TB Irving (Al-Hajj Ta’lim ‘Ali): A life well lived
Prolific writer and translator of the Quran, Dr Thomas Ballantine Irving (Al-Hajj Ta’lim Ali) passed away in the morning of September 24, 2002 in his Mississippi home. He was eighty eight years old and was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in Cambridge,Ontario (Canada) in 1914, Dr.Irving was educated in Toronto,Montreal and Princeton University from where he obtained a Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies. He embraced Islam in 1930’s in Toronto.
In a 1992 interview to Sheila Musaji of The American Muslim, Dr Irving said: “I am an ‘old timer’ because I became a Muslim (never changed, never was anything else, just as the prophet (PBUH) says) in the 1930’s at Toronto. Please don’t call me a ‘convert’ because that implies change and what did I change from? I ‘became’ a Muslim only in the sense that at a point in time I realized that was what I was. I personally feel that I am not a convert and not an ‘indigenous’ as opposed to an immigrant Muslim. I have met very few American Indians who were Muslim. The Blacks often call themselves this, but they are indigenous to Africa (look this word up in a good dictionary). I think what they mean is native-born Muslims. I am a native-born Muslim, except that I come from Canada, and my family was indigenous to Scotland.”
In a distinguished career spanning several decades Dr.Irving had served as an instructor in Spanish at Berkeley; Director of Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogota, Columbia; Assistant Professor at Wells College, Aurora, N.Y.; Instructor at University de San Carlos, Guatemala; Professor of Spanish and Arabic at the University of Minnesota; Fulbright Research Grant recepient, Baghdad, Iraq; Visiting Professor, University of Texas, Austin; Profesor of Foreign Languages, North Central College, Naperville, IL; Professor of Spanish, Guelph University, Ontario, Canada and at University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Professor Emeritus at University of Tennessee; Trustee of the American Islamic College, Chicago.
A dedicated Muslim, he worked tirlessly to promote Islam in the West. He founded Arabic and Islamic studies departments at Universities of Minnesota, Texas at Austin and Tennessee.
In 1985 he published a translation of the holy Quran in American English to make it accessible to a wider audience, especially the youth. In the introduction to his translation he wrote: “There is a necessity,almost an urgency now for an American version in contemporary English. Our Holy Book should be recited on solemn occasions,both public and private,for comfort,morality and guidance. This must begin in childhood in order for it to become familiar, for it is every Muslim’s duty to read the Quran and try to understand it. However, the duty has become a problem for those who no longer know any Arabic. A new generation of English-speaking Muslims has grown up in North America which must use our scripture differently than their fathers would have done. Their thinking roots have become distinct on a new continent without the familiar use of our holy tongue, and a great difference has developed between their customs and their ancestral faith.” (xxi)
The translation was duly recognized by several Islamic scholars including the late Dr.Ismail Raji al Faruqi who wrote regarding Dr.Irving’s translation: “It makes refreshing reading even after all the other translations have been read.”
During the annual convention of Islamic Society of North America some years ago in Chicago I met Dr.Irving for the first time having read his book, Tide of Islam. When asked as to why the latest edition of his translation has been published without the Arabic text he replied that the money donated for it had been stolen by some unscuplous Muslim businessmen. In the interview to The American Muslim, Dr Irving said that his commentary and the Arabic text were not published because Mrs.Irving and he could not afford to print it. They had to pay themselves for the typesetting to the current edition after the money that was donated for this purpose “simply disappeared as Argentine dissidents did.”
Dr Irving’s other books include: Falcon of Spain; Growing Up In Islam; The Quran: Basic Teachings; which he co-authored with Dr. Khurshid Ahmad and Muhammad Manazir Ahsan; Had You Been Born a Muslim; Religion and Social Responsibility; Tide of Islam; Islam Resurgent; Islam in its Essence; Polished Jade; Stories of Kalila and Dimna and The Mayas Own Words.
In 1983 he was awarded the prestigious Sitara-e-Imtiaz by President Zia ul Haq of Pakistan for his service to Islam.
He had been living in relative obscurity for some years now. Muslim activist Dr.Abdul Malik Mujahid had visited him last year and was the only one keeping others informed about his condition. Dr.Irving’s son,Nicholas, moved from Guatemala to take care of his ailing father. During his visit Dr.Mujahid recited the Shahadah,standing next to his bed, and he reportedly moved as though he was trying to respond to it.
During the 1992 interview with The American Muslim Dr Irving was asked if he had any regrets after so many years of service to the Muslim community in America. He responded: “In July I was 77 years old and have given almost sixty years of service to Islam in North America and elsewhere. At my age and after the contributions which I have made, I would like to receive a little respect as a scholar with a PhD acquired over fifty years ago (1940) in one of the only two centers (Princeton) where training could be secured in Near Eastern studies, as they called it in those days (the other place was Chicago). I would also like for some ‘Muslim’ businessmen to ‘fess up’ as to what happened to the money they raised abroad to publish my translation. There are stories to tell!”
¯ Ayub Khan