September 22, 2009

Political and Cultural Aspects of Qu'ranic Translation in East Africa Part 4: Conclusion

The final part in our special series on the translation of The Holy Qu'ran into Kiswahili

Part 4: Qurani Takatifu and the work of Sheikh Abdullah Farsy

Following the publication of Kurani Tukufu, Sheikh Abdullah Farsy of Zanzibar had published a tract, "Upotufu was Tafsiri ya Makadiani", which denounced the Ahmadiyya translation. This was followed by his own effort to translate the Qu'ran into Swahili, called Qurani Takatifu. Painstakingly, Farsy built on the work of his teacher Sheikh Mazrui and published his translation in installments in the Zanzibar weekly newspaper Mwongozi (The Guide). Finally, he published the complete translation in 1967. The work was sponsored in part by the Islamic Foundation of Nairobi, a group sympathetic to the anti-Ahmadiyya stance of the Jamaat-e-Islaami in Pakistan; in fact the introduction to the second edition (1974) of Qurani Takatifu is a Kiswahili translation of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi’s introduction to his Urdu commentary on the Qu’ran. Maududi at that time was the head of Jamaat-e-Islaami.

Farsy took aim at what he believed to be the Ahmadiyya’s deliberate mistranslation of Quran 33:41 (In Farsy’s version it is actually verse 40). We have already discussed how Kurani Tukufu rendered "Khataman Nabiyyin" (seal of the prophets) as “Muhuri wa Manabii.” But Farsy is more explicit; he translates the phrase “Khataman Nabiyyin” as “Mwisho wa Mitume,” adding, “The inversion of these words is a lie of the Ahmadiyya who claim for themselves ‘Muhuri wa Manabii.’ And they mention piles of names of university students and their books and SLANDER [this is in all capital letters in the original Swahili] the matter in the way they translate it.” Farsy then devotes four and a half pages to discussing this issue, finally concluding on a somewhat humorous note: “We rest our pen a little that we may entertain those thoughts another time. This thing is exhausting and we don’t want you to be bored.”

Sheikh Farsy was in a unique position to do a Kiswahili translation. On the one hand, his education by scholars like Sheikh Ahmed Muhammed el-Mlomry, Abdullah Bakathir, and Sheikh Mazrui prepared him to relate the Islamic message to a new generation of believers. On the other hand, his position first as chief qadi of Zanzibar (until 1964) and then chief qadi of Kenya, gave him the prominence and connections to ensure his translation would be read by a wide audience.

We saw earlier how the Ahmadiyya made a direct challenge to the dominance of Islamic discourse by a coastal elite with strong ties to the Arab world. Many members of this elite had well-ingrained notions of their own superiority vis-à-vis other Africans. Sheikh al-Amin bin Aly, another Qur’anic translator and teacher of Sheikh Abdullah Farsy, warned against two dangers: European cultural imperialism, and the “khatari nyeusi” (black danger) of non-Muslim African migration to the coast, and his warning was indicative of the breakdown of the earlier discussed older mode of Swahili acculturation via ustaarabu. This dynamic was upended in the colonial era, partly as a result of the banning of slavery and the slave trade which undermined the economic basis of the coastal elite. The inability of the elite to control the cultural and demographic terms of this migration led to a great deal of social dislocation and the emergence of new sets of leaders who challenged the prerogatives of this elite; Sheikh Ramiya of Bagamoyo and Habib Saleh of Lamu are two prominent examples of this challenge. These challenges were not only predicated on breaking down barriers to the kinds of knowledge those of slave descent could have access to, but also on reforming corrupt practices within Islam. The origins of Habib Saleh, and his successful attempt to implant a renaissance of Alawiyya scholars in Lamu, show that the social impulse of Arabism had a progressive side as well, in which “a bond of ‘common Islamness’” transcended sectarian and racial differences.

Despite the cultural chauvinism of one of his teachers, Sheikh Farsy framed his translation in terms of Islamic universalism. “Uislamu hautaki istiimari (Ukoloni) wa dini. Si lazima lugha ya Kiarabu.” said Farsy,” His view was part of a changing attitude on the part of a generation of Islamic reformers who viewed the Qu’ran not merely as a devotional text, but as a practical guide to life possessing many of the solutions for the cultural humiliation and degeneracy Muslims had endured under imperialism. Bang explains, “The shift may attributed to a generally changed outlook among Islamic scholars, starting towards the end of the nineteenth century and spearheaded by such figures as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida.” Al-Mazrui, Farsy’s teacher, agreed that learning the Qu’ran without its meaning was not meritorious, but he like other Islamic reformers of the Salafi bent, advocated learning Arabic as early as possible. This shift can be mapped in attitudes toward the Quranic translation; it became of paramount importance to be able to read and understand the meaning of the text in order that the believers might apply it to their daily condition.

Framing was all important, and especially framing in light of the experience of Muslims recently coming out from underneath colonial rule. Kiswahili was the language of coastal religion and culture, but it was also, to the leaders of the nationalist movement in Tanzania, an ‘African’ language with the potential to unite the country. Islamic reformers like Farsy recognized that in light of these new circumstances, it was more imperative than ever to relate the Arabic meanings in the Qu’ran through a language relevant to the masses. The task was made easier in that Kiswahili, like Persian and Urdu, had a wealth of words of Arabic origin to begin with.

Overall “the popularity of Qurani Takatifu as a work of Swahili religious literature and the number of reprints it has undergone reflect how favorably it has been received by Kiswahili-speaking people.” Nevertheless, for Farsy and other Salafi reformers relating Islam as a total system to the changing conditions of modern life demanded wide dissemination of Islamic ideas. Translations such as Qur’ani Takatifu were meant to present Islam in a culturally relevant way, and were therefore only a first step towards preparing hearts and minds for the real obligation of every Muslim: to learn Arabic.

Farsy’s translation should also be seen in light of the tremendous transformation in access to education all over Africa. Mass literacy and mass education had placed new opportunities for the dissemination of Islamic education, and the tracts, books, and pamphlets of Islamic Africa until now are being presented in a variety of African languages, Swahili included.

Through the process of translation from Arabic to Swahili, the Qur’anic message took on a special cultural relevance as a point of contention for the Muslims of East Africa. The processes of Christian missionizing, British reform in Islamic education in Zanzibar, and the language policy of the British in East Africa spurred a reaction which created new opportunities for reform. The first Swahili translation was a hostile attempt by a Christian missionary with very negative views of Islam, as well as racist views of African capabilities and culture. In response to Godfrey Dale’s missionary translation, the Ahmadiyya saw an opening for spreading their unique vision of Islam. They saw it as their obligation to counter the Christian missionary presence, which they viewed as a cultural onslaught against Islam. But because of their insistence on several unique doctrinal points, their translation was also not widely accepted. In turn, the Ahmadiyyas provoked a response rooted in the same sort of motivation: to counter what was deemed as their assault on the true Islam. Qurani Takatifu gained wider acceptance, but generated its own dynamic of opposition as well as support, generating new debates about the nature and basis for establishing authority and legitimacy within the East African Islamic community.

This process of linguistic translation and religious dissemination through Kiswahili and other African languages will continue, and even accelerate as Africa increasingly enters the digital age. As long as there are believers, there will be efforts to bridge the gap between Islam as an ‘Arabic revelation’ and Islam as a ‘universal religion.’


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