By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
23 May 2012
A Pakistani Muslim family in Britain killed their daughter for her “Western” lifestyle. Saudi Arabia is planning to legalise nuptials of baby girls. The Taliban in Afghanistan abducted and later hanged an eight-year-old boy over unpaid ransom. New hideouts of Islamist terrorists continue to be discovered in India. Meanwhile, scores are being killed every week, on occasions every day, by Islamists in Syria, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East.
These are some recent headlines from around the Muslim world. None of these heinous acts has anything to do with Islam―except that they are all carried out in the name of the faith. A woman’s consent must be solicited, and received, for a marriage to be Islamic: an edict that should automatically bar child marriage among god-fearing Muslims. But it doesn’t! Why? Killing a single human being without just cause is akin to killing the entire humankind, according to the Quran. Just this verse should make suicide bombings and other forms of mindless mass violence a travesty of Islam. Only, it doesn’t! Why?
Every few days, some Islamophobe somewhere in the world decides to burn copies of the Quran, leaving every Muslim―orthodox or liberal, moderate or fundamentalist―appalled and incensed. Some of them take to violence, inciting riots and burning buses to express their rage. Others sit at home and seethe, but seethe they do. And yet, hardly any of them has ever really read the Quran in an intelligible manner, or has any idea of what’s written in it apart from hearsay! Why?
The answer is simple: it’s written in a language most Muslims don’t understand. Arabic speakers form only a small percentage of Muslims. And even Arabic is so diverse that Arabs from different parts of their region―the Peninsula, the Levant and North Africa―struggle to comprehend one another. That leaves very very few people in the world who can read and understand the Quran as it is.
The solution is obvious: translate the Quran. It’s not a novel solution by any means; the Quran has been getting translated for more than a millennium. The first complete translation was carried out in the late ninth century in Sindh, Pakistan, on the request of a Hindu king. Since then, the Quran has been translated in a number of languages a number of times.
And yet, these translations count for little as they are not commonly accepted by Muslims as “the real thing”. There is a deep-seated belief that the Quran is untranslatable, and that as it was revealed in Arabic, so Muslims must also read it in Arabic. It’s considered a religious duty to do so, never mind the minor matter that most don’t understand a word of what they are reading.
The result: Muslim children around the world are brought up to read the Arabic script and spend some time every day reading the Quran―without making any sense of it. As they grow up, many of them limit themselves to reciting Quranic verses in daily or weekly prayers and reading the whole book at least once during Ramzan. Comprehension, however, continues to elude them, and they remain at the mercy of the local maulana (and, increasingly, of tele-Tablighis such as Zakir Naik) to tell them what it all means.
Lost In Translation?
Is the Quran really untranslatable? Every language has its peculiarities tied up with cultural symbolism: because these symbols don’t exist in other cultures, so no translation of any sufficiently complex text can be perfect. The Quran being more complex than most texts, and employing a standard of Arabic that is itself difficult to reproduce, it is quite likely that a translation can never do justice to it.
But should perfection stand in the way of solution? The fact that the Quran cannot be perfectly translated does not mean that much of its content, even much of its complexity, cannot be made intelligible in other languages. The spread of Islam among swathes of non-Arabs, which had to rely on relaying at least parts of the Quranic message in local languages initially, bears testimony to that.
Lack of intellectual and cultural legitimacy for Quran’s translations hurts the Muslim milieu in many ways. First and most obviously, most Muslims never really know for themselves what the Quran is saying: their understanding of Islam therefore remains blindfolded in perpetuity. This is not how Islam, a religion rooted in reason and choice rather than superstition and compulsion, was meant to be.
Second, those who claim they can guide Muslims along―the mullahs―not only gain illegitimate authority on Muslims’ thoughts and beliefs, but often handhold them down unIslamic pathways. The Quran is presented in ahistorical and out-of-context ways, sometimes intentionally and sometimes because of their own ignorance. No wonder it is these “vanguards of the faith” who are most hostile to translating the Quran and allowing Muslims to read it fully for themselves.
Third, Muslims’ inability to understand the Quran gives undue leverage to non-Quranic literature, including weak and baseless Hadees, as repositories of the Islamic message. These sources are much easier to manipulate, and mullahs who already have authority on Muslims’ thoughts and beliefs use them as instruments to propagate unIslamic ideas and ideals as “Islam”. The history of a thousand years, not to mention a number of recent headlines, bear out this travesty.
Clearly, the drawbacks of not translating the Quran outweigh the ideal that it should be read only in Arabic. Translating it, on the other hand, can have a number of positive consequences. To begin with, the ability to read the Quran in one’s own language will decentralise Islam―unhinge it from the yoke of cultural Arabisation, intellectual mediaevalism and spiritual mullah-fication, allowing common Muslims to interact with and explore the Islamic message on their own terms.
This is a necessary aspect of Islam. If Allah has created us as individuals, with individual consciousness and individual responsibility for our actions, then it is not just a right but also a duty for us to understand Islam as sentient individuals rather than as a herd of cattle toeing the shepherd’s stick.
But that is not all: translation may have a still bigger impact. Christian Europe underwent a similar process in the 17th century. The arrival of the printing press led to the mass publication of the Bible, taking Christianity out of the hands of the clergy and delivering it to common men and women. Instead of just listening to priestly interpretations of their religion in large congregations, people were able to read and ponder over it in the solitude of their homes and their study.
This process not only helped undermine the power of the Church and reform Christianity, but was crucial in developing the ideals of rationalism and individual freedom, eventually leading to Enlightenment and the dawn of the modern era. Many of the core principles of this era―nationalism, human rights, women’s rights, democracy, free press, scientific temper and so on―are legacies of these very ideals. And one of the key problems that Muslims face today is that they are yet to develop these ideals for themselves. Understanding the Quran will, therefore, not just help Muslims comprehend Islam but also the modern world they live in―and integrate better in it.
Of course, unlike mediaeval Europe, there is no dearth of copies of the Quran today. Muslim households often have several of them lying respectfully wrapped in fine cloth in the upper shelves. But few read it intelligibly, few ponder over its message. Few try to develop a personal relationship with it. And that’s because they simply do not know the language in which it is written.
The Quran should be translated into as many languages as Muslims speak: English, Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Malay, Chinese, French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on, as well as their dialects and the dialects of Arabic. Muslims should read it in their own languages and dialects to fathom what it means. As noted earlier, translations do exist, but they lack the legitimacy they need for common Muslims to buy and read them as a necessary aspect of their faith. They, therefore, have little more than academic value today. But perhaps it isn’t late for us to realise what we have been missing.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.