Arab News LogoArab News was invited to visit the stall since the bookstore’s owner was there this month as a volunteer. Self-assured niqab-clad American women — one of whom happens to be the owner of the publishing house and bookstore, Dar Abul-Qasim (DAQ) in Jeddah, warmly welcome all. Also, the books placed there are exclusively Islamic of various levels and in various languages.

As we sat and conversed on different issues, achievements and struggles, we were regularly interrupted by a crowd inquiring for Islamic books (which they wanted to gift to their non-Muslim acquaintances), self-help books, The Holy Qur’an with translation and tafseer, children’s books and Islamic prayers. Books were very reasonably priced and started from SR2 onward. Plus, they even have audio and videocassettes, CDs and praying mats.

DAQ has an interesting history of highs and lows. It is currently owned by a converted American Muslim, Amatullah Bantley, who is also the director of Saheeh International (SI), which has a team of editors and writers including Mary Kennedy and Umm Muhammad. Umm Muhammad, however, was not present at the time of the interview.

Earlier, DAQ was owned by Saudi Soliman Gasim and established in the early 1980s. Gasim’s declining health compelled him to shut the publishing house in 2005. The closure was upsetting for 44-year-old American-Saudi Bantley who had previously spent 16 years in the production of books for Gasim.

She was determined to reopen it, as she wanted to keep the precious books alive in the market. Unfortunately, she had meager resources and had to take loans from friends. At last, in June 2007, she reopened DAQ.

“I accidentally became involved in book production with DAQ,” recalled Bantley. “A widowed friend of mine who was in her iddah (the four months and 10-day waiting period Muslim women spend after their husband ‘s death) asked me to take her husband’s book to DAQ for printing. Out of curiosity, I asked if I could read it and found it was very much a literal translation from Arabic. So, I suggested some editing prior to publishing, which she accepted. Gasim also agreed, but said we must also retype the book with the changes we suggested. When he saw the final product, he asked us to continue in book production, and that’s how SI began, as well as my journey with DAQ.”

That did not come without any struggles, however. “I did not have a computer and knowledge of how to use one. A friend came to the rescue and helped me learn the basics. Mary, who did a major in English, helped me in language and grammatical rules. And, we relied on Umm Muhammad, who is fluent in Arabic, to verify that the information was correct,” she added.

Of their many achievements, SI is perhaps the first women group to have translated the Holy Qur’an. “Umm Muhammad, who is also a convert, was our teacher in a local Islamic center for foreigners. She could beautifully explain and translate Arabic into English, so we all encouraged her to translate the Qur’an. Her translation has been said to be the nearest and the most acceptable translation of Qur’an and is recommended by many well-known scholars,” she asserted.

Umm Muhammad has written and edited around 70 books. She wrote both under the name of Umm Muhammad and SI. Having asked about their Islamic educational backgrounds, Bantley responded:

“Although none of us have doctorate degrees in Islam, we are translating or referring to the works of renowned and trustworthy scholars. In the early days of Islam there was no Ph.Ds, but people studied under their teachers who often traveled to different parts of the Islamic world to gain knowledge. Thus, we are not offering our own opinions or rulings, but rather relying on the sound works by reliable scholars. Kennedy who hails from Florida, US, is also a member of SI. She embraced Islam after reading Islamic books presented to her by a Saudi university fellow who later married her. She was raised as a Christian and attended Christian schools, but she always remained doubtful on certain things,” she said.

“There were many things that never clicked with me so I kept on asking myself and others, but they would answer to just follow and don’t ask. I remained confused, but later when I read Islamic books, things started getting clearer,” said Kennedy.

Her conversion to Islam wasn’t a trauma for her family as her brother had already converted to Islam before her. “Initially, they got shocked and thought I was brainwashed, but my brother’s conversion made my way easier. It wasn’t a trauma to see anyone taking up another route for them. They got calmed with time when they saw me serious about Islam and settling down well with Islamic rules and a Muslim family,” added Kennedy.

Quite the opposite was Bantley’s case who was an atheist earlier. At the age of 16, she abandoned her previous faith: Catholicism. “I used to get very disheartened about the problems of the world: poverty, misery, wars and lawlessness. I used to think that if there was no God, these things wouldn’t exist, but now I understand they are a test from God for humanity. But, deep down in my heart, I felt there was a bigger power running the universe, maybe mother nature,” she lamented.

“I had many Muslim school fellows as an example to me who were not practicing Muslims, but had great manners which used to attract me. Slowly and steadily that used to inspire me. I had a gut feeling that there was some truth behind their religion and I was then convinced to embrace Islam. My family was initially worried, as for them, I was the first one in the family to convert to Islam, but things settled with time. They had seen me live a crazy life earlier and could see positive changes in me so they somehow accepted me as a Muslim. Later, I moved to Saudi and married my Saudi husband,” she said.

When asked how the publishing house and bookstore is running, Bantley replied that the store is making ends meet. But, she puts her trust in Allah that things will pick up and Allah’s time is the best. “We publish Islamic books from many authors. Most appreciate the fact that they have us available as editors to improve the text,” said Kennedy.

Currently DAQ has English, Bangla, Tagalog (Filipino), French, Italian, Chinese, Tamil, Bahasa and books in other languages. It also has Islamic books from other publishers. The foreign language books we currently carry are either from former owner’s times or from other publishers whom we trust,” she said.