William Pickthall was born in 1875 in London, to an Anglican clergyman, and spent his formative years in rural Suffolk. He was contemporary of Winston Churchill at Harrow, the famous private school. During intervals from living a sedentary life in Suffolk, Pickthall travelled extensively in the Arab world and Turkey.
In 1917, Pickthall declared his Islam in dramatic fashion after delivering a talk on Islam and Progress’ on 29 November 1917 to the Muslim Literary Society in Notting Hill, West London. From that point onwards he identified himself with Muslim causes.
Throughout the Great War (1914-1918), and even prior to declaring his faith as a Muslim, he wrote extensively in support of the Ottomans. When a vicious propaganda campaign was launched in 1915 over the massacres of Armenians, Pickthall rose to the challenge and argued that all the blame could not be placed on the Turkish government.
At a time when many Indian Muslims in London, including Abdullah Yusuf Ali, had been coopted by the Foreign Office to provide propaganda services in support of Britain’s war against Turkey, Pickthall’s stand was a most courageous one and of great integrity.
When British Muslims were asked to decide whether they were loyal to the Allies (Britain and France) or the Central Powers (Germany and Turkey), Pickthall said he was ready to be a combatant for his country so long as he did not have to fight the Turks.
In 1919, Pickthall worked for the London-based Islamic Information Bureau that among other things published the weekly Muslim Outlook. After completing his last novel the Early Hours in 1920, he departed for his new assignment in India to serve as the editor of the Bombay Chronicle.
Pickthall devoted considerable interest in the independent Islamic empire of India that was gradually eroded through a string of British conspiracies. In 1927, Pickthall took over as the editor of Islamic Culture, a new quarterly journal published under the patronage of the Nizam of Hydrabad.
The mission of ‘translating’ the Quran had preoccupied Pickthall’s mind since he reverted to Islam. He saw that there was an obligation for all Muslims to know the Quran intimately. In 1930, Pickthall published The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (A. A. Knopf, New York). Pickthall maintained that the Quran being the word of Allah (SWT) could not be translated.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims benefit from Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s monumental work The Meaning of the Glorious Quran and seldom realize that this work was produced in the Nizamate of Hyderabad, the Muslim ruled state in Southern India.
The most important work that Pickthall did during his stay in Hyderabad consisted of the tasks he undertook in the service of Islam. In 1925, Pickthall was invited by the Committee of Muslims in Madras to deliver a series of lectures on the cultural aspects of Islam. The collection of these lectures published in 1927, present Islam in a manner that could be understood by non-Muslims.
The same year, Pickthall was appointed editor of Islamic Culture, a new quarterly journal published under the patronage of the Nizam. Among the many authors whose works were published included younger scholars like Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah and Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss).
Interestingly both these writers eventually blossomed into accomplished authors and are now respected for their translations of the Quran into French and English.
In 1928, Pickthall took a two-year sabbatical to complete his translation of the meaning of the Quran, a work that he considered as the summit of his achievement.
Like any other Muslim scholar, Pickthall too maintained that the Quran being the word of Allah (SWT) could not be translated. He wrote in his foreword: “The Quran cannot be translated.” Understandably he titled his work that he finally published in 1930 as The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (A. A. Knopf, New York 1930), declaring that it is a simply a meaning of the Message and not a presentation in English of the Arabic text.
It was first by a Muslim whose native language was English, and remains among the two most popular translations, the other being the work of Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
The mission of ‘translating’ the Quran had preoccupied Pickthall’s mind since he reverted to Islam. He saw that there was an obligation for all Muslims to know the Quran intimately. Even while serving as an imam in London in 1919, he often put aside the then available translations and offered his own in the course of his khutba.
His devotion to the Book – a “wonder of the world” – was profound and he noted that while he had great difficulty in remembering a passage in his native English, he could easily memorize “page after page of the Quran in Arabic with perfect accuracy.” Pickthall warned against the danger of adoring the book rather than its content. He chided the Muslims to “keep the message always in your hearts, and live by it.”
In early 1935, Pickthall, just shy of sixty, retired from the Nizam’s service and returned to England. In 1936 he moved to St. Ives where he died on May 19, 1936 and was buried in the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey, near Woking on May 23. Later another illustrious translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali was to join him in this earthly domain.
Perhaps the elegy published in Islamic Culture best summed up this illustrious life of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, that he was a “Soldier of faith! True servant of Islam!”