The Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture

Lecture delivered by M A Sherif, author of Searching for Solace, biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, at Conference Hall, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, Petaling Jaya, 14 December 2008.

A section of the audience before the start of the programme.

A section of the exhibition.

The exhibition provides valuable information and details about English translations of the Qur'an

Dr Mahathir Mohamad looks at some early editions of Yusuf Ali's work.

The inaugural memorial lecture on the late translator of the Qur’an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, was successfully convened by Islamic Book Trust on Sunday, 14 December 2008. The lecture was delivered by Dr M A Sherif from the United Kingdom, author of Searching for Solace, the first detailed account on the life of Yusuf Ali published by IBT in 1994.

The event, the first of its kind, was attended by about 300 people from all backgrounds and political affiliations. They include the former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, PAS vice president Mohamad Sabu, its secretary-general Kamaruddin Jaafar, Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president, Dr Syed Husin Ali and activist Dr Chandra Muzaffar, who heads the International Movement for a Just World.

Reciter Khairul Anuar recites Surah al-Hashr, followed by a reading of the translation by Aisha Polly.

Dr Osman Bakar gives welcoming speech.

The event began with a beautiful recitation of the Qur’an by Khairul Anuar Basri, who read verses 18-24 of Surah al-Hashr, followed by its translation read by Aisha Zahara Polly. In his welcoming address, Dr Osman Bakar, chairman of IBT Board of Trustees, said as the English language was today an important medium for Islamic discourse, there was a need for more books on Islam in English. This, he said, has been the main aim of the Trust from its very beginning, to publish good but affordable books on Islam, or to quote its motto, “not cheap books, but books cheap”.

In conjunction with the event, an exhibition themed “A Journey Through English Translations of the Qur’an” was also held side-by-side with a photographic exhibition on the life of Yusuf Ali, showcasing some forty selected English translations of the Qur’an by Muslims and non-Muslims over the decades. The exhibition provided the background and the circumstances in which these translations emerged, giving visitors a glimpse of the unique characteristics of each of these translations and the politics behind their publications. There were also rare copies of earlier prints of the original edition of Yusuf Ali’s work. The IBT book sale, offering up to  30% discount on all its titles new and old, also proved to be a hit among visitors.

The lecture

Dr M A Sherif takes to the stage.

Part of the 300 people who turned up.

In his 45-minute lecture entitled “Circumstance, Inner Light and Human Agency: Reflections on the Life and Times of Allama Yusuf Ali 1872-1953”, Dr Sherif touched on the circumstances and the dilemma faced by a section of Muslim intellectuals during the British colonial rule, saying they are no less different than the challenges facing contemporary Muslims in the post-911 era. Sherif cautioned that Yusuf Ali’s loyalty to the Empire, how he was used for Britain’s wartime propaganda and then abandoned, ought to serve as lessons for Muslims.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar reads a comparison of translated passages of the Qur'an, at the exhibition.

Visitors at a pictorial exhibition on the life of Yusuf Ali.

A informative timeline of English translations of the Qur'an at the exhibition.

“His generation were offered attractive slogans – just as today we are familiar with powerful Western governments and think tanks such as Rand and the Hudson Institute exhorting Muslims to rally around the projects they have crafted to reshape the world,” said Sherif.

He relates one example of how Yusuf Ali’s undivided trust in the Empire was reciprocated. While planning his Scandinavian journey to campaign for wartime propaganda, the Foreign and Colonial Office were not even sure whether he was Hindu or Muslim. When the officials discussed the need to send him a letter of appreciation, they found that his file was lost.

“The Empire used his goodwill and talents, but once their own objectives had been achieved, coldly cast him aside. This too ought to be a salutary lesson for present-day Muslim intellectuals drawn into the web of Western think-tanks and their agendas of manipulation and social engineering,” said Sherif, who is currently researching on the history of British Muslim activism in the city.

Yusuf Ali's life-story in pictures

Part of the Qur'an translations on display.

In his lecture, Sherif also moved the audience when he related Yusuf Ali’s personal trauma. Yusuf Ali’s shaken state of loyalty to the British came at a time when his private life was in tatters. He had divorced his English wife Mary Theresa, to whom he got married in a church and with whom he had four children, after revelations of her infidelity. Soon he also became estranged to his second wife, and started living in rooms of the National Liberal Club in Pall Mall. In 1940, he drew up his will, denying anything to his children, whose “continued ill-will towards me have alienated my affection for them”, singling out his son Asghar Bloy, for abusing and insulting him from time to time.

His pain and anguish had left an indelible mark on his later worldview, and he turned to the Qur’an for solace. He began his project, the result being a work which earned praise from scholars of that time, and which today is still considered the most widely used English translation of the Qur’an. A day before his death, Yusuf Ali was found as a confused old man sitting on the steps of a Westminster house in the cold winter of 1953. There were no relatives or friends to claim his body, but a Muslim burial was arranged by the Pakistan High Commission in London.

Yusuf Ali was, as Sherif has pointed out, a product of his time and environment, but also one whose hardships led him to a deep study and understanding of Islam and the Qur’an.

Audience participation

Dr Mahathir is asked to share his thoughts on Yusuf Ali.

Pakistan High Commissioner Tahir Mahmud Qazi.

Dr Sherif’s lecture was followed by brief impromptu speeches from among the audience. Dr Mahathir, among those who were asked to the podium to share his comments, revealed that it was only recently that he learnt about the circumstances leading to his death. Saying that translations of the Qur’an were never perfect because they were interpretations of the translators, Mahathir added that knowing the Arabic language would not automatically render a person to fully understand its meanings. Others from the audience talked about their first encounter with English translation of the Qur’an, and all of them said it was Yusuf Ali’s work which sparked interest in them to study the Qur’an further.

Dr Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman, a lecturer at International Islamic University, for example, said she was first introduced to Yusuf Ali’s translation as a young teenager at school, while dusting old books at the school library. Since then, she added, her worldview on life had never been the same.

Pakistan’s high commissioner to Malaysia, Lt Gen (retd) Tahir Mahmud Qazi, drew laughter and applause when he told the audience that since no one was protesting, his country was laying a claim on Yusuf Ali, whom he considered one of the divided assets that went to Pakistan following the partition.

IBT Board of Trustees chairman, Dr Osman Bakar, in his speech, said invitations had been extended to the high commissioners of Britain and India to attend the event, because these countries were closely connected with Yusuf Ali’s life-story and activities.

Future lectures

No doubt that any translation and commentary of the Qur’an reflects the understanding and outlook of the translator and commentator.  To fully understand Yusuf Ali’s perspective, therefore, it is necessary to know something about the man, his life and his times.

IBT trustee and founder Haji Koya Kutty shares a moment with Dr Chandra Muzaffar

PAS vice-president Mohamad Sabu browses titles at the book sale.

Dr M A Sherif presents an autographed copy of 'Searching for Solace' to Dr Mahathir.

This Memorial Lecture held in his honour, we hope, has fulfilled that objective. But more importantly, we hope to institute the Lecture in the coming years, with the objective of exploring Qur’anic studies in its various aspects by scholars of international repute.

A 24-page full-colour souvenir booklet of the Memorial Lecture, containing full text of Dr M A Sherif’s lecture, essays on the English translations of the Qur’an as well as a summary of the exhibition, can be purchased online at


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