Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Questions, Questions

The books I've read for the International Women's Forum Cornerstone Conference in Amman, Jordan have (1) shown me how little I know about Islam; (2) raised more questions than they have answered. For example, Leila Ahmed (conference speaker, Harvard Divinity School professor, Egyptian by birth, author of Women & Gender in Islam) admits in her memoir Border Passage that she never learned to read classical Arabic. Therefore, she cannot read the Q'ran. She says that the Q'ran is an oral text for Muslims. Except for scholars and jurists, the Q'ran is heard, not read. Furthermore, the Arabic dialect spoken in each country in the Middle East is so different that the denizen of one country cannot understand the Arabic spoken in another country. When Ms. Ahmed went to teach in the Emirates, she had to have an interpreter for Gulf Arabic.

Ms. Ahmed's comment makes no sense when I try to puzzle it out. What, then, is modern standard Arabic? Is this what literate people in the Middle East read in their newspapers? If not modern standard Arabic, what is the Arabic of the written press? What is the common denominator Arabic of the American University of Beirut--still, after all these years, an important source of higher education in the Middle East, as I have learned from googling the conference's speakers. What is the Arabic on Al-Jazeera?

Beyond these practical considerations, the oral transmission of the Q'ran has enormous consequences, it seems to me. As we Protestant Christians know, it was the translation of the Bible into the European vernaculars--an act of disobedience against the Church that cost both translators and printers their lives--and the subsequent reading of the Bible among the literate middle classes that led to the Reformation and its attendant consequences for nation-states and human rights. A sixteenth-century European had to read the Bible in secret, upon penalty of death; the reward for such a risk, however, was the freedom to decide for oneself the meaning of the sacred text. The printing press was introduced into the Arabic-speaking world by nineteenth-century American missionaries, brought from Malta to Beirut in 1834. Maybe it's time for Muslims to read the Q'ran in their native languages. Of course, western history here is a cautionary tale, as well, in that it was the internecine warfare among Catholics and Protestants that finally led some people to a surfeit of violence and killing and a subsequent sense of the worth of all individuals, no matter their beliefs. It was not a straight path from the translated Bible to religious freedom. So perhaps we should not expect change in the Muslim world too quickly.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that a crux of Islamic culture is the oral transmission of the revelations of the Prophet.

Hume Horan, a retired U.S. foreign service Arabist, has this to say on the subject of why the Islamic world has been resistant to translations. "Here is the dilemma: God spoke Arabic. Oh, he may have delivered an earlier, flawed message in Hebrew, in the Old Testament, or in Greek, in the New. but he damn sure got it right the third time. The Koran is not history or biography, like the Bible. It is pure revelation. Arabic is coterminus with God. So, unlike English, which is a compost, a welcoming cathedral, the most catholic of languages, Arabic is a completely closed system, resistant to loanwords, a terrifyingly logical, well-oiled piece of machinery that just clicks, clicks away." (quote from Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists)

Arabic verb tenses do not delineate among past, present, and future. Surely, this feature of Arabic also contributes to the resistance to Koranic translation.

And one small consequence for westerners is the transliteration of Arabic words. Is it the Koran, Qur'an, Qur'n, or Q'ran? Was he Mohammed, Mohamed, Muhammed, Muhamad, Muhammad? Each of the books I have been reading uses a different spelling. This confusion adds to the tentativeness of any and all western observations of Islam, including mine here on Junehill, Owl and a Green Dog, Too.

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