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Altaf Gauhar’s translations from the Quran

Altaf Gauhar’s translations from the Quran

My grandfather was a striking man, always immaculately dressed. But his nails were always cut painfully short. Sometimes I would see him clenching his teeth when he was using his hands as he had pared his nails down too much. I asked him why he would always cut them so short. He explained to me that when he was in jail he was never allowed to cut his nails. He did not speak often about his incarceration in a Karachi prison for over one and a half years and the horrors he endured because of his editorials inDAWN.
During this time, he had access to nothing expect a copy of the Quran, which he acquired with great difficulty when a jail warden showed some leniency. It was during his imprisonment that he began his Translations of the Quran, examining particular themes and their significance. His engagement with the Divine text is soul stirring because the Quran became a sanctuary, a retreat, a reprieve and a source of strength when he was at his lowest ebb.
It is this unique approach that makes his translations so special and deeply personal because at a time when the Book held a greater meaning for him. A chapter entitled In Moments of Distress examines a verse that is addressed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (May God’s Blessings and Peace be upon him) when he was being persecuted by the Meccans and forced to flee. He and his followers were subjected to terrible hardships and dangers. At this time, Surah Anaam (The Cattle) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in which God gives him hope and support. From this lyrical Surah, which my grandfather describes as flowing “serenely like a river”, one can derive great hope and strength as it tells us not to be overwhelmed when confronted by life’s storms and reminds us about the fleeting nature of life itself:

“Life is but a transient pleasure.
The hereafter is a better abode for the righteous.
Do you not understand this?
We know you are grieved by what they say.” 
It puts things in perspective, reminding us about the larger scheme of life which one can often lose sight of when caught up with problems and burdens. Elaborating on the Quran’s constant reminder about the evanescence of life, he writes:

“This does not mean that life is not a serious business and is only a diversion. It is in relation to the true and abiding state in the Hereafter that life in this world is described as a temporary phase of pleasure. It is a kind of play in which man starts treating the act as the reality. Just as a person playing the role of a king in a play might start imagining himself as a real king. He mounts the throne, sports a crown, and sees that whatever he commands is obeyed. For a moment he forgets that the director might depose him, dispatch him to a dungeon, even have him executed.”

It was through this period of deep suffering that he gained new insights and touched deeper truths within the Quran. Perhaps this is why he had no bitterness or resentment, just serenity and optimism. Perhaps he derived a deeper understanding of life from the Quran, he understood the need to make the most of every moment, rather than look back at the past with either with a sense of victory or regret.
During his confinement he encountered other prisoners of conscience like himself, even hardened criminals and many others who were losing hope after years of languishing in prison. He saw people at their worst, stripped of all dignity. Though he rarely spoke of his ordeal, he did briefly mention a time when he was made to live in inhuman conditions without access to basic amenities. His annotated copy of the Quran bears testimony to his attempts at keeping track of the days as he diligently records each passing day for a while until he loses concept of time, having been kept in darkness continuously. It was in this vortex of timeless darkness that he gained inspiration and strength from the Quran.
Since he was detained on a wholly specious pretext (as editor of the DAWN newspaper he had written an article which angered the government of the day and was consequently imprisoned on false charges), perhaps he was preoccupied with the injustice of life: that the guilty often evade justice while the innocent are routinely condemned. This is an issue that remains compelling to this day as miscarriages of justice continue. Life is replete with examples:  the detention of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has endured house arrest under a repressive military regime, the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, the Guilford Four who spent 15 years in jail after being wrongfully convicted of IRA bomb attacks and countless others, including in Pakistan.

Perhaps his incarceration prompted him to search to for answers regarding justice. For example, he considers the situation where a person who has committed a wrong has evaded justice:

“What happens if a wrong is never discovered or brought to a court of law for determination? Does it cease to exist? Is the person who committed it not responsible for it? Does he have no problem or conflict within himself? Is he the same man that he was before he committed the wrong?”

Though the wrong may have gone undetected, he writes about the unyielding mental anguish that people have to bear in private as their past continues to taunt and tyrannize them with increasing force:
“No court of law may be seized of the matter and no one may know about it. But he knows what he has done and within him a seizure has occurred. He will hide it. He will wince involuntarily and feel exposed whenever the wrong is mentioned even without reference to him. He will try to forget it and may even remove himself from the scene but it will keep gnawing at his heart. Going over it again and again, explaining and rationalising it, he will only exhaust himself without solace.”
After his release, which involved lengthy and grueling court cases that my grandmother had brought against the government, the Quran continued to play a fundamental role throughout his life. In fact, he was able to successfully overhaul his life by speaking out and writing for the downtrodden, establishing himself as an articulate voice for the poor and the marginalised. Through his various publications and articles, he wrote prolifically on people across the world who were denied justice.
Shortly before his death, he translated Surah Baqara, the longest chapter of the Quran. At one point, he fell gravely ill – the doctors had even lost hope. Though he could barely speak, he would whisper that he had yet to complete the translations of Surah Baqara. He managed to make a miraculous recovery and lived for another two years in which time he successfully completed the translation of this Surah and recorded it in a series of lectures for Pakistan Television. Though battling the final stages of cancer, it was almost as if he had to continue living just to see this project completed.

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