Prof. M.M. Ali is a Washington, DC-based specialist on South Asia and a consultant with the United Nations Development Program.
With the death of Dr. Mohammed Hamidullah, 94, who died in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 17, 2002, the world has lost an outstanding scholar and the Muslim Ummah has been deprived of an authority and a guide to the understanding of the Qur'an and issues relating to the shariah (principles and practice of Islam) and the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). In addition to his hundreds of highly researched writings and numerous learned lectures, Hamidullah's groundbreaking translation of the Qur'an into French may be deemed his most major contribution to mankind.
Born in February 1908 in the then-princely state of Hyderabad Deccan (now a part of India), Hamidullah was a contemporary of such luminaries as Marmaduke Pickthall, who was contracted by the same state of Hyderabad to translate the Qur'an into English, and Pickthall's fellow famed translators I.J. Irving, Mohammed Asad and Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Hamidullah, however, perhaps surpassed them all with his additional voluminous writings and discourses in Arabic, English, French, German and Urdu on Islam and its present-day challenges. His works today are keenly sought after by researchers, teachers and students all over the world, and adorn thousands of libraries and universities.
Having left independent Hyderabad in 1948, a year after the British partitioned the subcontinent and Pakistan came into being, Hamidullah, now a "stateless" person as designated by the U.N., relocated to Paris. The former professor of history at Hyderabad's Osmania University proceeded to earn doctoral degrees in Germany and France. A multi-linguist with an exceptional facility for languages--in recent years he was trying to learn Thai--Hamidullah's French translation of the Qur'an today is the most popular one in France and in all of French-speaking North Africa as well. (Translating the Qur'an from Arabic to a different language, by the way, requires the translator not only to be extremely well versed in both languages but, at the same time, an authority on the word and spirit of the two languages, and especially of Arabic--the language of the Qur'an.) Of the thousands of translations of the Qur'an into hundreds of languages, only a few have gained acceptance and currency. Hamidullah's is one of them.
His writings are too numerous to list, and a sampling of his work runs the risk of omissions. Nevertheless, I venture to mention that his work An Introduction to Islam, a primer on the understanding of a religion followed by more than 1.4 billion people across the globe, is a classic. In his inimitable style and powerful diction, Dr. Hamidullah, for instance, propounds on the basic Five Pillars (requirements) of Islam: Shahada (affirmation of the faith), Salat (praying five times daily), (Siyam/Soyem) (fasting in the holy month of Ramadan), Zakat (giving alms to the needy) and undertaking the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) once in a lifetime by those who can afford it. Islam, he explains, does not demand any excessive indulgence on the part of its adherents. Hamidullah goes on to demonstrate how it is laid out in a very scientific, incremental process--from the affirmation of the Faith (Shahada) between the individual and his/her Creator, to a visible physical submission (Salat) every day, then on to making it a social obligation (Zakat), and culminating in the performance of hajj pilgrimage each year.
Dr. Hamidullah lived a very Spartan life. His one-bedroom loft was located on the third floor of a modest old building in the back streets of Paris which had no elevator. Every day he carried his frail frame up and down 140 stairs without complaint. The furnishings in his room were equally frugal--his bed, a small writing table and an almirah (chest of drawers) full of books and piles of papers. …