Marmaduke Pickthall is well known to millions of readers for his translation The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'ân (1930), considered his crowning achievement. It is the first translation by a Muslim whose native language was English. He believed that the Qur'an could never be perfectly translated out of Arabic, but his work contains the most beautiful and rich use of English, similar in many ways to the prose poetry of Tyndale's Bible.
He was born in 1875 in Suffolk and at age five, on the death of his father, moved to London. As a child he suffered from bronchitis and meningitis which affected his growing interest in arithmetic. As a boy, painfully shy, he spent six unhappy terms at Harrow where he befriended Winston Churchill.
He then travelled throughout Europe with his mother, discovering and perfecting a talent for language. In the Jura Mountains he acquired a love of mountaineering, and in Wales and Ireland he learned Welsh and Gaelic. Marmaduke sat for exams to enter the Levant Consular Service, but despite outstanding marks in language, he placed too low in the other areas. His choices were to either return to Harrow and continue on to Oxford, or take up the invitation of Thomas Dowling, a friend of his mother's, who was going to Palestine to serve as chaplain to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.
Before leaving he proposed to his future wife, Muriel Smith. She accepted but lost her betrothed to the East for several years.
Hoping to learn enough Arabic to earn him a consular job in Palestine, Marmaduke at seventeen, sailed for Port Said. He spent weeks wandering Cairo, developing an empathy for the poorer inhabitants. He found a khoja to teach him Arabic, and with increasing fluency, took ship for Jaffa where to the horror of the Europeans he donned native garb and disappeared into the Palestinian hinterland.
Later in life he wrote: 'When I read The Arabian Nights I see the daily life of Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Cairo, and the other cities as I found it in the early nineties of last century. What struck me, even in its decay and poverty, was the joyousness of that life compared with anything that I had seen in Europe. The people seemed quite independent of our cares of life, our anxious clutching after wealth, our fear of death.'
He wrote some of these experiences in Oriental Encounters. He had found an exotic world of intoxicating freedom unimaginable to a public schoolboy raised in structured, regulated England. Most Palestinians never set eyes on a policeman, and lived for decades without engaging with government in any way. Islamic law was administered in its time-honoured fashion, by Qadis who for the most part were local scholars. Villages chose their own headmen, or inherited them, and the same was true for the Bedouin tribes.
He would have converted to Islam there but for his Muslim teacher, the Sheykh-ul-Ulema of the great mosque at Damascus. Marmaduke mentioned his desire to become a Muslim but the Sheykh reminded him of his duty to his mother and forbade him to profess Islam until he had consulted her. 'No, my son,' were his words, 'wait until you are older, and have seen again your native land. You are alone among us as our boys are 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.'
In 1896, reports of his having 'gone native' reached his mother and the twenty-year-old Marmaduke was called home.
Back in London he married Muriel in September 1896 then spirited her to Geneva, partly for the skiing but also to associate with the literary circles which he admired. He worked on the skills which would make him one of the most distinguished exponents both of novel-writing and of the fledgling sport of skiing. In 1898 he published his first short story. His first Near Eastern story, the intense The Word of an Englishman, was also published the same year. By 1899, the financially-strapped couple took a small cottage in Suffolk where Marmaduke could write on a regular basis.
His first novel, All Fools was published in 1900. It contained passages that for the time, crossed a moral line and embarrassed his mother with its references to unmentionable items of Victorian underwear. Even the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem expressed concerns, so after his second novel, Saïd the Fisherman, was published in 1902 Marmaduke bought up and destroyed the remaining copies of All Fools.
By 1903 fan-mail began to arrive at the cottage in Suffolk. One letter came from H.G. Wells, who wrote, 'I wish that I could feel as certain about my own work as I do of yours, that it will be alive and interesting people fifty years from now.'
For the next few years, Marmaduke published a novel a year, including Enid, Brendle, and The House of Islam. In 1907 an invitation to St James's Palace to meet the wife of Captain Machell, advisor to the Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Fahmi Pasha, began with a discussion of his books, and led to an invitation to Alexandria. Ten years after his first departure he was back in his beloved East. In native dress again, he travelled through the countryside.
But the old Ottoman Empire had declined in the face of expansion by the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the one hand and Russia on the other. By 1908 intimations of the collapse were clear. At first, the Young Turk revolution seemed a time of hope for the Empire. Marmaduke hoped the revolutionaries would hold the empire together better than the old Sultan with his secretive ways. In 1912 the Empire lost her remaining European territories to vengeful Christians in the disaster that was the Balkan War. The new Sultan refused to allow the Balkan Muslims to retain their arms and the results were the religious pogroms of 1912 and 1913.
Back in England, Marmaduke campaigned on Turkey's behalf, but could do nothing against the new Foreign Secretary who was 'Russophile, Germanophobe, and anti-Islamic.' Marmaduke wrote to the Foreign Office demanding to know whether the new arrangements in the Balkans could be considered to further the cause of peace, and received this reply: 'Yes, and I'll tell you why. It is not generally known. But the Muslim population has been practically wiped out – 240,000 killed in Western Thrace alone – that clears the ground.'
In 1913, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, heiress and traveller, tried to convert him during a dinner at Claridges. At the time he demurred. But by the following year the sanctimony of the church repelled him. In a small Sussex village church Marmaduke listened to the vicar reviling the devilish Turk. He thought of the forced conversions of the Pomaks in Bulgaria and the atrocities committed by Christian soldiers removing the lips of refugees in Istanbul for trophies. He could stand no more and left the church before the end of the service. He never again considered himself a Christian.
In 1915 the Turks trounced the British and colonial troops at Gallipoli, only to be betrayed by the Arab uprising under Lawrence. Marmaduke despised Lawrence as a shallow romantic given to unnatural passions and wild misjudgements. As he later wrote, reviewing the Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
'He really thought the Arabs a more virile people than the Turks. He really thought them better qualified to govern. He really believed that the British Government would fulfil punctually all the promises made on its behalf. He really thought that it was love of freedom and his personal effort and example rather than the huge sums paid by the British authorities and the idea of looting Damascus, which made the Arabs zealous in rebellion.
Throughout the Great War he wrote extensively in support of the Ottomans. When a vicious propaganda campaign was launched in 1915 over the massacres of Armenians, Marmaduke, showing courage and integrity, argued that all the blame could not be placed on the Turkish government. Even so, he was ready to fight for his country as long as he did not have to fight the Turks. He was conscripted in the last months of the war and became corporal in charge of an influenza isolation hospital. The Foreign Office would have used his talents as a linguist, but regarded him as a security risk
In 1918 Marmaduke announced his conversion to Islam and Muriel followed him soon after. He began to take up the reigns of leadership in the small British community of Muslims. There was a prayer-room in Notting Hill, and an Islam Society, a Muslim Literary Society. Finally he assumed the Friday prayers at the Anglo-Moghul mosque in Woking
By then Britain had promised Istanbul and the Turkish-speaking areas of Thrace to post-war Turkey; but the reality turned out differently. Istanbul was placed under Allied occupation, and the bulk of Muslim Thrace was awarded to Greece. This turnabout intensified Indian Muslim mistrust of British rule. Gandhi too, called Hindus to the Khilafat movement supporting the Ottomans.
Marmaduke, now in direct opposition to his former friend Churchill, was outspoken against British policy. 'Objectivity is much more common in the East than in the West; nations, like individuals, are there judged by their words, not by their own idea of their intentions or beliefs; and these inconsistencies, which no doubt look very trifling to a British politician, impress the Oriental as a foul injustice and the outcome of fanaticism. The East preserves our record, and reviews it as a whole. There is no end visible to the absurdities into which this mental deficiency of our rulers may lead us.'
The end of the War ushered in the next stage of his life. He accepted an invitation to be the editor of a great Indian newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle. By September 1919 he was deeply immersed in Indian life and politics. Within six months he had doubled the paper's circulation with its advocacy for Indian independence. The furious Government could do little.
Marmaduke developed a close association with Gandhi and supported the rejection of violent resistance to British rule. He refashioned himself into an Indian nationalist leader, fluent in Urdu, attending dawn prayers in the mosque in homespun clothes. He wrote to a friend: 'They expect me to be a sort of political leader as well as a newspaper editor. I have grown quite used to haranguing multitudes of anything from 5 to 30,000 people in the open air, although I hate it still as much as ever and inwardly am just as miserably shy.' He also continued his Friday sermons, preaching at the great mosque of Bijapur and elsewhere.
In 1924 the Raj imposed crippling fines on the paper for misreporting and Marmaduke resigned. He effectively left political life but was always remembered kindly by Gandhi, who was later to write to his widow: 'Your husband and I met often enough to grow to love each other and I found Mr. Pickthall a most amiable and deeply religious man. And although he was a convert he had nothing of the fanatic in him that most converts, no matter to what faith they are converted, betray in their speech and act. Mr. Pickthall seemed to me to live his faith unobtrusively.'
Marmaduke accepted the headmastership of a boy's school in the domain of the Nizam of Hyderabad, outside the authority of British India. In the 1920s, Hyderabad resembled a surviving fragment of Moghul brilliance, and the Nizam, the richest man in the world, was turning his capital into an oasis of culture and art. The appointment of the celebrated Pickthall would add a further jewel to his crown. Marmaduke's monarchist sympathies were aroused by the Nizam, who had made his lands the pride of India. 'He lives like a dervish', Marmaduke reported, 'and devotes his time to every detail of the Government.'
During this time he wrote a Moghul novel, Dust and the Peacock Throne, which has never been published. Between 1929 and 1931 the Nizam gave him leave-of-absence to complete his Qur'ânic translation. He was anxious that this should be the most accurate, as well as the most literate, version of the Scripture. As well as mastering the classical Islamic sources, he travelled to Germany to consult with leading Orientalists.
When the translation was finished Marmaduke travelled to Egypt to have the work approved by the Ulema at Al-Azhar. He was disappointed to find that powerful factions deemed any translation of the Qur'ân was unlawful. One Sheykh went so far as to proclaim that all involved in such a project would burn in Hell for eternity.
Marmaduke wrote ''Many Egyptian Muslims were as surprised as I was at the extraordinary ignorance of present world conditions of men who claimed to be the thinking heads of the Islamic world – men who think that the Arabs are still 'the patrons,' and the non-Arabs their 'freedmen'; who cannot see that the positions have become reversed, that the Arabs are no longer the fighters and the non-Arabs the stay-at-homes but it is the non-Arabs who at present bear the brunt of the Jihâd; that the problems of the non-Arabs are not identical with those of the Arabs; that translation of the Qur'ân is for the non-Arabs a necessity, which, of course, it is not for Arabs; men who cannot conceive that there are Muslims in India as learned and devout, as capable as judgment and as careful for the safety of Islam, as any to be found in Egypt.'
Marmaduke prevailed however when he debated in Arabic a large gathering of the Ulema. He explained the possibilities for the spread of Islam among the English-speaking people. The wiser of the al-Azhar, recognising their inability to understand the situation of English speakers accepted his translation.
It was published in 1930, and was hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as 'a great literary achievement.' Unusually for a translation, it was further translated into several other languages, including Tagalog, Turkish and Portuguese.
Marmaduke was by now a revered religious leader. As such, he was asked by the Nizam to arrange the marriage of the heir to his throne to the daughter of the last Ottoman Caliph, Princess Dürrüsehvar. The Ottoman exiles lived in France as pensioners of the Nizam, and there Marmaduke and the Hyderabad contingent travelled. His knowledge of Ottoman and Moghul protocol allowed Pickthall to bring off this brilliant match.
In 1935 Marmaduke left Hyderabad, his flourishing school and handed over the reins of the journal Islamic Culture to a new editor to return to England.
He died in a cottage in the West Country in May 1936, of coronary thrombosis, and is buried in the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood.

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