The missing and unacknowledged Qurans October 12, 2012Posted by auriolweigold in : Kumar, Vikas, South Asia - General , trackback
The Quran has received a lot of attention in recent times. On the one hand, alleged desecrations of the Quran by NATO forces in Afghanistan or citizens of NATO countries have more than once triggered massive protests across the Islamic world. On the other, critics of ‘Islamic’ extremism have tried to trace its roots to the Quran.
The second kind of attention is of interest to us here. Two points are worth noting in this regard. The core Islamic theology cannot be causally related to violence involving Muslims. And, even if portions of the Quran that are not part of the core theology can be linked to religious violence, we need a more nuanced understanding of such links. In the ancient world knowledge was one seamless realm and means of preserving it were scarce. Religious texts often served as intergenerational carriers of whatever communities found worth preserving, including advice on warfare and statecraft. In short, the ‘theological’ roots of complex modern socio-political developments like Islamic terrorism/extremism are nebulous. But there is a largely ignored aspect of the Quran, potentially related to Islamic extremism and religious violence involving Muslims outside the Arab world, which would bear closer examination.
Among the scriptures of the major religions, the Quran is conspicuous by the paucity, recentness, and obscurity of its translations, discussed in that order.
The Quran has been translated from Arabic into about 100 languages, roughly 1 per cent of the known living languages, whereas Islam is the religion of more than 20 per cent people in the world and Arabic is the language of less than a fifth of the Muslims. In contrast, partial or complete translations of the Bible are available in more than a third of the languages. The missing Qurans are only now being supplied because of competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Furthermore, most translations of the Quran are relatively recent. For instance, the Quran was translated into the Balkan languages at the very end of the centuries-long Ottoman rule. While the earliest South Asian translations predate the establishment of Islam in large parts of South Asia, an overwhelming majority of the known translations appeared after the disestablishment of Islam in 1858, i.e., more than a millennium after Islam’s arrival in South Asia. Similarly, complete translations of the Quran into the minority languages of the Arab World are not very old either.
Surprisingly, despite short supply most translations of the Quran remain unacknowledged among the believers, let alone used for ecclesiastical purposes. This is remarkable because Muslims often admit that prejudices against their community can be traced to the lack of access to Islamic scriptures in other languages and that extremists brainwash youth through selective interpretations of the original text in ancient Arabic. In fact, translators often suffer identity crises since translations are treated as interpretations. For instance, the King Fahd Complex for Printing of the Holy Quran refers to translations as ‘translations of the meanings of the Noble Quran’ rather than ‘translations of the Quran’.
Explanations of the triple regularities referred to above often invoke the intrinsic untranslatability of the Quran and/or the theological undesirability of translation. But numerous Quranic verses clearly violate the untranslatability and undesirability axioms, for instance, Abraham 14.4, Marium 19.97, Ha Mim 41.3, 44, The Smoke 44.58, and Yusuf 12.2. Alternatively, one could argue that believers felt the need to voluntarily defend the faith after the ascendancy of the West vis-à-vis Islamic states committed in principle to uphold the faith. Outside the Arab World, believers responded to the threat posed by gunboat Christian missionaries-cum-printers among other things by translating and distributing the Quran. But this self-defence hypothesis is only partly credible because in many places non-Muslims, including Christians, supported translations or were the first translators. In any case, while the self-defence hypothesis can partly explain delayed translations, it cannot explain the paucity and obscurity of translations.
Unable to unravel the puzzle posed by the limited and belated distribution of the Quran in translation, we can nevertheless reflect on the significance of Quranic translations. The linguistic consciousness of Muslims, who speak languages that received early and/or widely used translations of the Quran, seems to be stronger than their co-religionists who speak other languages. And, linguistic-rootedness partly explains the autonomy of Persian, Turkic, and Eastern Islams from the Arab Islam.
Linguistic-rootedness of large sections of South Asian Muslims explains Pakistan’s linguistic partition in 1971 as well as the continued resilience of traditional Islam in parts of Pakistan and the Kashmir Valley despite relentless extremist onslaught. In fact, across South Asia Muslim communities with longstanding engagement with Islam in a local language seem to be relatively resilient to extremism. Sufis are the most obvious cases in point. Two other examples are in order, one each from North and South India.
In South India, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have comparable populations. As per Varshney-Wilkinson Dataset on Hindu-Muslim Violence in India, during 1950-1995, 1.4 per cent of the riots were reported from Tamil Nadu, whereas Andhra Pradesh accounted for 4.3 per cent of the riots. Unlike the first Tamil translation that appeared in the 1880s, the first Telugu Quran appeared almost half a century later, long after the relationship between language and religion had been deeply politicized.
A similar comparison of West Bengal with other states of North India is revealing. During 1950-1995 West Bengal accounted for merely six per cent of riots in India, compared to Uttar Pradesh that accounted for 17 per cent of the riots. Neighbouring Bihar, which has a comparable population and which like Uttar Pradesh had not suffered the trauma of actual partition, accounted for 6.4 per cent of the riots. Differences in overall population and share of Muslim population cannot explain the huge gap between Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. But we know that Hindi, spoken by a majority of people in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, received a complete translation of the Quran almost a decade after the language question was drawn into communal politics. Bengali, on the other hand, received one of the earliest and best-known translations of the Quran.
There is another interesting difference between West Bengal and other northern states, possibly, related in parts to the translation of the Quran. Punjab and Bengal were the only provinces that suffered due to partition. But unlike Punjab, Bengal continues to have a sizeable Muslim population. At the time of partition Punjab was deeply divided along religious and linguistic lines. Muslims wrote Punjabi in an Arabic script, whereas Hindus used the Devanagari script and Sikhs used the Gurmukhi script to write Punjabi. (This reminds of ethnically divided Yugoslavia, where the same language Serbo-Croat was written in different scripts. Fortunately, the linguistic divide between the Hindus and the Sikhs of Indian Punjab disappeared by the early 1990s. But the linguistic divide between Indian and Pakistani Punjabs persists.) In Bengal, even though partition could not be averted, Bengali language written in Bengali script continued to unite people across religious communities. While the bond between Muslims and Bengali language could potentially be traced back to the late Pathan period and the Bauls, a more recent historical event seems to have added to the strength of that bond. Girish Chandra Sen (1835-1910), a Brahmo Samaji, translated a number of Islamic texts into Bengali, a contribution for which he is fondly remembered as Maulana Sen or Bhai Girish Chandra. But his best-known contribution is the first complete translation of the Quran in Bengali (1881-86). (Another early Bengali translation was published by an Australian Baptist missionary Rev. William Goldsack.) Subsequently, Bengali emerged as one of the very few languages across the world that have received dozens of translations. Interestingly, the bond between Punjabi language and Muslims of Punjab is strong thanks to Sufi poetry and Punjabi was also among the languages that received an early translation (1870). As pointed out above, the Hindus and the Sikhs, however, used different scripts because of which the Punjabi translation does not seem to have an impact similar to its Bengali counterpart. (For want of space comparisons between Sindh and Pakistani Punjab and Gujarat and West Bengal are not possible here.)
But we need a long run cross-region dataset to carry out a robust empirical assessment of the claim that access to Islam in a local language and a script shared by other communities mitigates propensity to extremism and incidence of inter-community religious violence involving Muslims. The dataset should include among other things information on social and political conditions and measures of religious extremism, incidence of inter-community religious violence, literacy, and mode of access to the Quran and other Islamic texts. While a detailed assessment along these lines could potentially overturn the correlations highlighted in this submission, one objection to the claims made here needs to be mentioned straightaway. Tamil Nadu had a strong Dravida movement, which elevated Tamil language above everything else, and West Bengal had a strong communist movement, which marginalized ethnic claims. These factors can potentially explain the relatively lower incidence of Hindu-Muslim conflicts in these states. To conclude, while the inferences drawn here require further assessment, this submission has hopefully highlighted an important factor that has potentially shaped the contour of the relationship between Muslims and other communities across South Asia over the last century and a half.