Woking Muslim Mission, England, 1913–1968

M. Pickthall

Pickthall’s own story of opposition he faced from Ulama in Egypt for translating the Quran
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Pickthall’s own story of opposition he faced from Ulama in Egypt for translating the Quran

Introductory Note: In the biography of Marmaduke Pickthall, entitled Loyal Enemy by Anne Fremantle (Hutchinson and Co., London 1938), there is included a lengthy account by Pickthall of his visit to Egypt in connection with revising his English translation of the Quran before publication. The biographer introduces this account as follows:

His own account of the difficulties of revising his translation “with the help of Arabic and English knowing men and under the guidance of more learned men who know no English,” is so much the best, that I give it in full: it was written in Cairo when he was still seething from all the vexations he had undergone.
That account is reproduced below.

By Marmaduke Pickthall

On the 10th of November 1929 I landed in Egypt, carrying with me in my luggage the typescript of a complete translation of the Quran upon which I had been at work at intervals for several years, and which His Exalted Highness the Nizam had generously granted me the leisure and the means to finish. It was my object to submit it to the Ulama of Egypt and revise the whole work under their direction, that there might be no avoidable mistakes and no unorthodoxy. I had with me a letter of introduction to the Sheykh Mustafa Al-Maraghi, who had been the Rector of Al-Azhar when the letter was written, but had just resigned that highly remunerative post. I had written months before to an old acquaintance in Egypt who had risen to be Prime Minister, asking him to help me in my errand, but had had no answer; so that my whole dependence was upon the said letter of introduction and the reassuring fact that my good friend Fuad Bey Selim al-Higazi was in Alexandria and had promised, when we met some months before in Paris, to help me to the utmost of his power. I had heard that a former English translation by a Muslim had been publicly burnt in the courtyard of the Mosque Al-Azhar, and was forbidden entry into Egypt; but had supposed that it was because it was considered to have some flavour of heresy. [See Note 1] It was from Faud Bey, who, as soon as he heard of our arrival, came and bore us out to Ramleh to spend a week in a delightful garden by the sea, that I learnt that all translation of the Quran, however faithful, was held to be unlawful by a powerful section of the Ulama. Our friend, however, had been sounding people, in anticipation of my coming, and had found that an equally — possibly more — powerful section of the Ulama held an opposite opinion, among these being the Sheykh Mustafa Al-Maraghi to whom he was glad to hear that I carried an introduction from Lord Lloyd.

We all went up together to Cairo, where Faud Bey had found for us a quiet pension in the neighbourhood of Qasr-en-Nil; and two days after our arrival, I was driven out to Helwan through the long avenue beside the Nile, to visit the Sheykh Al-Maraghi. The clean, white, modern town, close to the loin-coloured desert hills, consists entirely of hotels and villas. To one of the latter the Sheykh Al-Maraghi had retired when he resigned, for conscience’ sake, the enormously rich post of Rector of Al-Azhar University.

The Sheykh, a tall and very upright man, still in the prime of life, was dressed in the neat turban and long billowing robe of Egyptian Ulama. He wore a scarf round his neck, raised higher on one side than on the other. This, I learnt afterwards, was to hide a sad disfigurement. At the time when he was Judge of the Cairo Muslim Court, he upheld the right of some orphans to a certain property. In revenge, vitriol was thrown at him. Happily it missed his face, but one side of his neck and chest was terribly disfigured. As Fuad Bey said afterwards: “I do not usually kiss the hands of Ulama, but I kiss that man’s hand.”

The Sheykh received us very kindly, gave us tea, and took us out on his veranda looking towards the desert hills. Fuad Bey and Ismail Bey Shirin, Deputy-Governor of Cairo, who had come with me, discussed my future programme with our host, who told us that, while he had been Rector of Al-Azhar, the then Prime Minister had spoken to him about my translation, and he had been willing to appoint a committee of the university to revise it with me, but the step had been forbidden by the King, who had somehow been impressed with the idea that translation of the Quran was sinful. It was, therefore, useless to approach Al-Azhar officially as all the patronage in that institution was the King’s, but he thought that we could easily find three or four Azharis employed in the secular university — he gave some names to Fuad Bey — willing to do the revision under his guidance. He regretted that he himself knew no English, and so could not appreciate the work. If there were any words or passages which baffled me I was to write them out for him and state the nature of my difficulty, when he would write his explanation or opinion for me. We drove back to Cairo, thinking all was settled. But when we met three of the gentlemen whom the Sheykh had named to us at the house of Lutfi Bey As-Sayyid, head of the secular university, the whole plan suddenly collapsed. Lutfi Bey had invited the head of the Arabic faculty in the university, the blind professor Ta Ha Huseyn, to be present at our conference, and he happened to remark that the three gentlemen ran the risk of losing their posts through helping me, since they belonged to the Al-Azhar and His Majesty was opposed to all translation of the Quran. Everyone agreed that he was right. I felt bitterly disappointed and, when Ta Ha Husyen suggested that I should approach the King in person, who, he believed, might be induced to change his standpoint, I said that I had not come to Egypt to seek royal sanction for my work, I had already got the sanction of His Exalted highness; nor had I come to seek a fetwa from the Ulama of Egypt, we had perfectly competent Ulama in India; I had come to seek the help of Arab learned men on points of Arabic. I talked of leaving Egypt then, and going to Damascus, but Fuad Bey assured me he would find a way out of the impasse; and in fact, soon afterwards, I was introduced to Muhammad Bey Ahmed Al-Ghamrawi, Lecturer in Chemistry at the Cairo College of Medicine, a graduate of London University and a close student of the Quran, with whom I worked at the revision happily for some three months, with an occasional visit from Fuad Bey, and an occasional reference to the Sheykh Al-Maraghi at Helwan.

We led a very quiet life; only once in the month of December did I go out to a dinner party; and then, as luck would have it, I sat next to the most enterprising of Egyptian Muslim journalists. Next day, in Al-Ahram, appeared a notice of me and my work under the heading: “A Translation of the Quran.” Two days later in the same newspaper and under the same heading appeared two columns of denunciation of translation and the translation of the sacred Book from the pen of Sheykh Muhammad Shakir, a retired professor of Al-Azhar, who (as I learnt) had been leader of the hue-and-cry against Muhammad Ali’s translation. The translator and all who read his translation, or abetted it, or showed approval of it, were condemned to everlasting perdition according to the learned writer; and I was solemnly advised to give up my nefarious work and translate instead (of all imaginable substitutes) the commentary of Tabari! Now the commentary of Tabari is of enormous bulk (the commentary of Beydawi is but of a digest of it) and would besides require another commentary of equal length to make its methods and mentality intelligible to English people who had never studied a Quran commentary.

Having read that diatribe, I at once sat down and drafted a reply in Arabic. This I took to an Egyptian friend who put in the customary journalistic compliments which I did not know. I then made a fair copy of the letter and took it to the office of Al-Ahram. In that letter, after compliments, I humbly asked: “Is it lawful for an Englishman, who is a Muslim, who has studied the commentaries of the men of old and has some reputation as a man of letters with his countrymen, to try to expound the glorious Quran to his people in their own language at the present day?”

It was some time before my letter was published. In the interval appeared other letters on the subject, all on my side. One sheykh of Al-Azhar wrote declaring translation to be not only lawful but meritorious, and offering to prove his case against the Sheykh Muhammad Shakir in a public disputation. The Sheykh Shakir had claimed that there was a fetwa (general agreement) on the subject. This correspondents flatly denied. It was evident that there were two opinions in Al-Azhar itself. I heard also some private discussions which showed me that many Egyptian Muslims were as surprised as I was at the extraordinary ignorance of present world conditions of men who claimed to be the thinking heads of the Islamic world — men who think that the Arabs are still “the patrons,” and the non-Arabs their “freedmen”; who cannot see that the positions have become reversed, that the Arabs are no longer the fighters and the non-Arabs the stay-at-homes but it is the non-Arabs who at present bear the brunt of the Jihad; that the problems of the non-Arabs are not identical with those of the Arabs; that translation of the Quran is for the non-Arabs a necessity, which, of course, it is not for the Arabs; men who cannot conceive that there are Muslims in India as learned and devout, as capable of judgment and as careful for the safety of Islam, as any to be found in Egypt.

I have already mentioned how a former translation of the Quran by a Muslim was publicly burnt and further copies of it were forbidden to be brought into Egypt. Walking in one of the most crowded streets of Cairo, I saw two English translations by non-Muslims very prominently displayed in the window of a European bookshop, one of them having on its paper jacket a picture representing our Prophet and the angel Gabriel! Where, I asked myself, can be the sense in burning and banning a well-intentioned reverent work while these irreverent translations can, under the Capitulations, enter freely?

At length, the answer to my letter from the Sheykh Muhammad Shakir appeared in Al-Ahram. This time it was no diatribe but a frank and generous admission that such a work as I had mentioned might be not only lawful but meritorious. He was a little dubious over one expression in my letter, when I spoke of explaining the Quran in a way that my countrymen would understand. He seemed to fear that this might mean some alteration to suit modern views. But I had been thinking only of his suggestion that I should translate Tabari — whose explanations are not given in a way my countrymen would understand.

Fuad Bey came up from Alexandria, having followed all the correspondence in the Press. He said that he had been alarmed when he saw the Sheykh Shakir’s attack, but had felt quite reassured on reading my reply to it. He was now glad that the whole question had been raised because there was a chance of settling it once and for all. It had become a scandal and disgrace to Egypt. He gave me a copy of the leading comic paper, in which was an article making gentle fun of the Sheykh Shakir. Public opinion was undoubtedly against that gentleman.

It was just then that my friend and, for the time, collaborator, Ghamrawi Bey brought me an invitation from the Young Men’s Muslim Association to a tea party, with the request that I should make a speech afterwards. He himself went to the headquarters of the Association, a large house with tennis-courts adjoining it near Qasr-ul-Aini, every day from his flat at Heliopolis, after he had returned home from his day’s work at the College of Medicine. He told me that he held a regular reception there of young men who had conceived any doubts about religion owing to their modern education, telling them, as a scientist, what he thought upon the matter; and that he had been able to convince a number of them. He was so good a man, and had been of such great help to me, that I was unwilling to refuse his first request.

At the same time, the function, especially the speech, meant disturbance of my peaceful existence given up to work. I at length agreed only on condition that I might be allowed to speak ex tempore and in English to the students, as to prepare a speech, especially a speech in Arabic, would take more time than I could spare from the revision work. To this my friend at last consented, undertaking himself to interpret my remarks for the benefit of those present who might not know English.

Accordingly he called for me one evening before sunset, and we walked together to the place in time for Maghrib prayer. Then there was a rather long reception of all the notables who had been asked to meet me, and then we went to tea. By that time I knew something of the composition of my audience, and could see that the sort of speech which I had meant to make would be unsuitable.

From the number of turbans and long flowing robes I judged that all Al-Azhar was present, where I had expected to see only modern students. With trepidation I realized that I must make some kind of speech in Arabic if I wished to make a good impression on these people, and must also change the purport of my English speech. But the English was for later on. At the moment I had to concentrate my thoughts intently on the preliminary remarks that I might make in Arabic, and leave the rest to Providence. The minute tea was over we went into the lecture hall, already crowded. I was put up in a sort pf pulpit, Ghamrawi Bey took stand beside me; Sheykh Rashid Rida was somewhere near me on the right, and from the middle of the hall I saw the face of Muhammad Ali Bey Kamil and beside him that of Fuad Bey’s son, staring at me, as it seemed, with horror. They were the only persons known to me in all that crowed.

Somebody spoke in introduction — I suppose it was Ghamrawi. Then my turn came. Feeling infinitely small, I said : “As-salamu ‘aleykum wa rahmatu’llahi wa barakatuh” — “Peace be with you and the mercy of Allah” — and the immediate response from the whole audience brought some courage to my heart.

I spoke in Arabic for five minutes, merely apologizing for the fact that I was going afterwards to speak in English, explaining why I had asked leave to do so, and telling one short anecdote. It was nothing much, but it sufficed to win the turbaned section of the audience. Then came the speech in English, Ghamrawi Bey translating every paragraph. I had meant to tell the students about Hyderabad and the work of education that is being done there; and I began with something of that. I told them of the foundation of Osmania University. I described the Friday congregation at the Mecca Masjid, I told them how His Exalted Highness goes every Friday to the Mosque (at that there was applause and one old man exclaimed: “Ah, would that it were so in Egypt!”), and then, thinking I had said enough to show them that I came from no benighted land, I talked to them about the future of Islam.

Muslims felt despair because they were defeated. It was only natural. But was there any reason for despair? Was there not a clear analogy between our present condition and that of the Prophet and his comrades at Al-Hudeybiyah, when the Muslims asked “Where is now the victory that we were promised?” and even Omar made remarks of which he ever afterwards repented. Yet the Truce of Al-Hudeybiyah, though it seemed so ignominious for the early Muslims, was in fact the greatest victory that Islam had until then achieved. Until then war had set a rigid barrier between the Muslims and their opponents, but with the truce the barrier fell down, the two parties mingled and conversed together, with the result that in the two years that elapsed between the truce of Al-Hudeybiyah and the conquest of Mecca — years of peace with the idolators — the number of converts to Islam was far greater than the total number of all previous converts. [See Note 2]

For centuries war had set a rigid barrier between the Muslim world and Christendom, and now that barrier is down, no matter that the terms of settlement seem ignominious to the Muslims. That settlement may yet prove to be the greatest victory that Al-Islam has yet achieved, on one condition — a hard one — that all Muslims show again in their conduct the faith and virtue of the early Muslims. “Or do you think,” I asked them, “that Al-Islam was propagated by the sword?” (When the question was translated by Ghamrawi Bey there were anguished cries of “No!” and “God forbid!”) I told them how the Arabic-speaking peoples are respected by non-Arabs, more especially in India; how we look to them for example; and I asked them to furnish that example. My speech ended, the Sheykh Rashid Rida spoke supporting all I had said.

When he visited India, the people had flocked to pay him honour only because he was an Arab and came from the land of Nabi Yusuf. He quoted the words of the late Sheykh Muhammad Abduh: “We (Arabs) by our conduct are the hindrance to the spread of Al-Islam to the West. They see our religion through us as through a dirty window, and misjudge it consequently.”

Then a sheykh in Azhari dress got up and with deep emotion thanked me in the name of Al-Azhar for all that I had said. The whole incident had nothing to do with translation of the Quran, but after it there was no further public cavilling at my translation.

We moved out to Heliopolis for Ramadan, in order that I might be nearer to Ghamrawi Bey, whose home was there; and our work of revision was completed in the blessed month.

Fuad Bey came up to Cairo for the Eid. The time for our departure was drawing near. Fuad Bey, Ghamrawi Bey and I drove to Helwan to see the Sheykh Al-Maraghi, and in the course of the visit Ghamrawi made his general report of my work. On the strength of that report the good Sheykh wrote some words of warm approval which I treasure as coming from an altogether upright man, incapable of writing anything that he does not think true.

On a former visit he had read out to me all the passages in the writing of the immediate disciples of the Imam Abu Hanifah which made him, a Hanafi teacher, hold translation of the Quran lawful. He had been anxious that I should know his authority, and should not suppose that he, any more than the opponent party, scorned Tradition. On this last visit I felt it my duty to tell him that my translation would fall short of the condition laid down by Abu Hanifah in one respect: it would not show the Arabic text side by side with the translation. He asked: “Why not?” and I explained that there were several reasons. For one thing, it would cost a great deal more; for another, it would repel non-Muslim readers who, glancing at the book and finding if half-full of Arabic, would lay it down unread as something quite outside their sphere of interest; for yet another, Islam had been attacked and prejudiced by means of translations of the Quran, without the Arabic, circulated among non-Muslims. Even if translation had been quite unlawful, as our opponents claimed, it would have been sanctioned, in the circumstances, by the verse of the Quran:

“The sacred month for the sacred month, and forbidden things (are lawful) in retaliation. So whoever hath attacked you, attack him with the like of that wherewith he hath attacked you. And keep your duty to Allah and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty.”

If things forbidden by Allah, like warfare in a sacred month, become lawful in retaliation, so evidently must things forbidden only by the Ulama. I must have spoken with some heat for when I paused for some breath, the Sheykh said: “If you feel so strongly convinced that you are right, go on in God’s name in the way that is clear to you, and pay no heed to what any of us say.” As he uttered the words he smiled at me, and we both emerged from the cell erected by the schoolmen of the middle ages of Islam, in which we had been talking until then.

“Quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.” [See Note 3]

On the day before that on which my wife and I were to leave Cairo, a Bedawi chief, who was a member of the new Parliament, at Fuad Bey’s instigation, asked us to a luncheon party; and to that luncheon party came the present Grand Sheykh of Al-Azhar, official leader of those Ulama who hold translation of the Quran unlawful — a very handsome and benignant-looking old man in a beautiful dove-coloured robe and snowy turban. At table, I was placed at his right hand. Except Hilma Pasha Aisa, an ex-minister, the remainder of the party consisted of men who had proved their devotion to Islam in the opinion of the Ulama; there were all Mujahidin, including Fuad Bey, who had been with Mustafa Kemal in the Suez Canal campaign before he became Turkish Minister at Berne. The Sheykh could hardly fail to be surprised to see an Englishman in such a gathering, and when I told him that I was the man who had translated the Quran into English he seemed rather shocked.

After luncheon, when Fuad Bey praised my translation, and all the others called it meritorious, he was evidently much embarrassed, until Fuad Bey remarked: “He will not call it Al-Quran; he will call it Ma‘aniu’l-Qur’an’l-Majid (The meaning of the Glorious Quran).” Then the Rector of Al-Azhar smiled. “If he does that,” he said, “then there can be no objection; we shall all be pleased with it.” I was back again in the medieval cell, but we had reached a peacable conclusion, as I thought, and I was glad of it.

That was in March 1930. My translation was published in December of the same year. In April 1931 I received a letter from Ghamrawi Bey informing me that the Rector of Al-Azhar had sent for him (Ghamrawi) and asked him many questions about my translation. It seemed that he was inclining to condemn it, after all. The latest rumour was that Al-Azhar had decided that the work must be translated word for word back into Arabic and submitted to their judgement in that distorted form, as none of the professors could read English. It was certainly a great advance beyond the method of condemning without trial pursued in the case of Maulvi Muhammad Ali’s English version, showing that, even within Al-Azhar, there is now a party of enlightenment strong enough to force withdrawal from the old position. I replied with every argument that I could reach, of which Ghamrawi might make use of in conversation with the Ulama.

The approval or the condemnation of Al-Azhar, or indeed of all the Ulama of Egypt, could not help or injure my translation much; but from what I had so lately seen in Egypt I could judge that condemnation, after all that had already happened, was very likely to bring a degree of ridicule upon Al-Azhar, which I should be the first to deplore. Al-Azhar is a great historic institution which one would wish to see reformed and not demolished. I asked Ghamrawi to implore them not to treat allies as enemies.

Subsequently I have learnt from a newspaper report that, after examining my work in the distorted form already mentioned, the Rector of Al-Azhar pronounced it, “though the best of all translations,” unfit to be authorized in Egypt. The reason given for the ban is that I have translated idiomatic and metaphorical Arabic phrases literally into English, thus showing that I have not understood their real meaning. Happily, he gave an instance which was quoted in the newspaper, so that I can understand the meaning of the accusation. I have translated Surah XVII, v.29, thus: “And let not thy hand be chained to thy neck nor open it with a complete opening lest thou sit down rebuked, denuded.” He considers that, by thus translating the Arabic words literally, I have turned a commandment relating to miserliness and generosity into a commandment concerning the position of a man’s hands! How should he know that we speak of “open-handedness” and “tight-fistedness” in English and that every English reader will understand my literal translation in precisely the same sense in which the Arabic reader understands the Arabic text. The ban is therefore based upon an altogether false assumption.

From the opening of the question, as I gather from a report in Al-Ahram, there had been strong difference of opinion between the Ministry of the Interior and Al-Azhar as to the merits of the work, the former championing its merits with surprising vigour. But Al-Azhar, with the King behind it, is supreme in all such matters.

There is something hopeful in the actual condemnation, the terms of which are wonderfully mild, one might almost say favourable, to the translator as compared with former pronouncement of the same authority. It makes the close of a long chapter in the history of the relations of Arabs and non-Arabs — a chapter of whose tenour the Prophet would assuredly have disapproved — since the position that all translation of the Quran is sinful has been quite abandoned. A translation of the Quran by a Muslim has been examined and a literary reason has been given for its condemnation. That is a great step forward.

(Loyal Enemy by Anne Fremantle, pages 408–419)


by Zahid Aziz

Note 1:

Pickthall has made mention of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English translation at four places in this extract. We have linked them here as follows: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Note 2:

In the two paragraphs beginning “Muslims felt despair because they were defeated”, part of Pickthall’s speech to an Arab audience, the notion he presents — namely, that the best chance for the spread of Islam among its Christian opponents is at a time when there is peace between Muslims and Christians, even though it is a peace in which the Muslims have been reduced to being the subjects of the Christians — is the same as the outlook promoted by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and the Ahmadiyya Movement. Maulana Muhammad Ali, in his English book Muhammad The Prophet, first published in 1924, drew the same parallel as Pickthall draws here between the peaceful situation after the treaty of Hudaibiya and the situation in which Muslims find themselves now with respect to their opponents. Compare what Pickthall has written above with the following written by Maulana Muhammad Ali in 1924, where we have italicised the points of comparison:

“Europe is daily awakening to the nobility and purity of his [the Holy Prophet’s] character. … Of course, such an appreciation must now come, as it did before, in the wake of a general state of peace. …The time has come when closer contact with the Muslim world may disillusion Europe of its wrong notions concerning Islam; when it may come to realize, as did the enemies of Islam thirteen centuries ago, that the fair face of Islam is free from the stigmas with which ignorance and prejudice have disfigured it.…Strange are the ways of God and little wonder that the history of Islam should repeat itself. Those bent upon its destruction may fall victim to its moral force, as happened at the conclusion of the truce of Hudaibiya.” (Muhamamd The Prophet, Ch. Truce of Hudaibiya)

Note 3:

“Quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.” This is Italian and is a quotation from Dante’s Inferno, meaning literally: “whence we came forth to see the stars once more”. Pickthall is using this as a poetic analogy for his relief on having concluded the laborious ordeal of overcoming the opposition he faced.


In this account as printed in Loyal Enemy, Arabic terms and names have been transliterated using diacritical marks. We have removed the diacritical marks in the above reproduction for ease of searching the text. Below we provide a list of all these words as they occur above without diacritics and as they occur with diacritics in the book.

Quran Qur’‚n   Beydawi Beydawî
Ulama ‘Ulama   Qasr-ul-Aini Qasr-ul-‘Aîni
Al-Maraghi Al-Mar‚ghi   Rashid Rida Rashîd Rid‚
al-Higazi al-Hig‚zi   Muhammad Ali Bey Kamil Muhammad Alî Bey K‚mil
Ismail Bey Shirin Isma‘il Bey Shîrîn   Nabi Yusuf Nabî Yûsuf
Lutfi Bey Luftî Bey   Abduh ‘Abduh
Al-Ghamrawi Al-Ghamr‚wî   Imam Abu Hanifah Imâm Abû Hanîfah
Shakir Sh‚kir   Hilma Pasha Aisa Hilma Pasha A’îsa
Tabari Tabarî      

Pickthall links:


Woking connections

Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din

Maulana Muhammad Ali


Quran translation

Obituary in The Islamic Review

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