On Apr 19, 2022, a livestream debate between the Baltimore-based Moorish Science Temple representative, Taharka Bey, and the D.C. area-based Sunni Muslim, Tariq Ibn Jamil, was posted to the Moorish World Tv YouTube channel. The stated topic was “Can the Qur’an be translated?” With Tariq arguing the affirmative and Taharka arguing the negative. I find in this debate many teachable moments in terms of Islamic literacy, linguistics, the rules of engagement with regards to intellectual debate, and simple logic.
After hearing both sides of the core debate (there are many tangential debates), I will have to say that Taharka Bey is the victor for reasons that I will explore in this post.
Taharka Bey’s Argument
Taharka’s presentation of his position was stronger due to some key strategies that are align with sound scholarship and argumentation, which I will enumerate below. I will also point out flaws in his argument and gaps in his knowledge.
1) He argued the majority opinion.
The common position of Muslims is that the Qur’an is inimitable and it cannot be precisely translated, only explained through the lens of a combination of auxiliary sciences, not the least of which is Arabic linguistics. Arguing the majority opinion has its benefits in a debate. It makes supporting evidence easier to access and counterarguments easier to make because predecessors have already done the work.
2) He had a logical sequence.
Taharka has a clear logic. He begins by stating his premise, which is that in the “Common Tradition:”
Any translation of the Quran will be termed inauthentic if it goes against the established hadith (sayings and actions) of the Prophet and against the understandings of the companions of the Prophet.45:00
According to the epistemology of Black Orientalists, transmitted reports are not valid evidence of a fact, which is diametrically opposed to the underlying epistemology of hadith science. Orientalists often use this as the first mode of attack, because in the modern age, oral transmissions are no longer perceived as valid. They prefer written evidence and documentation.
He uses this premise to make a number of points, before moving on to his next point:
In order to extrapolate the meaning of a particular Quranic verse, Muslims rely on exegesis, or commentary rather than a direct translation of the text.49:00
He then makes a distinction between exegesis/commentary and translation. For instance, he takes a number of different English translations of a verse that uses the word taqwā to demonstrate that the various translators are making an exegesis of the word, because there is no direct equivalent in English.
2) He used substantial evidence that was relevant to the argument he was attempting to make.
Taharka’s used a mixture of primary and secondary source evidence. The examples of Qur’anic words without easy English equivalents were clear and plentiful (primary). Then he used statements from experts on the subject to back up his point (secondary). Taharka even cited an academic journal article, whose main author was a Libyan linguist who looks like an African American. The article can be found here: http://www.ijssh.net/papers/178-A10061.pdf.
He made a good point when he said that knowledge of linguistics is a prerequisite for translation (1:01:00). Unfortunately, not all translators have this background. Reading knowledge of a language alone does not always suffice for translation. Linguistics often gives the translator a bird’s eye view of how the two different languages function.
For more reading on this topic, you might want to read Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʹān by the Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu. He was not a Muslim, but his work is respected in the Muslim world due to his ontological approach to Qur’anic ethical terminology.
Critiques of Taharka Bey
1) He began his argument on a faulty premise.
Taharka’s first premise, whose source he begged the audience not to ask about, though logical, is faulty because it is simply not true. While hadith and the understandings of the companions can contribute to the understanding of the Qur’an, they are not the primary determinants of a valid translation. For instance, the Shi’ah have different standards of hadith and do not accept the understandings of all the companions, but this does not render their translations of the Qur’an invalid. What renders a translation invalid is if it is not consistent with the original language and apparent meaning of the Qur’an.
However, I understand that the epistemology of Western Orientalism (in this case Black Orientalism) does not accept orally transmitted reports as valid evidence of a fact. Although this was the epistemology of the ancient world. They often claim to prefer written reports (“receipts” if you will). However, they do not acknowledge that they too accept oral transmission of information, as evidenced by the fact that they are engaging in a live oral debate rather than an exchange of written publications.
Also, when Tariq was showing a number of books to say that a translator needed to study a number of subjects to produce a translation, I noticed a few comments in the chat:
Showing off books is a weird way to prove a point. You should be able to recite and orate the contents of the books without referencing them. This guy only knows how to recite stories
ALL BOOKS ARE MAN MADE AND CAN BE TRANSLATED BY MAN WOMAN AND CHILD
Black Orientalists still have reservations about the written word despite their rhetoric about wanting “receipts” and written documents.
2) He relied on a few straw man arguments.
A straw man argument is a fallacy many debaters fall into when constructing arguments agains their opponents. Taharka’s first premise was a prime example of this. It was as if he propped up a dummy to beat up on to show that he is tough. Of course, we know dummies don’t hit back.
He also used a straw man argument on his point about the translation of the term maqām as “shrine” in surat al-Baqarah: 125. He used the most strict (Salafi) interpretation of Muhsin Khan’s Noble Qur’an to establish that the word “shrine” is a mistranslation. Khan translates it as “stone on which Ibrāhim (Abraham) stood.” However, this is an argument over semantics and what people understand when they hear a word in a particular language. It is possible that “shrine” is the most appropriate equivalence for the word maqām as understood by Arabic speakers. But the issue is that Taharka assumes that Muhsin Khan has the correct opinion with regard to Muslims creating shrines (which in the context of the verse is an anachronism because it is referring to Abraham, who predates historical Islam). This causes Taharka not to question Muhsin Khan’s word choice, which might be influenced by his Salafi ideology, or his understanding of the word shrine, which some English speakers might associate with pagan worship.
To further drive home my point, he used the example of the word kāfir to say that words have “implied meaning” (as do all words in any language) and an exegesis is needed to reveal its connotations (1:00:00). I would argue that the English language has a single equivalent to the word kāfir in the word “infidel.” The root k-f-r (ك – ف – ر) has a connotation to ingratitude, betrayal, and infidelity as evidenced in other the Qur’anic verses (see surat al-Isrā: 27 and surat Ibrāhīm: 7). However, modern translators avoid the word “infidel” because they are aware that it carries negative connotations in the English-speaking world, even though it might be loyal to the Arabic meaning (no pun intended). The avoidance of the term demonstrates my point about semantics, mental associations, and ideology.
3) He differentiated between exegesis (commentary) and translation.
This point is a matter of personal opinion, but one that is backed up by some scholars of translation theory. I believe that translation is a type of commentary. A translation should not simply be reduced to an exchange of words in one language to another. A translator looks at more than just the lexical meanings of words. A good translator is looking at the overall effect of the work. While I understand the distinction Taharka is trying to make, I simply do not agree.
Tariq ibn Jamil’s Argument
As for our friend, Tariq, there are a few reasons as to why he lost the debate.
1) His presentation was not compelling.
Quite frankly, I think he bored the listeners because his points were not easy to follow. He was also very cerebral and soft-spoken. Furthermore, he interspersed his speech with too much Arabic terminology and quotations of Arabic passages. This shows a disregard for his audience, who primarily do not speak Arabic.
Moreover, his approach resembled that of a traditional Muslim scholar rather than a “hotep” debate. In these types of venues, a Muslim cannot appear to be too academic, because in the minds of the audience he will be acting “too white.” Likewise, if his approach is too “traditionally Muslim,” then he would be deemed “too Arab.” These are unfortunate facts.
2) He attempted to argue a minority opinion.
Those who argue a minority or unpopular opinion have an uphill battle. Not only are they less likely to have a wealth of supporting evidence, but their arguments and primary sources must be overwhelmingly convincing.
Tariq presented his argument in the form of a rare narrative gathered from an uncited Sunni tradition. His focus was on a translation of the Qur’an officiated by Salmān al-Farsī. By this, he demonstrated that it “can” be translated and it “was,” but his evidence was not strong enough to show that his translation was a complete or quality translation.
First of all, the story of Salmān al-Farsī’s translation of the Qur’an into Persian is not common knowledge, even among Muslims. So he has the added task of proving the existence of this translation. Otherwise, the listener will need to take his word for it. But even if he could produce this early Persian translation of the Qur’an (which I do not believe is extant), his audience would not have the tools to determine its accuracy, because the majority of the audience does not read Persian or Arabic.
Although I would not have taken his approach, Tariq could have emphasized more the fact that Salmān al-Farsī was not an Arab, but a Persian; although most Americans probably cannot differentiate between the two. A historical approach does not usually hold up in a debate unless it is backed up with a clear purpose and sound logic.
3) He entered a lot of unclear and irrelevant information.
The many details of Salmān al-Farsī’s story, the showing of books, and preachy statements were not relevant to his argument.Therefore, he lost momentum and wasted a lot of time speaking on the contours of his argument but making very few points.
Additionally, I don’t think the points he did make were clear to the audience. He could have devoted more time to discussing how vital the various subjects he mentioned in the books he displayed were to translating the Qur’an. Yet, he should have had a better selection of books because those that he presented were mostly not pivotal works in the fields he was referring to. However, the true scope of these fields would have required much more than 30 minutes.
Finally, there was also a woman (I’m assuming) named, Amutalha Abdul Rahman, who sought to aid Tariq’s argument, but it was not coherent. What I understood from it was that the Tafsir of Ibn Kathīr (mistakenly wrote Ibn Khair) had an AEU seal of authenticity. These things needed to be explained exactly how it contributes to the argument.
As we can clearly see, there is a lot to learn from this debate. However, one thing lingered in my mind throughout. Why were they debating such a pointless topic? The answer to the debaters’ central question: Can the Qur’an be translated? is an emphatic yes. There have been multiple attempts at translating the Qur’an in various languages. Each attempt could be placed on a scale of subjectivity to just how loyal the translation is to the Arabic original. However, they could have asked a better question.