Abdullah Yusuf Ali
Abdullah Yusuf Ali is best known in the English-speaking Muslim world for his monumental translation and commentary of the Holy Qur'an. Yusuf Ali was a many-talented individual, who rose from a humble background to become one of the highest ranking 'native' members of the prestigious Indian Civil Service (the 'heaven-born') during the hey-day of the British Raj. His Qur'anic scholarship was a crowning achievement, but only one of the many contributions he made to the intellectual milieu of his times. He was also a social historian, legal author, educationalist, and a pioneer of interfaith dialogue. He succeeded in almost everything he set his mind to, with the exception of politics, where he made two half-hearted attempts to enter the rough-and-tumble of Indian legislature elections. He served the pro-British Unionist Party of the Punjab in the 1920s and 30s as an intellectual counterweight to the increasingly radicalised and pan-Islamic Muhammad Iqbal.
Yusuf Ali's father was a Dawudi Bohra in the government municipality service of Surat, who was conferred the honour of 'khan bahadur' for public service. Yusuf Ali was first educated at the Anjuman Himayat Islam school in Bombay, and subsequently a missionary school, Wilson College. After obtaining a first class BA from Bombay University, he won a Bombay presidency scholarship to Cambridge in 1891 where he studied the Law Tripos and took the Bar exams. He obtained the top marks in English Composition in the ICS entrance exams. Yusuf Ali's subjects in the ICS exams included Arabic.
Yusuf Ali's early life was marked by an enterprising sense of self-publicity and self-belief, and he stepped outside the confines of Indian Muslim circles to establish a wide network of contacts with the English elite. The only other Indian Muslim of the day with a similar reach was Justice Syed Ameer Ali. Yusuf Ali first came to public attention after a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in London in 1906, organised by a mentor, George Birdwood. When another mentor, Lord Meston, formerly Lieutenant Governor of the UP, was made Finance Member of the Government of India, he retained the services of his able protege as acting Under Secretary and then Deputy Secretary in the Department of Finance. Yusuf Ali was later to write a number of articles on the fiscal crisis in India based on his specialist knowledge of the burden of taxes and loans that had been imposed to finance the Great War (1914-18). He resigned from the ICS in 1911, on medical grounds and with a handsome pension. This enabled him to devote time to writing and other pursuits close to the heart, foremost being the educational challenges facing Indian Muslims. He was twice principal of Islamia College, Lahore - between 1925-27 and 1934-36 - the latter on the express recommendation of Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Notwithstanding their political differences, Iqbal recognised Yusuf Ali's capabilities as an educationalist with a desire to improve the lot of Indian Muslims. His classic work on the Qur'an was published in instalments during his second tenure at Islamia College.
Yusuf Ali's Qur'anic scholarship reflects his life interest in education. His commentary places emphasis on the message of upright conduct and moral character. It reflects a principal's instincts to instruct and impart.
Yusuf Ali righlty sensed that the young generation of educated Indian Muslims regarded religion with scepticism and there was a profound gap between them and the traditional religious scholars. He attempted to re-engage educated Muslims who were deeply impressed with the modern outlook with the moral and ethical message of the Qur'an. This emphasis on personal and spiritual development fitted in with a world-view of allegiance to the Empire: he regarded British rule as benign and beneficial and there was no room for Islam in the realm of politics or governance.
Yusuf Ali's life was a dogged but frustrated pursuit of a harmonious union of East and West at a personal and intellectual level. He married twice, in both cases to English women, first to Teresa Mary Shalders in 1900, and after a messy divorce, to Gertrude Ann Mawbey, the daughter of a Non-Conformist Derbyshire printer, around 1920. The second marriage too drifted into difficulties, and Yusuf Ali spent most of the last decade of his life either in the National Liberal Club, or the Royal Commonwealth Society, or tragically, shuffling around the streets of Westminster. On a bitterly cold evening in December 1953, he was taken to a home for the destitute, and he died in St Stephen's Hospital, Fulham, the following day. He lies buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.
Compiled by:M A Sherif