Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation and exegesis (tafseer) of the Quran has been a standard for over 87 years. It is known for its moving literary prose and its diligent research of the subjects addressed in the Quran. So, when attempts are made to change the wording of the translation and change the tone of commentary or delete certain parts, one must take note and call it what it is: intellectual dishonesty.
The alteration of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s monumental work reminds me of Washington Irving’s wonderfully hilarious essay “The Art of Bookmaking” (The Sketch Book 1819-1820). It describes a dream scene in the venerable British Museum Library where the author observes contemporary writers stealing the clothes – copying the works – of dead writers whose portraits adorn the library walls. Somehow the dead writers become animated and start snatching back their stolen clothes from the thieves, leaving them in tattered rags.
The Translation and Commentary was issued in 30 parts over a period of three years (1934-37). Abdullah Yusuf Ali, however, had been working on the project for more than 10 years. He took the manuscript with him where ever he went in the world. In the introduction of the first part (juz or siparah) issued on the 4th of April 1934, he wrote about the journey he undertook to start publishing the translation:
“I collected books, material, visited places, undertook journeys, taken notes, sought the society of men and tried to explore their thoughts and hearts to equip myself for the task.”
In his twilight years, he mentioned to one of his visitors that he wrote the Translation and the Commentary on all the continents of the world – and that he visited every place mentioned in the Quran.
This monumental work was published by Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf Book Sellers and Publishers located in Kashmiri Bazaar, Lahore. After the original 30-part series was published, a three-volume second edition was issued soon thereafter. A two-volume third edition was published by the original publishers in 1838. An inside page of this edition contains the following notation:
“All rights, including rights of translations and reproduction reserved by A. Yusuf Ali”.
Many noted scholars of the day wrote glowing reviews of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s efforts. Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, the author of Khutbat-e-Madaras and co-author of the monumental Sirat-un-Nabi wrote:
“The Muslim Literateurs have with unanimity, spoken very highly of the beauty and eloquence and grandeur of the Translation. One is gratified to see that the Allama has absolutely avoided the misleading construction of the verses and has not made the question of miracles the plaything of the mental gymnastics. In understanding the meaning of the verses, the Allama has taken the help of commentators of Arabia.”
Marmaduke Pickthall, the well-known translator and commentator of the Quran wrote:
“It goes without saying that this translation of the Quran is in better English than any previous English translations by any Indian.”
After the initial publication, the translation and commentary went through multiple reprints by 12 different publishers in the Middle East, India, United Kingdom and the US. All those editions were exact reproductions of the original – until 1989.
Many noted scholars of the day wrote glowing reviews of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s efforts
It 1989 Amana Corporation, a Saudi-funded organization based in Maryland, USA published “A new edition with revised translation and commentary.” This was a combined effort by Amana Corporation and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).
In this edition, changes were made in the translation as well as in the commentary. The late Dr. Ismail Raji Faruqi, a noted Islamic scholar and professor at Temple University Philadelphia, reviewed the manuscript before publication.
The following note appeared in the 1989 Amana Edition:
“Guided by its own commitment to serve the Qur’an, Amana Corporation undertook this tremendous task, and in cooperation with the IIIT (International Institute of Islamic Thought) completed this honorable work. Amana Corporation and IIIT established an editorial board whose effort was to implement the final recommendations of the committees and to concentrate on the manuscript preparation, overall editorial changes, and revisions in style and format (discussed in the Preface of the Revised Edition). All praise to Allah for enabling us to serve the Qur’an by making available this Revised Edition.”
This edition did not detail the make up of the committees and/or the editorial board.
The process was a definite breach of all accepted international norms of reproducing old texts. Writing in Impact International, London (November-December 1988), the late Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, the well-known Islamic scholar and jurist, expressed his misgivings about the alterations. He wrote that altering an author’s work without permission sets a dangerous precedent. He suggested that “the changes should have been given in footnotes with the notation that the new editors propose a different language.” As it stands, no one can tell when reading the new reprint as to what was deleted and why.
For some deeply religious Muslims of a particular persuasion, these changes might not be objectionable. But for the sake of academic integrity, it is important to understand the original intent of the author
(The first Amana edition was published in January 1989. Dr. Hamidullah must have seen an advance copy to have made his comments in Impact International towards the end of 1988.)
The major deletions were made in the allegorical interpretation of the story of Joseph, the mystical interpretation of the Verse of Light and Paradise.
In another later edition published by Dar al-Ifta/ King Fahd Qura’n Printing Complex in Saudi Arabia, more liberties were taken with the original translation and commentaries. In addition to the removal of above-mentioned commentaries, the following were also removed:
– Egyptian chronology and Israel.
– Egyptian religion and its steps towards Islam.
– Who was Dhul Qarnain?
– Ancient form of Pagan Religion
In addition, they also removed the the rhythmic commentary that precedes each surah in the early un-tampered editions.
It is interesting that factional and sectarian views appear to have entered in the decision to remove references to the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) grandsons, Hassan (AS) and Husayn (AS) that were present in the original commentary footnotes 457, 586, and 4103.
Also deleted was reference to the concept of ‘The Righteous Imam’ – commentary in footnote 205 and 236.
For some deeply religious Muslims of a particular persuasion, these changes might not be objectionable. But for the sake of academic integrity, it is important to understand the original intent of the author about those notations. Although Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation and commentary is now in the public domain, that does not give publishers a free hand to change the original work.
Whether the works of Yusuf Ali cut mustard with the later scholars is a separate issue. Differences on opinion always happen. Most Quranic exegeses differ from one another in certain interpretations. It is all within the bounds of honest disagreements but to reproduce someone’s work with significant changes is outside the realm of accepted norms.
From the very onset, Abdullah Yusuf Ali maintained that no sectarian views would tinge his commentary and he was true to his word. For over half a century, no one ever objected to the way his translation was rendered or the commentary was written.
It was left to the Saudi-inspired and financed organization to find faults where none existed and change or delete parts of translation and commentary to reflect a particularly narrow sectarian viewpoint.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org