On Marmaduke Pickthall

The very humble and pious Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall - he is my favorite English translator of the Glorious Quran, and the only reliable one who's works are totally unmotivated.

Pickthall's biography is interesting, diverse and rich. It's inspiring and envious for those who desire to lead a meaningful life with a sincere love for Almighty Allah. This love grew in Pickthall's heart through his own understanding of Allah, and the depth of his insight.

Giving every detail of Pickthall's biography would make this post too lengthy. This has been abridged with only the relevant aspects of Pickthall's life and his remarkable contributions to the English translation of the Quran, despite the initial harassment by several Egyptian scholars.


Source: British Muslim Heritage

Marmaduke Pickthall was born in 1875 in England.

In 1913, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the Sutherland heiress and traveller, tried to convert him to Islam during a dinner at Claridges, explaining that the waiters would do perfectly well as witnesses. He politely demurred; but he could marshal no argument against hers. What he had seen and described, she had lived. As an English Muslim woman familiar with the heart of Asia, she knew that his love for Islam was grounded deep in his heart. On 29 November 1914, during a lecture on ‘Islam and Progress’, he converted to Islam joining countless others of his kind. From now on, Pickthall's life would be lived in the light of the One God of Islam. His loving wife, Muriel, followed him soon afterwards.

Pickthall had travelled widely across the Middle-East from the age of 18. He was quick at learning foreign languages and had a passion for Arabic. He was deeply engrossed in the politics of the then Muslim world and was particularly close to the Turkish community. Pickthall also spent many years among the Muslim community of undivided India. His services to the Muslims of India were immense.

As he noted: "All Muslim India seems to be possessed with the idea that I ought to translate the Qur’an into real English." He was anxious that this should be the most accurate, as well as the most literate, version of the Scripture. As well as mastering the classical Islamic sources, he travelled to Germany to consult with leading Orientalists, and studied the groundbreaking work of Nöldeke and Schwally, the Geschichte des Qorans, to which his notes frequently refer.

When the work was completed, Pickthall realised that it was unlikely to gain wide acceptance among Muslims unless approved by Al-Azhar, which, with the abolition of the Ottoman post of Shaykh al-Islam, had become the leading religious authority in the Muslim world. So to Egypt he went, only to discover that powerful sections of the ulema considered unlawful any attempt to render ‘the meanings of the Book’ into a language other than Arabic. The controversy soon broke, as Shaykh Muhammad Shakir wrote in the newspaper Al-Ahram that "all who aided such a project would burn in Hell." The Shaykh recommended that Pickthall translate Tabari’s commentary instead, a work that would amount to at least one hundred volumes in English. Other ulemas demanded that his translation be retranslated into Arabic, to see if it differed from the original in any respect, however small.

Pickthall published, in Islamic Culture, a long account of his battle with the Shaykh and the mentality which he represented. He included this reflection:

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 Jihâd; that the problems of the non-Arabs are not identical with those of the Arabs; that translation of the Qur’ân is for the non-Arabs a necessity, which, of course, it is not for Arabs; men who cannot conceive that there are Muslims in India as learned and devout, as capable as judgment and as careful for the safety of Islam, as any to be found in Egypt.

The battle was won when Pickthall addressed, in Arabic, a large gathering of the ulema, including Rashid Rida, explaining the current situation of Islam in the world, and the enormous possibilities for the spread of Islam among the English-speaking people. He won the argument entirely. The wiser heads of al-Azhar, recognising their inability to understand the situation of English speakers and the subtle urgencies of da‘wah, accepted his translation. The former Shaykh al-Azhar, al-Maraghi, who could see his sincerity and his erudition, offered him these parting words: "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."

The translation duly appeared, in 1930, and was hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘a great literary achievement.’ Avoiding both the Jacobean archaisms of Sale, and the baroque flourishes and expansions of Yusuf Ali (whose translation Pickthall regarded as too free), it was recognised as the best translation ever of the Book, and, indeed, as a monument in the history of translation. Unusually for a translation, it was further translated into several other languages, including Tagalog, Turkish and Portuguese.

One of Pickthall's most outstanding qualities was his humility. The huge success of his work never made him conceited or arrogant, not even a bit. Commenting on his English translation of the Quran, he wrote:

.. The Qur'an cannot be translated. ..The book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been 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 Qur'an - 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... [Marmaduke Pickthall, 1930]

These words of Pickhall are one of the most popular and famous ones quoted to describe the infinite beauty of the Glorious Quran.

In 1935, Pickthall left Hyderabad (India) and returned to England where he set up a new society for Islamic work, and delivered a series of lectures. Despite this new activity, however, his health was failing.

He died in a cottage in the West Country on May 19 1936, of coronary thrombosis, and was laid to rest in the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood. After his death, his wife cleared his desk, where he had been revising his lectures the night before he died, and she found that the last lines he had written were from the Qur’an:

"Whosoever surrendereth his purpose to Allah, while doing good, his reward is with his Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve."