Bestselling author Nadeem M. Qureshi. Photo Courtesy of Nadeem M. Qureshi
Bestselling author Nadeem M. Qureshi chatted about his book “Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed.”
Synopsis of the book
In the fall of 1928, the Imam of Java, a certain Mohammad Basyuni Imran, had a letter delivered to the Lebanese author and scholar, Shakib Arsalan. In his letter from him, Basyuni Imran requested Arsalan to explain the reasons for the backwardness of Muslims of the time compared to other nations; furthermore, Basyuni asked Arsalan to suggest what they need to do to join the ranks of nations that have overtaken them and, in many cases, rule over them.
Arsalan published his response in a series of articles written for the Cairo-based Islamic journal, Al-Manar. Subsequently, these articles were combined and published in a book in 1930 with the title: Why did Muslims lag behind? And why did others progress?
In his response, Arsalan begins with an analysis of what has gone wrong. He addresses the belief of some that Islam is to blame for the backwardness of Muslims. He goes on to give examples of how advanced nations progressed while holding firmly onto their religious beliefs.
In simple, elegant prose, Arsalan takes the reader on a fascinating walk through history. There are references to pre-Islamic times and the early Islamic period, French colonialists in North Africa and their efforts to convert Muslim populations to Christianity, goings-on in the British Houses of Parliament on the issue of transubstantiation, and much more.
The latter part of the book has examples of recent (the 1930s and earlier) achievements of Muslims when they set their minds on doing something.
It is a measure of the merit and excellence of Arsalan’s words that his book has never been out of publication. It remains among Arabic speakers as popular and relevant today as at the time it was first published almost a century ago.
Background on Nadeem M. Qureshi
Nadeem Mumtaz Qureshi lived for several decades in the Middle East. Not a native speaker of Arabic he was immediately fascinated by the language. Thus began a journey of learning that would take him from not knowing the language to gaining a Master’s degree in Arabic literature.
He is especially interested in the works of Arabic writers who lived during the first five centuries of Islam. It is during this period that some of the greatest works of Arabic were produced. Prior to becoming a captive of the Arabic language, Mr. Qureshi was trained as an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in management at Harvard Business School. He has set up and run several companies and currently serves as Chairman of a national political party.
‘Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed’ is a groundbreaking read, what inspired you to bring the work of Lebanese author and scholar, Lebanese author and scholar, Shakib Arsalan to life?
There was a time when Muslims ruled much of the known world. They led the world in scientific discoveries and in contributions to literature and the arts. Their scholars translated groundbreaking ancient Greek manuscripts on philosophy, metaphysics, and eschatology into Arabic. Their philosophers studied these texts and built on them with their own contributions. Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire, was the global center of the arts, sciences, and philosophy. Europeans, who visited the capital would boast on their return, that they had set foot in the center of civilization.
And then, after several centuries of dazzling progress, the Muslims all but disappear from the global stage. And today the Islamic nation, as it were, remains peripheral to global affairs. They are behind the West in every possible dimension of human endeavor
Why did they fall behind? This is a question that had lingered in my mind for some time. Arsalan, in his book by him, addresses this question in a compelling manner. And this is what moved me to bring his book by him, written in Arabic, to a broader audience.
This book engages readers from the very beginning and is absolutely riveting. What do you hope readers take away from them when they finish ‘Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed’?
Though Arslan directed his original message to the Muslims of his time – the period between the two great wars – I feel the translation should be of interest today to all readers. On one level it is a brief lesson in History in the way it traces the ascent of Islam among the Arabs and their subsequent conquests in faraway lands. In these conquests, the speed and extent of which historians have dazzled, the Arabs not only won territory, they also won the hearts of the people they conquered. There was something of a mass acceptance of Islam by peoples of differing cultures, languages, and creeds. A phenomenon that had never happened before and has never happened since.
On another level, it is an exhortation to Muslims to deeply examine the reasons for their fall from global leadership to irrelevance on the world stage. Arsalan explains the factors that allowed the early Muslims to progress and acquire power and influence. He believes that these factors, while no longer in place, can be revived so that Muslims can once again take their place in the global community.
Those who read the book will take away with them an appreciation of the factors that led to the meteoric rise of the Muslims, from barefooted Bedouins in a god-forsaken desert, to rulers of the world. And the impact they had on the development of the arts, sciences, architecture, philosophy, and theology and in paving the way for what would be the European renaissance.
In the final analysis, the book is a call to Muslims to return to the principles of their faith from which, in Arsalan’s view, they have strayed Afar. And in the process have ceased to have to say in the way the world works.
On a personal level when you did the final read-through for this book what was your favorite part and why?
This is a difficult question to answer. It is a bit like asking a mother “What is the favorite part of your child?” While translating the book my concern was less with what I liked about the translation and more with what potential readers would think. I had read the book in Arabic and loved it. My mission was to convey this experience, with as much fidelity as possible, to English readers.
While you did not write this book, you did bring the work of Lebanese author and scholar, Shakib Arsalan to life. What was one of your biggest challenges doing this, and what was one of your biggest successes?
In response to this question let me quote a passage from my introduction to the book: Translating Arabic to English is always challenging. The two languages have very different structures. The aesthetics of style vary widely. Arabic is characterized by long sentences. A single sentence can fill a whole paragraph. Several qualifying adjectives of similar meaning are used where one would suffice.
In Arabic, these are attributes of eloquence. In English almost the exact opposite is true: Short sentences and using fewer rather than more words to express meaning is what George Orwell considered to be good style. I have tried in this translation to stay as close to Arsalan’s text as possible. And to convey, near impossible as it may be, a flavor for the eloquence of the original in Arabic. This has meant retaining the Arabic stylistic aesthetic in English.
In regard to the second part of your question: It is not for me to gauge success or failure. This is something that readers will have to decide for themselves.
‘Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed’ has been popular with readers and reviewers. Do you have another book or project in the works you can tell us about?
There is nothing imminent in the works, but I am always on the lookout for works of wisdom and eloquence that merit a wider readership.
Bear in mind that Arabic has been in existence for well over a millennium and a half. It is perhaps the oldest extant language in the world. And amazingly over these centuries, it has remained essentially unchanged. So, a book written a thousand years ago, allowing for differences in circumstances and style, can be read with as much ease as a book published yesterday. Compare this to how much the English of today has diverged from the English of Shakespeare and Chaucer, and you will realize how extraordinary it is that Arabic remains much as it was a millennium ago.
There exists in the world today a vast library – really a treasure trove – of texts in the form of handwritten Arabic manuscripts containing the wisdom of the ancient world that have not seen the light of day for hundreds of years. As scholars work to extract and publish the contents of these manuscripts, I remain vigilant. My next project may well be one of these yet-to-be-published classics.
“Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed” is available on Amazon.