InsightJanuary February 2007

Translating Islam

Zafer Şenocak

Current perceptions of Islam tend to be based on a few, very expressive symbols. Above all it is the veil worn by women that has become definer of both body and identity, a designating, delimiting symbol with no clear division discernible between the wearer’s self-determined exclusion and that that is imposed from without. The prominence given to the veil overshadows the debates on the roles and relationships between the sexes.

Islam has always been a canonical religion demanding conformity from the faithful, regulating the detail of their lives and daily routine. Nevertheless this world religion has a spiritual, poetic dimension, which has been thoroughly eclipsed, so that nowadays there seems to be nothing more than a residue of directives and bans.

Long since deprived of their power by the media-led hegemony of the image, places such as Toledo and Cordoba in Moorish Spain or Konya in Seljuk Anatolia, were once Muslim-inspired intellectual centres, where the monotheistic religions rubbed shoulders in an atmosphere of liberality and tolerance, where literature and philosophy flourished, and where fruitful exchange on topics such as creation, the meaning of life and man’s relation to his creator were possible.

Ritual and intellectual desiccation

Muslim philosophers only rarely achieve canonical status in Western philosophy. With a few rare exceptions that only serve to prove the rule, one is likely to seek in vain for a history of philosophy that can adequately convey the intellectual traditions of the East.

Tasawwuf, the Islamic mysticism, once the brightest of stars in the Eastern heavens, producing poetry of the highest order, such as that of Dschalaladdin Rumi, now serves as little more than a lucrative source of income for those keen to make money by catering to the needs of the spiritually undernourished West.

With no small success. In Islamic countries themselves, the inspirational spring of the mystic tradition has long since dried up, become reduced to formulaic ritual, with its corollary of intellectual desiccation, often described as the “Crisis of Islam”.

But how are we to move on from the present situation of stasis? Some sociologists predict that the adoption of modern lifestyles and the slow daily grind of the mills of uniformity will inevitably lead to the integration of Muslims into the modern world.

But the fact that a veil-wearing Muslim woman may be integrated into her working environment says nothing about her spiritual relationship to her faith. Just as little as the fact that the number of Muslim academics has risen enormously in recent years.

Shutting out the Modern

Muslims tend to end up in technical occupations. They cut themselves off from the cultural and intellectual aspects of modernity. A Muslim infiltration of modern society and its institutions would only have an emancipatory effect were it to breach the intellectual ghetto and lead to a more critical attitude towards their own traditions, as well as a willingness to discuss their position with regard to followers of other religions and non-believers.

Otherwise it would be nothing more than a creeping undermining of the Modern and simply pave the way to future conflict with open society.

Islamic thought badly needs fresh impulses and momentum, which would allow it to engage with the world and current ways of thinking. That is the central issue of every dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. After all, thinking that is no longer capable of communication is also incapable of dialogue.

But communication needs a language that can also be understood by others. Translation is its foundation. Tradition that is not translated petrifies to ritual, and ritual allows neither communication, nor challenge.

Muslims today do not possess this ability to translate. Their faith has been left without a voice in the modern world. It has taken on an apologetic character; it is reactive, but not innovative. Had it not been for the efforts of philosophers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig or Emmanuel Lévinas taking on the massive task of translating between Hasidic literature, the Talmud and Western philosophy, the Jewish religion would today be facing the same problems as Islam.

Without a doubt, there are strictly dogmatic, orthodox and fundamentalist-oriented strains within contemporary Judaism. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned philosophers did succeed in opening a window to the world beyond.

Fundamental dominance

They succeeded in opening up lines of communication, making it possible for Christians, Muslims, agnostics and atheists, for anyone at all, in fact, regardless of religious persuasion, to become involved in intellectual exchange with Judaism. Such intellectual exchange can itself provide the basis for a productive dialogue.

But what about the Muslims today? Fundamentalist fanatics and clannish functionaries dominate the image in the Western press. Intellectuals are a rarity. What is lacking is a language to inspire to bolder, more challenging and controversial thinking, as well as a Star of Redemption.

Yet discussion, the exchange of ideas, was once the central pillar of the Muslim system of faith. Even those sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that have been preserved are in a dialogical form. Islam is a religion of exchange, of conviction and persuasion, though not of coercion.

In its beginnings, Muslim culture was receptive to other monotheistic faiths, to the culture of Persia and India. It was open to inspiration and to critical questioning.

Most Muslims today do not understand translation as the hermeneutical interpretation of a reality, of a language into another reality or language, but rather as photomechanical transfer, for example, of the Koranic laws onto contemporary society.

Languishing in the “golden age of Islam”

This results in strange mutations, a caricature manifestation of Islam, glorifying a past which becomes a cure-all for present ills. But the cure is illusory, for in disposing of the problems of one’s contemporary world, one also disposes of a true grasp of the time one lives in.

Once we begin to feel ill at ease in our own time, we also lose our ability to communicate in the here and now, and have no way of expressing our unease. No wonder then, that in spite of the radical rejection of Western culture, no Islamic motivated cultural criticism of the modern West has appeared, nor any melancholic literature capable of fathoming the depths of the Islamic psyche.

For Muslims, the Koran is the Word of God, sacred scripture, the very core of their faith and their guide in life. As with Jesus for Christian believers it is sacrosanct. Nevertheless, from the earliest periods of Muslim culture and, of course, during periods of intellectual flowering, there has always been fierce and controversial debate on the hermeneutic implications of the text of the Koran.

How is a text to be discussed or studied if the richness and diversity of its interpretative possibilities are ignored? An aesthetics that grew up around the Koran also made possible the kind of bigotry that has become such a characteristic of Muslim societies today.

In the prison of the sacral

While there may be admiration for the calligraphy, the intonation of the sermon, the meaning of the text becomes secondary. The Koran has become trapped in a sacral prison, like a nightingale in its golden cage. But the question of its interpretative richness, the eternal validity of its canons, the spirit of the Word, was one with which Muslim philosophers were once very much engaged.

The conditions necessary for understanding, for human comprehension of the divine message, raised philosophical questions. A differentiation was made between the language of God, the eternal Word of his revelation and the human understanding of the text of the Koran.

The divine meaning could be intuitively grasped, but not fully comprehended by human beings. In Islamic, mysticism signifies enlightenment, coming closer to the divine, closer to God.

The current integralist interpretations of Islam are trying to give a literal interpretation to the Koran. They deny the hidden divine meaning, disregard the diversity of interpretation and declare the human interpretation to be the holy, eternal text.

Is this not a cardinal error? Nothing is more reprehensible to Islam than the deification of the human. Truth is the preserve of God. Yet man strives for truth. The rediscovery of man’s humility, of doubt, and of the richness and variety of the possible meanings of the Word, of the transitoriness of understanding or interpretation, these are the foundations for a critical approach that needs to become re-established in Islamic culture.

Only those who have doubts about their own understanding can attain a true understanding. A plurality of perspectives and opinions can, by itself, create a communicative atmosphere and allow dialogue with an other.

Faith needs translation. Translation between God and man is the fundament of all communicative activity. Those who are unable to communicate may suffocate silently.


Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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