Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?

First Contact: What if Muslims had reached the New World first?

As I’ve been studying Islam, I have become increasingly fascinated by the question of whether the Native Americans would have been better off if Muslims had made “First Contact” rather than European Christians. Best of all, of course, would have been a few more centuries of independent development that would allow them to confront new arrivals as something closer to equals. Failing that, however, there would have been several advantages to Muslim rule:

  • Despite stereotypes, Islam did not rely heavily on mass, forced conversion. When entering a new region, they were happy to basically decapitate the current regime and rule by means of already-existing institutions, beginning a gradual process of reconciling local custom with Shari’a law, “nudging” people toward conversion to Islam via tax incentives, etc. In Indonesia, this meant that many inland indigenous cultures were able to exist more or less undisturbed for a surprisingly long time.
  • Differing views of cultural and ethnic pluralism in Islam would make the Islamic rulers much less likely to view the Native Americans as sub-human savages to be enslaved or exterminated.
  • Though Muslims would bring Old World diseases, it’s hard to imagine them “weaponizing” smallpox in the way that European settlers did (it just seems dishonorable) — and in any case, they had superior medical science well into the early modern period. On the plus side, they wouldn’t bring alcoholic beverages with them.
  • Islamic cultural ideals surrounding Bedouins would surely have worked in favor of the more nomadic North American tribes, who appeared especially foreign and incomprehensible to Europeans.

I’m already tensed and ready for someone to say in comments that everything would have played out identically no matter who got there first because humans are humans, etc., and I’m going to go ahead and warn you that any such fatalistic comments will be deleted — unless you have a concrete reason that some specific aspect of the Western conquest of the Americas would have played out similarly.

Two thoughts before I open it up for comments. First, I realize that there are good historical reasons that Muslim traders wouldn’t have bothered heading west from Africa — the whole reason the Europeans were looking for alternate routes to the Far East was that Muslims already had existing routes well in hand. Second, to briefly flesh out the obvious Star Trek analogy I’m evoking — I’d like to suggest that First Contact with the Muslims would have been like humans’ First Contact with the Vulcans, and what the Native Americans actually got was First Contact with the Borg.

Posted in Islam. 7 Comments »

Thoughts on teaching Islam in a “Great Books” style

At Shimer College, we pride ourselves on teaching “primary texts” as much as possible. The goal here is to make sure that all the reading we assign is “discussable,” which secondary sources providing background usually are not. In general, I prefer this approach, but so far in my Islam class, I have begun to see its limitations. Class discussions have a greater number of uncomfortable silences than usual, and it seems to be mostly because the students don’t feel equipped to approach the texts.

On one level, this is strange, because although Islamic intellectual traditions are of course different from their various “Western” counterparts, they’re not that different. Indeed, in many cases they are drawing from literally the same broad traditions as the “Western” sources we discuss in other classes — above all, the biblical prophetic tradition and Aristotelian philosophy. In the grand scheme of things, the surah “The Cow” from the Qur’an is more similar to Deuteronomy than different, and ibn Khaldun’s political philosophy is more similar to Machiavelli and Hobbes than different. Yet in both cases, the latter would most likely produce a much more fluid and comfortable conversation.

I’m not sure the problem is that the students lack background. It’s not as though the Islamic world has radically unintelligible social standards, and I’m confident that the texts I’ve provided have given them at least as good a rough and ready background on the general shape of cultural life as they tend to feel like they have of Greek society or medieval times. Most of their assumptions about the Greeks and medievals probably wouldn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, and I do sometimes cringe when students pull out a facile argument about how something would’ve made sense “in the culture of the time” — but that sense of initial familiarity, even if partly unfounded, gives them confidence.

Yet it’s not simply foreignness as such that’s at issue. I don’t have direct evidence here, but I suspect that students would be more prone to jump right in with texts from other “Eastern” traditions. They would come to those texts expecting to find fascinating new ideas unparalleled in the boring Western traditions with which they’re familiar — and even if their sense of knowing what to expect is unfounded, it gives them the confidence to get started.

With Islam, by contrast, American culture conveys a consistent impression of inscrutable Otherness, utter impenetrability. Orientalist scholarship of course exacerbates this, as even introductory works throw an unconscionable number of Arabic terms at their readers, creating the impression that Muslims make use of bizarre, foreign concepts that we Westerners can’t fully understand. Further, engaging with Islam feels much more fraught and dangerous than engaging with Buddhism. Political circumstances give us the sense that it’s urgently important to “understand Islam,” but fear of making insensitive remarks or perpetuating stereotypes produces a unique degree of reticence and caution.

In the short term, I plan to deal with this problem next semester by simply giving up and using more secondary sources in my course over the Qur’an, for instance by opening the course with Sells’ much-recommended Approaching the Qur’an and using a translation of the Qur’an with much more robust explanatory notes. If students feel like they need more background to get started discussing, I’m probably not going to achieve much by repeatedly insisting they don’t.

In the long term, though, I think the only solution for Shimer College, if it wants to remain faithful to its general approach while doing the needed work of exposing students to Islamic thought, is to include Islamic sources alongside Western sources as a self-evident part of the dialogue that we’re trying to create. This doesn’t mean that every course must include Islamic sources, but I do think we would be well served to include Islamic texts beyond the obvious realm of philosophy and theology — why can’t ibn Khaldun appear alongside Hobbes and Machiavelli, or why couldn’t we read portions of ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic? Why can’t we read Hallaq alongside Foucault?

Yes, this would mean cutting something out in order to make room, but maybe every “Great Books”-style curriculum would do well to give up on the self-defeating goal of “covering everything” and think more intently about what we want students to get out of the texts and their juxtaposition (aside from checking them off the list of books that “everyone must read”). I’m sure that if we really had to justify every choice on a pedagogical level, we would find that no, we don’t actually need to read every single canonical early-modern political theorist, for instance, since our students are not at the level where they can detect the fine distinctions among them anyway. And in some cases, we may indeed find that the Islamic sources are actually more accessible and more suited to a background-free, “Great Books”-style approach than some of the Western texts we throw at them.

Is Muhammad the better Paul?

In Romans 9-11, Paul lays out what he believes to be God’s plan for Paul’s work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Though the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the vast majority of Jews seems to be a huge defeat, God is actually using it as an opportunity to achieve something even greater: extending his promises to all nations. By Paul’s reckoning, once the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the messianic life opened up by Jesus’s death and resurrection, they will be so jealous that they will ultimately embrace Jesus. From a contemporary perspective, this view is appealing because it radically relativizes actual-existing Gentile Christianity — it is just a detour, an elaborate ploy in God’s bank-shot attempt to win over the Jews, who remain his real priority. And yet from a contemporary perspective, we must also admit that the plan does not seem to have worked out.

Yesterday I was reviewing some material from ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. Reading the whole of this vast and unwieldy document is not possible in the context of my course, so I selected portions on the religious and political background of the Arabian penninsula, Muhammad’s early life and ministry in Mecca, his work in Medina, and the events leading up to his triumph over the authorities in Mecca. One issue that will surely arise in this context is the question of “Islam and violence,” because it’s impossible to give a fair or comprehensible account of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam without taking into account such key events as the Battle of Badr. If commenters have any ideas for how I might address it in class discussion, I’d be eager to hear it (though I also expect that Shimer students will by and large be bending over backwards to be as fair-minded as possible and to avoid cliches about Islam, so perhaps it won’t be an issue).

One thing that struck me, amid all the undeniable brutality, is how often Muhammad chose not to press his advantage. Read the rest of this entry »

Help me with a course on the Qur’an

Let’s say I were to do a course next semester on the Qur’an only, with some attempt to achieve coverage over the whole of the text and to strike a balance between contemporary and historical commentators. Do you have any recommendations?

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race”

One strange feature of the online atheist movement is that while all religions are bad, Islam is consistently presented as the very worst — so that Richard Dawkins, for instance, can wonder aloud whether atheists should support Christian missionaries in Africa to combat the spread of Islam. Many people have suggested that this anti-Islam sentiment is racist, and the response is always that Islam isn’t a race and hence being opposed to Islam can’t be racism.

Let’s unpack that. For these thinkers, Islam is obviously a bad and destructive system of thought. Yet billions of people spend their whole lives trying to live according to these stupid teachings, generation after generation. What’s worse, in the modern world, they have ready access to knowledge about the superior system of secular modernity, but they persist in embracing a crappy religion. At a certain point, you have to wonder if there is simply something wrong with such people, right? Perhaps their reasoning capacities are hampered in some way. Indeed, one begins to wonder, could it perhaps be something … inborn?

Obviously atheists won’t embrace the extrapolation I’ve just made, but it’s ultimately the only conclusion — if Islam is a terrible thing, and if people continue to embrace it despite knowing about a superior alternative, there must be something wrong with those people’s reasoning capacity that doesn’t allow it to reach the high level of white people’s.

A really robust belief in the powers of human reason, of course, would take us in the opposite direction: if all human beings have basically equal reasoning capacity, and if billions upon billions of people have found Islam to be plausible and appealling, then there must be something good about Islam. Yet people who self-identify with “reason” never draw that conclusion, because the “party of reason” always turns out to be an elite who knows better than everyone else and deserves to be in charge. And when you ask why not everyone is willing to submit to the leadership of the “party of reason,” you begin to suspect that maybe there’s something wrong with their reasoning capacity, maybe on a biological level, etc., etc.

Basically, declaring oneself to be on the avant-garde of “reason” is always going to lead to racism if you take it to its logical conclusion. Thankfully for the mental health of the “party of reason,” however, their self-regard and in-group loyalty keep them from following the dictates of reason on this matter, because it would make it seem like maybe their empty gesture at a contentless “reason” had accidentally made them into bad people.

Marriage and modernity

Yesterday I finished Wael Hallaq’s Introduction to Islamic Law, which not only does a great job of explaining the classical structures of Shari’a legal reasoning but also mounts an argument that the imposition of modern state structures fundamentally transformed Shari’a law into something that would have been unrecognizable to pre-modern Muslims. This was most striking in his account of the aspect of Shari’a that superficially seems to have escaped unscathed from these changes — namely, family law. The implicit question underlying his argument is why precisely this was what the colonizers and indigenous modernizers “left alone,” and the answer is that maintaining implicit continuity with traditional Shari’a in this area served as cover for an agenda that replaced extended families with the modern nuclear family in Muslim countries.

This got me thinking: why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family? And I think the answer is that it is the absolute minimum level of solidarity — a reluctant concession to biological necessity in a society that otherwise wants to turn everyone into an individual monad. If the state endorsed or even tolerated other, more wide-ranging forms of solidarity, then a significant center of loyalty other than the state may arise, potentially undermining the state’s efforts to discipline and control the population and, in particular, opening up the possibility of economic relations not predicated on individualism and competition. Enshrining monogamous marriage and the nuclear family in law has the additional bonus that this minimal concession to community and solidarity owes its existence directly to the state, and so any discussion of how to change this arrangement must necessary be routed through the state.

I wonder if an analogy can be drawn with the rise of gay marriage. Why precisely this form of recognition for gay relationships? As we know, in periods when LGBT people were more marginal, communities structured more like “extended families” arose, which proved particularly important in caring for AIDS patients. Why not formalize the varied forms of relationships that were indigenous to the LGBT community, as opposed to a nuclear family model that few had the resources or inclination to imitate?

If we look at Hallaq’s account of the imposition of the nuclear family on Islamic countries, the reason is clear — gay marriage was a perfect opportunity to undermine the alternative forms of solidarity that had grown up in the LGBT community and a way to incorporate previously recalcitrant populations into the nuclear family model. And for those who are opposed to gay marriage, the struggle against it only serves to emphasize the state’s role in recognizing and supporting their relationships — giving them prestige which is watered down by the inclusion of more people into the system.

Hence I’d say that liberals who claim that gay marriage actually strengthens all marriage are correct, though that’s perhaps not as good a thing as they believe.


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