Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Qur'an is not a puppet-master

"The possibilities in Arabic for the use of figurative language are endless; its allusiveness, tropes and figures of speech place it far beyond the reach of any other language... Arabic loses on translation but all other languages gain on being translated into Arabic."

-- Joel Carmichael, The Shaping of the Arabs (1967)

Arabic is a tremendously complex language, which means that the Qur'an is a subtle text. Those who translate the text into English and those who interpret the text literally are in essence committing the same sin of truncation - they are taking something three-dimensional and reducing it to two. That missing dimension is the cultural and symbolic context which the writer in Arabic embeds his words - a rich layer of meaning that is inferred rather than simply transcribed.

The specific way in which this occurs is difficult to explain. Blogger H.D. Miller described it thus:

individual Arabic words are formed from simple three letter roots. To these simple roots suffixes, prefixes, and infixes are added, and vowels are changed to produce a large number of individual words which have, either actually or metaphorically, meanings somehow related to the idea behind the simple root. For example, the Arabic root k-t-b is expressed as a verbal infinitive as kataba, meaning "to write". From that basic root we can then get the words kitab "book", kAtib "writer", maktUb "written" (with a metaphorical meaning of "predestined"), maktab "office", maktaba "library", makAtaba "correspondence", kutubi "bookseller", kuttAb "elementary school", istiktAb "dictation", makAtib "correspondent" or "reporter", muktatib "subscriber", and about a hundred more variations all produced from that original three letter root.

All of the words springing from the triliteral root k-t-b have that similar three letter sound to bind them together, which means that each of the words shaped from the root, when spoken, are capable of evoking any of the other words shaped from that same root. To this, an extra layer of complexity and evocativeness is added by the fact that many of the Arabic consonants sound remarkably similar, so that there are two h's, one "hard" and one "soft", two s's, two t's and so on. This means that when you say k-t-b you're also evoking q-t-b "hunch" as in "hunchback", q-T-b (with the "hard" T ) which gives the root meaning of "to gather or collect", and about a dozen other groups of words. To the native speaker all of these various meanings resonate at either the conscious or unconscious level. This is what I mean when I speak of evocative and allusive, this feature of Arabic which links together hundreds of words, many of them with very different meanings.

This is why any theological interpretation of the Qur'an that starts from an English translation as its source text is immediately invalid. English translations exist, of course, and are not in themselves harmful. In fact they are valuable in providing the baseline meaning from which one can proceed with tafsir (interpretation). However if you begin and end your scholarship of the Qur'an with the translation alone, then you are not talking about Islam. You are talking about a reflection of Islam as seen from the translator's eyes, filtered through your own biases.

For example, three well-known translations are by M.H. Shakir, Abdullah Yusufali, and Marmaduke Pickthall. Consider the differences in their translations for Qur'an 3:23:


YUSUFALI: Hast thou not turned Thy vision to those who have been given a portion of the Book? They are invited to the Book of Allah, to settle their dispute, but a party of them Turn back and decline (The arbitration).

PICKTHAL: Hast thou not seen how those who have received a portion of the Scripture invoke the Scripture of Allah (in their disputes) that it may judge between them; then a faction of them turn away, being opposed (to it)?

SHAKIR: Have you not considered those (Jews) who are given a portion of the Book? They are invited to the Book of Allah that it might decide between them, then a part of them turn back and they withdraw.

Immediately we see that Yusufali interprets this as a faction that has declined arbitration via the Qur'an, whereas Pickthal sees the rejection as outright opposition to the Qur'an. Meanwhile Shakir interprets the passage as applying specifically to Jews, even though in the actual Arabic there is no specific mention of Jews aka "Yahudi" or the tribe of Banu Israel therein. Each of these writers carries baggage with them and that shapes how they interpret the passage. By cementing the passage into english, the meaning is rendered static. All the allusiveness that Miller described is irrecovably lost.

This is not to say that muslims don't adopt such strict interpretations as valid. The problem here is that most muslims simply don't have time or knowledge to go through the Qur'an line by line and translate the text. This creates an opening for those with agenda to define the faith and wrap their own biases in Qur'anic legitimacy.

While I certainly believe that there is a "correct" interpretation of the Qur'an, the fact remains that Islam is a living religion. But he who interprets the Qur'an in the worst possible light is no more representative of Islam than he who interprets it in the best. Since we have empirical evidence that one billion muslims worldwide have not risen up in slaughter against their non-muslim neighbors, and that the actual number of muslims who interpret the Qur'an to justify violence is a tiny percentage of the total number of believers, there's nothing innate about Islam or the verses of the Qur'an that leads to such behaviors. Anyone who asserts, for example, that verse X:YY of the Qur'an permits muslims to lie to unbelievers (taqqiya), for example, is making a factually untrue statement. The correct statement would be that such a verse has been used to justify lying to non-believers, but until such time as someone proves that a significant fraction of muslims habitually lie in such fashion, it's merely an anecdote, not an observation with any kind of predictive power.

The average muslim does not walk under a cloud of Qur'an ayats burned into his brain, dictating their every move. Muslims interact with others based on the same types of prejudices, experiences, good and bad knowledge that everyone else carries. The Qur'an is a generalized influence, but not the sole one and ccertainly not a specific one. While I certainly wish I could carry the entirety of the Qur'an in my brain and have relevant ayats appear in memory as life proceeds apace, it's simply not possible. Rather, I recite the Qur'an in Arabic as a duty and base my relationships with my community on the sermons and teachings of my authorities and role models. And sometimes quote it on blogs in responses to someone (usually non-muslim) telling me what Islam really is.


  1. Hope you'll continue to post items like this one, despite the "changes afoot."

    Godless, I think you might get something out of "The Years of Rice and Salt" sometime.

    Meanwhile, even assuming you could be proven to be correct about relative levels of violence in Christian and Muslim history, that history is interwoven with so much else -- colonialism, great power politics, economic history -- that it would be pointless to assign "blame" to the two religious traditions, I think. Someday, we'll need to get along with eachother; Islam will not be gone then. Better to accept that and not insist on the unproveable assertions that Islam, (or Judaism, or Christianity) are inherently more dangerous beliefs than any other.

    Perhaps not what Aziz is saying or would say, just my 2 cents.

  2. Aziz: Your general point is well taken, but I think you underestimate English's capacity for allusiveness and ambiguity. Someone who has to do violence to the original Arabic in order to caricature Islam also has to over-interpret and misrepresent English translations of Arabic. And the potential for skewing of translation isn't limited to Arabic, it's a general problem of language.

    "godless": Compare South Asian Hindus in India (generally wimpy pushovers) with Muslims in Pakistan (bellicose aggressors and exporters of jihad), for example. Or Lebanese Christians and Muslims.

    People really announce their ignorance and superficiality with stuff like this. Only someone who has read nothing at all about Indian history (ancient or modern) could write, in all seriousness, that Hindus are "wimpy pushovers" -- Hindutva nationalism's record of violence, against Muslims, Christians and others, is considerable. Only someone who has read nothing about the Lebanon Civil War could seriously claim that Muslims are more violent than Lebanese Christians. You're embarrassing yourself.

    The Islamic world is fraught with conflict -- because a good deal of it happens to coincide with a region spanning West and Central Asia that's cursed with ethnic factionalism, hodge-podge post-imperial states and large amounts of oil that tempt foreign intervention. Sorry, but you don't get rid of all that conflict by replacing Islam. Supposing Islam in every country in the region were replaced by the next-most-popular belief systems there, you'd have a vast hodgepodge of Christian denominations (there are more than a dozen of these in Lebanon alone, for instance), Marxists, Jews and Hindus, each tied in complex ways to conflicts in the surrounding countries. If you think that's a recipe for peace or that the existence of Islam is somehow the worst of all possible worlds, you're severely delusional.

  3. Let me see if I get this. Islam is supposed to be the universal religion, but translations of the key text from the original classical Arabic are "immediately invalid." You must be able to read classical Arabic in order to really understand the Qur'an, correct? Has anyone told 198,000,000 Indonesians they have no hope of understanding the true nature of their religion?

    How can we deduce anything from this other than Allah's will is that everyone must learn Arabic? As one who understands the linkage between culture and language, I find that a -- especially in light of the scandalous dearth of scientific, economic, medical, and artistic achievements from the Arab world (not to mention larger Muslim world) over the last several centuries. And let's not forget the Arab world's current state of poverty and tyranny.

    But it's worse, according to you. Not only are translations "immediately invalid," but you show us that there can be no certainty even amongst Arabic speakers regarding what the Qur'an says. The language is complex and richly allusional, so merely knowing Arabic is not enough to get it right. Qur'anic passages are susceptible to widely varying meanings, depending on which allusions and connections one sees, and which he decides are applicable.

    The only solid conclusion to be drawn from your argument is that your interpretation of the Qur'an is merely that -- your interpretation. It is no more and no less valid that that of terrorists who kill in the name of Allah -- many of whom happen to be Arabs and perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what the original text really means.

    Put another way, according to you there is no way for a non-Arabic speaker to independently decide if you are right and the terrorists are wrong. All we have is your word on it.

    Sorry, but this undercuts your argument about the non-violent nature of true Islam. All you've done is reinforce the possibility that terrorists' interpretations may be accurate.

  4. The above poster makes very accurate observations much of which i can agree with.
    However the Qu'ran is not the single authority in Islamic theology.
    Although it is held above all other sources.
    This issue of interpreting the meaning of Qu'ranic verses was already present among the first Muslims.One verse in particular comes to mind which talks about how Muslims should break there vast when they can no longer distinguish between a white thread and dark thread.
    This was explained upon by Muhammed as meaning the difference between darkness and daylight instead of two actual pieces of thread.
    Which brings us to the main character responsible for Islamic interpretation and theology.
    Without Muhammed one cannot understand the Qu'ran or know what it actually means or how it should be implemented.
    And if we, as do most Muslims accept the traditional sources passed to us, we can conclude with all honesty that Islam as a religion is invariable going to remain stuck in backward practices and barbarism and all the problems , conflicts and issues these raise when implemented in a modern world.
    Most historians would argue that the traditional sources responsible for telling us about Muhammed are very untrustworthy and quite possible most are outright fabrications created over time to suit an expanding Islamic empire, in fact most Muslims also recognize that there are a lot of untrustworthy or outright false traditions about who this Muhammed was and what he actually did or say.
    Yet without them the Qu'ran cannot be understood and all context is lost.