By Maryam Jameelah
My discovery of the Holy Qur’an was tortuous and led me through strange by-ways but since the end of the road was supremely worthwhile, I have never regretted my experiences.
As a small child I possessed a keen ear for music and was particularly fond of the classical operas and symphonies considered the high culture in the West. Music was my favourite subject in school in which I excelled. By sheer chance when I was about eleven years old, I happened to hear Arabic music over the radio which so much pleased me that I was determined to hear more. As soon as I heard Arabic music, Western music at once lost all its appeal for me. I would not leave my parents in peace until my father finally took me to the Syrian section of New York City where I bought a stack of Arabic recordings for my gramophone. The one I liked best was a rendition of Surah Maryam of the Holy Qur’an chanted by Um Kulthum. Then in 1947 I could not foresee what an evil woman she was to become in her later years. I could only admire her for her beautiful voice which rendered those passages of Holy Qur’an with such intense feeling and devotion. It was by listening to these recordings by the hour that I came to love the sound of Arabic even though I could not understand it.
Without this basic appreciation of the Arabic musical idiom which sounds so utterly strange to the Westerner, I could not possibly have grown to love Tilawat. My parents, relatives and neighbours thought Arabic and its music dreadfully weird and so distressing to their ears that whenever I put on my recordings, they demanded that I close all the doors and windows of my room lest it disturb them! After I embraced Islam in 1961, 1 used to sit enthralled by the hour at the mosque in New York listening to the tape-recordings of Tilawat chanted by the celebrated Egyptian Qari, Abdul Basit. But one Juma Salat, the Imam did not play the tapes. We had a special guest-a short, very thin and poorly-dressed black youth who introduced himself to us as a student from Zanzibar; but when he opened his mouth to recite Surah ar- Rahman, I never heard such glorious Tilawat, even from Abdul Basit! This obscure African youth possessed such a voice of gold; surely Hazrat Bilai, may Allah be pleased with him, must have sounded much like him!
From the age of ten I had developed a passion for reading all the books about the Arabs I could lay my hands on at school or at the public libraries in my community, especially those dealing with the historical relationships between the Jews and the Arabs, but it was not until more than nine years later that it ever occurred to me to satisfy my curiosity about the Holy Qur’an. Gradually, however, as I neared the end of my adolescence, I became convinced that it was not the Arabs who had made Islam great but Islam which had raised the Arabs from mere wild desert tribes to the masters of the world. It was not until I wanted to find out just how and why this had occurred that I ever thought to read Holy Qur’an for myself.
In the summer of 1953 1 overstrained myself at college by taking an accelerated course of too many subjects. That August I fell ill and had to discontinue all work for the remainder of the season. One evening when my mother was about to go to the public library, she asked me if there was any book I wanted. I asked her for a copy of the Holy Qur’an, An hour later she returned with one- a translation by the eighteenth century Christian missionary and scholar- George Sale. Because of the extremely archaic language and the copious footnotes quoting from al-Baidawi and Zamakshari out of context in order to refute the Text from the Christian viewpoint, I understood very little. At that time my immature mind regarded Qur’an as nothing more than distorted and garbled versions of the familiar stories from the Bible! Although my first impression of Holy Qur’an was unfavourable, I could not tear myself away from it. I read it almost continuously for three days and nights and when I had finished, all my strength had been drained away! Although I was only nineteen, I felt as weak as a woman of eighty! I never recovered my full strength or energy afterwards.
I continued to nurse this poor opinion of Holy Qur’an until one day I found in a bookshop a cheap paper-back edition of Muhammad Marmaduke Picktall’s translation. As soon as I opened that book, it proved a revelation! The powerful eloquence literally swept me off my feet. In the first paragraph of his Preface, Pickthall wrote:
“The aim of this work is to present to English readers what Muslims the world-over hold to be the meaning of the words of the Qur’an and the nature of that Book is not unworthy language and concisely with a view to the requirements of English-speaking Muslims. It may reasonably be claimed that no Holy Scripture can be fairly presented by one who disbelieves its inspiration and its message and this is the first English translation by an Englishman who is a Muslim. Some of the translations include commentations offensive to Muslims and almost all employ a style of language which Muslims at once recognise as unworthy.
The Qur’an cannot be translated. That is the belief of the old-fashioned Sheikhs and the view of the present writer. The Book here is rendered almost literally and every effort is made to choose befitting language but the result is not the Glorious Qur’an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qu’ran-and peradventure something of the charm-in English. It can never take the place of the Qur’an in Arabic nor is it meant to do so . . .”
I then realised why George Sale’s translation was most unfair. From then on I refused to read his or any other renderings of Holy Qur’an by non-Muslims. After reading Pickthall’s rendition, I discovered other English translations by Yusuf Ali, Muhammad Ali Lahori and Maulana Abdul Majid Darabadi. At once I found the commentation of Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Ali Lahori offensive because of their apologetic tone and far-fetched and unconvincing attempts to explain away those passages conflicting with modern philosophies or scientific concepts. Their translation of the Text was also weak.
Although Maulana Daryabadi’s attempt to pattern his translation of Holy Qur’an on the archaic style of the King James version of the Bible which most annoyed me, I found his commentary excellent, particularly those parts dealing with comparative religions, and learned much from it. However, Pickthall’s rendition remained my favourite and to this day, I have never found any other English translation that can equal it. The sweep of eloquence, the virility and dignity of the language is unsurpassed in any other translation. Most other translations commit the mistake of using the word “God” but Pickthall retains “Allah” throughout. This makes the message of Islam strike the Western reader as more authentic and infinitely more effective. Throughout my darkest days during my hospitalisation, I kept a paperback edition of Pickthall’s translation with me as my constant companion which I read over so many times, I must have worn to pieces a half dozen copies. May Allah abundantly reward Pickthall with the choicest blessings for making the knowledge about the Qur’an so easily and cheaply available in England and America, Were it not for him, I would not have been able to know and appreciate it.
After my discharge in 1959, I spent much of my leisure time reading books about Islam in the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library. It was there I discovered four bulky volumes of an English translation alongside the Arabic text of MISHKAT UL MASABIH by al- Haj Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Calcutta. It was then I learned that a proper and detailed under- standing of Holy Qur’an is not possible without some knowledge of the relevant Hadith for how can the Holy Text correctly be interpreted except in the context of the precept and example of the Prophet to whom it was revealed ?
Those who disbelieve the Hadith also disbelieve the Qur’an for its revelation explicitly tells us that one cannot follow what God wants us to do without an unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
Once I had studied the MISHKAT, I began to accept the Holy Qur’an as Divine revelation. What convinced me that the Qur’an must be from God and not composed by Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was its satisfying and convincing answers to all the most important questions of life which I could not find elsewhere.
As a child I was so mortally afraid of death, particularly the thought of my own death, that after nightmares about it, sometimes I would awaken my parents, crying in the middle of the night. When I asked them why I had to die, and what would happen to me after death, all they could say was that I had to accept the inevitable but that was a long way off and be- cause medical science was constantly advancing, perhaps I would live to be a hundred years old. My parents, the remainder of my family and all our friends contemptuously rejected as superstition any thought of Hereafter regarding Judgment Day, reward in Paradise or punishment in Hell as outmoded concepts of by-gone ages. In vain I searched all the verbose chapters of the Old Testament for any clear and unambiguous concept of Hereafter. The Prophets, patriarchs and sages of the Bible all receive their rewards or punishments in this world.
Typical is the story of Job (Hazrat Ayub). God destroyed all his loved-ones, his possessions and afflicted him with loathesome disease in order to test his faith. Job plaintively laments to God why He should make a righteous man suffer. At the end of the story, God restores all his earthly losses but nothing is even mentioned about any possible consequences in the Hereafter. Although I did find the Hereafter mentioned in the New Testament, compared with that of Holy Qur’an, it was vague and ambiguous. I found no answer to the question of death in Orthodox Judaism for the TALMUD preaches that even the worst life is better than the best death. My parents’ philosophy was that one must avoid contemplating the thought of death and just enjoy as best one can, the pleasures life has to offer at the moment.
According to them, the purpose of life is enjoyment and pleasure achieved through self- expression of one’s talents, the love of family, the congenial company of friends combined with the comfortable living and indulgence in the variety of amusements that affluent America makes available in such unparalleled abundance.
They deliberately cultivated this extraordinarily superficial approach to life as if it were the guarantee of their continued happiness and good fortune. Through bitter experience I discovered that self-indulgence leads only to misery and that nothing great or even worthwhile is ever accomplished without the struggle of adversity and self-sacrifice.
From earliest childhood I have always wanted to accomplish important and significant things. Above all else before my death, I want the assurance that I have not wasted my life in sinful deeds or worthless pursuits. All my life I have been intensely serious-minded. I have always detested the frivolity which is the dominant characteristic of contemporary culture.
My father once disturbed me with his unsettling conviction that there is nothing of permanent value and because everything in this modern age continually changes all the time, the best we can do is accept the present trends as inevitable and adjust ourselves to them. I, however, was always thirsty to attain something that would endure forever. It was from the Holy Qur’an that I learned that this aspiration was possible. No good deed for the sake of seeking the pleasure of God is ever wasted or lost. Even if the person concerned never achieves any wordly recognition, his reward is certain in the Hereafter.
Conversely,the Qur’an tells us that those who are guided by no moral considerations other than expediency or social conformity and crave the freedom to do as they please no matter how much worldly success and prosperity they attain or how keenly they are able to relish the short span of their earthly life, will be doomed as the losers on Judgment Day. Islam teaches us that in order to devote our exclusive attention to fulfilling our duties to God and to our fellow beings, we must abandon all vain and useless activities which distract us from this end. Those teachings of Holy Qur’an, made even more explicit by Hadith, I found thoroughly compatible with my temperament.
When I embraced Islam, my parents, relatives and friends regarded me as something on a fanatic because I could think and talk of nothing else. To them, religion is a purely private concern which at most could perhaps be cultivated, if one wished, like an amateur hobby among other hobbies. But as soon as I read Holy Qur’an, I knew that Islam was no hobby! Islam is not a mere accessory to life but life itself!
From the onset of my adolescence until my migration to Pakistan at the age of twenty-eight, I was a complete social misfit, An adolescent or youth as serious-minded as I was, always buried in a pile of books at the library, who abhorred the cinema, dancing and “pop” music, who did not enjoy “dating” and mixed parties and had took no interest in romance, glamour, cosmetics, jewellery or fashionable clothes, has to pay the full penalty of social ostracism for being “different.”
From a hopeless future in America which had no place for a person like me who could only be regarded as an eccentric there, I escaped when I migrated to Pakistan. Although Pakistan, like every other Muslim country, is being contaminated by the most noxious dirt from Europe and America, still a sufficient number of Pakistanis remain good Muslims to provide an environment which makes it possible for the individual to lead a life in conformity to what lam teaches.
At times, I must admit, I fail to apply to my own life what Islam demands that we practice but I never indulge in far-fetched interpretations of Qur’an and Sunnah to justify my weaknesses and shortcomings.
Whenever I do wrong, I readily admit it and try my best to rectify my mistake. The happiness I have found in my new life is entirely due to the fact that just those qualities of character and temperament Western society ridicules and scorns, in Islam are most keenly appreciated and esteemed.