Tribute to Dr. Thomas Ballantyne Irving – A Canadian Muslim
Posted Feb 21, 2006

Tribute to Dr. Thomas Ballantyne Irving – A Canadian Muslim

By Muneeb Nasir

(Presented on February 18, 2006 at the THOMAS B. IRVING MEMORIAL LECTURES organized by the Islamic Institue of Toronto).

This lecture is being done as a memorial for a distinguished son of Canada and of the North American Muslim community.

Thomas Ballantyne Irving was a Muslim, Canadian, a scholar of linguistics, and an author with a distinguished academic record of service.

He was born in 1914 in Preston, Ontario which is now Cambridge. His ancestral roots were Scottish.

He studied Modern Languages and acquired his Bachelors degree from Toronto, and then went onto for his Masters from McGill in Montreal, and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton.

Dr. Irving embraced Islam in the early 1950s in Toronto and took the name Al-Hajj Ta’lim Ali Abu Nasr.

It was Muslim “stubbornness” which led T.B. Irving to Islam.

He recounted how his interest was peaked about Islam in the book “Islam: Our Choice”:

“I remember especially a missionary returned from India stating how the ‘Mohometans’ (Muslims) were so obdurate in adhering to their religion; that was my first encounter with Islam, and it roused an unconscious admiration in me for their steadfastness to their faith and a desire to know more about these ‘wicked’ people.’”

As a scholar, Irving taught and studied at a number of leading universities too numerous to mention but included in Canada, Universities of Guelph and McGill; and in the U.S. Princeton, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee where he was Professor Emeritus in Spanish and Arabic, a position from which he retired in 1980.

Following retirement, Dr. Irving served as the dean of the American Islamic College in Chicago. He was recognized for his service to Islam by the government of Pakistan in 1983 when he was awarded the Star of Excellence.

This professor, writer, translator and activist is best known for his translation of the Quran entitled, “The Quran: First American Version (1985).”

The work is an attempt to make the English meanings of the Quran more readable and accessible especially to Muslim youth in North America.

He wrote in the introduction to his translation: “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.”…..

“This present version is not addressed so much to scholars as to godly minds and especially to those who are growing up speaking English, and thus need a simple, clear text of the historic writ to guide them.”

When his translation was first released it was critiqued, sometimes unduly so, by some Muslims who did not like his use of the title “The First American Version” or his use of the modern language which some felt did not do justice to the Quranic diction or style or to Dr. Irving’s assigning themes to each Quranic Ruku’ (section).

The translation was duly recognized by several Islamic scholars including the late Dr.Ismail al Faruqi who wrote regarding Dr. Irving’s translation: “It makes refreshing reading even after all the other translations have been read.”

Dr. Irving was considered a leading expert on the Arab-Islamic period in Spanish history, especially with his book Falcon of Spain. This was a study of Spain under Muslim rule, with a special emphasis on the Umayyad ruler AbdurRahman I, who Dr. Irving considered a “great statesman”.

As an author, Dr. Irving wrote numerous books on Islam, including Growing Up In Islam; The Quran: Basic Teachings, which he co-authored with Dr. Khurshid Ahmad and Muhammad Manazir Ahsan; Religion and Social Responsibility; Tide of Islam; (and a number of others - Islam Resurgent; Islam in its Essence; Polished Jade; Stories of Kalil and Dimna; The Mayas Own Words), as well as various articles on Central American Literature.

In Spanish, Dr. Irving also wrote a number of books, articles and essays published in various journals.

Although Dr. Irving spent the major portion of his life in America and made a significant contribution to American Islam, his early years were here in Canada where he accepted Islam and where he was active in the early Muslim community.

In 1968 - 69, he served as a director of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto as the organization was in its formative stages and acquiring its first centre at Rhodes Avenue in Toronto.

Dr. Irving endured a long struggle in his later years with Alzheimer’s disease.

He passed away September 24, 2002 and was buried in Mississippi. He was eighty-eight years old.

His passing and final years are a sad reflection on the North American Muslim community.

Few Muslim publications, media or Muslim leaders knew about his death or published anything about his condition while he was sick.

The state of this translator of the Quran can remind us of Yusuf Ali, another Muslim translator of the Quran who passed away on a cold London night about 50 years ago; he was sick and alone. The Muslim community only came to know later about his death.

Abdul Malik Mujahid of Sound Vision Foundation, one of the few Muslim leaders to visit Dr. Irving wrote: “While Dr. Irving did not need monetary or medical help, he would have appreciated hearing from Muslims, especially those who benefited from his work as a writer and scholar.

Although he could not talk and could only eat with the help of a feeding machine, he was conscious. I visited him last year, while he was in a nursing home. Standing next to his bed, I felt each time I said Shahadah (the Islamic declaration of faith), he moved as though he was trying to respond to it.”

Time does not permit a detailed analysis of his contributions but let me conclude with a few points.

Dr. T.B. Irving was ahead of his time and rarely recognized in his day for his work and contributions.

He was an academic with a scholarly bearing who was actively engaged in challenging the premises of the Muslim presence in the West.

He understood the need for grounding Islam in America and Canada as opposed to importing culturally flavored versions of the religion and trying to embed them on this continent.

This is something that only quite recently Western Muslims have understood on a wider scale and they are still grappling with it as we speak.

As a linguist he understood the use of language in cultural development as he said our: “thinking roots have become distinct on a new continent without the familiar use of our holy tongue.”

His translation, as with other translations, provide fresh insights for English speakers: as an example, his translation of the Basmalaah as ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Mercy-Giving’ – gives a new dimension to the understanding of this all important phrase for Muslims.

Dr. Irving was a passionate defender of his arguments and at times obdurate much to the chagrin of the early immigrant leadership in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who were steeped in thinking that sought to sanitize discourse and debate.

What we can learn from his life and how he was received is that academics and visionaries at all levels in our communities need our respect and acknowledgement, even when they have faded away from the public eye – this is very much an Islamic obligation.

We learn, as well, from his life that personal sense of mission.

Lives of personalities like Dr. T.B. Irving, who leave an enduring legacy, provide us this message:

Each one of us should feel that we are here with Allah’s permission and He has placed us here with the mission to: Be someone. Do something. Help someone. Be with Allah.

May Allah forgive Dr. T.B. Irving (Al- Haj Talim Ali Abu Nasr), have mercy on him and grant him Paradise for his contributions to humanity.


Where Is T.B. Irving, Abdul Malik Mujahid

The Expulsion of Muslims From Spain, T. B. Irving

Islam’s Living Miracle: the Qur’an, T. B. Irving

Interview With T. B. Irving, Sheila Musaji

T. B. Irving In Memorium, Abdul Malik Mujahid

T. B. Irving, A Life Well Lived, Ayub Khan


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