What do Dave Chappelle, Malaria, and the FBI have in common? They all make appearances in the latest publication from the Maurchives, Thoughts from Sudan. Once I graduated with my master’s from the Khartoum International Institute for Arabic Language in 2011, I thought I had closed that chapter of my life, but the thoughts from Sudan kept on coming back to mind. The emails and stories I shared with my family and friends throughout my travels and studies gave us all a good laugh. Some have encouraged me to publish them. So as of August 21, 2022, Thoughts from Sudan, the monograph, is available for the world to chuckle at.
Thoughts is one of the works I will be publishing in the Islamic Literacy Series, in which I will address the elusive topic of how to embark on a path of studying the sacred sciences of Islam. My goal is to increase the Islamic literacy of the American Muslim community, young and old, by sharing my experiences, providing sound advice on study plans and strategies, and using my connections to facilitate travel to the Muslim world for advanced studies, if they choose to do so. Thoughts will be followed by the title, Towards Islamic Literacy, which will provide a definition to the much abused term “Islamic Literacy” and a practical model one can follow to achieve it.
Before I conclude this post, I want to share with you a brief passage from Thoughts. It’s about my landing in the Khartoum airport after being stranded in Detroit due to an interrogation with the FBI and Immigration, which made me miss my initial flight. This passage describes a nightmare scenario in which I landed in a foreign country with nothing three days after I was scheduled to be there. Check out my initial reaction to life in Sudan. The rest of the book is full of these types of scenarios.
From the chapter “My journey:”
As I flew into Khartoum, all I noticed was low level square hut-like dwellings. From my vantage point, it did not look a lot different from the Detroit terrain I just left. When it was time to finally exit the plane, I felt a gush of hot air overcome me; one that would not leave me until I left ten months later. I stood in a long line of people passing through customs, eventually entering the airport about an hour later. I waited quite a while for my luggage at baggage claim. Most people from my cohort grabbed their bags and left, followed by another cohort. However, I and a handful of other people were still waiting for our bags. It became evident that something went wrong, and a significant amount of people’s luggage did not arrive with the flight. So those of us still waiting, surrounded a 20-something airport employee and described to him our bags and their contents. He seemed like a nice guy, but he was unbearably slow.
Employee: “What was uh… in your bag?”
European Traveler: “I had some clothes…”
Employee: “Ok, clozes…” Writes something down for about fifteen seconds. “What kind of clozes?”
European Traveler: “Let’s see, I had some socks…”
Employee: “Yes. Sooks.” Writes something down for about twenty seconds. “How many sooks?”
European: “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe ten.”
Employee: “Yes. Ten.” Writes something down for about thirty seconds. “What color sooks?”
After what had to be several hours of chasing these rabbit holes, finally it was my turn, and I was the last one. Once I finished, I had something else to think about. How was I going to get to my destination? Dr. Lo’s Senegalese friend studying in the Sudan, Muhammad (Mamadou) Diouf, was assigned to meet me at the airport, but I could not imagine him waiting so long. First, I was three days late. Secondly, I exited the airport several hours after my flight was scheduled to arrive and it was already dark.
Upon stepping out of the airport, I was quickly approached by a taxi driver, whose question in Arabic I understood as, “Do you need a taxi?” To which I said lā (no). He looked at me in surprise and said in Arabic, “You speak Arabic very well!” This is something I and many other Westerners traveling in the Arab world experience. You say one word of Arabic to a native speaker, and they quickly compliment your Arabic proficiency, even if you know nothing more than that single word. Nevertheless, I welcomed the official transition from English to Arabic.
Shortly afterwards, someone who appeared to be Senegalese caught my eye. He was a lean, dark-skinned man with piercing eyes. We both approached each other asking the other by name. Alhamdulillah! It was a big relief that he waited. He ended up negotiating with that taxi driver to take us to the dormitory. First, we had to stop and exchange some of my dollars for Sudanese guinea, then we were on our way. Muhammad wondered where all my luggage was, to which I told him it was lost, and I had to go back to get it later. He said that the next day was a holiday in the Sudan, but we would make plans to go after that.
We arrived at his dark and dusty dorm room where he promptly began chopping up onions and putting rice in a pot on an electric heater. He gave me a pair of his shorts, a pair of sandals, and a bar of soap and directed me to the bathroom. Only in Moroccan rest stops had I seen bathrooms so filthy. Brown streaks ran up and down the ancient tile walls and pieces of hair were tucked between crevices. Was this the place I was to live for the indefinite future?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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:
The correct conception of life and the universe.
Increasing Muslims’ pride and confidence in Islam and to call others to it.
Familiarization with the correct Islamic position on important matters.
Guarding against uncertainties in the religion.
Resisting the influence of external cultures.
The role of Muslims in directing society.
Looking towards the future of the Islamic Community.
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.