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A Biography of Abdullah Yusaf Ali
Book Review
Zafar Bangash

Title: Searching for Solace: A Biography of Abdullah Yusaf Ali -- Translator of the Qur’an.
Author:  M A Sherif
Publishers: Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (1994. pp.314 Pbk: US$20)

Abdullah Yusuf 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 shows.

Among numerous 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.

Today, tens 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.

How Yusuf 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.

A peculiar 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.

Sherif traces 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.

Yusuf Ali 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.'

His penchant 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.

Iqbal saw 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.

His education 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.

His first 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.

His greatest 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.

Equally shocking is the contrast in his public and private lives. He was known to charm public gatherings. 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.

He officially 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.

Sherif's book 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 from it.

(Courtesy: Crescent -- 16-30 November 1995)

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