A Great Book that Died: The Story of a British Muslim

Marmaduke Pickthall

I know good books die.  But it is still a mystery that it happens.

Peter Clark, an expert on British Muslims and the Middle East, not to be confused with Peter Clarke, Britain’s most senior conterterrorism detective, is the author of a wonderful book I read in the late 80’s titled Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim.  It was put out by Quartet Books in the U.K. and I reviewed it at the time for the Saudi newspapers.

Considering the number of British converts (not to mention American) to Islam, one would expect this fabulous book to be easy to get. It is not. Try Amazon; I just did and there were no more than 13 copies available, all used. I tried googling it and found a few articles about Pickthall, Clark or written by the latter. . . but the book is rarer than it should be.

Clark did a splendid job telling the story of a man who spent the first 20 years of his adult life as a practicing Christian and the last 20 as a conscientious Muslim.  When Pickthall converted to Islam in the 19th century, his wife followed two years later.  British Muslim describes an erudite and self-thinking man who was not cowed by popular opinion. Pickthall fought with his pen, writing articles for New Age in defense of Turkey during the first World War at a time when Turkey, by association with Germany, was Britain’s proclaimed enemy.  If not for his political ideas deemed dangerous by official circles, Pickthall’s “Talents as a linguist and as an authority on Syria, Palestine and Egypt could have been used.”  It was because of his loyalties that he was not offered the job with the Arab Bureau in Cairo, then under British rule, that subsequently went to T.E.  Lawrence.

T.E. Lawrence

The greatest work of his Pickthall’s life was his translation of the meaning of the Qur’an, which began around 1927. As early as 1919, Clark tells us, when Pickthall was acting imam in London, he translated passages from the Qur’an piecemeal for the sake of Friday sermons. His was the first translation by a Muslim. By 1927 Pickthall was teaching in the Nizamate of Hyderbade, an offshoot of the Moghal Empire which had “evaded absorption in the British empire.” The Nizam gave Pickthall special leave of absence on full pay for two years in order to complete the translation. Pickthall decided he should also secure approval from the ulama of Al-Azhar in Cairo. He spent three months in Egypt from November 1929 and met leading writers including Taha Hussein (who seemed to enjoy annoying Pickthall). The Egyptian trip was a failure. King Fuad, who was then toying with the idea of being caliph, did not support the notion of Pickthall’s translation. The ulama were all in a flutter when it came out: most pronounced it as “unfit to be authorized.”

Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation of the meaning of the holy Qu’ran, my personal favorite translation, has never gone out of print.  The translation has been rendered into Turkish, Portuguese, Mozambique and Tagalog.

Peter Clark is a fascinating man. My own publisher at Beacon Books, London, has just informed me he is meeting with Mr. Clark! I am so excited about this!

I pray Clark’s book will be reprinted.  I hope by writing about it, I will stimulate reader interest in Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim by Peter Clark.

Peter Clark