It was the morning of Wednesday, April 17 1935 when Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm al-Siddiqī al-Qadrī, the eminent Indian Islamic scholar and Sufi Shaykh [who was on a visit to Mombasa] met with George Bernard Shaw, world-renowned Irish playwright and savant, who was passing through the city on his way to South Africa on a holiday. Shaw was travelling by the Union Castle liner, Linlithgow, when it made a stop for three days at the island. During this time he was a guest of the resident British Magistrate of Mombasa who was a distant relative he had never met before.
There was drama at that moment when the Islamic scholar arrived at the residence of the Magistrate and Shaw himself came out at once to receive him. Shaw was well built, of medium stature, and with an erect and imposing figure — an elderly gentleman of noble mien. He was smiling too — not the smile of the sceptic that flickers just round the corners of the lips, but a smile of real welcome, and it suffused his face. There was nothing Shavian about him, if the phonetic pun were to be permitted, for even his chin was not shaved. Rather, a long flowing beard imparted a serene dignity to his falsely represented Freudian features. Full of vim and vigour, were it not for the grey colour of his hair, beard, and eyebrows, he could scarcely be credited with the four-score years that he carried with youthful buoyancy.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm al-Siddiqī on the other hand was a venerable figure dressed in dignified Arab robes. He was comparatively young, just forty-three. Chronic catarrh and unceasingly intense mental strain had turned his hair grey and it made him look much older than he actually was. He, also, was smiling. It was the sparkling smile of those whose hearts radiate with innocence and purity. When Truth enters the heart then such a smile appears on the lips!
The Shaykh stepped out of the car. There was a hearty exchange of greetings between the two men. The Shaykh expressed his great pleasure at meeting Shaw. The ‘grand old man’ immediately rejoined that having heard about the Shaykh’s missionary exploits and his novel way of preaching Islam, he himself was very eager to know him, and it was indeed a very happy coincidence that they were able to meet each other for the first time in Mombasa. The conversation was very interesting and quite devoid of Shavian shafts and sarcasms. Perhaps this was because the usual roles of interviews with George Bernard Shaw were reversed. It was Shaw himself who kept on questioning his guest, and who listened attentively to the prompt, lucid and informative replies. The following is the text of that memorable conversation:
George Bernard Shaw: I regret I was unable, on account of a previous engagement, to attend your lecture last night, although I was very keen on doing so. You spoke on the ‘Philosophy of Peace’, but as a Muslim it would have been more appropriate if you had delivered a lecture on the ‘Philosophy of War’, for Islam, doubtless, has spread at the point of the sword!
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: This is a common misunderstanding regarding Islam. I was dealing with this problem only last night, and I am really surprised that this myth, which has been thoroughly exploded by now, should receive any notice from a scholar of your calibre. However, I may briefly tell you now that the literal meaning of the very word ‘Islam’ is ‘peace’. An authentic record of the teachings of Islam in their pristine purity has been preserved intact in the Qur’ān and the Traditions. They go to establish, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Islam permits the use of the sword only when wantonly attacked and compelled to ‘ defend itself. Besides there is an explicit injunction in the Holy Qur’ān in which Allah, Most High, declares: “There should be no coercion in religion.’ [al-Baqarah 2:256].
This clearly forbids the use of force or compulsion in matters of religion. As a matter of fact, I entertain the same conviction regarding the teachings of genuine Christianity, for our sense of reasoning tells us that if they are divine revelations and their source of emanation is consequently divine, they cannot but emphatically veto any manner of violence in respect of belief and enjoin its inculcation by means of arguments and rational discourses. As far as Islam is concerned the Qur’ān distinctly says: ﴾So that he who perishes hereafter may perish after demonstrative evidence, and that he who lives may live by the same evidence.﴿ [al-Anfāl 8:42].
Islam has enjoined a specific method for its propagation. It was this method that yielded such positive results. The spread of Islam around the world and its acceptance by all reasonable men is solely due to Muslim adherence to the Qur’ānic injunction which declared: ﴾Invite people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and graceful exhortation, and dispute with them in the most conciliatory way.﴿ [al-Naḥl 16:125]
History bears testimony to the fact that “Christ was declared consubstantial with the Father” (Gibbon) by the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine in Bithynia in the year 325 A.C. An effort was then made to enforce belief in the divinity of Christ. Christians refused to submit to this belief, not only in Europe, but even in the sacred city of Jerusalem as well. This resulted in a most horrid and inhuman slaughter of thousands of innocent people. But in spite of it all I can never hold the real Christianity responsible for it. On the contrary it is those representatives of the Church who wanted to impress the hearts of the people with their power and greatness and who wanted to perpetuate their priestly authority, who can be rightly saddled with all the blame.
Similarly, the sanguinary wars known as Crusades were the outcome of the Machiavellian machinations of precisely such interested ecclesiastical groups of men. They realized that the uncompromising preaching of the oneness of God by Islam was a great obstacle in their path and their self-fabricated divine authority was at stake. So they launched an unscrupulous campaign against Islam and Muslims. They instigated the credulous medieval Europe to wage the so-called ‘holy wars’ against Islam and Muslims by circulating blood-curdling tales of imaginary atrocities by Muslims on Christians. They described the Muslims as infidels and inveterate enemies of the Christian religion, property and persons. Obviously, therefore, it is these Church dignitaries who alone can be held accountable for the cruel, protracted, futile wars. The blame cannot be attributed to the original teachings of Christianity or Islam, nor for that matter, to Muslims.
Furthermore, if we grant as a supposition that some Muslim rulers and tribes were actuated by the lust of conquest and, in consequence, became aggressors, long after the advent of Islam of course, and let slip the dogs of war for self-aggrandizement, we can, to be fair, condemn those individuals for the reprehensible acts, and surely not Islam. I made certain remarks recently, in one of my speeches at Durban, and as they are very pertinent, I would like to repeat them to you. (So saying, His Eminence read out the following passage from a booklet which he was carrying with him): “If certain nations, immersed in paganism and superstition and ignorant of the real teachings of religion, wage wars in its name, the crime is theirs, and no blame can be ascribed to religion. Were not millions of human beings killed during the Great War in the name of peace, justice and the laudable object of safeguarding the rights of weaker nations? Should we then condemn these humane and noble qualities because some statesman abused these terms and sanctioned the inhuman slaughter for the attainment of their own selfish ends?”
George Bernard Shaw: There is no doubt that fanatics of the Roman Church were, to a great extent, responsible for the sad events, and the pure teachings of Christianity have no concern with their occurrence. It may also be admitted that a great many misunderstandings prevail regarding Islam, and that it is being widely misrepresented. But do the Muslim masses agree with your interpretation? Do they believe that Islam was not, and should not, be spread by force?
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: Every Muslim is bound to endorse it, for whatever I say is precisely what the Qur’ān says, and my own views or conceptions have nothing to do with it. Many books have been written on this subject. Syed Amir Ali, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Allama Shibli and other learned doctors of Islamic theology have exhaustively dealt with all the aspects of this subject in their books.
George Bernard Shaw: I know that there is a considerable amount of concord between Islam and Christianity!
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: The correspondence is not merely nominal or superficial, for the Qur’ān expressly predicates that when the ultimate source or origin of an inspired or revealed and divine religion is the Being of God, unanimity in such revelations is indispensable. Islam has been conceived as a new religion. But according to the Qur’ān the religion preached by Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the same that was promulgated by all the true Prophets from Abraham right up to Jesus (peace be upon them all).
God deputed them one and all for the dissemination of much the same teachings. It was only when their original teachings were tampered with and corrupted, and their authenticity became dubious, that Almighty God sent the last Prophet, and the last book, to re-state, confirm and complete His original Message. The Holy Qur’ān has made this quite clear by saying that: ﴾We ordained for you the religion with which We commanded Noah and which We have revealed unto thee (O Muhammad) and with which We commanded Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying: Observe this religion and be not divided therein.﴿ [al-Shūrā 42:13]
George Bernard Shaw: The translation of the Qur’ān that I have read certainly substantiates your statements. I very much prefer the translation made by one who has adopted a different variation of the arrangement of the verses to that which is generally followed by other translators. I had it always with me during my tour of Morocco and Algeria, and my occasional references to its contents proved to be a perennial source of diversion and curious amusement to the Muslims of those lands. It is one of the editions of ‘Every Man’s Library’, and I have commended its wider publicity to some of the publishers.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: The translation you allude to is that of Mr. Rodwell!
George Bernard Shaw: Yes.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: There is no doubt that Mr. Rodwell has expended a great deal of energy and industry in translating the chapters of the Qur’ān in their chronological order of revelation, but as his knowledge of the Arabic literature and Islamic history was not sufficiently wide and profound, a considerable number of translated passages are so misleading and contain such flagrant mistakes (which I by no means attribute to a deliberate intent on his part, but as I have already said, they may be the result of his limited knowledge in the said spheres) that they are likely to create wrong impressions about Islam.
As far as the translations of the Qur’ān are concerned, I would recommend you to read: ‘The Meaning of the Glorious Koran’ by Mr. Marmaduke Pickthall, and I am sure that its perusal will enable you to appreciate considerably more of the exquisite beauty, the sublime transcendence and the appealing and impressive style of the Qur’ānic guidance. However, I do not imply that it is a perfect version of the original. You are yourself a splendid writer and so you can easily recognize that in spite of a translator being the ablest and the best, he can never transmit the force and brilliance of your original writings when he translates them into another language.
George Bernard Shaw: It is quite true that the spirit of the original cannot be transplanted into its translation in another language, and the same is the case with the translations of the Bible. But they have now achieved a very high standard, and the process of raising it still higher is being continued.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: Although the translations of the Bible may attain the highest stage of perfection from the standpoint of language, one cannot say, under any circumstances, that they contain the original message of Christianity, or are the genuine versions of the teachings of Jesus Christ. You know that the pure original message of the Gospel, as delivered by Jesus, is no more extant. There is no original manuscript of the Gospel and numerous corruptions have produced numerous conflicting texts. And so confusion was worse confounded, and a seeker of truth could not quench his thirst at its hydroid font. The Qur’ān, in contrast, has been preserved in such a manner that there has not been the slightest change, not even to the extent of a letter or a dot. Hence, if we want to know the real teachings of Christianity, we must look for them in the Qur’ān.
George Bernard Shaw: Has there really been no alteration in the Qur’ān? Is it absolutely preserved in its original form? Did Prophet Muhammad know how to write, and is his writing in existence?
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: There is a complete and authentic record of each and every chapter, nay, even of every verse, or I might say, of every word of the Qur’ān. Immediately following the revelation of a verse or verses to him the Prophet used to send for the special scribes appointed for the purpose of recording the revelations. He would then dictate the same to them. And they would record it. When transcribed, he would ask them to recite what they had written and, after listening to and verifying it, would explain to them its meaning. The manuscripts in the handwriting of one of the most honoured and trusted among the scribes, Zaid bin Thabit, are preserved intact in the archives of Constantinople and Medina. Today’s Qur’ānic text is the exact copy of the original, and the copies of the Qur’ān in the world today do not differ with each other even in point of a comma or a dash.
George Bernard Shaw: What! Are there punctuation marks in the Qur’ān?
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: The punctuation marks in the English language comprise commas, colons, semi-colons, periods, etc, but the principles of Qur’ānic elocution comprehend numerous signs of a different kind. For instance, a stop is compulsory in certain places, whilst it is optional in others; some endings are fully pronounced, whilst others are quiescent, etc. The correct accents, pronunciations, accurate halts, etc., are so intricate and difficult of acquisition, that the Qur’ānic elocution has been evolved into a distinct art, and copious volumes have been written on its theory and practice.
George Bernard Shaw: All this is rather astonishing and new to me. I was also surprised to learn that you delivered a speech on `Islam and Science’ in Nairobi. What I find difficult to understand is how you can possibly present the picture of Heaven and Hell, which is portrayed in the Qur’ān, in a manner convincing to persons conversant with science, whose minds are inured to accept nothing without visible or palpable proof? I hold the Prophet of Arabia in great esteem and I can quite understand that it would have been impossible to restrain and wean that illiterate, ignorant and perverse race, sunk in the miasma of utter moral depravity, from committing the most heinous of crimes.
And it would have been equally impossible to imbue its people with enthusiasm to strive after righteousness and to assimilate high morals and virtues, without projecting these awesome images of heaven and hell. It was, perhaps, for this reason that such a terrible and intensely awe-inspiring spectacle of Hell and an equally captivating and enticing image of Heaven as a land flowing with milk and honey had to be presented before their vision. I also very much admire the forcible and striking diction of the Qur’ān. What elegant grace and beauty characterizes that passage which depicts the dreadful scene of the doomsday field, and, when dealing with infanticide, dramatically leaves off at the question: ﴾For what crime were you slain?﴿ [al-Taqwīr 81:8] to the innocent child that was buried alive or put to death. In my opinion, it is the most effective way of creating an abiding impression on the minds of the people. But I am afraid I am digressing, for I would very much like to know how the problem of Heaven and Hell could possibly be elucidated in the light of science.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: You are a master of the art of writing, and your enchanting and novel literary productions with your magical pen revolutionize the mentality of the readers. I am sure you will agree with me on this point that material language cannot possibly act as an apt vehicle with which one can accurately convey the significance and reality of spiritual problems and phenomena. In fact this is not possible without the help of metaphors and similes that are used analogously. One must, therefore, bear this fact in mind and make due allowance for the mode of expression with which the Qur’ān describes Hell and Heaven. Simultaneously with such illustrations that confine their appeal to physical senses, God Almighty stipulates however, and in the clearest terms, that we should not to be too inquisitive regarding the true nature of the blessings of Heaven: ﴾So no one knows what is in store for them of that which will refresh the eyes.﴿ [al-Sajdah 32:17]
According to the Traditions, we should not, under any circumstances, think of them in any way comparable to the objects of this world: “The reality of their constitution has been neither witnessed by any human eyes, nor have the ears listened to words capable of expressing it; it is, indeed, beyond the pale of human imagination, and even a perfunctory surrogate of it cannot be visualized.” How can it be asserted in the face of this pronouncement and explanation that the blessings of Heaven resemble in any way whatsoever that which pleases us or contribute to our happiness in this world? The truth of the matter lies elsewhere. In fact material progress and comfort commensurate with the degree of comprehension and execution follow as a matter of course from our compliance with natural or physical laws. So too one attains the utmost possible spiritual bliss and beatitude in proportion to allegiance or adherence to moral and spiritual laws and their translation into practice.
Conversely their violation entails spiritual torture and tribulation. If, according to the law of progress, everything is heading for advance, there must naturally be a zenith of it, and beyond that there must be no point of further progress. Comfort or happiness and grief or suffering are two states which a person experiences in this life, – hence there must be an extreme point for both of these states. This very extreme point of pleasure or bliss is called Heaven, and the extreme point of sorrow is called Hell. Just as there are material media that are either conducive to happiness or instrumental in inflicting suffering in this world, so must there be some kind of media to procreate that state of bliss or generate pain and suffering in the other world. A metaphorical word-picture of the former has been sketched to portray Heaven, and the tremendously appalling and dreadful portrait of torments has been drawn to symbolize Hell. Now this other world, which we call spiritual or celestial, is neither like this material world, nor is it purely spiritual, having no connection, whatsoever, with matter, and where there are only souls utterly free from matter. The human being, body and soul together, is responsible or accountable for his or her activities. Hence, the soul in partnership with the quintessence of this very physical organism will meet with the kind of happiness or grief suitable to the conditions obtaining in the world.
Now it only remains to define matter. But as you know this is not possible even at the present stage of scientific progress. For what matter really is constitutes a conundrum that has not been solved in spite of the attempts made by the best human brains. Far from succeeding in analyzing it chemically, the greatest scientists have not been able even to picture its reality. The culminating point of scientific research up to date is the establishment of the `Theory of Protons and Electrons’, according to which the wave radiations of these are the basis of the universe, and every physical body in its solid form is the result of those very radiations. This is what the magazine The World of Wonder says about matter: “Matter seems very solid, but men of science tell us that if all the spaces in the atoms that make up our bodies were done away with, and the nucleus and electrons of the atoms were concentrated into a mass, the whole matter of a grown man’s body would be so small that it could not be seen with the naked eye.” Hence, if it is possible for a scientist to accept with out positive proof that an average electron flies round its nucleus several thousand million times every second, and base the formation of solid physical organisms on their wave radiations, there should be no difficulty for him to imagine the soul and body in a form suitable to the conditions of the kind of happiness or grief to be met with in the ‘great beyond’. A very hazy picture of those states can be said to reflect itself in those weird experiences of ours which we call dreams.
George Bernard Shaw: This is really a very beautiful, eloquent and gratifying explanation, but will the present day Muslims be prepared to accept it?
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: This description is by no means a concoction of my brain. Rather, as I have already said, the Qur’ān itself propounds it. I cannot claim any credit, even for the manner of description, because my great predecessors, Imams Fakhruddin al-Razi, Imam al-Ghazzali, and Muhyuddin ibn ʿArabi, when addressing enlightened philosophers like you, expressed themselves in similar terms. If I may say it in the oriental style, I have only gathered a few crumbs from their tables of magnificent feasts.
All the teachings of Islam are rational. There are no mysteries and dogmas. They only require to be explained in a proper light to transfuse their correct sense. It is difficult to understand the literature of any art with which we are not conversant. Hence, in order to grasp and assimilate the problematic points related to any art, we must first acquire knowledge and cultivate intimate acquaintance with that particular art. If we then seek their solution in the light of this knowledge we shall easily understand them.
(At this stage Mr. Shaw’s hostess came in, and Mr. Shaw introduced Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm to her. Addressing Mr. Shaw, she said that it was almost time for him to leave for the docks. Mr. Shaw said he must certainly make a move then, and, turning to His Eminence, said):
George Bernard Shaw: Your conversation is so very interesting and informative, that I would like to have the privilege of enjoying your company for years. But, unfortunately, I have to leave now.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: I also ardently desire to have the benefit of exchanging views with such a cultured and learned scholar as yourself. This is particularly since I found that even an inadequate acquaintance with the teachings of Islam from unauthentic and perhaps tainted sources has evoked such a positive and optimistic statement from you regarding Islam, that: “The future religion of the educated, cultured and enlightened people will be Islam. “ I would like to speak to you about the profound philosophy and psychological truths the Qur’ān expounds, so that a gifted and erudite savant of your parts and genius, perfectly familiar with the tastes and mental tendencies of the civilized world, can present that truth to them in an effective and desirable manner.
George Bernard Shaw: I am really very sorry that I could secure such a short time for speaking to a learned sage like yourself.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAlīm: I am, however, grateful even for this opportunity and avail myself of the occasion to present to you the printed copies of two of my lectures on ‘Religious and Scientific Progress of the World’, and ‘Spiritual Culture in Islam’, which I recently delivered at Durban. I also give you this booklet on `Islam’ by my friend, Mr. Elias Burney, M.A., Professor of Economics at the Usmania University, Hyderabad, Deccan. He has made a classified collection of the Qur’ānic verses under various heads with explanatory notes. I hope you will find these books to be of some benefit. Please feel free to communicate with me on any point connected with these books or with any other book on Islam. It will be an honour for me to respond to your enquiries to the extent that my own knowledge permits.
George Bernard Shaw: I have been very pleased to make your acquaintance, and it will be the most precious of all memories of this trip of mine.
(Bidding farewell to each other, His Eminence wished Shaw bon voyage and they parted. George Bernard Shaw was seen standing on the veranda waving his hand till the car that took away the scholar of Islam went out of sight.)
 This is not to say that the honourable Shaykh considered the aforementioned people as representatives of Muslim orthodoxy but rather, he used their names since they were recognised as Muslim academics, and so would have been familiar to the likes of George Bernard Shaw.
 The argument used by the Shaykh is not the primary proof used by Muslim theologians for the authenticity of the Qur’ān. That is, the argument of the Qur’ān being mass-transmitted (tawātur) in a way that it is impossible that different people could have collaborated or conspired to forge it. It is likely that the Shaykh used the argument of manuscripts since this would be more easily understood by his interlocutor.
Share this article: