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The South Asian Qurans September 21, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Kumar, Vikas, South Asia - General , trackback

Vikas Kumar

The Quran has been translated from Arabic into about 100 languages, roughly 1 per cent of the known living languages of the world, whereas Islam is the religion of more than 20 per cent people in the world (and Arabic is the mother tongue of less than one-fifth of the Muslims). In contrast, partial or complete translations of the Bible are available in more than a third of the known languages. Furthermore, most of the translations of the Quran are relatively recent whereas the Bible was the first printed text in a number of languages. In fact, a great majority of the extant translations of the Quran into South Asian languages appeared after the formal disestablishment of Islam in 1858 CE, roughly a thousand years after the arrival of Islam in South Asia. The few translations that pre-date 1858 CE appeared before the establishment of Islamic power in South Asia or only after the British emerged as the de facto rulers in North and East India in the late 18th century. A similar trend can be seen in other parts of the world. In the Ottoman Europe, the Quran was translated into the Balkan languages in the 19th and 20th centuries, that is, at the very end of the centuries-long Turkish rule.

One wonders why the Mughals, Akbar and Dara, who promoted large-scale translations from Sanskrit to Persian, and the Pathan rulers of Bengal and the Bahamani rulers of Deccan, who promoted local languages, overlooked the need for South Asian language Qurans. (A Deccani translation seems to have been carried out in the 16th century, which is now unavailable.) Explanations that invoke the intrinsic untranslatability of the Quran or the theological undesirability of translation will satisfy only those committed to theo-linguistic exclusivism. In fact, there are numerous Quranic verses, which can be cited in support of the need for translation (e.g., Abraham 14.4, Marium 19.97, Ha Mim 41.44, The Smoke 44.58, and Yusuf 12.2).

One could argue that the believers felt a greater need to voluntarily defend the faith by supporting Islamic studies, mosques, charities, etc in absence of a paramount Islamic power in South Asia committed, at least, ostensibly, to uphold the cause of Islam. They responded to the threat posed by Christian missionaries, who were among other things distributing local language Bibles, by opening madrasas (e.g., the Darul Uloom, Deoband), translating and distributing the Quran, etc. But this self-defence hypothesis is only partly credible because in many cases non-Muslims were associated with the pioneering attempts to translate the Quran.

In the late 9th century, attempts were made at the behest of Hindu rulers to translate the Quran into Sindhi and/or proto-Hindi. The manuscripts haven’t survived. A millennium later, Raja Ranajit Singh (1780-1839), the Sikh ruler of Punjab, encouraged Munshi Kanhaiya Lal to translate the Quran into Urdu. A few Urdu translations were printed with the help of the famous Naval Kishore Press (Lucknow), which among other things contributed generously to the library of the nascent Darul Uloom (Deoband). An early Urdu translation (in Roman script) was prepared by Rev. Dr. Imad-ud-Din Panipati.

In fact, non-Muslims have been directly involved in translating the Quran into a number of other South Asian languages. For instance, Girish Chandra Sen (1835-1910), a Brahmo Samaji, was the first to prepare a complete translation of the Quran in Bengali (1881-86). Another early Bengali translation was prepared by Rev. William Goldsack (1908-20). Similarly, the first complete translation into Hindi (1915) was done by Rev. Dr Ahmad Shah while Chilkoori Narayana Rao prepared the first Telugu translation (1915-1930). An early Punjabi translation was prepared by Sant Gurdat Singh (1911). The involvement of non-Muslims has not decreased in recent times as would be evident from new Hindi (Nand Kumar Avasthi, 1980), Sanskrit (Satyadeva Varma, 1984), and Malayalam (Raghavan Nair, 1997) translations. Dr A P J Abdul Kalam referred to Nair’s Malayalam translation in his address at the platinum jubilee of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sanghom Trust. In short, the self-defence hypothesis does not explain the belated translations, at least in South Asia, where non-Muslims have been closely involved in translating the Quran.

Now let us look at the rate of translation. In the late 18th century, Urdu became the first modern South Asian language to receive a translation. By mid-1880s translations were available in another seven languages – Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Tamil (but not in Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Marathi, and Telugu). Presently, complete translations of the Quran are available in less than two dozen South Asian languages. Except Urdu (more than 150 translations), and to a lesser extent Bengali (about three dozen translations), South Asian Qurans are still conspicuous by their absence and the few translations that are available are largely unknown. Interestingly, Urdu, which is the mother tongue of less than 15 per cent of South Asian Muslims, has received more translations than all other South Asian languages put together.

I will end with an observation on the acceptability of non-Urdu translations of the Quran in South Asia. Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Tamil were fortunate that the first translations appeared before the politicization of language and communalization of politics in the late 19th century. It is not a mere coincidence that the linguistic consciousness of Muslims, who speak these languages, is stronger than their co-religionists who speak other South Asian languages. The languages that received the first complete translation in the 20th century have indeed been far less fortunate even in terms of the acceptance of the translations of the Quran.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.



1. MS Khan - October 25, 2011

The article reveals an astonishing fact which has less been discussed among Muslim community. Causes and factors are to be explored. Mr.Kumar has repudiated the explanations which may be presented generally in this regard. It appears that Muslim community did not develop any proselytizing institution like Christian missionaries. Individuals among sufis, ulemas, traders and sometime rulers paid some attention to preach the teachings of Islam without taking recourse to ‘civilizing mission’ for mass conversion of people at large. Specially, in South Asian region, mainly traders were involved in introducing the teachings of Islam to local people by verbal and behavioral communication. Traders were neither competent nor able to devote for translation of Holy Quran. Another factor may be that unlike the Bible, human translation of the ‘Book of Allah’ remained prohibited in Muslim psyche in view of the fact that this had been one of the factors leading to interpolation and changes in Torah, Bible and other Books revealed by Allah. This precautionary tendency may be observed in the tradition regarding hesitance of first Caliph Abu Bakar in bringing Quran into the ‘book’ form on the advice of Umar, the second Caliph. Till date when translations of Holy Quran have become common, these translation are not treated as ‘Quran’ as has been taken in the case of Bible from the very beginning. Some more factors and causes may have affected the translation of Quran in local languages like scarcity of resources. However, Mr. Kumar has drawn attention to a very less attended topic for scholars of Quranic studies. I appreciate his article and expect more from him.

2. Vikas Kumar - October 26, 2011

Dear Mr. Khan,

Thanks for your comment drawing attention to the fact that traders and Sufis, who were either not concerned with or ill-equipped to deal with doctrine/scriptures, played an important role in spreading Islam in South Asia. But this I guess cannot explain the paucity of translations because (a) Islam reached South Asia more than a 1000 years ago so that initial omission could have been addressed subsequently, (b) influential Islamic rulers promoted South Asian languages and some also supported translations from South Asian languages into Arabic/Persian, (c) an overwhelming majority of South Asian Muslims cannot understand Arabic, and (d) Muslim leaders have widely recognized that (d1) many of the prejudices against their community can be traced back to lack of access to Islamic scriptures in South Asian languages and (d2) extremists are able to brainwash youth through selective interpretation of the scriptures.


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