God Speaks Arabic

A friend send me a link to a review of a new English translation of the Qur’an by Prof. Abdel Haleem of SOAS. The translation is getting some good press and my friend thought that I should use that for my upcoming class. I wish I had know about it sooner because I surely would. What struck me in the review was what has always bothered me about various translations:

Abdel Haleem makes use of a simple but ingenious device to solve two critical problems. The Qur’an often addresses different parties – for example, the Prophet, or the Community of Believers, or the hostile Meccan tribe of the Quraysh – and switches from one to another in the same verse. Abdel Haleem inserts parentheses to make it clear who is speaking or whom is being addressed. He uses the same device to provide context: for example, when the Qur’an says “those who believed and emigrated”, Abdel Haleem adds “[to Medina]”. He also includes brief summaries at the beginning of each chapter, as well as judicious footnotes explaining geographical, historical and personal allusions.
Abdel Haleem’s emphasis on context – the way that each verse connects with many others, and how the different parts of the Holy Book explain each other – makes this translation a remarkable achievement. For the first time, readers of the Qur’an in translation are able to see that it is a commentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. It spans a period of 23 years; and to understand what is going on in any particular verse, you need to appreciate what is happening in the Prophet’s life at the moment the verse was revealed. Moreover, to understand what the Qur’an says about a particular subject in one particular verse, you have to know what the Qur’an says about the same topic in different places.

Context. Which is not to say that anyone picking up the Qur’an needs to sack around a concordance and a commentary and all that – but some moderate intervention of context into the translation is surely appreciated. Serendipitously, I was reading (or attempting to) al-Jahiz’s Kitab al Haywan, written sometime in the last two decades of eighth century. It is presumably a book about animals but it has lots more in it. Lots weird more. Here is a passage where al-Jahiz ruminates on translations which caught my eye:
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No Pigs in Heaven

Over at Defeasible Fee, my friend Marlowe has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts in his discussion of Irshad Manji‘s The Trouble with Islam:

The discussion she invites us to is clearly a family argument, one I’m not entitled to weigh in on, at least not in a public space like this blog. So I won’t. Yet, it begs the question, and its one I’ve asked a dozen hundred million times to blank stares. What taboos remain that we might discuss and therefore rob of power? What underlying problems might we then identify and fix?

Taboos in Islam? Let’s see: Apostasy. Idolatry. Representing the Prophet or any other human or animal form. Muslim Woman marrying a non-Muslim. & c.

In today’s NYT, Kristof talks about another taboo. Source Critical Interpretation of the Qur’an:

Islam has a tradition of vigorous interpretation and adjustment, called ijtihad, but Koranic interpretation remains frozen in the model of classical commentaries written nearly two centuries after the prophet’s death. The history of the rise and fall of great powers over the last 3,000 years underscores that only when people are able to debate issues freely – when religious taboos fade – can intellectual inquiry lead to scientific discovery, economic revolution and powerful new civilizations. “The taboos are still great” on such Koranic scholarship, notes Gabriel Said Reynolds, an Islam expert at the University of Notre Dame. He called the new scholarship on early Islam “a first step” to an intellectual awakening.

But Muslim fundamentalists regard the Koran – every word of it – as God’s own language, and they have violently attacked freethinking scholars as heretics. So Muslim intellectuals have been intimidated, and Islam has often been transmitted by narrow-minded extremists.

The key fact, of course, is that taboos are put in place to protect social structures (usually familial but also religious). Some fail over time, some do not. The taboo on depicting human and animal form fell away – the one against representation of the Prophet remains. Muslim taboos get explained in purely religious terms even if they have economic or cultural pasts available to us. For example, the taboo on eating pig-flesh in Talmudic and Islamic traditions can be partially explained by the ecological demands of pastoral nomads. Or through the mercantile demands of Muslim traders who depended on olive oil over lard. Whatever the case may be, the reality is that the taboo is presented in purely religious terms wherein the animal becomes the source of impurity and filth (physical and spiritual).

The taboo against pigs comes in the Torah in Leviticus where numerous “unclean” animals are prohibited as food. The New Testament revised those restrictions and freed the pig to be consumed in 1000 delicious ways. The Qur’an prohibts swine flesh in couple of places (The Table & The Cattle):

005.003: Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which hath been invoked the name of other than Allah; that which hath been killed by strangling, or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death; that which hath been (partly) eaten by a wild animal; unless ye are able to slaughter it (in due form); that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); (forbidden) also is the division (of meat) by raffling with arrows: that is impiety. This day have those who reject faith given up all hope of your religion: yet fear them not but fear Me. This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. But if any is forced by hunger, with no inclination to transgression, Allah is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.


006.145: Say: “I find not in the message received by me by inspiration any (meat) forbidden to be eaten by one who wishes to eat it, unless it be dead meat, or blood poured forth, or the flesh of swine,- for it is an abomination – or, what is impious, (meat) on which a name has been invoked, other than Allah’s”. But (even so), if a person is forced by necessity, without wilful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits,- thy Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

So while the first one categorically prohibits it, the second verse has some wiggle room. In the interest of source-critical interpretation, I might add that the first verse is Medinan and the second Makkan. That is, the second was revealed first before the Hejira. Which would indicate economic or ecological necessities playing some role in the latter harder stance.

Similiar case with dogs. The Prophet was a cat person and dogs have gotten the short end of that stick for 1400 years. My best friends are Muslims who fornicate, read Salman Rushdie and drink alcohol (mostly at the same time) but, they will not eat pork. When asked why not break that last taboo…they offer no explanations. I get my own line of defense from Jules:

Vincent: Want some bacon?

Jules: No man, I don’t eat pork.

Vincent: Are you Jewish?

Jules: Nah, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.

Vincent: Why not?

Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.

Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.

Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense enough to disregard its own faeces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dogs eats its own feces.

Jules: I don’t eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?

Jules: Well we’d have to be talkin’ about one charmin’ motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?

So, who here wants to address Mr. Marlowe and his call to bust some taboos and do some good? Also, if anyone has read Ms. Manji’s book, we would be delighted to hear about that.

Go Meta

Our friend Paul has a really interesting thread going on. He is letting readers ask questions and he answers them as only he can – so damn cleverly. It is some meme or other going around the blogosphere that I am too damn lazy to partake in. But do read Paul’s and then come back and tell me which questions were asked by me (hint, 3 consecutive).

Charlie Did It

“It was all Kiplingesque,” said Charlie Wilson of his first encounter with the Afghani Mujahideen. Sadly, both the tragedy and the irony of that statement seemed to be lost on him. Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile is billed as a “riveting inside account of the last battle of the Cold War” by the publisher and wildly positive agreements are blurbed underneath that. It lives up to those claims. It is, indeed, a book worth reading from cover to cover and line by line. It is, also, a book that needs some serious critical treatment. Allow me to do a little bit of both.

Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of a Texas Congressman who was notorious for his womanizing and larger-than-life appetites. In Congress, he was on the House Appropriations Committee which gave him power to fund among other things, the CIA. In Texas, he became friends with Joanne Herring, a well-connected socialite and a roving ambassador of Pakistan, who introduced him to the human horrors of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thus a charismatic, adventurous alcoholic Congressman named Charlie Wilson developed an all-consuming romanticized crush on the valorous and noble Afghani Mujahideen. Driven by his personal demons and appetites, he funnelled hundreds of millions into a covert CIA operation with equal parts Saudi money, without the knowledge of the American public, to train and equip the Afghanis to kill Communists.
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