Marmaduke Pickthall was born in 1860, the son of a Reverend, in Suffolk. His immediate family background was solidly professional middle class. He went to Palestine, Syria and Egypt as a young man, where he learned Arabic.
Everywhere he travelled he identified with the people of the country through language and dress. During his two years in Palestine he was unimpressed by the European Christian community there, whom he found too frequently snobbish and sectarian, but he was tempted to embrace Islam. He was dissuaded by the Shaykh al Ulama of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. "Wait till you are older", the old man advised, "and have seen again your native land. You are alone among us, so are our boys alone among the Christians. God knows how I should feel if any Christian teacher dealt with a son of mine otherwise than as I now deal with you".
Pickthall was a novelist and between 1903 and 1921 he published nine novels set in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and Turkey. He also wrote six novels set in England, and short stories mainly about the Near East published in three collections. E.M. Forster wrote of him in 1921 that he is “the only contemporary English novelist who understands the Nearer East”. Pickthall also travelled to Turkey, where he learned Turkish from the Imam of Goztepe. He met with progressive Imams and saw that there was no conflict between modernization and Islam. He saw Turkey as the hope of the Islamic world and suggested that the Turks should recognise their Islamic heritage rather than attempt to pose as Europeans and that Arabic not French should be their second language.
Upon returning to England Pickthall was getting more and more involved with eastern politics Pickthall was against the evangelical propaganda that was hostile to Turkey and was angry that European powers were taking advantage of her. The Treaty of Berlin was supposed to uphold Turkish territorial integrity. Turkey was made to honour her obligations under the Treaty but the European powers made no effective protest when Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed by Austria, Bulgaria declared her independence, Italy invaded the province of Tripoli and the Balkan Christian states invaded European Turkey.
Pickthall wrote frequently against the injustices done to Turkey and became an active official of the Anglo-Ottoman Society, founded in January 1914. In August that same year Britain went to war with Germany and throughout the war he wrote articles advocating consideration for Turkey’s case, stressing the tradition of tolerance in the Ottoman Empire; although a patriotic Tory this stance alienated him from his fellow countrymen somewhat. He also repudiated the idea that Balkan Christians could claim special protection from Britain by virtue of their being Christians. His talents as a linguist and as an authority on Syria, Palestine and Egypt could have been used but his reputation as “a rabid Turcophile” prevented him from being offered a job with the Arab Bureau in Cairo, a job that went instead to T.E. Lawrence.
During the war he became aware that the cause of Turkey was the object of Muslim concern everywhere as the collapse of the Turkish Empire threatened the Khilafah. He knew that Islam was the basis of the Ottoman Empire and he was impressed by the Young Turks who were inspired by a reforming Islam that demanded education, social improvement and improving the status of women. He saw that this was all in accordance with the Prophet’s example and teaching.
In the summer and autumn of 1917 he gave a series of talks to the Muslim Literary Society in Notting Hill, West London, on “Islam and Progress”. During the last talk of the series, on 29 November 1917, he declared openly and publicly his acceptance of Islam. The lecture hall was crowded. He argued that Islam alone was a progressive religion. Other religions were unfit to claim that their tenets countenanced progress. Pickthall took on the name Muhammed and immediately became one of the pillars of the British Islamic community. He was Acting Imam of the London mosque, the Muslim Prayer House in Camden Hill road, Notting Hill for a while. He led the prayers at Woking for Id al Fitr in June 1919. At the same time he pursued his Islamic political concerns and in October 1919 chaired a day of Prayer for the Khaliph at the Muslim Prayer House. In his address he attacked the Western powers for presuming to decide who should be the Khaliph.
He felt a special responsibility as leader of British Muslims and was even critical of the behaviour of foreign Muslim students in England. He wrote prolifically on different aspects of Islam in the nineteen years between his public embracing of Islam and his death. In the course of his sermons and addresses he recited verses of the Qur’an in Arabic. He also rendered them into English. This piecemeal translation became the fragments from which he constructed his last major work.
He shifted his political interests from Turkey to India after the First World War. During the war he came into contact with young Muslims, mainly from India, who worshipped at the mosque in London. In 1920 he went to India with is wife, initially writing for the Bombay Chronicle and then later in 1925 he went to work for the Nizam of Hyderabad. India was to be his home for the next fifteen years and true to form he studied Urdu in his spare time.
In 1928 the Nizam gave Pickthall special leave of absence on full pay for two years in order to complete his translation of the Qur’an. It was the first translation by a Muslim whose first language was English. During his leave from Hyderabad he consulted scholars in Europe and in Egypt.
The title of the work he finally published in 1930 was “The Meaning of the Glorious Koran” as he said, " ... the Qur’an cannot be translated. That is the belief of old fashioned shiekhs and the view of the present writer". It was published by A.A.Knopf of New York in December 1930 and Allen and Unwin published it in England in 1939. It was itself to be translated into Turkish, Portugese, Urdu and Tagalog.
During the 1930s he suffered from malaria and in 1935, after ten years in the Nizam’s service, Pickthall retired and returned with his wife to England.
He died on 19 May 1936 and was buried at the Muslim cemetery in Woking. His translation of the Qur’an, first printed in the United States in 1930, has since been reprinted several times in the UK, the USA, India, the UAE and Libya.
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