Bob Keeler, Newsday

February 23, 2021

The rhythms of writing came early to Aneela Khalid Arshed, before her arranged marriage, before she and her husband left Pakistan for the United States, and long before she conquered her fears about the perils of being a modem Muslim woman who dares to write a book about the Qur’an. At home in Pakistan, she and her parents and five sisters spoke primarily in Urdu and  Punjabi, and she knew enough Arabic to read the sacred text of Islam, the Qur’an. At the convent of Jesus and Mary in Lahore, however, the Irish nuns had a strict rule: only one class was in Urdu. All the others were in English. So she learned English early and wrote English-language poetry as a girl. ‘It started with my mother, and then it went to nature, and then I used to write articles for the school magazine,’ said Arshed, 44, in an interview at her home in Oyster Bay Cove. ‘Then, when I went to my graduate school, I did my master’s in English, and when I was there, I used to write articles for the college magazine.’ She grew up in a large, close-knit family, with solid economic security, marrying Khaleeq Arshed, who was just graduating from medical school in Pakistan, on his way to a career as a pulmonologist. ‘It was a very arranged affair,’ she said. The marriage turned out well, and she remains thankful for her husband. But 22 years ago, early in their marriage, they left Pakistan and came to the United States so he could continue his medical training at Metropolitan Hospital. ‘I, to tell you the truth, did not want to come here,’ she said. In Pakistan, she had a large, supportive extended family. Here, she had no one except her husband and, later, her children Sabrina, now 18, and Daniel, nearly 16. ‘Suddenly,’ she said, ‘I was thrown into this culture, which is so different than my own, and I felt lost.’ Beyond her own loneliness, Arshed has felt powerfully the sadness of others, among them a hungry young girl in Lahore, and Indian and Pakistani women arriving here, bound in difficult marriages, not knowing where to turn to for help. The sum of these sadnesses eventually added up to a quest for the purpose of life, even though she had never been particularly religious. She grew up a modern Muslim woman, declining to wear the hejab, the obligatory scarf for women, but still saying her prayers five times a day. ‘I tell everyone that, when I die, I want to be remembered as a good person, not a religious person,’ Arshed said. ‘I was born a Muslim. I’ll die a Muslim. But I believe in every religion.’ About six years ago, she began to search more deeply into her own faith, reading the Quran in English, Arabic and Urdu, and highlighting helpful passages. Eventually, her husband suggested that she buy a book of Qur’anic verses, one for each day. ‘So I looked for a daybook,’ she recalled. ‘There wasn’t any.’ Her husband suggested that she compile her own. At about the same time, she was working on a novel about ancient Egypt. ‘I don’t know if it was God’s will, or whether it was meant to be. I just hit a stone wall with the novel,’ Arshed said. ‘I decided at that point, Well, you know what, I might as well start compiling a book.”‘ By then, she had identified 700 verses, and she began trimming them down, to provide one a day. ‘I tried to stay away from the apocalyptic verses,’ she said. ‘I tried to concentrate more on the softer verses . .  . I found a lot of solace, and I wanted the reader to feel the same solace as I had.’ She supplemented the verses with sayings of the Muslim mystics, and selections from the hadith, stories about Muhammad and his companions. For the Qur’an verses, she took an English translation by Marmaduke Pickthall and gently modernized its dated language. ‘Since I did not want to play with the text or play with the words, for the fear of retribution, I was very careful,’ Arshed said. Finally, she sent her manuscript to six publishers. ‘I was bracing myself for rejections,’ Arshed said. But about 10 days later, she received a letter of acceptance from the Crossroad Publishing Company, a religious publisher with Catholic roots, which had been seeking a book of Qur’an verses. ‘We found out that there was none available,’ said Gwendolin Herder, chief executive and publisher. ‘There are a lot of Bible day-by-day readers. As far as we knew, there was no reader from the Quran.’ As Arshed worked with Crossroad to make the selections more rounded and to develop a better modern translation, she became increasingly fearful that some Muslim clerics might object to a modern Muslim woman tinkering with the Qur’an. ‘I was petrified,’ she said. ‘Anyone can just get up and say, “And what gives you the authority?”‘ In the end, the book was published in 1999 as The Bounty of Allah, (398 pages, retail price $19.95) and the clerics she consulted had no objections. ‘It’s going well,’ Herder said. ‘It did very well at the beginning, and it’s selling since.’ This may be the first book on the Qur’an by a Muslim woman on Long Island, said Sanaa Nadim, the Muslim chaplain at the State University at Stony Brook, who advised Arshed on the book and is working on her own book on human spirituality from a Muslim perspective. Arshed is now working on a novel about the life and times of the Buddha, and she may someday return to her novel about Egypt. For now, she is thankful that her book of Qur’an verses has worked out, despite her fears and the negative vibrations she felt from some of her friends. ‘I guess it was just meant to be,’ she said. ‘I don’t know.'”

We would love for you to receive our newsletter and update emails. Please subscribe here.