‘It took me a long time to embrace Islam’
I cannot tell you how delighted I was when Umm Muhammad Assami, whose translation of the Quran’s meaning you know as Saheeh International, agreed to meet me during a recent visit to Jeddah.
I went with my mother who is her former student. She welcomed us with a tray of delicacies and drinks that she insisted on serving herself. Her friend Amena Tanveer was also present.
Umm Muhammad was born in southern California in 1940 and embraced Islam in 1974 in Syria. In 1981 she moved to Saudi Arabia, and has taught classes in tafseer and basic fiqh at an Islamic center in Jeddah since 1991. She has authored and/or revised more than 80 Islamic books in English, mostly for Dar Abul-Qasim. She lives with her husband in Jeddah, has married children and grandchildren who are settled in different parts of the world. Baarak Allahu feehim.
Many may not realize how special she is. To give you a glimpse of Allah’s favor on her, her work is one of the most widely read translations of the Quran in English. Millions of people read it every day to understand the meaning of the Quran. Uncountable number of articles, books, websites and apps quote Saheeh International’s translation.
And yet, she remains virtually unknown to most of us.
I ask Allah to accept it from her and multiply her reward many more times. And I pray that this interview does not reduce her reward in any way.
There is much I would like to say about her simplicity and helpful nature. But she dislikes praise and shies away from publicity. May Allah preserve her.
How did you embrace Islam and learn Arabic?
Umm Muhammad: It took me quite a long time to embrace Islam. I had given up on any kind of religion before I went to live in Syria (my husband is from Syria) and there I found that Islam was more of a tradition than a commitment. People couldn’t really answer the questions I had so I realized that I would have to learn how to read Arabic to know what Muslim scholars were saying, and that took a long time.
Finally they opened a two year intensive course at Damascus University, and I joined that. Then I completed grammar lessons for another year. From there I went on with the aid of a dictionary, grammar book and simple tafseer – I just sort a struggled along on my own until I felt I was ready.
It was not easy to become a Muslim in Syria because they make you go to meet a priest who comes specially to talk people out of converting to Islam. So I thought I would have to study more to be able to answer whatever he was going to say. That took a bit longer, but alhamdulillah, the priest failed in his effort to dissuade me. Finally, after 12 years, I went to court and said the shahadah. And after that I began to learn more from classes in the masjid.
Please tell us about the journey involved in translating the Quran’s meaning.
UM: When I came to Jeddah, there were many English-speaking Muslims of various nationalities (something non-existent in Syria), and I was recruited to teach at an Islamic center and became aware of the need to have printed material in understandable English for our students. I was also working with a charitable organization that mailed whatever information they could find in English to individuals, organizations and schools in several African countries.
I often went to Abul-Qasim Bookstore looking for anything suitable to send to Africa and for our Islamic Center. Since there was very little suitable material at that time, the owner asked me and two colleagues, a typesetter and an English editor, to produce some booklets teaching prayer and other basic subjects, which he published. That was the beginning of Saheeh International. We continued to produce booklets for our Center and others.
But when he began to suggest a better and easier translation of the Qur’an’s meanings than those available, I firmly refused – I was not qualified – there was no way I could even consider it. But he and several sisters kept after me regularly, saying, “At least do istikharah.” After three years I finally did the istikharah, certain that Allah would not make such a thing possible.
Immediately I was given the Arabic reference books. My two colleagues were there to type, edit and offer suggestions, and Arab sisters volunteered help. We worked day and night for another three years until the first edition was approved and ready for print. Because we were not allowed sufficient time to review, some corrections and improvements had to wait until subsequent printings.
A reader asks about your choice of words “reduce [some] of their vision” for the verses 30 and 31 in Surah An-Noor.
UM: The more common translation is to “lower their gaze,” which is also acceptable as the verb can mean to lower, lessen or reduce. Perhaps “eyesight” or “vision” is closer to the Arabic than “gaze.” But the particle “min,” meaning “from” or “of,” indicates that one is not to restrict all of his vision, but a portion of it – meaning to avoid only that which is unlawful to look at. And Allah knows best.
Which verse did you find really hard to translate and why?
UM: I can’t recall any particular verse, but generally, the most beautiful Arabic expressions are the most difficult to translate, and literal translations can appear nonsensical in the target language. When such problems arose we had to compromise wording somewhat and add explanations in footnotes.
Which verse’s meaning and tafseer do you really like teaching and telling others about, something that’s close to your heart?
UM: Again, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single verse because it would depend upon the purpose behind quoting any specific one, and possibilities are unlimited. But as one example, I often remind myself as well as others: “And We have made some of you as trial for others – will you have patience? And ever is your Lord, Seeing.” (Al-Furqān, 25:20)
If women want to learn from you in Jeddah, what activities and classes do you have?
UM: We have the Islamic Cultural Center near Dallah. It’s only two evenings a week and free. All non-Arabic speakers (women) are welcome to learn basic Islamic teachings and Arabic at four levels.
What are your current projects? Do you have any upcoming books in the pipeline and where are they available?
Our books are available at Dar Abul Qasim bookstore in Jeddah, and some of them are available online also. They can be ordered from the website of Saheeh International. One of our new projects is a simple tafseer of Juz Amma for Islamic centers. I work on it off and on as time permits.
There’s something interesting that you said once about people using their own unique talents for Islam. You gave the example of Khalid bin Waleed. Can you expand on that because some of us may find learning Islam a little difficult and therefore feel we are not as good as others.
UM: This was something I felt myself because I am not good at memorization. I was trying hard to memorize the Qur’an and putting in so much effort without a good result. Then I discovered there were other things I could do that others could not.
Some of our students come and ask, “Should we drop out of the university and change to Islamic studies?” I don’t encourage that because we need people in every field to be in da’wah as well. They can set good examples of Islam in their own specialties where it is most needed. Muslims need to spread Islam in every field of life. They can stay in their own specialties and study Islam on the side.
What if, for example, some people are better at helping others, charity work, getting involved in an activity and other such things, but spiritual nourishment and learning generally comes from Islamic texts?
For example, some people are living in societies that aren’t very Islamic, so what kind of advice would you give to such people on how they can be practicing Muslims even though they aren’t very influenced by Islamic learning? What can they do to use their talent in the way of Islam and lead a good Muslim life?
UM: As my friend Amena Tanveer (who is here beside me) says, we have to start with basic things first. Sometimes people go to the specialization stage too soon and they don’t really know the basics. You have to start from the beginning to get a good foundation. Then, when you have a relationship with Allah you shouldn’t worry too much about what people are expecting of you. You just keep asking yourself, “Is what I’m thinking to do going to please Allah or not?” Or if you have two choices, to consider, “Which is better for my akhirah”?
It’s a personal thing, but we have to make people aware of this. I think that it’s not limited to knowledge or information because I found I was getting a lot of information, teaching it and passing on, but as you said, you don’t feel this spiritual connection so much. I think it’s something we all need to work on…
Amena Tanveer: We discuss this a lot because I am associated with Umm Muhammad at the Center, and I am engaged with people on an individual level as someone who works for da’wah and being a psychologist. We all have an inherent interest in certain areas which could also work negatively for us and become a weakness. First we need to look at the foundation – whether we have covered all the obligatory aspects of the deen that we need to know and practice, and for which we will be answerable.
Your special interest should not take away from this basic accountability. I talk to a lot of girls between the ages of 18 and 25 who are interested in the religion and want to be practicing Muslims. They like and pick one area and just want to continue in that because it gives a good feeling, a kind of a pleasure that pushes and motivates you. But religion is not just about feeling good. It’s about doing the right thing that Allah wants you to do, irrespective of your own desires and special interests. We have to find that balance first and then look into your special talent for extra reward. Extra has no meaning when the obligatory and essential is lacking.
Success sometimes leads to pride. How can one stay humble if you meet with a lot of success?
UM: I guess you have to be very successful to answer this one… But I just feel: What is there to be proud of? If Allah enables us to do something, we should be grateful, not proud.
In the present situation, Muslims living in societies that aren’t very Islamic feel confused about Islam. They are under pressure from other cultures, lifestyles, thoughts, behaviors and they see that Islam is at odds with what is the norm. They start questioning: why is Islam saying this, and they don’t see what is wrong there. What advice would you give me if I were in this situation?
UM: It probably depends on the questions they have. What we know we should pass on and tell them. If they accept it, good, and if not, we just have to keep answering. We’ve had some students come to the Center who were arguing and saying, “This is too difficult and we can’t do this or this is not reasonable…” Later on, the more information they got, they calmed down, and some of them even went on to do many kinds of good work. So you never know the potential people have. Sometimes these questions show that they are really thinking and need answers.
On becoming an Islamic teacher
UM: I never dreamed I would teach. I always thought I’d rather sweep streets than be in a classroom – I just had this thing about school atmosphere. Actually, I began at the Center only to fill in until they found more qualified people. But every time I’ve suggested that maybe I should quit and just go back to writing and editing books, they refused.
Amena Tanveer: The plus point about her teaching that I would like to share with you is you can have teachers teaching tafseer or any topic on Islam, but the first mistake they make is that they add a lot of personal views. When you add something, the human mind generally catches those personal opinions more than the important main topic.
She never gives her own impressions when she is teaching. If you ask her something personally, she may very reluctantly, very privately tell you this is what I think on this matter. But while teaching, she clearly says, “This is from the books – I am only passing it on.”
UM: I am not qualified to give opinions. Some people want things in black and white. When you tell them, “There is no text clarifying this and the scholars have different views about it,” they insist, “But which one is right?” We have to keep explaining that for these secondary issues every reputable scholar has evidences upon which he bases his opinion … we can’t add anything to that.
Jazaakumullahu khairan Sister Umm Muhammad and Sister Amena Tanveer. I wish I could attend your classes too. Baarak Allahu feekum. Readers can download some of her books here.