Understand, Live by, Inspire

How I Discovered The Holy Qur’an?

By Maryam Jameelah 

My discovery of Holy Qur’an was tortuous and led me through strange by-ways but since the end of the road was supremely worthwhile, I have never regretted my experiences.

As a small child I possessed a keen ear for music and was particularly fond of the classical operas and symphonies considered the high culture in the West. Music was my favourite subject in school in which I always earned the highest grades. By sheer chance, when I was about eleven years old, I happened to hear Arabic music over the radio which so much pleased me that I was determined to hear more. As soon as I heard Arabic music, Western music at once lost of all its appeal for me. I would not leave my parents in peace until my father finally took me to the Syrian section in New York City where I brought a stack of Arabic recordings for my gramophone.

The one I liked best was a rendition of the Surah Maryam of the Holy Quran chanted by Um Kulthum. Then in 1946, I could not foresee what an evil woman she was to become in her later years; I admired her for her beautiful voice which rendered those passages of Holy Quran with such intense feeling and devotion. It was by listening to these recordings by the hour that I came to love the sound of Arabic even though I could not understand it. Without this basic appreciation of the Arabic musical idiom, which sounds so utterly strange to the Westerner, I could not possibly have grown to love Tilawat. My parents, relatives and neighbours thought Arabic and its music dreadfully weird and so distressing to their ears that whenever I put on my recordings, they demanded that I close all the doors and windows of my room lest they be disturbed!

After I embraced Islam in 1961, I used to sit enthralled by the hour at the mosque in New York, listening to tape-recordings of Tilawat chanted by the celebrated Egyptian Qari, Abdul Basit. But one Fuma Salat, the Imam did not play the tapes. We had a special guest —- a short, very thin and poorly-dressed black youth who introduced himself to us as a student from Zanzibar; buy when he opened his mouth to recite Surah ar-Rahman, I never heard such glorious Tilawat even from Abdul Basit! This obscure African adolescent possessed such a voice of gold, surely Hazrat Bilal must have sounded much like him!

From the age of ten I had developed a passion for reading all the books about the Arabs I could lay my hands on at school or at the public libraries in my community, especially those dealing with the historical relationship between the Jews and Arabs, but it was not until more than nine years later that it ever occurred to me to satisfy my curiosity about the Holy Quran. Gradually, however, as I neared the end of the Arabs who had made Islam great but Islam which had raised the Arabs from wild desert tribes to the masters of the world. It was not until I wanted to find out just how and why this had happened that I ever thought to read the Holy Quran for myself;

In the summer of 1953 I overstrained myself at college by taking an accelerated course of too many subjects. That August I fell ill and had to discontinue all work for the remainder of the season. One evening when my mother was about to go to the public library, she asked me if there was any book I wanted. I asked her for a copy of Holy Quran. An hour later she returned with one-a translation by the eighteenth century Christian missionary and scholar-George Sale. Because of the extremely archaic language and the copious footnotes quoting from al-Baidawi and Zamakhshari out of context in order to refute them from the Christian viewpoint, I understood very little. At that time, my immature mind regarded Quran as nothing more than distorted and garbled versions of the familiar stories from the Bible! Although my first impression of Holy Quran was unfavourable, I could not tear myself away from it. I read it almost continuously for three days and nights and when I had finished, all my strength had been drained away! Although I was only nineteen, I felt as weak as a woman of eighty. I never recovered my fully strength or energy afterwards.

I continued to nurse this poor opinion of Holy Quran until one day I found in a bookshop a cheap paper-back edition of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation. As soon as I opened that book, it proved a revelation! The powerful eloquence literally swept me off my feet. In the first paragraph of  his preface, Pickthall wrote :

The aim of this work is to present to English readers what Muslims the world over hold to be the meaning of the words of the Quran and the nature of that Book in not unworthy language and concisely with a view to the requirements of English – speaking Muslims. It may reasonably be claimed that no Holy Scripture can be fairly presented by one who disbelievers its inspiration and its message and this is the first English at once recognize as unworthy. The Quran cannot be translated. That is the conviction of the old-fashioned Shaikhs and the view of the present writer. The Book here is rendered almost literally and every effort is made to choose befitting language, but the result it not the Glorious Quran, 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 Quran—and, peradventure, something of the charm-in English. It can never take the place of the Quran in Arabic nor is it meant to do so.

I then realized why George Sale’s translation was most unfair. From then on, I refused to read his or any other renderings of Holy Quran by non-Muslims. After reading Pickthall’s rendition, I discovered other English translations by Yusuf Ali, Muhammad Ali Lahori and Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi. I found the commentation by Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Ali Lahori offensive because of their apologetic tone and far-fetched and unconvincing attempts to explain away those passages conflicting with modern philosophies or scientific concepts. Their translation of the Text was also weak. Although Maulana Daryabadi’s attempts to pattern his translation of the Holy Quran on the archaic style of the King Jame’s version of the Bible most annoyed me, I found his commentary excellent, particularly those parts dealing with comparative religion and learned much from it. However, Pickthall’s rendition remained my favourite and to this day, I have never found any other English translation that can equal it. The sweep of eloquence, the virility and dignity of the language is unsurpassed in any other translation. Most other translations commit the mistake of using the word “God” but Pickthall retains “Allah” throughout. This makes the message of Islam strike the Western reader as more authentic and effective. Throughout the darkest days during my years of hospitalization, I kept a paper-back edition of Pickthall’s translation with me as my constant companion which I read over so many times, I must have worn to pieces of half dozen copies. May Allah abundantly reward Pickthall with the choicest blessings for making the knowledge about the Quran so easily and cheaply available to England and America! Were it not for him, I would not have been able to know and appreciate it.

After my discharge in 1959, I spent much of my leisure time reading books about Islam in the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library. It was there I discovered four bulky volumes of an English translation of Mishkat ul Masabih by Al-Haj Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Calcutta. It was then I learned that a proper and detailed understanding of Holy Quran is not possible without some knowledge of the relevant Hadith, for how can the Holy Text correctly be interpreted except by the Prophet to whom it wasrevealed? Those who disbelieve the Hadith also disbelieve the Quran for its revelation explicity tells us that one cannot follow what God wants us to do without an unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).

Once I had studied the Mishkat, I began to accept the Holy Quran as Divine revelation. What persuaded me that the Quran must be from God and not composed by Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was its satisfying and convincing answers to all the most important questions of life which I could not find elsewhere.

As a child, I was so mortally afraid of death, particularly the thought of my own death, that after nightmares about it, sometimes I would awaken my parents crying in the middle of the night. When I asked them why I had to die and what would happen to me after death, all they could say was that I had to accept the inevitable but that was a long way off and because medical science was constantly advancing, perhaps I would live to be a hundred years old! My parents, the remainder of my family and all our friends contemptuously rejected as superstition any thought of Hereafter, regarding Judgement Day, reward in Paradise or punishment in Hell as outmoded concepts of by-gone ages. In vain I searched all the verbose chapters of the Old Testament for any clear and unambiguous concept of Hereafter. The prophets, patriarchs and sages of the Bible all receive their rewards or punishments in this world. Typical is the story of Job (Hazrat Ayub). God destroyed all his loved-ones, his possessions and afflicted him with loathsome disease in order to test his faith. Job plaintively laments to God why He should make a righteous man suffer. At the end of the story, God restores all his earthly losses but nothing is even mentioned about any possible consequences in the Hereafter. Although I did find the Hereafter mentioned in the New Testament, compared with that of Holy Quran, it is vague and ambiguous. I found no answer to the question of death in Orthodox Judaism, for the Talmud preaches that even the worst life is better than the best death.

My parents’ philosophy was that one must avoid contemplating the thought of death and just enjoy as best one can, the pleasures life has to offer at the moment. According to them, the purpose of life is enjoyment and pleasure achieved through self-expression of one’s talents, the love of family, the congenial company of friends combined with the comfortable living and indulgence in the variety of amusements that affluent America makes available in such abundance. They deliberately cultivated this superficial approach to life as if it were the guarantee for their continued happiness and good-fortune. Through bitter experience I discovered that self-indulgence leads only to misery and that nothing great or even worthwhile is ever accomplished without struggle through adversity and self-sacrifice. From earliest childhood I have always wanted to accomplish important and significant things. Above all else, before my death I want the assurance that I have not wasted my life in sinful deeds or worthless pursuits. All my life I have been intensely serious-minded. I have always detested the frivolity which is the dominant characteristic of contemporary culture.

My father once disturbed me with his unsettling conviction that there is no hing of permanent value and because everthing in this modern age continually changes all the time, the best we can do is accept the present trends as inevitable and adjust ourselves to them. I, however, was thirsty to attain something that would endure forever. It was from the Holy Quran where I learned that this aspiration was possible. No good deed for the sake of seeking the pleasure of God is ever wasted or lost. Even if the person concerned never achieves any worldly recognition, his reward is certain in the Hereafter.

Conversely, Quran tells us that those who are guided by no moral considerations other that expediency or social conformity and crave the freedom to do as they please, no matter how much worldly success and prosperity they attain or how keenly they are able to relish the short span of their earthly life, will be doomed as the losers on Judgement Day. Islam teaches us that in order to devote our exclusive attention to fulfilling our duties to God and to our fellow-beings, we must abandon all vain and useless activities which distract us from this end. These teachings of Holy Quran, made even more explicit by Hadith, were thoroughly compatible with my temperament. When I embraced Islam, my parents, relatives and their friends regarded me almost as a fanatic, because I could think and talk of nothing else. To them, religion is a purely private concern which at the most perhaps could be cultivated like an amateur hobby among other hobbies. But as soon as I read Holy Quran, I knew that Islam was no hobby but life itself!

From the onset of my adolescence until my migration to Pakistan at the age of twenty-eight, I was a hopeless misfit. A young girl as serious minded as I was, always with a pile of books at the library, who abhorred the cinema, dancing and “pop” music, who did not enjoy “dating” and mixed parties and who took no interest in romance, glamour, cosmetics, jewelry or fashionable clothes, had to pay the full penalty of social ostracism for being “different.”

From a bleak future in America, which had no place for a person like me, I escaped when migrated to Pakistan. Although Pakistan, like every other Muslim country, is being increasingly contaminated by the most noxious dirt from Europe and America, still a sufficient number of Pakistanis remain good Muslims to provide an environment  which makes it possible for the individual to lead a life in conformity to what Islam teaches. At times, I must admit, I fail to apply to my own life what Islam demands that we practice, but I never indulge in far-fetched interpretations of Quran or Sunnah to justify my weaknesses and shortcomings. Whenever I do wrong, I readily admit it and try my best to rectify my mistake. The happiness I have found in my new life is entirely due to the fact that just those qualities of character and temperament, Western society ridicules and scorns, in Islam are most keenly appreciated and esteemed.


January 22, 2011 - Posted by | Real Life Experience

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