Inaugural Memorial Lecture on Abdullah Yusuf Ali held in Kuala Lumpur

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Muharram 04, 1430 2009-01-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 11, Muharram, 1430)

An inaugural memorial lecture on the translator of the Qur’an in English, the late Abdullah Yusuf Ali, was held in Kuala Lumpur on December 14. Organized by the Malaysian-based Islamic Book Trust (IBT), the lecture was delivered by M.A. Sherif, author of Searching for Solace, the first detailed account of the life of Yusuf Ali published by IBT in 1994.

Called “The Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture”, it was attended by some 300 people from all backgrounds and political affiliations, most notably the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Others included Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) Vice-President Mohamad Sabu, its secretary-general Kamaruddin Jaafar, deputy president of People’s Justice Party (Keadilan) Dr. Syed Husin Ali and activist Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, who heads the International Movement for a Just World.

In his lecture entitled “Circumstance, Inner Light and Human Agency: Reflections on the Life and Times of Allama Yusuf Ali 1872-1953,” Dr. Sherif touched on the circumstances and the dilemma faced by some Muslim intellectuals during British colonial rule, saying they are similar to the challenges faced by contemporary Muslims in the post-9/11 era. Sherif cautioned that Yusuf Ali’s loyalty to the Empire, how he was used for Britain’s wartime propaganda and then abandoned, ought to serve as lessons for Muslims today.

“His generation were offered attractive slogans — just as today we are familiar with powerful Western governments and think tanks such as Rand and the Hudson Institute exhorting Muslims to rally around the projects they have crafted to reshape the world,” said Sherif.

He narrated an example of how Yusuf Ali’s undivided trust in the Empire was reciprocated. While planning his Scandinavian journey to campaign for wartime propaganda, the Foreign and Colonial Office were not even sure whether he was Hindu or Muslim. When the officials discussed the need to send him a letter of appreciation, they could not find his file.

“The Empire used his goodwill and talents, but once their own objectives had been achieved, coldly cast him aside. This too ought to be a salutary lesson for present-day Muslim intellectuals drawn into the web of Western think-tanks and their agendas of manipulation and social engineering,” said Sherif, who is based in London and is currently doing research into the history of British Muslim activism in the city.

Tracking what he termed Yusuf Ali’s “path to Empire-Loyalism,” Sherif said Yusuf Ali’s faith in the empire was shaken when he learned about the Peel Commission’s proposal to partitionPalestine and create a Jewish state in the more fertile areas. This touched a raw nerve, and Yusuf Ali wasted no time in speaking out against the injustices at numerous venues in Brighton,Cambridge and London.

His rude awakening about the empire came at a time when his private life was also in tatters. He had divorced his English wife Mary Theresa after revelations of her infidelity. They were married in a church and had four children. Perhaps such were the incompatibilities of life as a “native” Muslim in India and a loyal British gentleman. Soon he also became estranged from his second wife as well, and started to live in a room at the National Liberal Club in Pall Mall. In 1940, he drew up his will, denying anything to his children, whose “continued ill-will towards me have alienated my affection for them,” singling out his son Asghar Bloy, for abusing and insulting him from time to time. His estate was directed to a fund to benefit Indian students at the University of London.

His pain and anguish left an indelible mark on his later worldview, and he turned to the Qur’an for solace. Ultimately, one man’s loss became the Muslim world’s greatest gain. He began his project, the result being a work which earned praise from scholars of that time, and which is still considered the most widely used English translation of the Qur’an today. Although soon numerous translations were published, Yusuf Ali’s remains the most popular conduit to the Qur’an for both Muslims and non-Muslims who do not have knowledge of Arabic.

Some Muslims, discovering Yusuf Ali’s loyalty to the Empire and how his life ended (a day before his death, he was found as a confused old man sitting on the steps of a Westminster house in the cold winter of 1953), have rendered a harsh judgment against him. This, however, is unfair. Yusuf Ali was, as Sherif points out, a product of his time and environment, but also one whose hardships led him to a deep study and understanding of Islam and the Qur’an.

In his lecture, Sherif drew comparisons between Yusuf Ali and his contemporaries, most notably Marmaduke Pickthall, whose earlier translation of the Qur’an into English was the first by an English Muslim. In an interesting observation, he also drew the audience to the more recent work of Muhammad Asad, whose translation and commentary entitled Message of the Qur’an was first published in 1980. Sherif opines that a mufassir’s personal circumstances may have played a part in his work. In one commentary for Surah Ghafir, Asad refers to “the all time companionship of man and dog symbolised in the legend of the Men of the Cave.” Asad’s fourth wife, Pola Hamida, was very fond of her Alsatians, and she even brought them to Asad’s funeral. Sherif adds, “One wonders too if Yusuf Ali had Teresa in mind when he wrote, “it costs a woman much labour and skill to spin good strong yarn. She would be foolish indeed, after she has spun such yarn, to untwist its constituents and break them into flimsy pieces.”

Dr. Sherif’s lecture was followed by brief impromptu speeches from the audience. Dr. Mahathir, among those who were asked to the podium to share his comments, revealed that it was only recently that he learnt about the circumstances leading to his death. Saying that translations of the Qur’an were never perfect because they were interpretations of the translators, Mahathir added that knowing the Arabic language would not automatically render a person to fully understand its meanings. Others from the audience talked about their first encounter with English translation of the Qur’an and how Yusuf Ali’s work had sparked their interest to study the noble Book further. Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Malaysia, Lt Gen (retd) Tahir Mahmud Qazi, drew laughter and applause when he told the audience that since no one was protesting, his country was laying claim to Yusuf Ali, whom he considered one of the divided assets that went to Pakistan following the partition. Tahir was the only high commissioner present among four others representing countries with which Yusuf Ali’s life-story is connected, namely Bangladesh, India and Britain, the latter two did not even send a representative.

During the eighties, Yusuf Ali’s translation, first published in Lahore in 1934, was reprinted and distributed by the tens of millions by publication houses in the East and the West, some funded by Arab governments seeking Islamic legitimacy from their own peoples and important Muslim minorities living in Western countries. Over time, however, this exercise became increasingly controversial; some publishers saw it as their responsibility to “improve” the original work by correcting what they perceived were errors of translation or interpretation. Although this exercise did not completely destroy the original work, it was criticised by other Muslim scholars as distortion of the original work. More recently, Muslim publishers have tended to reprint Yusuf Ali’s original translation and commentary, ignoring revisions introduced by others.

No doubt any translation and commentary of the Qur’an reflects the understanding and outlook of the translator and commentator. To fully understand Yusuf Ali’s perspective, therefore, it is necessary to know something about the man, his life and his times. This was part of the objective of the Memorial Lecture held in his honour. But more importantly, the organizers hope to institute the Lecture series in coming years with the objective of exploring Qur’anic studies in its various aspects by well known international scholars.

Together with the lecture, an exhibition themed “A Journey Through English Translations of the Qur’an” was also held as well as a photographic exhibition on the life of Yusuf Ali, showcasing some forty selected English translations of the Qur’an by Muslims and non-Muslims over the decades. The exhibition provided the background and the circumstances in which these translations emerged, giving visitors a glimpse of the unique characteristics of each of these translations and the politics behind their publications.

A 24-page full-color souvenir booklet of the Memorial Lecture, containing full text of Dr. M.A. Sherif’s lecture, essays on the English translations of the Qur’an as well as a summary of the exhibition, can be purchased online from the organisers at

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