This is the story of a man who was born into privilege, excelled in studies, served as a high government official in British India, wrote the monumental translation and commentary of the Quran and died a homeless and penniless man in London.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali was born in Surat, India, in 1878 to a merchant family of Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslims. According to his own words, he was taught Arabic from early childhood, and by age five he had finished reading the Quran. He attended Anjuman-e-Islam School in Bombay where another Indian Muslim by the name of Muhammad Ali Jinnah was his schoolmate. After receiving BA from Bombay University in 1891, he won a Bombay Presidency scholarship to study at Cambridge, from where he received another BA and a law degree. He was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, where his grade school classmate Muhammad Ali Jinnah was his contemporary – as was Muhammad Iqbal (later known as Allama Iqbal).
He passed the Indian Civil Service examination with distinction and was appointed magistrate and revenue officer in United Provinces of India. Later he also served as district and sessions judge and undersecretary and deputy secretary in the Government of British India. In 1917, in recognition of his services to the Crown, the government conferred on him the prestigious title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
While in England he had married Teresa Mary Shalders in a Church of England ceremony in London. Upon their return to India, they realized that they were not accepted in the closely-knit community of British officers and their white wives. It was an unhappy marriage, perhaps partly because of his wife’s infidelity. He resigned from the government and took his family to London, where he filed for divorce. He won custody of his children and soon thereafter in 1920 he married another Englishwoman Gertrude Anne Mawbey who was later known by her Muslim name Masuma. He left his children in the care of a governess in London and returned to India in 1921 with his new wife to serve as the revenue minister in the princely state of Hyderabad Deccan. In Hyderabad he also contributed to the Nizam Mir Usman Ali Khan’s ambitious project of translating scientific textbooks into Urdu.
He left the service of the Nizam in 1924, practiced law in Lucknow and in 1925 accepted the offer to become principal of Islamia College, Lahore. He made a brief visit to London where he contributed to the Encyclopedia of Islam, published some progressive pamphlets on Islam and was instrumental, along with Indian High Commissioner Sir Feroze Khan Noon and Sir Hasan Suhrawardi, the Muslim member of the Indian Office, in securing land for Regent’s Park Mosque. The mosque was finally built in 1944 and was inaugurated by King George VI. (Much later in late 1940’s, when he had permanently moved back to London, Yusuf Ali wrote the constitution of the mosque.) From London he represented British India in the planning session for the League of Nations. While in London he also taught Hindustani language at the School of Oriental Studies and lectured at the Notting Hill Islamic Center.
His ardent support of the British government earned him the scorn of his one-time classmate in grade school and later at Lincoln’s Inn, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, later to become known as the Quaid-e-Azam. Yusuf Ali had become totally irrelevant to the land of his birth
Second stint as Principal of Islamia College, Lahore
He had left Islamia College the first time after serving for only two years. It seems that there were elements in the college as well in the Governing Board of the College who did not see eye-to-eye with him.
It was in the early 1930s when he was living in Lahore that he started serial publication of his Magnum Opus, the Translation and Commentary of the Quran. While he was working on this project, his wife Masuma left with their son Rashid to live in London. This enabled him to pay full attention to the project.
The offer of Islamia College principalship came from Allama Muhammad Iqbal in his capacity as president of Anjuman-e-Himayat-e-Islam, the organization that ran the college. After some hard bargaining at the residence of Allama Iqbal, Yusaf Ali accepted the appointment at a princely salary of Rupees 1,350 per month.
The origin of his Translation and Commentary
The Translation and Commentary was issued in 30 parts over a period of three years (1934-37), but he had been working on the project for more than 10 years. He took the manuscript with him on all his travels. In the introduction of the first part (juz or sipara) issued on the 4th of April, 1934, he wrote about the journey he undertook to start publishing the translation:
I collected books, material, visited places, undertook journeys, taken notes, sought the society of men and tried to explore their thoughts and hearts to equip myself for the task.
In his twilight years he mentioned to one of his visitors that he wrote (the Translation and the Commentary) on all the continents of the world and that he visited every place mentioned in the Quran.
In the preface he also talked about the “inner storms (that are) far more devastating than in the physical world” and that this work “was a healing process, a new hope.” His inner storms were most likely due to the failure of his first marriage, his total estrangement from his children and the beginning of the unraveling of his second marriage.
He completed the manuscript while still at Islamia College but resigned a year before his contract was to have expired. That was a time of great political upheaval in India and the Punjab was not immune to political mudslinging and character assassination. He was accused of working on his project on college time (he denied the accusation) and his close association with the Unionist leaders of the province was brought up. Somehow, the leaders of Muslim League, the dominant party representing Muslims, considered him a “traitor” to the Muslim cause and did everything to discredit him. His ardent support of the British government earned him the scorn of his one-time classmate in grade school and later at Lincoln’s Inn, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, later to become known as the Quaid-e-Azam. Yusuf Ali had become totally irrelevant to the land of his birth. So, in the 1930s, he moved back to London. This time for good.
His reputation as a Quranic scholar and as a man of letters had reached North America as well. In December 1938 he toured Canada at the invitation of the National Council of Education of Canada. There he inaugurated the first Canadian mosque in the city of Edmonton. When asked to suggest a suitable name, he chose Al Rashid Mosque, most likely after his son Rashid.
Twilight years and death
He lived out World War II in England and then saw the Partition of India from that distance as well. His marriage to Masuma ended in divorce and as with other children from his first marriage, he also became estranged from his son Rashid from the second marriage.
Towards the end of his life, he fell on hard financial times. He lived in Empire Club that was an extension of the Royal Empire Society where old pensioners lived out their remaining years. Most of his close friends had either died or had moved back to the Subcontinent. His days were spent sitting by himself lost in his own thoughts or just a blank stare.
On the evening of the 9th of December, 1953, he was found sitting in bitter cold on the steps of a house in the Westminster section of London. He was taken to Westminster Hospital in Chelsea from where he was transferred to London County Council Institution for the Elderly in Chelsea.
Somehow the staff at Pakistan Embassy found out about him and G.M Mumtaz, education officer at the embassy, visited him and found him in a terrible condition. He was once a wealthy man and had many friends. But in the twilight of his life, he was broke and alone.
His condition further deteriorated, and he was taken to St. Stephen’s Hospital in Fulham where, a day after he was found on the streets of London, he died. He was 81 years old.
He would have received a pauper’s funeral had it not been for the staff at Pakistan Embassy, who attended his funeral and paid the cost of burial. He was laid to rest in Brook Wood Cemetery in Surrey close to the Woking Mosque. By a strange coincidence, he was buried close to the grave of Marmaduke Pickthall, another well-known translator of the Quran.
There is an interesting footnote to his last days. When Pakistani High Commissioner Mirza Abul Hasan Ispahani learned about the plight of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, he sent an urgent appeal to Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra to sanction a regular stipend for the scholar “for the great services he has rendered to Islam during his lifetime.” The Prime Minister would later regret that if he had known the condition of Yusuf Ali, the Government of Pakistan would have ensured that he might spend the last days of his life in decent comfort.
In his 1994 biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Searching for Solace, M. A. Sherif sums up Yusuf Ali’s life in the following words:
“(his)life began with promise, swung between moments of darkness and summits, and ended in tragedy.”
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org