The ELM archives collection and five translators of the Qur’an (2019)

Among the crown jewels in our archive is the Minutes Book of the London Mosque Fund (LMF) , which is the handwritten record of meetings of the trustees, the first one held on 13 December 1910.  Other rare and important items include the Minutes Book of the Indigent Moslem Burial Fund, established in 1927, and also a vast collection of correspondence of the Jamiatul Muslim, founded in 1934. These are now stored in a secure and environmentally controlled room in the Maryam Centre.  The archive is now expanding its collection with new deposits so that in time, insha Allah, the East London Mosque will also be an important centre for scholarship.  The archive is also now unique for the records it holds on twentieth century scholars and translators of the Qur’an:  Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall  (1875-1936), Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872-1953), Arthur John Arberry (1905-1969),  Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) and Professor Muhammad Hamidullah (1908-2002).

Of the five, perhaps Pickthall and Yusuf Ali are best known. According to Professor Kidwai of the Aligarh Muslim University, there have been 150 reprints and re-publications of Pickthall’s translation since it first print run in 1930. Allama Yusuf Ali’s famous translation and commentary was first published in Lahore in instalments from 1934, with at least 200 reprints to date.  Any biographer working on their lives will find invaluable material in the archives. For example, there are letters from Pickthall while he was employed by the Nizam of Hyderabad to Shaikh Abdeali Mohamedali Anik, the long-serving  treasurer of the London Mosque Fund,  that testify his compassionate personality: in one letter in 1931 Pickthall referred to the needs for a place of worship for “the poor Muslims of the East End of London”.  Prior to leaving for British India (as it was then) Pickthall was editor of the London-based Muslim current affairs journal Muslim Outlook. Thanks to financial support from a well-wisher, a set of Muslim Outlook (later renamed Islamic News) has been purchased for our archive collection.  These are primary sources for information on Pickthall’s political  stand seeking justice for the Ottomans after World War I and his support of the Indian Khilafat Movement.  Peter Clark, author of Marmaduke Pickthall, British Muslim, has also kindly deposited his biographical research papers with us.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali left Lahore in 1937, returning to his family home in Wimbledon. Both the London Mosque Fund and the Jamiatul Muslimin requested his help for various tasks. For example in January 1942 there is note in the LMF Minutes Book on his appointment to serve as acting chairman of the East London Mosque managing committee, “during Sir Hassan Suhrawardy’s absence”.  He was ever ready in responding to Jamiat’s requests to speak at Eid and other events, and in the collection there are many letters and speech notes in his own hand. Thanks to a recent deposit, the archives now has Yusuf Ali’s personal collection of newspaper cuttings, poems and letters for the 1934-38 period of his life, though financial help is now  needed to conserve this scrapbook, which is in very bad shape. Another archive  well-wisher has deposited one of his last photographs, taken at a Jamiat reception at the India Club in the Strand. 

Professor Arberry was a quintessential Cambridge don and translator of Rumi and Muhammad Iqbal. He retained his Christian faith, but also providing a moving personal testament to his work, The Koran Interpreted , first published in 1955: “this task was undertaken not lightly, and carried to its conclusion at a time of great personal distress, through which it comforted and sustained the writer in a manner for which he will always be grateful. He therefore acknowledges his gratitude to whatever power or Power inspired the man and the Prophet who first recited these scriptures. I pray that this interpretation, poor echo though it is of the glorious original, may instruct, please and in some degree inspire those who read it”.  Arberry was also tasked by the London Mosque Fund to assist the management committee of the proposed ‘Islamic Centre’ to be connected with the East London Mosque.

Professor Hamidullah is perhaps better known for his books on aspects of the life of the Prophet, peace be on him.  As a young man he was awarded a scholarship by the Nizam of Hyderabad to study at the Sorbonne, where he obtained a doctorate on diplomacy and foreign relations at the time of the Prophet, peace be on him, and the early period of Islam.  He settled in France, and refused to visit Britain because it had broken its promise of independence for Hyderabad on the partitioning of India. His translation of the Qur’an to French is considered the first by a Muslim (Le Saint Coran, 1959) and is still widely used, much like Pickthall’s and Yusuf Ali’s in the English-speaking world.  The indefatigable Sulaiman Jetha, chairman of the East London Mosque Trust (from the 1970s to the 1990s) would often seek Professor Hamidullah’s views on religious issues, and the correspondence between the two is in the archives – for example one exchange concerns a mosque benefitting from the proceeds of life insurance.  There is also a letter from him describing his encounter with Yusuf Ali on a sea voyage.

Muhammad Asad is author of the famous travel classic The Road to Mecca.  He was also a translator of Bukhari, and later in life published The Meaning of the Qur’an, which stands out in twentieth century Qur’anic scholarship for its insights into the socio-political message of Islam. An item in the Peter Clark deposit is a letter in which Asad gives his opinion on Pickthall’s translation. The archive not only provides information on the individual scholars, but also what they had to say about each other!  

Visitors to the archives, particularly school tours, will find it a thrilling experience to see for first-hand original documents of such great Islamic personalities associated with the mosque.

Based on a talk presented at a conference organised by the EveryDay Muslim project in October 2019, and also an article in the East London Mosque’s Ramadan 2019 magazine.