September 18, 2009

Political and Cultural Aspects of Qur’anic Translation in East Africa, Part One

Part One: Introduction
The Qur’an, much like the person of Jesus in Christianity, has proven to be the most important foundation of Islam and thus subject to intense debate over its meaning and true nature. As an “Arabic revelation” the Qur’an belies a complete understanding without knowledge of Arabic. Thus the issue of Qur’anic translation is a prism through which the relative mutability of linguistic, cultural, and theological concepts (such as the person of Jesus and the nature of Muhammed’s prophethood) can be compared. This paper will compare three different Swahili translations of the Qu’ran by placing them in the context of East African history. I argue that each new translation generated a series of debates about legitimacy in East African Islam; the translations reveal histories of East African Muslims’ responses to imperialism, doctrinal legitimacy, cultural chauvinism, and modern education.

There are three well-known published translations of the Qur’an in Kiswahili: Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu in 1923, translated by Canon Godfrey Dale, Kurani Tukufu translated by Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad Ahmadi in 1953, and Qurani Takatifu, translated by Sheikh Abdullah Farsy, and first published in 1969.

In a multi-part series for the Azanian Sea, I will examine all three of them in light of the various “movements” they represent, the frames they employed to make claims for legitimacy, and the claims and counterclaims they either made or refuted. Each of the translations was controversial, but this controversy was rarely over the nature of the translated text itself. The discourse of translation and the holy nature of the Qur’an were a convenient frame for debates over orthodoxy, legitimacy and self-definition in response to Christianity and imperialism. Translations were not threats to the sanctity of meaning literally conceived, but threats to the legitimacy of Islam’s unique identity, the ruling ideology of ustaarabu, and the “cultural wealth” of Arab/Islamic civilization.

Languages are deep and complex fields of meanings, with words that have no direct counterpart in a given target language. This problem is made even more difficult by the “texture” of the Qur’an itself, which contain numerous irreducible rhetorical elements. Yet translations of the Holy Qur’an have been a part of Islamic history; the first complete translation of the Qu’ran being undertaken by Shah Waliallah into Persian. As of now, the Qu’ran has been translated into over sixty-five languages around the world. So although debates about the translatability of the Qur’an have existed since the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabic-speaking world, there are now whole communities of Islamic discourse outside the realm of Arabic.

From the early Islamic conquests and the subsequent spread of the faith, there has always been tension between the global and universal aspirations of the Islamic umma and the local and particularist dimensions of the Qur’anic revelation in Arabic. Pan-Islamism was a reaction against colonial rule, particularly the project of modernity, with its universal ambition of remaking the self and institutions of the “other”. This encounter forced out into the open certain contradictions in Islamic society and one response was to proclaim the universalism of the umma in the face of European divide-and-conquer tactics. But since being a good Muslim inevitably meant mastering the Arabic language, Islamic preachers and evangelists were faced with the quandary of adapting and spreading their vision of Islam while using local languages: thus opening the question: could one really be an ideal Muslim without knowing Arabic? And if one couldn’t, then didn’t it mean that pan-Islamism was really just a dimension of pan-Arabism? Was being a good Muslim related to your spirit or your “ilm”? In practice, most Muslims found the importance of learning Arabic a non-negotiable point, yet this was not always because of the cultural chauvinism of the Arabs. Tellingly, those who most opposed one of the most recent Swahili Qu’ranic translations, Qur’ani Takatifu, were Sufis who believed strongly in the mystical power of recitation. In their view, it was the pronunciation of the words themselves, not their meaning, that incarnated a blessing for the believer.

One way Islam establishes itself as a spiritual authority is its use by spiritual authorities as a discourse of “essence” often posited in opposition to a set of practices deemed to contradict that “essence.” In the modern period, defined here as 1870-1950, reform once again became a clarion call by Muslim leaders; they attempted to address the miseducation, oppression, and moral degradation of their societies by addressing some of the contradictions brought into the open by modernity, but also by linking their discourse to the world condition of Muslims and their overall position vis-à-vis European colonialism.

The debates about Islam in this period were also debates about the effects of colonialism, and so imperialism became an additional “standard” by which legitimacy in an Islamic sense could be judged. Especially pertinent in this discussion is the impact of Christian missionaries across the Muslim world. The “clash of civilizations” debate ignited by Samuel Huntington has much deeper roots in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century “battle for souls” between Islam and Christianity. In fact its echoes can be seen in early attempts to translate the Qur’an for European audiences; the early translations into Latin, Italian, and French were devoted to refuting Islam and establishing Muhammed as a false prophet.

It is highly significant, as Lacunza-Balda emphasizes, that “the bridge between the act of “translating” the Qur’an and the purpose of “slandering” Islam had apparently been built by a Christian translation of the Qur’anic text.” So we can perceive initially two impulses for translation: one to reveal and refute, and one to simplify and explain in order to convert; in fact in the Christian missionary project, the need to communicate and the intent to control were “inseperable motives.”


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