Qur’an translation of the week #97: Tafsīr-i Uthmānī – ‘Restoring’ an old translation

What do you do when the language of a Qur’an translation becomes outdated, but you still want readers to benefit from the work? One answer is provided by Maḥmūd Ḥasan’s Urdu Qur’an translation, which was later included in the Tafsīr-i Uthmānī. Maḥmūd Ḥasan (d. 1920), who became later known as ‘Shaykh al-Hind’, was born in 1851 in the northern Indian city of Raebareli. After initially studying with his father, he joined the newly founded Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband in 1868 as one of its first students. There, after completing his studies in 1873, he embarked on a career as a teacher. In 1909 he began working on a new translation of the Qur’an: within two years, he had already translated one-third of the holy book. After that, due to his political activities, which included founding several campaigns against British rule in India, the translation came to a halt for the next five years.

However, in 1916, while traveling to the Hijaz, Maḥmūd Ḥasan was arrested by the British because of his political activism in India, and taken to Malta. There, in captivity, he was able to continue working on his translation, which he completed in 1918. Maḥmūd Ḥasan intended to publish commentary alongside his translation, but he was only able to add this to the first four suras of the Qur’an before he died shortly after his return to India in 1920.

After his death, his student Shabbīr Uthmānī (d. 1949), who had studied ḥadīth under Maḥmūd Ḥasan in the Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband, continued the unfinished Qur’an commentary. He finally completed this in 1932, and the translation was published for the first time two years later. In the following discussion of this work, I will primarily focus on the actual translation text of the Tafsīr-i Uthmānī, which was mainly provided by Maḥmūd Ḥasan.

In the preface to the translation, Maḥmūd Ḥasan explains that he was initially opposed to the idea of composing a new Qur’an translation, as Deobandi scholars such as Ashraf Ali Thānavī had only recently published new renditions in Urdu. However, he observed that the readership of the very esteemed Mūḍiḥ-i Qur’an, the first complete Qur’an translation in idiomatic Urdu, was decreasing immensely. Mūḍiḥ-i Qur’an, which was composed by Shāh Walī Allāh’s (d. 1762) son, Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir (d. 1813), had enjoyed great popularity in many scholarly circles and among Muslim readers in the nineteenth century, and was also known as ‘the divinely inspired translation’ (Tarjama Ilhāmiyya).

However, the language used in this translation, which was completed in 1790, had become cumbersome for Urdu readers by the beginning of the twentieth century, due to the development of the Urdu language that took place in the nineteenth century. Many twentieth-century readers were no longer familiar with the obsolete words that appeared in Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir’s translation. Moreover, Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir had tried to stay very close to the original wording of the Qur’an, which made it difficult for Urdu readers to understand the target text. Since, to Maḥmūd Ḥasan’s eyes, this translation was exceptional, he deemed it appropriate to rework Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir’s work so as to make the text more intelligible to Indian readers, rather than embarking on his own rendition from scratch. Maḥmūd Ḥasan therefore aimed to replace words that had become uncommon with more common, modern wording and, if necessary, to insert additional words to simplify the understanding of certain verses.

A closer look at the translation will show how Maḥmūd Ḥasan proceeded to adapt the language of Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir’s translation to the readership of the twentieth century. As an example, let us first look at Q 2:127. The Arabic text reads: Wa-idh yarfaʿu ibrāhīmu l-qawāʿida mina l-bayti wa-is’māʿīlu rabbanā taqabbal minnā innaka anta l-samīʿu l-ʿalīm.’ Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir translates this verse as follows: ‘And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the house’s foundation: “O our Lord! Accept this from us. You hear and know the truth.”’

It is not hard to recognize that Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir, as far as the Urdu language allowed, stuck very much to the Arabic text in his translation. In Urdu, his rendition of Q 2:127 is quite understandable, but the syntax is somewhat peculiar. In his reworking, Maḥmūd Ḥasan changed the translation to read as follows: ‘And remember the time when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the Kaʿba, praying: “Our Lord, accept this from us. Surely, you are the all-hearing, the all-knowing.”’

In Urdu, this sentence reads much more fluently because of the rearrangement of the words, and the meaning is also easier to understand. In some places, the target text of Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir’s translation is extremely concise, and Maḥmūd Ḥasan chooses to rephrase it. This can be gleaned from his translation of Q 2:53, the Arabic wording of which is as follows: ‘Wa-idh ātaynā Mūsā l-kitāba wa-l-fur’qāna laʿallakum tahtadūn.’ Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir translates this verse as follows: ‘And when we gave Moses the book and the decision (Urdu: ‘chukawtā’), that you may be righteous.’ Maḥmūd Ḥasan chooses the following approach: ‘When we gave Moses the book and commandments that separated right from wrong, that you may be rightly guided.’

While Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir translates furqān as ‘chukawtā’ (‘decision’), Maḥmūd Ḥasan opts for paraphrasing ‘furqān‘, a strategy which is meant to help the reader comprehend the context. This example clearly demonstrates the way that Shāh ʿAbd al-Qādir’s translation is very concisely worded in some places, and how this can impede the understanding of the text. Maḥmūd Ḥasan’s choice to insert additional words to give the reader a more accessible translation seems quite reasonable.

In fact, both Maḥmūd Ḥasan’s approach and his student’s commentary were clearly very appealing to Urdu readers of the twentieth century, as can be seen from the number of editions of Tafsīr-i Uthmānī that have been produced: Mofakhkhar Khan lists 24 editions in his bibliography, published in 2001. Even today, this work still enjoys great popularity, and only recently an app was even developed to make it easier for readers to access Maḥmūd Ḥasan’s Tafsīr-i Uthmānī.

Kamran Khan

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