Posts Tagged Abdullah Yusuf Ali

Tribute to Abdullah Yusuf Ali

Abdullah Yusuf Ali. If you are a Muslim living in America, you have no doubt seen his landmark English translation of The Holy Quran. It is probably sitting in your house right now. I hope it has not gathered too much dust since last Ramadan. As my friend Kamran is fond of repeating, “Qurans that fall apart often belong to people that don’t.”

Regardless of the frequency of your reading of the Quran, you should know about the magnificent intellectual achievement represented by the Yusuf Ali translation. There are many fine passages in the work, but one of the most remarkable is the translation of Ayat-ul-Kursi, the Verse of the Throne, 2:255. To really appreciate it, you must not only read the body of the passage but also the footnotes that accompany it. Ali comments on the verse, analyses it, and makes beautiful allusions to classic Western texts like the King James Version of the Bible and William Wordsworth’s poem, “Tintern Abbey.” He struggles to convey the beauty of the original in the most eloquent English he can muster. Many Muslims will say that the Arabic is far superior, and it is, but Ali deserves tremendous credit for striving so valiantly to bring the Quran to Western eyes.

Here is the Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation of Ayat-ul-Kursi, with his footnotes.

255. “God! There is no god but He, -the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal.[1] No slumber can seize him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them.[2] Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne[3] doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them[4], For He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).”

How did the Muslim community or Ummah reward the genius behind these words? Was he a professor at a prestigious Islamic university? No. Did he serve as chairman to some great Islamic organization? Guess again. Could he have been chosen to serve as an adviser in the cabinet of some powerful Muslim leader? Nope. At age 80, Abdullah Yusuf Ali was “bewildered and frail, dying destitute and alone in London” according to his biographer, M.A. Sherif. But though he was not properly honored in this life, I pray that Allah will give him a noble place in Heaven and reward him for his tremendous service to the Muslim Ummah.


[1] “This is the Ayat-ul-Kursi, the “Verse of the Throne”. Who can translate its glorious meaning, or reproduce the rhythm of its well-chosen and comprehensive words? Even in the original Arabic the meaning seems to be greater than can be expressed in words.

The attributes of God are so different from anything we know in our present world that we have to be content with understanding that the only fit word by which we can name Him is “He,” – the pronoun standing for His name. His name – God or Allah – is sometimes misused and applied to other beings or things; and we must emphatically repudiate any idea or suggestion that there can be any compeer of God, the one true living God. He lives, but His life is self-subsisting and eternal: it does not depend on other beings and is not limited to time and space. Perhaps the attribute of Qaiyum includes not only the idea of “Self-subsisting” but also the idea of “Keeping up and maintaining all life,” His life being the source and constant support of all derived forms of life. Perfect life is perfect activity, in contrast to the imperfect life we see around us, which is not only subject to death but to the need for rest or slowed-down activity, (something which is between activity and sleep, for which I in common with other translators have used the word “slumber”) and the need for full sleep itself. But God has no need for rest or sleep. His activity, like His life, is perfect and self-subsisting. Contrast with this the expression used in Psalms lxxviii. 65: ‘Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.”

[2] After we realize that His Life is absolute Life, His Being is absolute Being, while others are contingent and evanescent, our ideas of heaven and earth vanish like shadows. What is behind that shadow is He. Such reality as our heavens and our earth possess is a reflection of His absolute Reality. The pantheist places the wrong accent when he says that everything is He. The truth is better expressed when we say that everything is His. How then can any creatures stand before Him as of right, and claim to intercede for a fellow-creature? In the first place both are His, and He cares as much for one as for the other. In the second place, they are both dependent on His will and command. But He in His Wisdom and Plan may grade his creatures and give one superiority over another. Then by His will and permission such a one may intercede or help according to the laws and duties laid on him. God’s knowledge is absolute and not conditioned by Time or Space. To us, His creatures, these conditions always apply. His knowledge and our knowledge are therefore in different categories, and our knowledge only gets some reflection of Reality when it accords with His Will and Plan.

[3] Throne: seat, power, knowledge, symbol of authority. In our thoughts we exhaust everything when we say “the heavens and the earth”. Well, then in everything is the working of God’s power, and will, and authority. Everything of course includes spiritual things as well as things of sense Cf. Wordsworth’s fine outburst in “Tintern Abbey”: ‘Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And in the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.’

[4] A life of activity that is imperfect or relative would not only need rest for carrying on its own activities but would be in need of double rest when it has to look after and guard, or cherish, or help other activities. In contrast with this is the Absolute Life, which is free from any such need or contingency. For it is supreme above everything we can conceive.

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