The Truth of Translation: The Sunni – Moorish Debate

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.

SUNNI’S Al ISLAM vs. MOORISH SCIENCE’S ISLAMISM
Tariq Ibn Jamil vs. Taharka Bey

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.

Orientalism in Black Face

Scholarship is about debate and the free exchange of ideas. So in order to keep scholarship alive in Black communities, the channels of debate must remain open. However, these debates must respect knowledge and the means for acquiring it. Too often, in the so-called conscious community, debates ensue with a lack of regard for knowledge. One particular debate that offended my sensibilities not only as an African American Muslim, but also a linguist and information specialist, was one in which the the musician, author, and conscious debater, Shakka Ahmose attempted to prove that Allah was a deity worshiped along with other deities in ancient Sumer. He based this conclusion on his “groundbreaking” research using a book of Sumerian poetry translated by Thorkild Jacobsen, an acclaimed Assyriologist. At face value, he appears to have stumbled on some serious information that requires a well-crafted response from Muslims. But upon closer evaluation, we find that his information was veiled in tricknowledge, as I will demonstrate momentarily.

The first red flag was that, in Jacobsen’s book, the author transliterates the deity’s name as Alla, not Allah. However, Mr. Ahmose, who supposedly studied the ancient Egyptian language, could not see the gaping hole in his logic. Just because two words from two different languages look the same when transliterated into English, does not mean they are the same word or have the same meaning. For example, the name of the ancient Egyptian being, Thot (an Anglicized bastardization of ḏḥwty), has absolutely no relation to the word thought in English, despite the fact that they are pronounced similarly. Likewise, the name of the country, Turkey, has no relation to the word turkey in English. Unfortunately, there is a bad habit among conscious psuedo-scholars finding cognates between words that have no relation to each other.

Secondly, these languages have sounds in their respective languages that do not have equivalents in the English language. So when I see a word transliterated in English I cannot ascertain whether it is a voiced pharyngeal fricative or glottal stop without the aid of a standard transliteration system. Moreover, Thorkild Jacobsen, a bona fides linguist, never made the claim that there was some relation between this Sumerian deity and Allah of Arabia. Even if they were the same sounds, the concept of Allah put forth in the Qur’an and held by Muslims throughout history, negates any latent notions of the existence of other deities.

Anyway, I decided to look into this theory and apply a lateral reading technique to get to the bottom of this. I did a simple Google search for “alla sumerian god.” As usual, the first thing I saw was a Wikipedia page titled “List of Mesopotamian deities,” but there was no mention of “Alla.” Further down on the results list, you can find a blog post entitled, “Was Allah Originally a Babylonian ‘God’ of Violence?” written by an elderly convert to Judaism from Cuba. He refers to Muslims and Christians disparagingly in his posts, but the reason for his disdain is not clear other than the fact that he is Jewish. Nevertheless, this author reiterates a theory proposed on Shoebet.com, another misinformation site backed by Zionist Jews. On this site, Theodore Shoebet authored an article called “The Oldest Reference to Allah,” in which he cites a work by a true scholar of Mesopotamian history, but he misspells the word in question and bases his theory on this “mistake.” This reveals that in the typical fashion of internet misinformers, their ideas are not based on primary research, but a repackaging of others’ erroneous ideas.

Jean-François Champollion. Thoout, Thoth Deux Fois Grand, Le Second Hermés. 1823. 29 cm. Brooklyn Museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth#/media/File:Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Herm%C3%A9s,_N372.2A.jpg.

The source in question was by Stephanie M. Dalley, an Oxford professor of the ancient Near East, who published her English translation of the Epic of Atrahasis in 1989. On page 10, Dalley translates the passage: “Then Alia made his voice heard…” Shoebet corrupted her translation by writing, “Then Alla made his voice heard…” To the dyslexic eye, the letter “i” following the first “l” can easily be mistaken for another “l.” However, Alia is clearly a different word from Alla or Allah. If this was an honest mistake, then Mr. Shoebet’s reading skills need to be questioned along with whoever shared his information. If this was a deliberate distortion, then the Qur’an has already warned the believers about those among the Jews who distort words from their places (Qur’an 4:46).

In the case of Mr. Ahmose, he was clearly being deceptive. As we can see, he searched “AlIa”(with a capital i) in his Google book, with hopes that the viewer would not be able to make it out on the video or search for it himself. What is more interesting, perhaps, is the implications of a so-called conscious Black man using misinformation, theories, and – dare I say – tactics from White Jews and Orientalists to combat the spread of Islam in Black communities. Mr. Ahmose can be seen in other videos and debates plagiarizing the since-debunked theories of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and the like, which posit that the Qur’an and Islam did not originate in Arabia. On the other hand, Black Muslims have been baffled for years as to why many in the conscious circles, particularly Kemetans, have criticized Black Muslims so harshly and effectively ousted them from the conscious community altogether when they are supposed to be brothers in race and in struggle. Could it be that they have made an alliance with Zionists and other Islamophobes to marginalize Muslims in the Black community? Or are they so subsumed with anti-Muslim prejudice that it clouds their judgement to view the facts? The world may never know…

Afrocentric Madness: Anti-Religiosity in Afrocentric Thought

Afrocentricism is a valid methodology of looking at history. With the idea that all history is subjective (HIStory, as they like to say), it is worth looking at history from the perspectives of Africans. However, the popularization of Afrocentricism in African American communities throughout the 20th century, and now into the 21st century, has taken a highly anti-religious tone, which has resulted in the dismissal of anyone associated with the three main Abrahamic religious paths. In this post, I will address some aspects of the methodology of those who have usurped Afrocentricism and highlight some of their fallacies using a video lecture from the 2000’s by Dr. Phil Valentine.

Classic Fallacies of Afrocentricism

In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of religious communities, Dr. Phil Valentine, like others of his ilk, falls into a classic fallacy by regurgitating anti-religious rhetoric. His first course of action is to attack the history of the Christian Church in Europe and how it was used to colonize and enslave Africans. Then he looks at the Black Christian today, often attacking his character and psychology. Finally, he turns to other religious expressions adopted by African Americans, like Islam and the Hebrew Israelites.

Most Afrocentric thinkers make this false-equivalence, refusing to recognize: 1) the complex history of Christianity, 2) the complex history of Islam and other religions, 3) their own blind-spot regarding racial identity, and 4) their biases and prejudices.

Dr. Phil Valentine speaks on religion.

1) Failure to recognize the complex history of Christianity

  • Afrocentric thinkers do not always recognize that Christianity had “Western” versions and “Eastern” versions that diverged pretty early in its history. These doctrinal differences drew a wedge between them philosophically and geographically, resulting in completely different historical experiences.
  • Acknowledgment of these various forms of Christianity are almost always along racial lines rather than doctrinal lines. However, doctrinal differences under the Roman Empire at the advent of Christianity often trumped racial differences.

2) Failure to recognize the complex history of Islam and other religions

  • Islam has its own complex history that is starkly different from that of European Christianity.
  • Direct experience with God was never discouraged.
  • Power of interpretation was regional and lied with whoever possessed the knowledge, not upon charisma, descent, race, class, etc. (although debates existed)
  • There was no wide-scale dark age and rejection of science, systematic disenfranchisement of women and minorities, or even slavery based solely on race.
  • Not all societies see religion as a means for political and social control as it is imagined in the West.

3) Afrocentric blind-spot concerning race

  • Almost all Afrocentrics operate on a construct of race invented in the United States.
  • This is the duality of Blackness and Whiteness.
  • That Blackness is equivalent to African and Whiteness is equivalent to European.
  • Any noticeable amount of African descent counts as Black, except for Arabs.
  • Black Arabs must choose to identify either with their “Black African mothers” or with their “White Arab fathers.”
  • There is no room in this construct for a “Black” person to see oneself as possessing multiple identities or to reject them altogether. Any lack of conformity to this construct evokes ridicule.

4) Biases and Prejudices

  • Most Afrocentrics are Egyptophiles and have an unquestioning reverence for Kemet (ancient Egypt). This causes them to ignore information about it that might seem distasteful to them like homosexuality, violent conquest, honor killings, etc.
  • They are theoretically in favor of Blacks and Africans in all they do until their thinking and actions do not fit the mold that they have constructed. Therefore, African Christians and Muslims are all brainwashed; Africans that marry outside of their race are all self-hating; etc.
  • They are prejudiced against:
    • Europeans for slavery and oppression in America.
    • Arabs primarily for corner stores in Black neighborhoods, secondly due to post-9/11 propaganda, and tangentially for their history of slavery in East Africa.
  • They are prejudice against all Muslims for the actions of Arabs and Black Christians for the actions of Europeans.

Kemetan Exceptionalism

At one point in Dr. Valentine’s lecture, the crowd turns its attention directly to Islam and Muslims. One can observe that he does not know much about Islam and he would rather avoid the topic, but since audience members ask, he is compelled to say something. At around the (1:04:15) mark in the video, he makes the comment:

“Islam is an off shoot of the same triumvirate. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have the same prophets. If they share the same prophets, they share the same bullsh*t.”

After being prodded with specifics, Dr. Valentine states that the Muslims took the act of women covering from the ancient Africans. He said that it was done for protection from the sun and to guard against male pheromones that would cause them to ovulate. Then he said that it degenerated into something to keep a woman down. When addressing men praying in front and women in the back, he said that was also taken from Kemet. In his interpretation, women behind men meant that they were the support. He goes on to say that when the Arabs came and saw the hieroglyphs, they interpreted it to mean subservience based on their cultural values.

While Dr. Valentine appears to confirm the “correctness” of these Islamic practices in as much as they are conform to his brand of scientism and Kemetanism, he denies Muslims the intellectual capacity for having a similar reasoning. He assumes that the Muslim woman’s veil and her praying behind men are necessarily oppressive when coming from Muslims and cannot be interpreted in any other way. One person in the crowd states that he heard from a Muslim that women praying in front of or along side men could be a distraction, but he does not address this comment.

The conversation devolves into a rant against Christianity. In the process, he mentions a hallmark that distinguishes cultural nationalists from revolutionaries. He believes that at some point in the future when all Black people recognize their true selves, only then will we live happily ever after. This grand approach is not all dissimilar from some religious dogma that posit that everyone should believe the same in order for us to live happily ever after. It can also be argued that such a unity of thought and belief is pure fantasy and has never been achieved along racial or religious lines in history.

Revolutionaries, however, tend to take a different approach. They meet people where they are at and do not obligate them to buy into a particular paradigm before attempting to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Conflicts and controversy have always existed, and religious movements have historically helped people wade these waters. In waiting for an imaginative collective consciousness, Afrocentrics and other cultural nationalists fix a permanent chip on their shoulders and ensure that they will always have a reason to not take action.

Towards Islamic Literacy: A Brief History (Part 1)

Since the term information literacy was coined, its definition has expanded and has been applied to a number of subject areas. There are such examples as computer literacy, cultural literacy, and visual literacy, but can we really justify a literacy of one religion? Or can we also envision models for a Jewish literacy or Pagan literacy? While I have no objection to this, I believe that there is an urgent need for Islamic literacy, given today’s political, spiritual, and intellectual climate that has allowed for the dissemination of misinformation on Islam and Muslims worldwide. The consequences of which have led to a seemingly unending chain reaction of deadly global crises involving Muslims. While this issue has been raised to a number of brilliant contemporary Islamic scholars worldwide, as of yet they have not been able to address it adequately. In my view, this issue must be addressed creatively and must be seen in the light of a paradigm shift, which we will discuss later.

In the last 20 years or so, Muslims have made major inroads into the future of Islamic education in America despite the challenges posed by the dominant American society. With the continued success of many Sister Clara Muhammad schools, Zaytuna College, Islamic Online University, ALIM, and many other efforts made by scholars, teachers, and organizations both in-person and online, the prospects for acquiring a basic and sometimes advanced knowledge of Islamic sciences and present-day issues are plentiful. However, the community still faces problems of Muslims misunderstanding their faith and allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks in its name, increasingly Islamophobic groups and individuals who perpetuate misinformation about Islam and Muslims, and debates internal to the Muslim community over liberalism and a lack of respect for the Islamic intellectual tradition. In turn, this has led these American Muslims to see Islamic literacy as a way to fill the gaps in knowledge and understanding. While the usage of the term Islamic literacy is relatively recent, the discussions around it are neither new nor original. The term has an evolving definition and history on which I hope to shed some light.

Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya

In the past, Islamic beliefs, practices, law, and ethical codes permeated Muslim societies, making it easy for someone living in or visiting those societies to gain literacy in Islam. However, if the common Muslim wanted to become more acquainted with religious knowledge and other subjects, he could do so by absorbing Arabic literature (adab). Dr. Umar Sulayman al-Ashqar notes that the likes of Ibn Khaldun and Shihab al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418 C.E.) described one of the aims of studying literature as, “the marginal acquisition of some of every field of knowledge.”[i]

However, in contemporary language, the word thaqafa is used to describe this relationship to knowledge, and carries a meaning close to our usage of the word literacy. The word thaqafa, in addition to meaning erudition (and other related concepts), is most often translated as culture. Therefore, those who write on the topic in Arabic not only speak in terms of information and knowledge acquisition, but also in terms of culture, civilization, and etiquettes. In antiquity, there was much literature written in Arabic expounding on the proper etiquettes of students and teachers. Such books are usually brief and serve either as admonitions for derelict students and scholars or guidebooks for novice pupils and rising teachers. They often describe a culture that existed in Islamic learning environments throughout history, but are now only maintained in a minority of institutions that value and seek to uphold traditional Islamic methods of teaching and learning, which is often characterized by oral transmission and memorization of texts in addition to an ascetic lifestyle focused on study and worship.

In some Arab Muslim societies, thinkers and educators have devoted much time to increasing their publics’ awareness of Islam beyond the absorption they will naturally acquire by virtue of living in Muslim families, communities, and societies. In these places, it has become abundantly clear that neither heredity or association, or even being native speakers of Arabic makes them sufficiently knowledgeable about Islam. This has caused many in this part of the world to think about how to make their citizens more literate in foundational matters of the religion. Consequently, countries such as Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have established courses in Islamic literacy (or culture, as it can be defined) in institutions of higher learning.[ii]

Presently, the term al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya has emerged in popular usage by authors and educators at Islamic-themed schools throughout the Arab world as an effort to re-introduce their youth to their Arabic-Islamic heritage. Its usage, however, is relatively recent, only emerging in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Despite the fact that many of these authors borrow each other’s ideas in explaining what al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya is, they have not yet formed a scholarly consensus on the exact definition of the term. Nevertheless, I have gathered and translated some of these attempted definitions, which define the concept as: 

  • “Knowledge of the broader Islamic Community’s foundational elements by [examining] its past and present interplay with religion, language, history, civilization, values, and shared goals in a conscious and purposeful way.”[i]
  • “The collection of theoretical knowledge, information, and expertise, derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna, acquired by human beings who determine, in light of these sources, an individual’s thought and behavioral patterns in life.”[ii]
  • “The way of life lived by Muslims over their lifespan in accordance to Islam and its vision.”[iii]
  • “The collection of psychological, intellectual, ideological, moral, and behavioral attributes and characteristics by which the Islamic personality is distinguished [and is] acquired by knowledge of the general foundations of the Islamic Community, as well as the general foundations of the Islamic religion, [which are] derived from the Holy Qur’an, the authentic prophetic Sunna, and the intellectual efforts of scholars and thinkers, along with the reciprocal influences of the present reality.”[iv]
  • “The living image of the Islamic Community.”[v]

In these various definitions, we find some basic agreement that al-thaqafa as-Islamiyya encompasses the foundational elements of Islam, which are primarily derived from the Qur’an, Sunna, and other sources of information. Moreover, it reflects the issues of current times in some way. These issues are left abstract in the above definitions. However, were we to consider the stated imperatives of some of these authors, we would find a number of themes that dominate their contemporary discourse. Muhammad Musa al-Sharif enumerated eight themes in his book Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina:

  1. The correct conception of life and the universe.
  2. Increasing Muslims’ pride and confidence in Islam and to call others to it.
  3. Familiarization with the correct Islamic position on important matters.
  4. Guarding against uncertainties in the religion.
  5. Resisting the influence of external cultures.
  6. The role of Muslims in directing society.
  7. Looking towards the future of the Islamic Community.
  8. Acquiring balance and thoroughness in all aspects of life.[vi]

From a cursory glance at these themes, the reader might gather that writings on al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya comes from a place of anxiety over a future loss of an Islamic identity and culture and animosity against those perceived as aiding in its destruction. In many of these works, the West acts as the main antagonist in the story. Colonialism, neo-colonialism, Zionism, Western media, and their foreign policies in the Muslim world are all major topics of conversation discussed within these works. Westerners are sometimes mentioned in as much as they confirm certain stereotypes about the West or confirm the superiority of Muslim cultures. Conversely, they almost never mention anything about the growth of Islam in the West or Muslims’ unique placement in these societies and potential contributions to the global Muslim culture. This blaring omission along with the overall confrontational tone negates the usefulness of an Arab-Muslim understanding of al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya in the West where the attitudes and challenges are much different. In the next post, we will briefly examine how American Muslims have sought to address their set of challenges by developing their own concepts of Islamic literacy.



[i] “Al-akhdhu min kulli ‘ilmin bitaraf.” Al-Ashqar, Umar Sulayman. Nahw Thaqafa al-Islamiyya al-Aseela, Jordan: Dar al-Nafa’is, 2005, p. 18-20.

[ii] Al-Sharif, Muhamad Musa. Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2012, p. 26. 

[i] Al-Mazid, Ahmad ibn Uthman, et al. Al-Madkhal ila al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya, Saudi Arabia: Madar al-Watn li al-Nashr, 2012, p. 12.

[ii] Musallam, Mustafa and Fathi Muhammad al-Zaghbi. Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya: Ta’rifuha, Masadiruha, Majalatuha, Tahaddiyatuha, al-Ithra: 2007, p. 18.

[iii] Cited from the periodical Al-Jundi al-Muslim in Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, p. 23.

[iv]  Ibid. p. 23-24.

[v]  Ibid. p. 24.

[vi]  Ibid. pp.  42-62.

The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”

As George Floyd lay pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressing on the back of his neck, his last words would define the times that we are living in like none other. His tragic murder occurred during a global pandemic that has taken the life of over 400,000 people and whose main symptom is shortness of breath. This is a sign for people who reflect.

“Breath of Life” by Rachel Strohm (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelstrohm/38975963380)

The Breath of Life

In Hebrew and Arabic, the words for breath and soul are etymologically related. The words for soul are nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ) and nafs (نًفس) in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. In the Hebrew Bible, nephesh refers to animal and human life or the soul. Throughout the Qur’an, nafs is used to refer to the human spirit or the self. In the Qur’an, it is described as inciting to evil (12:53), reproachable (75:2), at peace (89:27), well-pleased and pleasing (89:28).

Essentially, the nephesh/nafas refers to the breath that every living being possesses as the essence of their life on earth. This breath is sacred as it is passed from parents to child, generation after generation. There exists an unbroken chain of breath going back to our original father and mother, Adam and Eve.

The Human Spirit

When Allah created Adam, He breathed the soul (ruh,روح ) into him, then he sneezed and said: ‘All praise is due to Allah.’ So he praised Allah by His permission. Then His Lord said to him: “May Allah have mercy upon you O Adam.” When its Hebrew cognate, (ruach רוּחַ), was translated into Greek, it was translated to the word that means breath (pneuma πνεῦμα).

Whereas the nafs/nephesh refers to the sacred physical breath that cannot be detached from the body, the ruh/ruach is pure spirit that can exist in the absence of a body. It is from the command of the Most High analogous to a wind (rih ريح) whose source is from something greater and unseen.

When we reflect on the time we are living in we find several analogies to the cutting of our sacred breath. First, the Corona virus is a respiratory disease that makes it extremely difficult to breathe among other symptoms. Secondly, the global pandemic has made the world take a collective gasp of air as businesses and other institutions close as a precaution against spreading the virus. This is at a time when people’s lives were already being strangled by a tenuous economy, degree inflation, and immorality and corruption in high places. In addition to all of this, the world gasped in horror over yet another extrajudicial killing of an African American. As the world holds its breath in anticipation for what is next, we hope that the next breath is one that will revive the human spirit.

 

 

Is Fusha Elitist?

Student: Wow! You used to teach Arabic?! Fusha or Amiyya?

Me: Fusha.

Student: Don’t you think it’s elitist to speak in Fusha, though?

This is a conversation that transpired recently between me and a young American student studying in Egypt. It was a courteous conversation and the student actually wanted to hear my honest response to her question. My position is based on the following points, which I expressed to her, but I also think that my response warrants mentioning in a more well-thought out manner. The idea that fusha somehow aids in an elitist mindset reflects the miseducation American students of the language receive from their government and universities. Moreover, the push to the teaching of Arabic dialects has made students pawns in a broader political game.

This is not how we teach English

The powers that be in the U.S. will never agree to the use of American dialects such as African American Vernacular English, Hawaiian Pidgin, or Cajun as the language of instruction in schools. First, these dialects are not connected to a rich written heritage that learners can read in. Even if this heritage existed, it would disadvantage learners in an Standard English-dominated society by not training them in the register of language that is valued in the greater society, effectively making them foreigners in their own country.

Yet, Americans propagate the teaching of Arabic dialects both at home and abroad in contradistinction to the way we use and envision our own language. Before students know anything about Arabic, they are supplanted with ideas about its difficulty and are given the option to learn Modern Standard Arabic, Qur’anic Arabic, or Amiyyah. When people wish to learn English they learn a standard version of the language. Slang and dialectical characteristics are expected to be encountered and acquired later as students have more contact with native speakers of English. Why aren’t slang and dialects emphasized more in English learning pedagogy? Why don’t we speak more about the differences between British and American English, Jamaican Patois and Aboriginal English, Gullah and Nigerian English, etc.? Well, in addition to our notion of exceptionalism there are some deep-rooted political reasons for our view of the Arabic language, which I will briefly touch on in the following paragraphs.

The Weaponization of Language

In the summer of 2015, I was teaching a free Arabic-language intensive at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I advertised it on the Arabic-L listserv, a listserv for scholars, instructors, and Arabic nerds. I promptly received an email from Dr. Chris Stone of Hunter College (CUNY), asking me bluntly where I was receiving my funding. I told him that my position was funded by a grant from the Department of Education and I knew why he was asking to which he replied that he was glad to see the Department of Education was still doing its job and that he would advertise this intensive in his circle.

In April 2014, Dr. Stone published an article on the online Jadaliyya website entitled Teaching Arabic in the US after 9/11. He began the article discussing the situation in which he was stabbed outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. His attacker apparently wanted to take revenge for U.S. policies in the Middle East. He then brings to the reader’s attention the number of post-9/11 defense and intelligence funding opportunities for the teaching and learning of Arabic. He goes on to discuss the controversies within the fields of Middle Eastern and African studies concerning this funding.

These funds and newfound interest in the teaching and learning of Arabic in the United States has reshaped how scholars, teachers, and students approach the language. Under the pretext of teaching a more communicative approach, they have called on instructors to get students speaking as soon as possible. In 2002, the counterterrorism Arabist, Dr. Geoff Porter wrote a critical piece in the New York Times alerting the F.B.I. to the differences between various registers of Arabic, urging them to teach their agents a more natural language that will allow them to better understand wiretapped phones. Thus inserting a dagger into Arab language pedagogy. I once interned at a military archives that needed to sort through hundreds of Arabic fliers that were used for PsyOps during the Iraq War in the 2000’s. The Arabic in these fliers reflected the dry style of American military speech, rife with exclamatory commands and warnings, which I could not imagine being taken seriously by any Arabic speaker.

Anyone privy to the teaching of Arabic in American universities since 9/11 should be aware of this philosophical shift. The second and third editions of the renown Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallum al-ʿArabiyya series, taught at most universities, conspicuously increased its colloquial content. In the meantime, people serving in various branches of the American military were offered generous bonuses for proven proficiency in any of the “defense languages,” mainly the Egyptian, Levantine, and Iraqi Arabic dialects. Likewise, defense language and foreign service-oriented scholarships became plenty for students.

Arabic language fliers that were distributed in Iraqi war zones by the American military.

The Conspiracy

The debate over diglossia in the Arab world is a heated one. It was sparked by European Orientalists and colonialists venturing into regions of the Arab world and finding discrepancies between the written and spoken, formal and informal languages and the widespread use of different registers in different situations. While such differences were present, Europeans saw an opportunity to separate Egyptians and other Arab nationalities from their heritage.

Their aim was to do to the Arabs what they did to Africans in the Americas when they physically, mentally, and spiritually disconnected us from our language, culture and religion. Of course, this required a different strategy, because the Arabs were still in their lands and took a lot of pride in their language, culture and religion. The solution was a calculated plot to marginalize fusha and those that held to it.

Since the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing conspiracy to detach Arabs from their language, culture, and religion. This is meticulously documented by Dr. Nafusa Zakaria Sa’id in her book, Tārīkh al-Daʿwah ʾIlā al-ʿĀmīyyah wa ʾĀthāruhā fī Miṣr (The History of the Appeal to Colloquial Arabic and Its Effects on Egypt). She traces this conspiracy back to two Arab authors who published books on Egyptian Arabic with the sponsorship of Europeans. They even went so far as to publish high literature like the parts of the Bible and Shakespeare in colloquial Arabic on behalf of the Egyptians. Dr. Sa’id points out that all languages (including European languages) have registers, dialects, and colloquialisms, but only Orientalists with an agenda made these a problem.

Despite their many attempts to convince Egyptians to treat their dialect as an independent language, their ideas never quite took root, due to the strong influence of Azhar University and the public’s general reverence for their Arab heritage, regardless of whether they were Jewish, Christian or Muslim. They only began to see success once they started to open up schools that taught in European languages during the age of colonization. By cleverly marketing their schools, selective enrollment, a Western education was reserved for a new elite… Those who revered Europeans and their way of thinking by adopting their ideas, language, and lifestyle. While they naturally spoke their local dialects, their higher learning, which would ordinarily acquaint them with fusha, was replaced with a foreign language. Those that studied in Arabic were deemed backward and uncultured, making proficiency fusha anything but elite. Unfortunately, this mindset still exists to this day in Egypt and other Arab nations to this day.

A Listing of Works Calling for the Use of ‘Amiyyah

  • 1838 – ʾAḥsan al-Nukhab fī Maʿrifat Lisān al-ʿArab by Muhammad ‘Iyad al-Tantawi
  • 1880 – Grammatik des Arabischen Vulgardialectes Von Aegypten by Dr. Wilhelm Spitta
  • 1886 – Al-Risālah al-Tāmmah fī Kalām al-ʿĀmmah wa al-Manāhij fī ʾAḥwāl al-Kalām al-Dārij by Mikha’il Sibagh
  • 1893 – “Why There is No Creativity Among Egyptians Now” speech by William Willcocks
  • 1895 – The Modern Egyptian Dialect Of Arabic by Karl Vollers
  • 1901 – The Spoken Arabic of Egypt by J. Selden Willmore
  • 1926 – Manual of Egyptian Arabic by D.C. Phillot and A.P. Powell
  • 1926 – “Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Malta Speak Punic, Not Arabic” by William Willcocks

Arabs Are Not the Only Arabic Speakers

My final retort is that Arabic is not only the language of those who identify ethnically as Arabs. It is used by ethnic and religious minorities such as Copts, Berbers, Kurds, etc. It is also used by Muslims outside of the “Arab World.” In fact, some of the most eloquent and learned people in the language have been people I lived and studied with from a diverse array of backgrounds. They were students from West Africa, East Africa, and different parts of Asia who usually memorized the Qur’an and conducted their primary studies at madrasas of humble means in their home countries. They later went on to pursue higher degrees at recognized institutions in the Arab World. Though their introduction to the language was entirely in fusha, they would adapt to hearing a local Arabic dialect within a month or two, because they already had a strong foundation in the basics of the language. This has been the system in which non-native Arabic speakers acquired proficiency in the language for hundreds of years. However, Americans, out of their warmongering and need for Mcdonaldfication in all matters, have tried to jump the gun in language pedagogy by learning Arabic for nefarious purposes and without an understanding of the peoples that speak it.

This is not to say that I oppose the speaking or study of Arabic dialects. Indeed, natural speech is essential to communication and daily survival in Arabic-speaking countries as anyone who has ever studied in the Arab world may know. Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about the Arabic language in the United States and it will take a generation of learners with both expertise and a clear perspective of the language to unravel them.