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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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