ABDULLAH YUSUF ALI
Original in Bangla by A.F.M. Khalid Hossain
Translated by M. Alamgir
In the present age, Abdullah Yusuf Ali has been one of the most respected personalities to the connoisseurs of excellence throughout the Muslim world for his scholarly translation and sagacious commentary of the Holy Qur’an. He earned the praise and gratitude of millions of Muslims for his extraordinary mastery of the English language, decorative expressions, scientific and rational analysis of the events mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, depth of genius in the discovery of links with the information and quotations contained therein and an intellect of exceptional quality.
Many non-Muslims have reverted to Islam after reading his 2000-page English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an. Scores of publishers from various countries have benefited immensely through publishing many editions of his works, especially the Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an. But the tragic circumstances in which this noble devotee of knowledge, and this scholar par excellence breathed his last will remain a matter of shame for the entire Muslim Ummah for ever!
No Muslim was with him when he died in London in 1953 in a helpless and penniless condition. This tragic episode of the death of Allama Abdullah Yusuf Ali, this heart-rending tale of sorrow, was revealed in a letter written by the then High Commissioner for Pakistan in Britain to the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali was born in India in 1872. The colourful academic life of this rare genius started at Wilson College, Mumbai. From there he went to Cambridge University where he got the degrees of Master of Arts and Master of Law. Then he got his Barrister-at-Law degree from Lincoln’s Inn, London. He learnt the Arabic language from his father and with singular attention devoted all his life to the study of the commentary of the Holy Qur’an written by the renowned commentators of both past and present.
He was posted to many places as District Magistrate and District Judge. He was an Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Finance of the Indian Government. He was also given the responsibility of Joint-Secretary in the Central Government of India. The Encyclopedia of Islam (Vol 1) gives us the following details of his eventful career:
He presided in the All-India Muslim Educational Conference held in Nagpur in 1910 and in Kolkata in 1932. In 1916 he was a member of the Committee for Indian Affairs at the Imperial Institute and was the chairman of some special committees. In 1917 he was the Professor of Hindi and Indian Society and Religion under the School of Oriental Studies of London University. In 1921 he was the Treasury Minister of the State of Hyderabad. In 1925 he was the Principal of Islamia College, Lahore and a Fellow of the Punjab University. During this time, he discharged with great efficiency, the significant responsibility as a Member in the Court of Aligarh University. He was one of the representatives of India who attended the Ninth General Assembly meeting of the League of Nations in 1928. To establish peace through religion, he made valuable contributions in many international conferences held in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, United States and Canada from 1918 to 1930.
A great number of his research works and religious dissertations on Islamic History, Da’wah and Tabligh, education reform, literature, archaeology, sculpture, fine arts and social justice were published in many newspapers and journals of the Indian sub-continent and Europe. In addition to all that, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, he wrote 12 books in the English language which earned him the attention and praise of research scholars and readers in the international arena. Most notably however, he has secured for himself a very high position in the hearts of intellectuals all over the world for his English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an. The names of his books are appended below:
1907 - The Indian Mohammedans
1916 - Mestrovic and Serbian Sculpture
1923 - Muslim Educational Ideals
1926 - Islam as a World Force
1926 - India and Europe
1929 - Personality of Mohammed the Prophet
1932 - Medieval India
1934 - Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an
1936 - Life and Literature
1936 - Religion and Social Equality
1936 - Islamic History, its Scope and Content
1940 - The Message of Islam
Varying degrees of faults are evident in the translation and commentary of other research scholars. A. Ross, George Sale, Rev. J. M. Rodwell and Prof. E. M. Wherry are among the non-Muslim translators of the Holy Qur’an in English. Largely speaking, these works are the English renderings of the translations and commentaries of Du Ryer of France and Maracci of Italy. The main purpose of these works was to vilify Islam in the eyes of the Europeans. Christian Church mentality towards Islam is abundantly clear in these commentaries. They have failed miserably to understand and appreciate the inner beauty and wisdom of the Holy Qur’an. In one phrase, the translations and commentaries of the non-Muslims and the Muslim antagonists are unrestrained, haphazard and full of malice.
Thus, a need was felt among the Muslim intelligentsia to combat the viperous attack of the non-Muslim scholars on the Holy Qur’an on the one hand, and on the other, to enlighten the readers in the English language with its teachings and pristine beauty. From the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of Muslim scholars came forward to take up this challenging task of writing the translation and commentary of the Holy Qur’an in English. Notable among them were Dr. Muhammad Abdul Hakim Khan of Patiala, Mirza Hairat of Delhi, Nawwab Imdadul Mulk Saiyid Husain Bilgrami of Hyderabad Deccan, Maulvi Muhammad Ali of the Punjab, Hafiz Gulam Sarwar, a retired Judge of Singapore and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall of England.
Dr. Hakim’s translation did not come out in the printed form. Nawwab Bilgrami did not live long to complete his work. About Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s translation, Abdullah Yusuf Ali says, “It is equipped with adequate explanatory matter in the notes and the Preface, and a fairly full index. But the English of the text is decidedly weak, and is not likely to appeal to those who know no Arabic.” Moreover, being a follower of the Qadiani faith, he could not rise above the general consciousness of his community.
About Hafiz Gulam Sarwar’s work, Abdullah Yusuf Ali says, “His translation deserves to be better known than it is. He has provided fairly full summaries of the Suras, section by section, but he has not practically added any notes to his Text. I think such notes are necessary for a full understanding of the Text. In many cases the Arabic words and phrases are so pregnant of meaning that a Translator would be in despair unless he were allowed to explain all that he understands by them.”
Being an Englishman, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s command of the language is beyond reproach. Moreover, his scholarship in the Arabic language is well-accepted. “But he has added few notes to elucidate his Text. His rendering is ‘almost literal’”, and therefore a step away from the understanding of the uninitiated.
It can be asserted that The English Translation and Commentary on the Holy Qur’an of Allama Abdullah Yusuf Ali is free from the faults and failings of other writers and scholars and is a more complete translation with a brief commentary. Many people have taken recourse to imagination and ‘fairy tales’ when dealing with Arabic words, idioms and phrases. But Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation and commentary is very appropriate and in concord with the fundamental principles and ideals of the Holy Qur’an.
To write this translation and the short commentary Abdullah Yusuf Ali laboured diligently for 40 years. He travelled far and wide in search of facts and evidences. He visited many contemporary Ulama of international repute in the quest for satisfactory answers to various complex issues. He studied extensively the most renowned commentaries from the ancient times right up to his own time. But he did not adopt all the views of all these commentators verbatim. He was very careful in the use of information and facts that he gathered. In this connection he said clearly, “Let me set out the names of the most important Tafsirs, especially those to which I have from time to time referred. They are not, however, in any sense my authorities. They belong to widely different schools of thought, and some of them express extreme views with which I do not agree. I only adopt the general sense of accepted Commentaries.”
About Tafsir Haqqani he says, “it is quite modern in tone”, and “I have derived much instruction from it and have used it constantly”. About Tafsir Jauhari he says, “it finds the ‘jewels’ of the Qur’an and of the sciences mutually illuminative, and suggests many new lines of thought”. His remark about the Commentary of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan deserves serious attention. He says, “it has not met the approval of the Ulama”.
Because of its authenticity, Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s scholarly Translation and Commentary was selected for reprinting by King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex of the Saudi Arabian government in 1405 Hijri, according to Royal Decree No. 12412. This Translation was finally published by the Ministry of Hajj and Auqaf of Saudi Arabia in 1410 Hijri and was distributed world-wide free of cost. The General Presidency of the Departments of Islamic Researches, Ifta, Call and Guidance gave the following reasons for selecting the Translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, “The Translation by the late Ustadh ABDULLAH YUSUF ALI was consequently chosen for its distinguishing characteristics, such as a highly elegant style, a choice of words close to the meaning of the original text, accompanied by scholarly notes and commentaries.”
Multi-faceted talent, exceptional intelligence, scholarly translation of the Holy Qur’an and an extraordinary command of the English language and literature brought Abdullah Yusuf Ali international fame and dignity. This noble soul spent his last days literally on the streets, in England. In the final moments of his life he was helpless, shelterless and penniless. We do not know why this happened to him. We do not know where his relatives, family and folks were at that time. Why didn’t the members of the Muslim community of London pick up the greatest servant of Islam of the last century from the streets, show him a little affection and nurse him with a touch of kindness? May be he disliked publicity! May be he had lost his mental balance! May be he was forced to take to the streets because some unfortunate calamity befell him! But where were the Muslims of the world? Where were the followers of the Holy Qur’an? There is no language to express this pain! This sadness is choking! There is no way of hiding this shame!
In 1953, the then High Commissioner for Pakistan in Britain, Mr. M. A. Sharif wrote to the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Muhammad Ali Bogra, giving some description of the circumstances of his death. It transpires from his letter that this octogenarian was totally confounded with some crippling financial hardship. He was seen begging for a morsel of food in Trafalgar Square. His clothes were tattered. He had a suitcase beside him which had no money in it. Later he was taken to the Centre for the Homeless, run by the County Council of London. Winter in Britain was exceptionally severe that year. On Wednesday, the 9th of December, a mentally deranged old man was found sitting on the stairs outside a house in the Westminster area. Police took him to Westminster Hospital, but he was released from there the same day. This homeless old man was then given shelter in the ‘Dove Home’ by the London Council Home for the Elderly. The next day, 10th of December, he suffered a stroke and was admitted to St. Stephen Hospital. Three hours after admission he blurted out all the accumulated pain in his soul, and in a sea of grievance and hatred towards the followers of his religion he breathed his last. (Inna Lillahe Wa Inna Ilayhe Raje’oon). His family and folks could not be found to take his body for the funeral and burial, which in itself is shrouded in mystery and is a very painful episode. The Pakistan High Commission in London knew this person. After the Coroner of the London County Council completed his investigation, he was buried by the local Muslims in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.
Thus, at the age of 81, in the most bewildering of circumstances, came to a tragic end the colourful life of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, one of the greatest sons of the Muslim Ummah. This powerful writer, selfless muballigh of Islam and a many-sided genius remains buried forever in European soil.
The first edition of his Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an was published in 1934. In the preface of that edition he wrote, “It is the duty of every Muslim, man, woman or child, to read the Qur’an and understand it according to his own capacity. If any one of us attains to some knowledge or understanding of it by study, contemplation, and the test of life, both outward and inward, it is his duty, according to his capacity, to instruct others, and share with them the joy of peace which result from contact with the spiritual world. The Qur’an - indeed every religious book - has to be read, not only with the tongue and voice and eyes, but with the best light that our intellect can supply, and even more, with the truest and purest light which our heart and conscience can give us. It is in this spirit that I would have my readers approach the Qur’an.”
My final submission to the readers is: recite this holy book, ponder on it and put it to practice. Recite slowly and let it enter your mind and the core of your heart, only then your study and deliberations will earn full merits in the estimation of Allah.
Translator’s Note :
When I read this poignant story in the Daily Inqilab (Dhaka, 31.7.97) I was simply devastated, I must confess. I thank Mr. A.F.M. Khalid Hossain on behalf of the Muslim community for reminding us of our debt to our own ‘Ustadh’ (as the Saudi Ulama have acknowledged). His life may have been lost in the haze of mysteries, but he continues to live with us more intimately through his monumental work - his Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an.
At home and abroad, we are being led to ‘worship’ non-Muslim celebrities in every field of life in the name of fine art and creative art. The very concept of fine art and creative art has been made profane by the non-Muslims. Under their influence the distinction between the sacred and the profane is lost. Consequently, the basic intuition which discerns the Truth and the Beauty inherent in the Qur’anic message has become non-existent in the hearts and minds of the Muslim intelligentsia, particularly the youth.
It is about time that we make a concerted effort to bring back the memories of hundreds of great personalities of this age and indeed thousands of them from the past fourteen centuries. We need to re-establish them in our living consciousness, while the non-Muslims are doing their best to disconnect us from our glorious heritage. In every educational institution (the seat of idealism) they are erecting the memories of fiercely anti-Islamic bandits like Surya Sen and Priti Lata, while consigning our heroes like Allama Iqbal and Ismail Hossain Siraji to oblivion.
The time has come to reverse all that. If any one is thirsting for satisfaction through fine art and creative art, let him re-discover the Truth and the Beauty embodied in the Qur’an in all pursuits of life - economics, sociology, philosophy, drama, music and literature. The non-Muslims have moved the goal-posts. The present battle is on the intellectual front. Let us drop all the mutual rivalries and the crippling doctrinal differences and unite on this single front. That is the job of a Saint, the Wali of Allah, the Friend of Allah!