegetes based their views did not correspond to current knowledge and had to be understood in the context of their times.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s epistemological approach also had implications for how he translated the text of the Qur’an in his Urdu tafsīr. Exegetes who understood prophetic stories as ‘miraculous’ and embellished prophetic miracles with additional traditions were thorns in Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s side. He argued that, instead, the stories told in the Qur’an should be read in a way that is compatible with reason and natural law. An example in which traces of the rationalist understanding of prophet stories are clearly evident is found in his treatment of a passage in the second surah of the Qur’an, at Q 2.60, when Moses is commanded by God to strike the rock with his staff (‘iḍrib bi-ʿaṣāka ’l-ḥajara’), after which the Qur’an tells us that twelve springs gush forth (‘fa ’nfajarat minhu ’thnatā ʿasharata ʿaynan’). Sayyid Ahmad Khan translates this phrase as follows: ‘Chall apnī lāthī ke sahāra se is chadtān par’ (‘Go, leaning on your staff, to the rock’). He insisted that it would contradict the law of nature to consider Moses’ blow on the rock as causing the springs to suddenly appear. To prove that his view was also linguistically correct, in the footnote Sayyid Khan cites a number of other verses in which the word ‘ḍaraba’ is translated as ‘go’.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan was criticized for his views by many traditional Muslims. His credo that the understanding of the Qur’an must be in harmony with the laws of nature earned him the epithet ‘Nechurī’ (‘naturalist’). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that he at least presented a way for Muslims to deal with the challenges of modernity. His overall approach of critically questioning the classical interpretation of the Qur’an can certainly be counted as one that lived on after his death. Having said that, it is difficult to evaluate how influential Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s exegesis actually was, as much of his thought was only tacitly adopted. At the very least, it can be observed that rudiments of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Urdu translation are clearly observable in the earliest Muslim authored English translations of the Qur’an. Mirza Hairat Ali, who translated the Qur’an into English in 1916, similarly indicates in a footnote to Q 2.60 that ‘ḍaraba’ could also be translated as ‘go’, while Muhammad Ali, who published his influential translation in 1917, even adopted Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s translation verbatim. Both translators, however, failed to attribute their translation choices to Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Nevertheless, this confirms the view that his thoughts echoed latently after his death, and even reached a wider audience in Europe through English translations of the Qur’an.

Share this post