Lost in Translation

An author I’d not heard of and whose write-up in the Guardian does little to impress me (cock-tails! handsome! witty! with-it! Great Novel of Our Time!) interjects in the write-up his opinion (almost admittedly un-informed) on the Qur’an, Islam, and Muslims of the present day and the past. Mr Faulks- the author in question- is rebutted by Ziauddin Sardar, who does a decent job. However, as the comments section to Mr Sardar’s article reveals in greater, and quite distressing, depth, the problem lies not merely in Mr Faulks’s ignorance of the Qur’an and Islamic history (though anyone who is unable to find an ethical message in the Qur’an has some reading comprehension problems, frankly), or in the ignorance of the aforementioned commentators. Some of them do seem to have a greater grasp of both the Qur’an and Islamic history, but still miss the point, not only of the Qur’an, but of all sacred scripture. But they all miss the point of scripture in, not only the tradition of Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism. Scripture does not exist in a vacuum, not even in the practice of Protestant traditions whose official doctrines might suggest as much. Scripture only exists, only signifies, within the shared practice of a community. Scriptures comes to signify only within the community, within the tradition of shared life, practice, ritual, whatever you wish to call the complex- religious life is too weak, becaue it entails a division between times, when the scriptures of the Peoples of the Books permeate all of life, all of imagination and activity, though especially what we label specifically “religious” ones.

The befuddlement of Mr Faulks and the like-minded commentators- and many non-religious or vehemently anti-religious people in the modern West- is like the befuddlement of someone faced with a deeply foreign language. Unable to understand the language, they conclude that it must be nonsense, lacking in art, lacking in real meaning- dry and arid, to use Mr Faulks description.

It’s not a new reaction (what is really new?). St. Augustine tells us that when he first started reading the Bible, he didn’t like it too much. Compared to the classics of Greece and Rome, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was vulgar and dull by turns, and just didn’t do it for St. Augustine, at first anyway. His reaction wasn’t original, either- there were plenty of people in the world of ancient Christianity who felt the same way. But St. Augustine, obviously, would over time come to not only understand and participate in the language of the Bible, but it would permeate him, grip his imagination, serve as the constantly recurring seed blossoming into new interpretations and permutations. It took time- his early work as a Christian shows signs that his grasp of the language of Scripture was young and not deeply set. For in order to enter into the language, the rhythm of scripture, one must enter into the lived participation of it.

The contours of this lived participation vary within the traditions of the Peoples of the Books, but I increasingly find that they mirror each other considerably. Not, I suspect, primarily through borrowings and direct influences, but rather through a shared sense of commitment to a given text (or rather, canonical assembly of texts) that is spoken and interpreted and embedded in the life of a self-aware community. To illustrate, let me offer some very inadequately fleshed-out examples from the scriptural traditions I am most familiar with. As a disclaimer, my knowledge of Orthodox Christianity comes from both the lived (and still quite fresh and in some ways novel, in some ways quite familiar) experience and my more academic studies. My commentary on Islam does not have the lived participation, obviously, but, I think, is informed by my experience in the scriptural tradition and experience of Christianity.

To begin with, in Orthodox Christianity, the Divine Liturgy is the central location of the Bible; its phrases, words, chapters and verses permeate the Liturgy (and every other service), which the worshiper hears and speaks day after day after day, and, even if she does not practice much attentiveness, the language of the Liturgy works into her imagination, her practices, becomes a language, a way of life. From the shared experience of scripture in Liturgy, the Church draws upon the commentaries (both explicit and implicit) of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, who, even when they are not writing what we would identify as commentary proper, write and think in a language that is built from scripture. The words and lives of the Church’s saints, in turn, fold back into her liturgical life and experience of the scriptures; no part can really be divided off from another. The words of the Fathers and Mothers are organically fused, impregnated, with scripture, the well of all knowledge as St. Isaac says of the Bible. The knowledge of scripture that they seek and that they live is not a mere knowledge of grammar and syntax, historical context and critical apparatus (even if those things are not ignored), but a living knowledge, the knowledge of the heart, so that the text comes to shape them, to direct their desires and thoughts and actions. And in all of these permutations of scripture, the person of Christ is woven through and through: the Church speaks Christ through scripture, and speaks scripture through Christ. Hence the importance of encountering scripture in the Divine Liturgy, in the embracing enclosure of the Eucharist- scripture itself is gathered into Christ and out of Him, as it were, truly begins to signify, to live. Outside of Christ, outside of the Church and her life, the Bible is a confused jumble of texts; “for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” The letter does not cease, but is transformed.

In Islam, scripture is the central axis of all practice; the Qur’an is understood as the actual, living words of God. Yet, even as the Qur’an stands in Islam as the direct mediation of God’s language, it does not exist in a vacuum either. In fact, the content and form of the Qur’an even more than the Bible demands an ummah, a community to receive it and understand it. As various Western critics have rightly noted, the Qur’an does not explain itself; with the exception of Surah 12, the story of Joseph, there are no fully developed narratives. The text often jumps rather abruptly from one point to another, without any seeming interlude or reason. (Incidentally, when modern writers do this, we are expected to hail them as brilliant and unbound by convention, but that’s another tale…) But it is this very form that entails its embedded nature in the Muslim community: in the first place, the Qur’an becomes, from the very beginning, the language of the Islamic ummah, obviously within the formal salaat, and within the practice of recitation. Qara’a, the root of al-Qur’an, includes, among its valences, the meaning ‘to recite,’ and this is of course how the early Qur’anic recensions were preserved, and continued to be experienced, up to the present. Qur’anic recitation- in the various possible forms and manners of reciting- are crucial to the assimilation of the text into the worshipers heart and mind. The goal, al-Ghazali tells us in the Ihya, is to so attune oneself to the text that as one recites, at the sound of the threats of God against sin, one becomes as a dead man, and at the sound of God’s promises and mercy, one soars aloft like a bird. The text is ‘unbound’ through its penetration of the heart and its permutation of one’s very language. The dis-junctures of the text keep one in motion, alert; the repetitiveness helps to inscribe it and make it present.

Further, the text comes to exist in the Islamic ummah through the work of the commentators, whose tafsir- interpretation, commentary is a decent enough translation- ‘flesh out’ the semi-narratives of the Qur’an and seek to solve its syntactical and lexical difficulties, and to correlate its often cryptic allusions and references to the sunnah of Muhammad. In so doing, they situate the text of the Qur’an within the life of Muhammad and more broadly the life of the ummah. The tafsir tradition, in its general stability, provides a consistent framework for the wider community to receive the Qur’an and assimilate and understand it- both on an ‘exterior’ (zahir) level, and, increasingly as Islam develops, the ‘interior’ (batin) level. With its situation in a fairly stable commentary tradition the text can be opened up to multiple meanings (such as the Sufi emphasis upon personal movement from maqam to maqam in the apprehension of the Qur’an) while still remaining an integrally whole text. Out of the whole complex of the Qur’an’s situation in Islamic life- and I have just touched on two aspects- it becomes the language of the community, not simply a rule-book (the Qur’an is in fact rather short on that sort of thing) or a reference guide, but a site of prayer, of self-knowledge and self-formation under the text.

All of this is to say that Mr Faulks, and a great many other people in the modern world, fail to grasp the scriptures of the Peoples of the Books because they do not grasp their function, and they do not even seek to enter into the scriptural ‘world’ of these communities. Their approach to a scriptural text is like their approach to any other text- it is an object to be dissected and laid out to dry and then pronounced upon. If upon doing so they find only a rather uninteresting or even disgusting corpse, it should come as little surprise.

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. I’ve read three books by Faulks; a mixed bag. Birdsong was the best I read, about the First World War. Human traces. about psychiatrists, was rather dull and pedantic.

    But yes, it all goes to show that the media generally just don’t “get” religion, and tend to misinterpret it, sometimes in rather bizarre ways.

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