Qur’an translation of the week #84: ‘The Holy Qurʾan with a commentary’ – the first English translation composed by a Muslim

This week we take a close look at Abdul Hakim Khan’s (d. 1917?) ‘The Holy Qurʾan with a commentary’, which was published in 1905 and is the first English translation of the Qurʾan to be authored by a Muslim. As this post coincides with Christmas, we will focus on the way Khan treats the conception and death/ascension of Jesus in his text. Abdul Hakim Khan was from Patiala, India, and was an early member of the Ahmadiyya Movement: he remained a very close follower of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), the founder of the movement, for more than two decades. His decision to translate the Qurʾan into English seems to have been inspired by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be the Messiah and Mahdī, and who had already expressed the desire in 1890 that a commentary of the Qurʾan be written in English and sent to Europe to present the ‘true’ teachings of Islam. Several English translations by Christian scholars and Orientalists were available at that time, but these were considered unreliable by Muslim scholars.

The Ahmadiyya have a long history of engagement with Qur’an translation. Initially, scholars of the Ahmadiyya Movement began publishing translations of the Qurʾan in Urdu in order to make the meanings of the Qurʾan accessible to their fellow members. Abdul Hakim Khan himself produced a translation in Urdu with footnotes, which he published in 1901 under the title ‘Tafsīr al-Qurʾān bi l- Qurʾān’. It seems that his English translation, which was published four years later, drew heavily on this Urdu commentary.

Abdul Hakim Khan opted to publish his English translation without the original Arabic text. At the beginning of each ṣūra, he indicates how many verses it comprises and where it was revealed. In addition to the translation itself, extensive footnotes are included that contain references to other passages of the Qurʾan, the Hadith literature and the Bible. It is also evident from the footnotes that the translation is not only intended to convey the message of Islam, but also to include arguments to support the faith claims of the founder of the Ahmadiyya community. This is evident, for example, in his rendition of Q. 3:55 (in Khan’s translation it is verse 54), which Abdel Haleem translates as follows:

‘God said, “Jesus, I will take you back (innī mutawaffīka) and raise you up to Me…’

Abdul Hakim Khan translates the phrase ‘innī mutawaffīka’ at the beginning of the verse as ‘I will cause thee to die,’ thereby writing the concept of Jesus’ ascension out of the text. Of greater interest, however, is what Abdul Hakim Khan writes in the footnote for this verse. He comments that Jesus survived the crucifixion and then emigrated to Kashmir, where he died at the age of 120, and goes on to attribute the Muslim doctrine of Jesus’ ascension to Christian influence on Muslim scholars. To support Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claim that he is the Mahdi, Khan then cites more than 30 arguments to prove his veracity. It is very clear from this example alone that his translation was intended to make the views of the founder of the community accessible to English readers.

After ‘The Holy Qurʾan’ appeared in 1905, it was advertised Ahmadiyya Movement publications. For example, in the ‘Review of Religions’, a magazine published by the Ahmadiyya Movement since 1902, Abdul Hakim’s work is hailed by the editor and English readers are encouraged to purchase the new translation. However, shortly after the publication of ‘The Holy Qurʾan’ Abdul Hakim Khan left the movement following a heated dispute with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad over the question of whether salvation can be obtained without believing in the Prophet Muhammad. Abdul Hakim Khan upheld that salvation was not conditional on belief in Muhammad and, after leaving the community, wrote tracts against Mirza Ghulam Ahmad accusing him of fraud and unbelief. Khan’s change of heart was also reflected in the second edition of his translation, which he published shortly after his resignation. In the footnote where Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was hailed as the return of Jesus in the first edition, Abdul Hakim Khan now admitted to having made a mistake and put forward arguments to show the falsity of his former master’s claims. However, although Abdul Hakim Khan rewrote his footnotes so as to discredit Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, he still upheld the doctrine of the death of Jesus in his translation in the second edition. This may reflect the fact that belief in the death of Jesus was not exclusively an Ahmadiyya view, but was also a position taken by modern Sunni scholars such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan. In fact, Abdul Hakim Khan seems to have been under the influence of Sayyid Khan even before he left the Ahmadiyya Movement. This becomes clear, for example, in his treatment of the conception of Jesus, which is referenced in the phrase ‘qālat rabbi annā yakūnu lī waladun wa-lam yamsasnī basharun’ in Q 3:47. Khan translates this phrase as follows: ‘She cried out, My Lord, whencefrom shall I get a child, and no man hath touched me yet.’ This choice of words, specifically the addition of ‘yet’, is purposefully used by Abdul Hakim Khan to convey the idea that the virgin birth of Jesus is not an irrefutable fact. In the footnote accompanying this verse, he points out that Sayyid Khan has questioned the virgin conception of Jesus on the basis that he found no specific statement about it in the Qurʾan. Abdul Hakim Khan then states that Mary was untouched by any man up to the time of this prophecy. From this, however, it could not be concluded that Jesus was born in a supernatural way. Rather, God’s promise to Mary that ‘So doth God create what He liketh’ (kadhāliki l-lahu yakhluqu mā yashāʾ) later in the verse simply signifies that he will provide the means whereby Mary will give birth to a son. In other words, what God promised Mary was that she would marry and bear children.

Once Abdul Hakim Khan was no longer a member of the Ahmadiyya Movement and had become an arch-enemy of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, his translation could not be used by Ahmadis for proselytizing purposes. At the same time, Abdul Hakim Khan lost potential readers because he could no longer rely on the movement’s transnational network to advertise his work. This meant that the translation does not seem to have received much attention either within or outside India. Nevertheless, Abdul Hakim Khan goes down in history as the first Muslim to translate the Qurʾan into English, and it was not long before other Indian scholars followed in his footsteps and started to translate the Qurʾan into English themselves.

Kamran Khan

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