Searching for Solace: A Biography of Abdullah Yusaf Ali -- Translator
of the Qur’an.
M A Sherif
Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (1994. pp.314 Pbk: US$20)
Ali is best known to English-speaking Muslims as the man who produced a
translation and commentary of the noble Qur'an. Just as well. Though a
man of great intellect and wide interest, his personal and public lives
do not leave a very favorable impression, as this biography so eloquently
English translations, Marmaduke Pickthall's and Yusuf Ali's are the most
widely-known and used in the world. Yusuf Ali started work on his translation
in 1934 and completed it some four years later.
of publishers have reprinted his translation, some even taking the liberty
of changing it without acknowledging that changes have been made. Why these
changes were necessary has not been explained either. Some, like the Saudis,
have reprinted the translation with their own imprints as if it was commissioned
by king Fahd in person. Such lack of honesty even with so noble a book
as the Qur'an is reflective of the pathetic state of those who have imposed
themselves on the Ummah.
Ali would have viewed such liberty with his work is not difficult to imagine.
It is, however, true to say, as MA Sherif so ably shows in this well-researched
and well-documented biography, that the translation of the Qur'an was not
the only project that he undertook. In fact, for Yusuf Ali, this did not
appear to be the most important task in his life.
product of the era of British raj, Yusuf Ali was a pukka sahib par excellence.
For him loyalty to the crown was of paramount importance . Religion was
a personal matter. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to learn that
he married an English woman in a church in England. That the woman should
prove unfaithful despite giving birth to four of his children, perhaps
best epitomises the relationship between the empire and India.
Yusuf Ali's life from childhood which criss-crossed the lives of other
eminent personalties that loomed so large on the Indian scene later: Muhammad
Ali Jinnah, Ameer Ali, Muhammad Iqbal, Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Fazl-e-Husain,
Sikandar Hayat Khan etc. Of these, he found much in common with the last
two. Both these men -- and their families -- were the recipients of British
largesse and therefore, inimical to the interests of the Muslims in India.
They represented the interests of the landed aristocracy which had been
rewarded for its services to the raj. This parasitical class is still active
in the affairs of Pakistan, reducing it to penury.
was also much inspired by Sayyid Ahmed Khan. He tried to emulate him, at
least in sofar as loyalty to the empire was concerned, to the fullest.
Sherif reveals that from childhood, Yusuf Ali was obsessed with titles.
His father, Yusuf Ali Allahbuksh, a Bohra from Surat in Gujrat, had abandoned
the traditional occupation of the Bohras -- business -- and gone instead
into the police force. On retirement, he was given the title of Khan Bahadur.
True to form,
the young Yusuf Ali incorporated this honorary title given to his father
into his own name. The British seemed to be charitable, at least to those
who pledged unquestioning loyalty to them, to allow such an indiscretion
to pass. This could not have been an oversight, as Sherif notes. Yusuf
Ali used the name Abdullah ibn Khan Bahadur Yusuf Ali while applying to
register at Cambridge university, the Lincoln Inn in London as well as
when applying for the Indian Civil Service. 'The Indian Office administrator
responsible for processing ICS applications deemed the double-barrelled
surname in order and Abdullah ibn Khan Bahadur Yusuf Ali came about.'
for titles notwithstanding, it was his obsessive loyalty to the crown that
set him apart from many of his contemporaries. While he got along well
with Iqbal (in fact, it was Iqbal who tolerated his intense loyalty to
the crown and offered him the post of principal of Islamia College Lahore
at the exorbitant salary of Rs 1300 per month at the time), their views
were diametrically opposite.
Islam as a global religion and the Muslims of India as a distinct community
who could get nothing either from the British or the Hindus. For Yusuf
Ali religion was a matter for personal salvation. The 'Indian nation' in
which both Hindus and Muslims lived amicably, pledging loyalty to the crown,
was how he viewed things in life. Just as well that Yusuf Ali was proved
so thoroughly wrong.
at the best British institutions, admission to the bar as well as selection
in the ICS all reinforced his loyalty to Britain. He was an unabashed spokesman
and ambassador for the crown all his life. Yet the wily British used him
and then discarded him. Yusuf Ali ultimately saw failure both in his personal
as well as public life.
wife proved unfaithful and left him for another man. Yusuf Ali could not
see that infidelity was, and remains an acceptable way of life in the west.
His children, too, abandoned and resented him. He was too engrossed in
public life currying the favours of the raj to pay much attention to the
family. Despite his intense loyalty to the British, they were glad to see
his back when he wanted to retire from the ICS.
disappointment came when he found that the British had reneged on their
pledge to the Arabs in Palestine. He suffered their insults and arrogance
willingly, something the likes of Jinnah and Iqbal would never have put
up with. Why a man of such keen intellect would put up with the Britons'
condescension is hard to understand. One can only surmise that his total
devotion to everything British blinded him to the reality of life.
is the contrast in his public and private lives. He was known to charm
public gat herings. His reputation was not confined to India or Britain
alone. It quickly crossed the Atlantic and he found himself in Canada in
the autumn/winter of 1938 after his translation was published both in UK
and in the US.
opened the first mosque in Canada in Edmonton in December 1938. It was
Yusuf Ali who named it Al-Rashid Mosque, perhaps after his son. He left
a very favorable impression with all that he came in contact with yet his
private life was a total failure. He was a loner in private life. The face
of public charm appeared to be an attempt to hide the deeper failure at
the personal level.
When he died
in London on December 10,1953, he was a pathetic wreck. Disoriented and
confused, he was found by the police lying outside the steps of a house.
Taken to hospital, he died unsung and unmourned. He was buried in Brookwood
Cemetery in Surrey.
That a man
of such intellect and promise should end up in so sad a state is tragic
indeed. Muslims owe a det of gratitude to Sherif for bringing the truth,
some of it quite unpalatable, about the life of a man who is known to the
Muslims only as the translator of the Qur'an. The translation is no mean
achievement but it is clear that despite his efforts, ultimately Yusuf
Ali had learned nothing from the Qur'an itself. That is the greatest tragedy
of his life.
offers useful insights into life in British India at the turn of the century.
Muslims would do well to study it carefully and to draw appropriate lessons
(Courtesy: Crescent -- 16-30 November