Abdullah Yusuf Ali was born in 1872 to a Bohra family of Surat, his father as a local police chief ennobled by the Raj for his services. He was educated first in a Bombay Muslim school set up along semi-modern lines, and then in a Scottish missionary college. A remarkable academic aptitude allowed him to take his first degree at the age of 19, whereupon he won a scholarship to study law at Cambridge. Three years later, with is second degree in his pocket, he triumphed as one of the few “natives” to pass the examinations for the elite Indian Civil Service. He returned to India where he was appointed a magistrate in Saharanpur in the United Provinces and then at Bareilly. He met the likes of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan who impressed upon him the need for young Muslim leaders of calibre.
He returned to Britain in 1900 and married an Englishwoman, Teresa Shalders. He grew in popularity as a spokesman for Indian Muslims, winning a medal for his lectures to the Royal Society of Arts, and being hailed in the Times as a “very talented member of the Indian Civil Service and a representative of the great Mohammedan community.” The Muslim Literary Society was started in 1916 with Yusuf Ali as president. Very much a child of his time, he was very loyal to the British Empire. During the first world war he volunteered for service with the Crown, and was sent on various propaganda missions to whip up support for the Allied cause, and to publicise the thousands of Indian Muslims who were then being mown down on the Somme and Vimy Ridge. The result was a CBE awarded in 1917.
The War ended with the Versailles Conference, whose British delegation included Yusuf Ali. He then took up a position of lecturing firstly at SOAS and then at the new Osmania University in Hyderabad, and practised as a barrister in Lucknow. He churned out several books on India, and in such spare time as he enjoyed also threw himself into the campaign against independence and partition, becoming an arch-rival to his old Bombay school friend, Jinnah. He later accepted Iqbal’s offer of headmastership of Islamia College in Lahore, after Muhammed Asad apparently withdrew his application. In this great Muslim metropolis, Yusuf Ali was able to pull together his thoughts on the Qur’an, jotted down in his cabin during his innumerable sea voyages. The distinguished scholar and printer Shaykh Muhammed Ashraf, was delighted to become his publisher, and in 1934 the first instalment of his Quranic translation appeared in the bookshops of Lahore.
Yusuf Ali represented Islam at the World Congress of Faiths in Oxford in 1937 and wrote extensively on the need for religious harmony and understanding. He spent his declining years in London defending the Allied cause for the Ministry of Information, and speaking at interfaith gatherings. But the institutions that Yusuf Ali supported were collapsing around him. The refusal of the Western dominated League of Nations to defend Ethiopia against Mussolini’s invasion, and the growing militancy of Zionism, finally opened Yusuf Ali’s eyes. The case for Muslim autonomy in India seemed increasingly compelling in the light of the growing Hindu chauvinism of the Congress party.
Yusuf Ali died in extreme poverty in London in 1953, and was buried near Pickthall in the Muslim cemetery in Woking.
A second edition of his Quranic translation appeared almost at once, and then a third in 1938 in both Lahore and New York. The text rapidly outstripped Pickthall’s rival version, perhaps because of its extensive notes.