Friday, October 18, 2013

How not to write about "Islam and Qur'anic Arabic"

(Attention conservation notice: This post is probably only of interest if you're reading The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy.)

A title like The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy carries a reassuring message of solid reliability. The first chapter I happened to open it to, however, rather belies this reputation: "Language policy and religion", by Christina Bratt Paulston and Jonathan M. Watt. I'm sure its authors have plenty of expertise in, respectively, sociolinguistics and Biblical Studies. Unfortunately, they decided to pick a case study to which their expertise very clearly does not extend: "Islam and Qur'anic Arabic". This produced some rather serious misapprehensions, of which I'll explain the worst here for the benefit of any readers of the article.

"Presumably the existence of Allah and Jehovah are considered mutually exclusive by their believers" (p. 340) is self-evidently absurd. Muslims necessarily believe that they worship the God worshipped by Abraham and Moses, and that there is no other God. The Qur'an instructs Muslims to tell Christians that "our God and your God is one", and Arabic-language Bibles or Torahs call "Jehovah" Allah. (Malaysia's bizarre and unjust recent court decision to ban non-Muslims there from calling God "Allah" might suggest otherwise, but as far as I can tell, no one involved is claiming that Jehovah is a different entity from Allah; rather – as far as I can reconstruct their tortured reasoning from the brief sound-bites in the news – they're claiming that, at least in Malay, the word "Allah" ought to be exclusive to Muslims.)

"The insistence that the sacred book was transmitted from heaven in this language, and none other, appears never to have been challenged from within this religion" (p. 341). Obviously, the Qur'ān got here in the language that it's written in (unless you subscribe to the philologically untenable fantasies of Luxenberg). But the Qur'ān is not the only book which Islam acknowledges as a divine revelation - just the last, and the only one considered to have been preserved in its original form up to the present. And the Qur'an is rather explicit regarding the language of previous prophets: "We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them". As the great 11th-century jurist and writer Ibn Ḥazm put it: "This means that Allah’s words and revelations were sent down in every language. He sent the Torah, the Gospel, and the Psalms. He spoke to Moses in Hebrew. He sent the Scrolls to Abraham in Syriac. Therefore, languages are equal in this regard."

"[The Qur'an] is an unflinching sequence of pronouncements, blessings, commendations, condemnations and exhortations: absent are narrative tales, devotional songs and meandering reflections" (p. 346). I can't see how this sentence could have been written by anyone who had actually read the Qur'ān, which is full of narrative tales and includes a good deal of reflection. (Not singing, of course, but anyone who has heard the Qur'ān recited will understand how it might take the place of "devotional songs".)

"The very name of Islam's book means 'that which is recited' or 'the collected things', and, as Cooper (1985: 55) notes, it shows a preference for the Qurayish (sic) tribal dialect" (p. 342): Qur'an could be rendered as "recitation", but has nothing to do with "the collected things", much less with the dialect of Quraysh.

"formal public readers of the Qur'an are clerics, never laymen" (p. 343): actually, in Islam there's no hard and fast dividing line between "clerics" and "laymen" in the first place. Any Muslim can and often does lead public prayers (which include the recitation of parts of the Qur'ān). Admittedly, the more public the setting, the stronger the preference for people who have memorised the whole book and studied its meaning and pronunciation in detail – I suppose you might call them "clerics", if you want to ignore the fact that they don't necessarily have any formal role at the mosque, and as likely as not have day jobs.

The presence of such errors, and more pervasively of strange gaps and perspective problems, become more understandable when you take a look at the references. In the whole section, only six works are cited on Islam and Qur'anic Arabic, apart from translations of the Qur'ān: Abdalati 1975 (Islam in Focus, an introduction to Islam for the general reader); Cooper 1985 (Ishmael My Brother, an elementary introduction to Islam for Christians); W. M. Watt 1968 (What is Islam?, an academic introduction to Islam); Ibn Warraq 1995 (Why I Am Not A Muslim); Rippin and Knappert 1990 (Textual Sources for the Study of Islam); and Speight 1989 (God is One, another introduction to Islam for Christians). That makes four beginners' introductions, one polemic, and one scholarly sourcebook. This is a reference list fit for a first-year undergrad's essay, not a published academic article.

If you haven't read this article, you're not missing anything. But if you find it on a reading list, consider forwarding this to whoever assigned you it.


David Marjanović said...

the philologically untenable fantasies of Luxenberg

I'd like to know more about this.

John Cowan said...

David: See Wikipedia.

David Marjanović said...

Thanks, the "Academic objections" section was much smaller last time I checked, IIRC. It now contains this quote:

"His grasp of Syriac is limited to knowledge of dictionaries and in his Arabic he makes mistakes that are typical for the Arabs of the Middle East."

That's pretty damning.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Here's de Blois' review:

David Marjanović said...


Michael Roquemore said...

It definitely seems like Christina Bratt Paulston and Jonathan M. Watt were pretty one sided in their approach.
A google search told me that Paulston's studies are mainly in Bilingualism, and Watt is a professor of none other than Biblical Studies. Surprise, surprise...
I imagine their claim about the two religions being "considered mutually exclusive", was based on a background in Biblical studies, but lacking any in-depth research of Islam. It is indeed absurd that their research made it past a publisher and into the Cambridge Handbook. However, in all fairness, their point regarding the two religions was half correct and I wanted to offer some defense.

Although, as you said, the Qur'an "instructs Muslims to tell Christians that "our God and your God is one"", the Christian faith does not hold Allah to be the same God as Jehovah. I wanted to offer some reasons why, but please know I am only doing so in the spirit of mutual learning. (To be honest, I am only saying something because Biblical studies is the only topic mentioned in your post to which i have put any significant thought, study or research) I really enjoyed you post and look forward to reading more!
And now onto my reasoning.
Firstly, translating the Bible across languages is never done directly, but takes into account cultural relativity. (i.e.: Biblically speaking, some cultures in parts of the world that have never had the ability to make or produce bread must be told about communion in terms of a common food they DO have such as rice cakes or another common grain.)
Following that same train of thought, Allah may have been the most applicable or significant term for 'God' available to those translating the Bible. (whats more, there is some pre-Islamic poetry which uses the name 'Allah' to refer to an all powerful "God", but I haven't done enough sufficient research in that particular matter to say more)
Finally, the Bible itself says in the New Testament that Jesus Christ is God and that nothing was created without Him. [The Book of John ch 1 Describes this] To describe a God apart from Christ is a completely different God and a different gospel than that of Christianity. Later in the new Testament, Paul the Apostle makes it clear in the Book of Galatians [ch 1 vs 6-9] that anyone who teaches a gospel other than that of Jesus as God is not teaching the truth but rather a perversion of the gospel.
My guess is that because the Bible was so adamant on its view of other religions and version of God, Watt and Paulston must have assumed the Qur'an would be the same way towards Christianity.

I do realize that the point of your post was not intended to be focused on cross-religion studies but there it is... ( And still I read the article even though I have no interest in The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy)
I'd love to hear any other thoughts you have. :)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I can see how a Christian could claim that the God Muslims worship is not the same as the one Christians worship, on the basis that the latter but not the former is identified with Jesus (although the existence of Unitarians and Arians, who presumably interpret John differently, complicates that claim). To translate that claim as "Allah is not the same as Jehovah", however, would be very misleading, since Allah is not a name specific to Islam. Christian Arabs have been calling God "Allah" considerably longer than English speakers have been calling Him "God", and indeed were doing so well before the Qur'an. Moreover, Jews – who of course do not believe in the divinity of Jesus – have at least as good a claim to defining "Jehovah" as Christians do. By your definition you would have to conclude that the God Jews worship is not the same as the God Christians worship either. I'll leave Christian doctrine on these points for Christians to debate, but defining "Allah" as an exclusively Islamic term, and "Jehovah" as an exclusively Christian one, is incorrect irrespective of any doctrinal questions.

Johan Tristan Aslim said...

I won't go into the discussions raised by this interesting blog-post, but rather I would just like to add a link to an article/interview that in my eyes is actually an example of "how to write about Islam and Qur'an." So for those interested, have a look at the converstion with prof. Abdel Haleem on the language and spirit of the Qur'an as it was put on the site of the Halal Monk.