September 19, 2009

Political and Cultural Aspects of Qu'ranic Translation in East Africa Part Two: Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu

Part 2 in a special series for The Azanian Sea on Kiswahili Qu'ranic translation

Dale Godfrey’s Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu
In the early 1900s, when the British colonial administrators in Zanzibar embarked on a project of educational reform, they targeted those schools who taught their students to be huffāz. Canon Godfrey Dale, a UMCA Missionary and the earliest translator of the Qur’an into Swahili, wrote derisively of such a practice, comparing it to a long and wearisome journey in the Arabian desert, and emphasized what in his view was the “frequent, wearisome, and monotonous repetition of the same idea, the same moral truths.” In another instance Canon Dale, relates a visit he made to a Zanzibar madrassa in which students were learning the Qur’an, yet were unable to relate to him its meaning.

On the Swahili coast in the early twentieth century, young Muslim students still embarked on a course of Qur’an memorization, in order to become huffāz (sing. hafiz, an Arabic word which literally means guardian/caretaker), but only a few students, either from the elite or exceptionally gifted, received further instruction in methods of tafsir, fiqh, and other Islamic sciences.

Islam in the history of the Swahili coast was a social marker for the coastal elite, the dynamic that separated them from the “washenzi”. Yet despite their sense of controlling the set of mores and manners known as ustaarabu, most members of coastal society spoke only Kiswahili. Even prominent ‘ulama rarely used Arabic in their daily conversation. For the lower classes, knowledge of the Qur’an was limited to being able to recite its words, and this was important because the importance lay in the recitation as much as in the explained meaning.

The British colonial administration, as well as some members of the ‘ulama, called these methods of memorization “parrot talk,” and spurred Ibn Sumayt in 1925 to formulate a new set of texts for teaching Qur’anic verses, which reduced dramatically the amount of required suras and included explanations of key concepts in Kiswahili. However, in Zanzibar, education in Arabic was a political issue, linked with access to power and the ability to determine one’s cultural destiny. Thus the educational reform threatened the most sacred elements of the elite’s identity: language and religion. Amal Ghazal writes, “Arabs believed, the British (and their collaborators) were not only trying to damage their identity and that of the island, but also trying to sever Zanzibar’s relationship with the broader Arab-Muslim world.”

As long as cultural and linguistic links to the Arab world survived, a potential for social ferment and upheaval in Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast existed; a point echoed by many European writers about East Africa. This is not to say that resistance could only originate from an Arab source. But the colonial administrators as well as the missionaries recognized the potential of Islam to serve as a base for overturning the terms of European order. This belief led Godfrey Dale to allude to a global conspiracy by Muslims to enslave all of mankind: “Before we allow lower races to drift into Muhammadanism let us remember to whom these words, “which your right hand possess” might apply if there were a Jehad (sic) proclaimed in Europe, Africa, and Asia tomorrow…unless there is some Christian power at hand to take advantage of and enforce these mitigations, slavery will continue unchecked with all its horrible cruelties.”

Dale’s translation—the Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu —was received with much hostility. It represents how important the issue of a frame is in conceptualizing Islamic legitimacy. In fact the debate over Dale’s translation was a debate over who had the “right” to translate the Qur’an, as well as the right of Muslims to reject hostile interpreters. Godfrey Dale was an outsider who had learned Kiswahili (and for that matter Arabic) only to communicate Christianity through it. Furthermore, his translation of the Qur’an did not contain the original Arabic text. (Even now, translations of the Qur’an into English are typically presented with the Arabic text, and if they are not then they are titled “a translation of the Qur’an or “the message of the Qur’an.” )
Secondly, Dale used the Kiswahili word Mungu to mean God, which is unacceptable for many East African Muslim scholars as a translation for Allah, because Mungu can be pluralized as miungu. Later translators prefer Mwenyezi Mungu, (lit. Almighty God) for its inability to be pluralized.

Finally, Dale wrote in the newly standardized Roman script for Kiswahili. Carl Meinhof, the German who first suggested that Kiswahili be written in this manner, though that it might be useful in training African civil servants if it could be stripped of its Islamic character. Thus the transformation of Kiswahili orthography was directly related to anti-Islamic sentiment as well as pragmatic administrative concerns. Sheikh Al-Amin bin Mazrui, a prominent East African scholar who had also translated large portions of the Qur’an into Kiswahili, complained that the new orthography distorted the Kiswahili sound system. Most Zanzibari intellectuals—whose relationship to Kiswahili as a language of Islamic communication was already ambiguous—looked askance at written Kiswahili which had been deliberately stripped of its visual relationship to Arabic.

For Canon Dale, the translation was a way of training missionaries to counter Muslims on their own linguistic terms, a sort of religious guerilla warfare with the text as weapon. His goal remained to show uncivilized “Muhammadans” the true way: “It seems to me a mere matter of loyalty and common honesty not only to contend ourselves for the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints [Christianity], but to do all that in us lies to bring the same Faith within the reach of the most backward races of mankind.”

Nowhere is Dale’s disdain for Islam and its theology more apparent than in his commentary on the Swahili translation, where he constantly seeks to demonstrate its logical inconsistency. For example, in his commentary on Sura An-Nisa, verse 157 (Qu’ran 4:157), Dale writes, “We have already explained the Muslim idea of a crucificixtion in place of our Lord. But it is very useful to know this aya and to know it together with those of An-Nas and Aali-Imran. To him he ascended; meaning after death or before death like Elijah? They do not mutually agree.”

Lacunza-Balda concludes, “Dale’s translation has been greatly disliked and, historically speaking, it well be that it has accentuated both the Muslim-Christian controversy and the emergence of a collective Muslim front to answer the challenge coming from a non-Muslim.” But if this was the initial point of debate out of which conceptual repertoires were built, the next set of debates around a Swahili translation of the Qur’an translations framed a complex set of ideas at the intersection of race, African identity, and Islamic legitimacy, thus contributing to a a process by which slaves and lower-class people re-appropriated concepts of Arab exceptionalism (ustaarabu) in light of Islamic ideals of universalism and equality, a process, that as we have seen, played an important role in the social integration of East African coastal society. New ideas of African nationalism and the intensified migration of upcountry people to the coast opened up the field for socio-religious reinterpretation of those who the coastal elite had previously referred to as washenzi.


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