1. In The Beginning…
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
— Sir Winston Churchill (British statesman)
The challenge I see in writing these words is the challenge I imagine would be staring the boy in his face, the one who has stumbled into the candy-store of his dreams: Where to begin?
The wonders I’ve witnessed while along this ride—and the journey continues—engaged in the task of translating into English the monumental, two-volume biography in the Urdu language, is one that has opened vistas I simply couldn’t have imagined when I was signing up for this task, vistas that can’t even be captured by words. Put another way, I speak of the ineffable.
I say so because my aunt, Safia Saeed, has in recent history given us the monumental gift and joy that is the once-in-a-lifetime treasure, the elegantly published, two-volume set that makes up Doctor Saeed Ahmad’s biography, and the beginnings of whose English translation have begun appearing on this website.
So come along with me for a short ride. I’ll take you behind-the-scenes and share glimpses of this translation endeavor. (Think of Doctor Saeed Ahmad’s inaugural autograph above from my boyhood autograph book as a taste of things to come in this Afterword.)
In the end, I’ll share why I am purposely making my musings—the Afterword that you are reading—as the literal bookend of this splendid biography, the honor and privilege of whose translation has fallen to my lot.
Meanwhile, speaking of beginnings, where to begin?
Let’s begin at the beginning, and take you back to how I signed up for this work.
2. Signing Up For The Task
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German philosopher)
When I signed up for this work of translating the splendid biography of Doctor Saeed Ahmad, I scarcely had a clue about what I was signing up for. It has, in a very real way, changed my life; it continues to change my life.
Speaking of beginnings as we were a minute ago—and one has to begin somewhere—let’s take you to the setting for when the thought of doing this translation first registered itself in my mind. My sister Naseera Ahmed had mentioned that our aunt, Safia Saeed, was looking for someone to translate the biography from Urdu to English, and that she herself was altogether consumed by some other translation work which would keep her occupied for the foreseeable future. And therein was planted in my mind the seed of an idea.
But I wondered who that translator would be, little knowing that some instinct unbeknownst to me would compel me to sign up for that work. And so it was, a week or two after mulling over the idea in my subconscious—scarcely on the periphery of my imagination—that I called up my aunt, Safia Saeed, and demurely asked if she would permit me to do the work of translation. Her gracious and warm reception—that conversation of ours is etched in my memory for all time to come—set the tone for everything that has followed, for everything that is following.
And that’s how I signed up for this task.
3. The Human Crucible, Or, Back In The Day…
Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. …Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working.
— Virginia Woolf (British writer)
Back in the day—taking you on a stroll down memory lane—the human crucible was being prepared, or assayed if you will, with what was to follow. Put another way, here’s a bit on my background, skills-wise, which I feel is an order so you know what you’re getting with me as your translator.
So I translated one of the three volumes of Hazrat Mirza Sahib’s biography, titled The Great Reformer, over the span of 10-plus years. Just to remind you, Hazrat Mirza Sahib was of course the founder of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, a charitable organization which presents Islam as peaceful, tolerant, rational, and inspiring. He was—as his name “Ghulam Ahmad” literally signifies—in the most profound sense of that name an inveterate and most excellent servant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. He (i.e. Hazrat Mirza Sahib) was also the Promised Messiah and Mahdi whose advent had been foretold by Hadith.
And that’s where I started, translations-wise, with my roots in the translation of Hazrat Mirza Sahib’s biography. Coming to the translation of this biography, that of Hazrat Mirza Sahib’s “ghulamzaada“—the son of the slave of the great reformer himself, of the “ghulaam” of the Holy Prophet Muhammad—dare I say that the virtuous circle is now completing?
Look, I’m an engineer by training, a computer scientist by profession, and an essayist at heart. My essays can be found online, as can be my published books. But you see, or at least the way I see it, the silos between the areas of human learning and knowledge are entirely arbitrary. Put another way—so that you may know the better what you get with me as your translator—this personal statement is not intended to bore you to tears but merely to put all my cards on the table.
Enough of me.
Moving on to the essence—the subject of this biography, Doctor Saeed Ahmad—I trust that you’ll be regaled and rewarded in personal growth by digging into the pages of the biography proper, whose bookend you’re now reading. But to show you a glimpse into how I recall Doctor Saeed Ahmad to this day, I invite you to linger over the photo I took back in the day, as a schoolboy growing up in the city of Lahore.
And that hitherto unpublished photo is coming right up.
4. A Light By Which He Walked Among The People…
As moonlight shines back at the sun, he heard the call to come home, and went. When light returns to its source, it takes nothing of what it has illuminated. — Jelaluddin Rumi (in the translation by Coleman Barks entitled The Essential Rumi — Published by HarperOne)
So there I was, circa 1984, seated on the floor of the mosque alongside fellow Ahmadi Muslims on the occasion of the Annual Jalsa (aka “Annual Convention”) in the cold month of December, our hearts soaking warmth from the heartfelt message being delivered by Doctor Saeed Ahmad. That atmosphere—and I can merely try to describe it, of an enthralled audience, decades ago—sitting on the floor along with fellow Ahmadi Muslims when I took this photo with my cheap, instant 35 mm camera. To educate the younger readers, those of you born and raised in the digital age, I speak here of yesteryears’ cameras, of the kind in which you inserted a film cartridge, took your photos, and which, the film cartridge that is, you then took to a photo shop, dropped it off, and came back a few days to pick up the developed photos.
So yes, if you linger over only one picture in this Afterword, I invite you to make it this one, with the fluorescent tube shaped into a ring, the banner emblazoned with the following words—taken from the sublime verses of rhyme from the Promised Messiah—and, of course, the rapt audience taking it all in, an altogether ineffable admixture of the corporeal and of the otherworldly, the spiritual:
Come, people, for here you will find the Light of God
The light, ah, the light that we saw when he was around, when he walked amongst us. Gone are those day, but the memories stay with us, indelibly.
Ah yes, and he surely invited others to that realm, with a gleaming light in his hand:
أَوَمَن كَانَ مَيْتًۭا فَأَحْيَيْنَـٰهُ وَجَعَلْنَا لَهُۥ نُورًۭا يَمْشِى بِهِۦ فِى ٱلنَّاسِ كَمَن مَّثَلُهُۥ فِى ٱلظُّلُمَـٰتِ لَيْسَ بِخَارِجٍۢ مِّنْهَا ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ زُيِّنَ لِلْكَـٰفِرِينَ مَا كَانُوا۟ يَعْمَلُونَ
Is he who was dead, then We raised him to life and made for him a light by which he walks among the people, like him whose likeness is that of one in darkness whence he cannot come forth?
— The Holy Quran (Al-An’am—The Cattle—6:122)
I loved him immensely. Actually, my use of the past tense there was wholly inaccurate: What kind of a friendship is that one, after all, which ends when this worldly life draws to an end? And thinking here to a remark by Maulana Muhammad Ali about his friendship with his father-in-law—Doctor Basharat Ahmad, the author of the monumental, three-volume biography of Hazrat Mirza Sahib, titled The Great Reformer—after he had passed away.
And yes, Doctor Saeed Ahmad loved me back immensely, much as he loved all of his family members and, indeed, as he loved the universe which had the good fortune, in turn, to be attuned to him.
While physical relationship by itself naturally doesn’t confer any merit on me, I wish to state for the historical record that I am Doctor Saeed Ahmad’s grandson, son of his daughter Khadija Begum.
So the question will naturally arise: How objective can I remain when I speak of someone intensely personal, that being Doctor Saeed Ahmad? Or, whither objectivity? Let’s just say that of him I can say again, without any hesitation whatsoever, that he lived in this world but he was not of it.
Relying now on my innumerable interactions with him—and trying to remain as objective as is humanly possible—I am compelled to say that while he lived in this world, he was not of it. With every breath that he took, his mind and his heart remained exquisitely attuned to His Creator and to the spiritual realm.
And inviting others to the spiritual realm he surely did, throughout his blessed life, with a gleaming light in his hand, with love for the poetry of the Promised Messiah in his heart, and with the missionary zeal which imbued—nay, permeated—his very existence. All that was evident in his speeches, in his writings, and indeed in his unimpeachable life.
5. The Heart Of It All…
We learn about God by sitting in the presence of those who know God.
— Soren Kierkegaard (Swedish philosopher)
Pictured above is an especially precious possession of mine: a copy of the Holy Quran which Doctor Saeed Ahmad used to keep with him. You’ll note, too, some references to various Quranic verses which he had jotted down on the inner flap of the Holy Quran in his elegant handwriting.
And here’s the story of the lovely bookmark which appears in that picture: As I tried to take a photo—with Doctor Saeed Ahmad’s personal copy of the Holy Quran opened to its inner flap—the cover would shut close under its own weight. What to do? Being the engineer that I am, I quickly did some weight induction studies and hit on the brilliant idea: Use the most delicate weight—namely, a suitable bookmark at hand—to weigh down, and thereby keep open, the cover of the Holy Quran.
And this is no ordinary bookmark. You see, it’s a gift from my niece, Ayesha Khan, a medical doctor who travels around the world on humanitarian missions, to its most underprivileged regions, and where she works closely with the people on the ground—healthcare professionals and those who they seek to heal—to help set them on their own feet in a sustainable way.
So yes, Ayesha brought this lovely bookmark back with her for me from one such humanitarian mission, that one being to the Far East, specifically to Cambodia. You’ll note that it features Angkor Wat, a temple complex of monumental proportions.
Speaking of humanity—and turning a bit now to our very humanness—let’s get to the heart of it all: Why do people read biographies in the first place? And here I invite us to look past the gossipy kind of biographies—think celebrities whose fortunes rise and fall like the ebb and tide of the ocean—to the ones of lofty individuals whose lives one wishes to emulate, lives one hopes to glean lessons from and thereby transcend the worldly wise, aiming to mold oneself in the cast of those who had, through their character and personal actions, risen above the fray of the world to show how one can live a life of meaning, purpose, and service to humanity.
With that, I also invite you to hold on to the thought that beginning have—or at least they should have—ends.
6. How Will I Know When It’s Done?
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Let’s ask my cat—pictured above in his usual doldrum ways—what he thinks of style and writing and such. Deep thinker that he is, an answer out of him we just might not get; not anytime soon, anyway. So let’s try me: My relationship with words—and with languages in generals—runs rather deep. Think symbiosis.
But first, how will I know when it’s done? How will we know when the translation is complete so you may read it in its entirety? Do we take inspiration from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ethereal words above? Wait. Let’s hold our horses, shall we, because we’ve really only begun this (translation) work in earnest in recent memory. So we’ve got a long way to go. Insha’Allah we’ll get there before you—and I—know it.
And afterwords such as this one, after all, are really all about looking back, retrospectively; the catch is that we’re turning this idea on its head, looking ahead prospectively. One day, though, Insha’Allah, the circle will be complete.
Meanwhile, having broached—and I can only wonder if one day I will come to question this—my relationship with words, with writing style, and with languages in general, in all their varieties, allow me to share with you where I’m coming from.
On style and such, I’ve written a monograph or two—well, five to be precise, thus once, twice, thrice, and actually coming back for a fourth time and finally a fifth time—on what I’ve learned over the past decade or so on writing and such.
And on the varieties of the translation experience itself, there is much to say. But having mused elsewhere on exactly that—translation as a “mapping process”—allow me to simply share with you those coordinates.
The challenges here: What do you include? What not to include? And so on.
Meanwhile, I trust that those musings will serve as a good first-order approximation of one person’s conceptualization—my current thinking, that is—of going about the translation process.
7. From Debgaran, A Ring Of Water-Smoothed Stones
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
– John Keats (from Endymion)
Pictured above—an oh-so-tasteful bookmark encircled by a ring of stones—are no ordinary stones: They were picked by hand from the River Siran which runs its course, meandering near the village of Debgaran, the ancestral homeland and ancient village which happens to be the birthplace of Doctor Saeed Ahmad.
The bookmark bears the following message:
Hayat-e-Saeed is being presented with this hope and prayer that may Allah grant us the good fortune of treading in the pious ways of our spiritual elders. Amen, and amen again.
On reading those words, my mind reflexively turned to the following words, words from an especially timeless message delivered by one of our glorious spiritual elders, Maulana Muhammad Ali, when he had advised the youth in his uniquely soulful way how
I will again say to my young friends and say it again and again: keep alive the traditions of your community. Adhere to the Islamic code of morals and behavior, read the Quran, listen to it, ponder over it and act upon it. Make it your mark of identity that you respect the commandments of Islam. address to young people The day will come, for each and every one of your elders, when you will bury their bodies in the ground with your own hands, and your descendants will do the same to your bodies. My young friends, I stress upon you with the greatest emphasis and advise you not to bury your traditions along with the bodies of your elders. Keep them alive and take them forward lest people say that this community is dying away.”
— Paigham Sulh, November 30, 1938
(The passage above is taken from a translation of the biography titled A Mighty Striving: Life and work of Maulana Muhammad Ali—the renowned author, scholar and missionary of Islam—the biography being the work of Muhammad Ahmad with co-author Mumtaz Ahmad Faruqui, and having been translated from Urdu by Mrs. Akhtar Jabeen Aziz, revised and edited by Dr. Zahid Aziz.
This undertaking—rendering the English translation—is much larger than me alone, and it is my distinct honor to share details about my dedicated group of reviewers whose feedback is bringing accuracy, clarity, and other vital improvements. They are, in alphabetical order, as follows: Ms. Aaminah Saeed, Doctor Abdul Karim Saeed, Brigadier (Retired) Muhammad Saeed, and—the biographer herself—Ms. Safia Saeed.
Their proofreading and invaluable suggestions continue to improve the translation of Hayat-e-Saeed immensely, which otherwise would’ve been riddled with errors and such. All errors that do remain will, of course, be mine.
I simply couldn’t end without making heartfelt, grateful mention of my parents—my late father Mansur Ahmad and my mother Khadija Begum—whose care and countless sacrifices have made all the difference in my life. My love for you both is eternal.
In the end, let’s finish with a bookend.
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
— J.R.R. Tolkien (in The Fellowship of the Rings)
Pictured above—a photo I snapped during a car-ride during a fairly recent trip to Canada—is a glimpse of the picturesque Calgary landscape. And tying this to an observation in the Foreword by Biographer, and how the biographer, Safia Saeed, had begun this work—whose English translation it is my privilege to bring to you—in a room on the second story of our Ahmadiyya mosque next to Darus Saeed (Pakistan) and how the writing of the biography was completed in an idyllic locale, one surrounded by snow-capped mountains in Calgary.
So yes, now the circle is complete.
What I have given you is an ending, an end-note, a bookend, of sorts, and as promised, a beginning if you will. So while this book may have drawn to a close, I would like for you to think of this as really a beginning: The beginning of a personal transformation, one that never ends.
Keeping another promise, one I had made up atop in this musing peppered with bookmarks, bookends, and, if you will, book-beginnings: I purposely sought to make my musings—the Afterword that you’re wrapping up at this time—as the literal bookend to be in harmony with my way of thinking that I am the dust at the feet of Doctor Saeed Ahmad. At any rate, it is my fervent hope that I will be raised in the next life as the dust at his feet. So if the Foreword by Biographer be the head of the body that is the biography proper, may this Afterword serve as its feet.
Let us end—and really, let’s look ahead to an inner transformation and beginning—with the message below from Doctor Saeed Ahmad himself, with the words which he had inscribed with a fountain pen in my boyhood autograph book on June 30, 1978.) One more time, and this time with emotion,
We learn about God by sitting in the presence of those who know God.
— Soren Kierkegaard (Swedish philosopher)
O Allah, may You be very well pleased with Doctor Saeed Ahmad. O Allah, may You have Mercy on us, those he left behind to carry on the message of faith. And may our lives be lit with the light of faith, burning bright. Amen.
2 thoughts on “Afterword by Translator”
Excellent.Dear Akram,prayers for a fruitful sojourn in the realm you have stepped into.
May Allah keep you under His Blessings.
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Your encouragement, dear Safia Khala, means the world to me. Ameen to your gracious prayers, and ameen again.