Date : 16th April 2016 (Saturday)
Time : 10:00am
Venue : IAIS Malaysia
On 16 April 2016, IAIS Malaysia and Islamic Book Trust (IBT) co-organised the fourth Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture on “English as a Modern Literary Language for Islam: The Significance of Yusuf Ali’s Translation of the Qur’an” by Dr Surin Pitsuwan, an eminent diplomat and Islamic scholar who has served as Thailand’s Foreign Minister and ASEAN’s Secretary-General.
Pitsuwan took as a starting point Yusuf Ali’s remark in the Introduction to the very first edition of his translation: “I want to make English itself an Islamic language, if such a person as I can do it.” By now a classic and one of the most widely English translations of the Holy Book, Yusuf Ali’s translation possesses a few distinctive features which Pitsuwan carefully distilled. Among others, the work was motivated by the need to render the language of the scripture accessible to all yet preserves the beauty and aesthetic quality of the original Arabic.
More than mere translation, Yusuf Ali offers backgrounds and overviews of the surahs (chapters) and builds on the rich heritage of classical tafsir scholarship which enables him to decrypt some of the hidden meanings of selected verses. A case in point is the Chapter on the Cave (Surah al-Kahf) which alludes to Musa’s resolve not to give up searching “until I reach the junction of the two seas (majma’ al-bahrayn)”, baffling scholars as to where on earth literally and exactly that location is. Through the tafsir of Baydawi, it was disclosed that the so-called “junction of the two seas” is not literally geographical location but the meeting point between two streams of knowledge, i.e. discursive knowledge and mystic knowledge (‘ilm al-laduniyyah), the latter of which he learned from Khidr.
Yusuf Ali’s attempt to make English an Islamic language echoes a xenophilic tendency partly due to historical precedent but also partly justified by political consideration. With regards to the former, historically, in medieval Europe, Latin was language for Islamic studies because it was the language into which the works of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ibn al-Haytham were translated. With regards to the latter there are Islamic scholars who have already been writing in English such as Fazlur Rahman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ismail Faruqi, who were based abroad since situations back in their homeland were not conducive for Islamic scholarship.
Pitsuwan was introduced to Abdullah Yusuf Ali by Muhsin Mahdi, who was a student of the philosopher Leo Strauss, an émigré scholar, symbolic of the scenario facing Muslims. Great Islamic scholars had to migrate outside their countries because their own Muslim country had been un-conducive to pursue research with controversial ideas. Today, without English, we can’t know the world. Muhsin Mahdi wanted him to understand two key words: istislah and istihsan which meant different things to philosophers, theologians, Sufis and jurists, suggesting the nuances and shades of meaning that language has to offer.
[Tengku Ahmad Hazri]