Abdar Rahman Koya

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21 January 2013

Sixty years ago, on Dec 10, 1953, few in the Muslim world noticed a minor tragedy unfolding in London. The previous day, a sick man was found sitting on the steps of a house in London in a bitterly cold British winter day, and was taken to hospital by police.

On this day, a man whose name was already known around the Muslim world, died a pauper's death, without even a companion by his side. British authorities contacted the Pakistani High Commission in London to arrange his funeral and burial.

Ask any English-speaking Muslim what translation and commentary of the Quran they originally studied, and the chances are that it was the one by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

First published in 1934, it remains to this day the most widely read and quoted English translation of the Quran.

Despite the efforts of numerous other scholars - Muslim, non-Muslim, English and non-English - to better it, few have been able to come close to Yusuf Ali's classical English, which has given readers a sense of the beauty of the original Arabic verses.

At the same time, it has had many critics, who have accused Yusuf Ali's translation of being rife with linguistic errors, and his accompanying commentaries of being 'too spiritual', particularly for those with anti-sufi sectarian inclinations.

But for millions of ordinary English-educated Muslims (and non-Muslims), Yusuf Ali's translation has been their main gateway to the Quran for decades. So widely accepted was this work that it was reprinted and distributed by the tens of millions by publication houses in the east and west, often funded by despotic Arab governments seeking Islamic legitimacy from their own people and those important Muslim minorities living in Western countries.

<img src="/images/stories/features/quran_yusufali.jpg"

It was only then that many Muslims realised that Yusuf Ali. his strengths and his weaknesses. this exercise became increasingly controversial. by correcting what they perceived as errors of translation or interpretation. This. Other attempts to discredit Yusuf Ali's work betrayed the Arab-centric character of some Arab scholars of Islam. Having said that. ignoring most subsequent attempts at revising it. margin-right: 5px.jpg" border="0" width="126" height="174" align="right" />Many Muslims. . with his deep knowledge of Arabic and remarkable grasp of the English language. and the way languages are spoken and comprehended. Muslim publishers recently reprinted Yusuf Ali's original translation and commentary. discovering this sad story. was in fact a civil servant in British India and a loyalist to the British empire. was in fact superbly equipped to bring the message of the Quran to a people who hitherto could not absorb its beautiful phrases and intended meanings in Arabic. Yusuf Ali was. there can be no doubt that any translation and commentary of the Quran reflects that understanding and outlook of the translator and commentator. Unfortunately. His life story. is unfair. it was criticised by other Muslim scholars as a form of plagiarism. To fully understand Yusuf Ali's perspective. As a result. The story of Yusuf Ali In Yusuf Ali's case. time has only confirmed that Yusuf Ali. however. not least because some of these publishers and their sponsors saw it their responsibility to 'improve' Yusuf Ali's work. as Sherif's superbly compassionate and balanced biography shows. Although this exercise did not butcher the original work completely." />Unauthorised revisions Over time. however. far from being a feted ulama and scholar. margin-left: 5px. a product of his time and environment. have responded with harsh judgements. reflecting their reservations about elements of his work. therefore. For all the failings of his work. offer lessons for Muslims today. who evidently believed that they were better qualified to disseminate the Quranic language because of their knowledge of Arabic. He died alone after being neglected by his children and his community in a city which did him little honour. these critics generally lacked the knowledge of other languages. his life and his times. little was known about him until the publication of Searching for Solace. whose life was one of personal tragedy. it is necessary to know something about the man.border="0" width="301" height="226" style="float: left. a biography by M A Sherif. border: 0px none. in 1994. <img src="/images/stories/features/solacebook. but also one whose hardships led him to a deep study and understanding of Islam and the Quran. however.

so as to please their political masters in Washington. first published in Lahore in 1934. were soon to be laid bare. . Ultimately. But the incompatibilities of life as a 'native' Muslim in India. Please visit the organiser's website at www. he put his skills at the service of the Empire.jpg" border="0" width="82" height="105" align="right" />THE Yusuf Ali's generation was attracted by the same slogans.ibtbooks. not by any issues of conscience that arose in his work as an official of the empire. Islamic chairs at universities and through publication of bulky but mostly hollow and pedantic theses on Islam. Throughout his life. albeit in a more subtle manner through the setting up of think-tanks. Yusuf Ali served the British rulers of India. a feat he had been hoping to achieve for some forty years of his life. western manners and the depths of ABDULLAH YUSUF ALI MEMORIAL LECTURE will hold its third lecture on February 16. one man's loss soon became the Muslim world's greatest gain. Yusuf Ali's life was defined by the impact of western power on Muslim societies. and he turned to the Quran for solace. Blind loyalty and re-awakening His pain and anguish had left an indelible mark on his later world view. and a loyal British gentleman. 2013.Like many Muslims of the last couple of centuries. Like much of India's Muslim elite. and soon came out with the first volume of his translation. in which a section of Muslim intellectuals are obsessed to portray Islam's image as a moderate religion. He devoted himself to the study of the Quran. How many we know today have even gotten over the blind loyalty phase? As he writes in his 1934 preface to his translation: "I have explored western lands. and the situation is no different today. Open to public. fair play and benevolent empire. His marriage ended with divorce. always under the illusion that this was in the best interest of his community. <img src="/images/stories/features/ yusufali. when he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful – something normal and tolerated in English high society at the time.com/lecture to register your attendance online. Brought up to be more British than the British. but in his personal life. but obviously unacceptable to him as a Muslim. in Petaling Jaya. The difference is that Yusuf Ali went through such a phase and learnt the consequences of blind loyalty. One result was his alienation from his children. going as far as to marry an English woman. brought up as English. much as his forebears had served earlier Muslim regimes. the topic this time is "Is the Mushaf a complete record of the Qur’an? The controversy of abrogation (Naskh)" and will be delivered by British Muslim scholar Dr Louay Fatoohi. The circumstances Yusuf Ali was in are not dissimilar to our own era. he placed trust in British values of justice. as an Anglophile member of the Indian civil service.

"Through all my successes and failures I have learned to rely more and more upon the one true thing in all life – the voice that speaks in a tongue above that of a mortal man. whose earlier translation of the Quran was the first by a Muslim Englishman.western thought and western learning. But I have never lost touch with my eastern heritage. May he rest in peace. His grave is not far from that of Marmaduke Pickthall. UK. Surrey." Yusuf Ali was buried at a cemetery in Woking. to an extent which has rarely fallen to the lot of an eastern mortal. my service to the Quran should be to present it in a fitting garb in English. I felt that with such life-experience as has fallen to my lot. .

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