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History of how the 1917 work was produced

In the Foreword to the 1963 edition of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s revised translation and commentary, Maulana Yaqub Khan traced the history of the first, 1917, edition as follows:

Work on the first edition of the English translation of the Quran took him seven long years (1909 –1916). The amount of original research that went into tracing the meanings of the words and verses, finding the underlying sense of Sections and Chapters, and linking it up with the preceding and succeeding text, so that the whole of the Quran was shown to have the thread of a continuous theme running through it — it is simply staggering to think of all this stupendous and most taxing labour put in single handed, day after day, for seven long years. But that is exactly what made Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation the boon of the world of scholarship in the West as well as the East when it appeared in print in 1917. It was a pioneer venture breaking altogether new ground, and the pattern set was followed by all subsequent translations of the Quran by Muslims. It meets every criticism that has been levelled against the Quran. The Introduction is a whole mine of research, which throws light on all the salient features of a truly Divine religion. There is no attempt at pedantry or literary flourishes. Nor is there any pandering to preconceived popular notions or a bid for cheap popularity. It is a loyal service to the Word of God aiming at scrupulously honest, faithful rendering.

It is also stated in the same Foreword:

Maulana Muhammad Ali’s Translation marks a definite epoch in the understanding of Islam. Among the Muslim intelligentsia it positively arrested the creeping decay of faith as a result of the Western materialistic influences, and the sceptical trends of Western philosophic thought.

In the realm of Western scholarship, the impact of this Translation is noticeable in the changed outlook on Islam and the changed tone of literature about Islam that has since appeared. The very first indications of such wholesome change are met with in the writings of a man of no less scholarly stature than H.G.Wells. In 1920, when his work The Outline of History, appeared, it carried the whole of Section 16 of Chapter 3 as rendered in this Translation, describing it as an example of the Quran’s “majestic utterances from the recent orthodox translation by the Maulvi Muhammad Ali”.

From the biography of Maulana Muhammad Ali

Below we quote a section from the biography of Maulana Muhammad Ali (the Urdu book Mujahid-i Kabir, which has been translated into English as A Mighty Striving) about the 1917 edition.

“ —
Completion and publication of the English Translation of the Holy Quran

At last, after a labour of about seven years, in April 1916 Maulana Muhammad Ali completed work on the English translation and commentary of the Holy Quran. In his Friday khutba on 28 April he gave the good news to the community. After reading Sura Al-Fatiha, Sura Al-Falaq and Sura An-Nas, he said:

“A human being can only take on a task by Allah’s help and it is only with Allah’s help that he can complete it. Today is a day of happiness for me. For years I have been busy in the work of translating the Holy Quran into English and by the grace of Allah I have completed it today. I am not happy like a student who, at the end of his examination, feels that now he will have free time and can rest for a few days. I am happy because all the time that I was involved in this work the worry was always at the back of my mind that life is so fickle and it may be that this work would be left incomplete. Of course, Allah is not short of men and it was His work which would have been completed somehow; if He has given strength to a weak person like me to start this work, there is no reason why He could not get it done by someone else. But it gives great pleasure to a person to complete by his own hand in his own life the work that he had started.”
After this he explained the meanings of Sura Al-Falaq and Al-Nas, as to how a person can seek God’s protection and the purpose of every work of a human being should be to seek that Divine protection. He told how God caused all the stages of this work to be completed, lifted all darkness and as to those who were trying to lay obstacles in the way, God brought them to failure.

It was decided to have the English translation printed in England because the printing machines that were required for the high quality, fine paper that was to be used were not available in India. So Maulana Sadr-ud-Din at Woking was entrusted with the arrangements for its printing, a task which he fulfilled extremely well. Later on, Mian Ghulam Rasul’s son Mian Ghulam Abbas also went to Woking for the same work. The instructions that Maulana Muhammad Ali gave to Maulana Sadr-ud-Din in connection with this work can be seen in the following letter which he wrote to him at the end of 1915 when the translation itself was ready but some other work remained to be done:

Respected Maulvi Sadr-ud-Din sahib, Imam Woking Mosque. Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah wa barakatu.

As your letters show that the English translation of the Quran is urgently needed for your mission of the propagation of Islam, and without it you as well as the new converts are facing great problems, and as the translation part of my work is ready, while some work remains to be done on the footnotes, and because of difficulties with Arabic type there could be a further delay, so I give you authority to get the first edition printed consisting of the translation only, to arrange for the finance as you think fit and to publish it as you wish. However, no change, alteration or amendment whatsoever should be made in the translation except for corrections required during proof reading. You do not even have to send me the proofs.

Wassalam. Humbly, Muhammad Ali, 29 October 1915.

But this translation without Arabic text was not printed at that time. Later on, in 1928, a smaller edition consisting of the translation without Arabic text and with brief footnotes was published by Maulana Muhammad Ali for the first time.

He spent the whole of the year 1916 preparing the index and the preface for the English translation, and at the same time going through the first proofs which came printed from England. These proofs were initially read by Maulana Sadr-ud-Din in England, and then read and corrected by Maulana Muhammad Ali in his own hand here. After that stage, the reading of the second proofs, the correction of the Arabic text, and all the other tasks in connection with the printing were done by Maulana Sadr-ud-Din.

By the end of 1917 the printing had been completed and the  publication of the book had started in England. Its first copies reached India at the end of November 1917. Thus was this great work accomplished which he had undertaken according to the wishes of the Promised Messiah and begun during Maulana Nur-ud-Din’s time, on which he had laboured hard, day and night, for seven years, in spite of his other religious work and engagements. So was fulfilled the vision of Hazrat Mirza sahib which he had recorded as follows:
“After that a book was given to me, about which I was told that this was the commentary of the Holy Quran written by Ali and now Ali is giving that commentary to you. Allah be praised for this!”
(Tazkira, p. 21; Barahin Ahmadiyya, p. 503, subnote 3 on footnote 11)

After its publication, this translation became exceedingly popular. All its reviews in Indian and British journals were highly favourable and appreciative. Besides the English and Christian world, it spread among the educated classes of India in abundance, and brought to the right path many well known, Western-educated Muslims who had come under the misguiding influence of Christianity or modern godlessness. The glad tidings mentioned by Hazrat Maulana Nur-ud-Din, that ‘our translation has been accepted by Allah’, can be seen to be fulfilled by reading the newspapers of the time and those countless letters received about this translation which were then published.

This translation is resplendent with the light of the truth of Islam as it contains that unique religious thought and knowledge which was produced by the Promised Messiah and which Maulana Muhammad Ali gained from him and from Maulana Nur-ud-Din. It also has the following chief features. The translation is in plain, fluent and idiomatic English, containing very few extra explanatory words and these are given within parenthesis. The footnotes have been written keeping in view the objections raised against Islam by the Christian and other religions. These notes contain an invaluable treasure of information from dictionaries, commentaries of the Holy Quran, collections of Hadith and works of history, with full references. All the chapters (surah), sections (ruku‘) and verses (ayat) are numbered, and there are plenty of cross references given so that the meaning of a passage in the Quran can be explained in the light of other places in the Holy Book. Every chapter carries an introductory note in which the subject matter of its sections is summarised and the connection between its sections and between that chapter and its neighbouring chapters is indicated. The introduction is so comprehensive as to be a book in itself, and throws light on the essentials of Islam, the compilation and collection of the Quran, and other questions. The introduction in the first edition (and its reprint editions) also presented details of the Muslim prayers, the words of prayers being given in Arabic text, Roman transliteration and English translation. In short, this work has many unique features. Its popularity can be judged by the fact that its first three editions (the 1917 original edition and its two reprint editions of 1920 and 1935) and the various printings of the version without Arabic text totalled forty-two thousand copies.

Another distinction of this translation is that Maulana Muhammad Ali did not have before him any previous example of such a translation. The translations done by Christians reflected their deep hostility and prejudice against Islam. So he had to embark upon very difficult and laborious research from scratch, like having to dig a well to find water. For this translation and commentary the Maulana went through the previous commentaries of the Quran, works of Hadith and dictionaries, and having extracted the gist of their knowledge and opinions he provided thousands of references to them in his explanatory notes. The translations of the Quran done by Muslims after this, for example Hafiz Ghulam Sarwar, Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall, derived much benefit from Maulana Muhammad Ali’s work.

— ”

Return to article about first edition of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English translation of the Quran.