From the earlier period of human civilisation, the priestly class monopolised religious knowledge which elevated their social status in the society. They were venerated and respected as the custodians of religious knowledge which they jealously guarded and refused to share with anyone in society.

The Brahman caste in India specialised in religious rituals and sacred books. They knew the Sanskrit language and memorised the Vedas word to word and transferred it from one generation to another. Their high and spiritual status was affected in the 13th century when the Turks invaded India and after defeating the local rulers founded their kingdom. The Brahmans were ousted from state administration and marginalised their role as religious leaders. When Persian became the court language, Sanskrit lost its status. However, the Brahmans retained religious knowledge within their caste. Al Biruni (d.1048), who visited India in the 10th century pointed out that the Brahmans were not ready to teach him the Sanskrit language in which religious literature was written. Despite this drawback, he learnt Sanskrit and wrote Kitabul Hind on Indian religion, philosophy and customs.

In Christianity, the knowledge of Bible was confined only to the priestly class. Originally the Bible was written in Greek and later translated into Latin, the language of the educated classes of Europe. It was in the interest of the priestly class that the Bible should not be translated into other European languages. Generally, the majority of people did not understand what was being said when the Bishops and other office holders performed services in Latin. People attended the service and silently listened to the sermons and passages from the Bible without understanding them. The situation changed when in 1517 Martin Luther challenged the Pope and the Church and consequently Christianity was divided between the Catholic and Protestant sects. England also defied the authority of the Pope, however, the translation of Bible into English was not permitted. There were some secret societies that organised meetings where the Bible was read in English language. When William Tyndale (c.d.1536) openly translated it into English, he was declared a heretic and burnt at stake.


If people were able to read sacred texts in their own language, the church domination would crumble


With the passage of time, the situation changed and when James-I (r. 1603-1625) became the ruler of England, the Bible was translated under the guidance and supervision of a committee, which became famous as King James’ Bible. The language of the translation is very elegant and beautiful. Realising the importance of translation, the church relaxed its restrictions and the project of translation of Bible was undertaken by the missionaries who visited Asian and African countries to preach Christianity. They learnt the local languages and translated Bible into them, as a result of which Biblical text became accessible to every Christian.

In the Islamic world, the ulema did not encourage the translation of Holy Quran into other languages because it threatened their monopoly of interpretation and explanation of the Quran. However, the first Latin translation of the Holy Quran was completed in 12th century in Spain, in order to understand Islam and to challenge it as a rival religion to Christianity. When the Christian missionaries arrived in India on the request of Akbar, to discuss the teachings of Christianity, the missionaries were well aware of the contents of the Holy Quran which they studied from the Latin translation. They could quote the Quran, and disagree with the ulema. On the contrary, since Bible had not been translated into Persian, the ulema were unaware of its contents and in no position to challenge the Christian missionaries. This interesting detail is found in the Commentary of Father Monserrat, which was written in Latin and later translated into other languages.


The situation changed when in 1517 Martin Luther challenged the Pope and the Church and consequently Christianity was divided between the Catholic and Protestant sects. England also defied the authority of the Pope, however, the translation of Bible into English was not permitted.


However, when non-Arabs converted to Islam, Arabic text could not be understood by them, therefore, there was a need to translate it into local languages in order to reach to common people. In the subcontinent, when Shah Waliullah (d.1762) translated it into Persian, he was criticised and condemned by the ulema. When his grandson translated it into Urdu, he was not only condemned but also maltreated by religious scholars. Later, Nazir Ahmed Dehalvi (d. 1912) translated it into simple Urdu language.

In Pakistan, the Urdu translation is published with Arabic text. In the absence of Urdu translation, the knowledge of Holy Quran is not understood by common people who cannot understand Arabic. However, in the European languages, there are different translations available without Arabic text.

In the modern period, religious knowledge was no more under the control of the priestly classes. It was widely printed and within the reach of common people. Although the religious scholars made efforts to control religious knowledge and interpret it according to their interest, on the other hand there are some educated people who challenged the monopoly of the priestly classes and replaced their knowledge with modernity which fulfills the need of the time.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 17th, 2016

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