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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

July 16, 2002

Translate this.

recognize this quote?

To hold these truth for for obvious in oneself, this whole man being to create equalizes, that to be to equip by their creator with some unalienable right, which among those to be life, freedom and happiness continuation -- which to fix these line, government being to institute among man, to derive their right power assent to govern, which all times that any form government to become destructive these end, right people to change or remove, and to institute new government, to create its base according to such principle, and to organize its power in a form, as to seem them most probably to carry out their Safety and happiness.

its the Declaration of Independence, after having been run through the Babelfish from English to French and back again.

Here it is again having gone through Chinese translation and back:

We hold these truth are self-evident, that all people are the equal which creates, then they with certain cannot become estranged by theirs creator the right subsidizes, is lives inside these, is free and -- consolidates these rights to the happiness pursue, the government is set up inside the person, derives their just strength from the agreement government, whenever government's any one form changes the destructive these terminals, it are the people right revise or abolish it, and sets up the new government, builds its foundation in such principle, with organizes its strength by such form, Very possibly seems as for them affects their safety and the happiness

The general gist is sort of preserved, but consider someone trying to decipher it without benefit of access to or any knowledge of the original text. "All people are the equal which creates" - means what? that People are God? And how would you interpret "government being to institute among man" ?

But this is merely an empirical example of why translations are fundamentally flawed. Trying to apply them to religious texts like the Qur'an is Sisyphean. Shi'a muslims like myself believe in a depth of meaning beyond the literal, which are obliterated in any attempt at translation. This is what the Qur'an is to the Shi'a :

To us, as to all Muslims, the Qur'an is the Word of Allah, revealed to Rasulullah (SAW) in the language of revelation and transcribed into the manifest Arabic language by a divine process. In effect, each word of the Qur'an is Allah's pristine, unaltered revelation.
It has, for mankind, a Guidance (al-Huda) that separates right from wrong (al-Furqan). It has within it all knowledge of everything pertaining to creation. The Qur'an itself says that there is nothing in the universe that is not in the Qur'an.
The bulk of the information of the Qur'an is in its multitude of allegorical and esoteric interpretations. Another level of information is in its numerical usage of words and letters, another in the numerical values attached to each letter, another in its order, another in the letters opening certain chapters, another in its captivating sounds, another in the way each verse was revealed - the list is almost unending.

The best analogy is that the Qur'an is a compressed file, where (due to its divine origin) the comprssion ratio is infinite. This interpretation is not shared by most Sunnis, and is outright rejected by the fanatical Wahabis and Qutbis (who go through extreme contortions to deny the words of the Qur'an itself on the matter. See Ideofact for a detailed analysis of the specific contortions of Qutb).

the very choice of the language of Arabic was no accident either. The richness of Arabic poetry in the pre-Islam arabian culture had no equal, and in fact the Qur'an itself is poetry on a scale that completely overwhelmed the pagan worshippers. The power of Qur'anic revelation was confirmation of the divine origin. None of this is even remotely describable to an english audience. And this innate complexity is intrinsic to the structure of the language itself:

Yet another level of information exists in the strokes of pen required in writing each word in Arabic. It was not by accident that Arabic was chosen for this Final Revelation. The language itself was nurtured in preparation for this task. The word Allah written in Arabic, for example, contains volumes of information that is completely lost if written in any other script. We know how Amirul Mu'mineen (SA) spent an entire night talking of the meaning of the dot (nuqta) under the letter "be" of bismillah, without exhausting the subject.

This is why I recite the Qur'an in Arabic and do not use translations in my religious practice. It is also why we pray in Arabic, even why we append "SAW" to the name of the Prophet Muhammad SAW and not PBUH. SAW are the english-transliteration of the Arabic initials for Peace be Upon Him. PBUH is the english, SAW represents the Arabic as best as possible without access to the Arabic script.

If a muslim does not understand Arabic, they still should recite it in Arabic only. It is easy to learn to read Arabic even if you do not understand it. And what is the point of reciting something that is not understood? If you believe the Qur'an to be writen by a man, then precisely none. But if the Qur'an contains the literal Words of Allah as revealed, with all divinity intact, then the mouth is repeating these divine words. The eyes see the divine script, the ears hear the divine sound, of the revelation.

It is said that angels perceive the reciter of the Qur'an as a shining star. Thus do translations fail utterly. And if understanding the Qur'an is your aim, then again the divide between Shi'a and Sunni arise. But that's a topic for later.

Many self-appointed experts in Islam turn to English translations of the Qur'an and from these, derive all sorts of generalizations and inferences about the religion. The most noted offender of this type is Eric Raymond, whose five-part series on Islam (starting here) is ludicrously flawed (and which I will deconstruct later), but examples abound within the warblogsphere.

UPDATES 071702:

Ideofact (Bill Allison) comments.

Stephen Skubinna shares a book recommendation by Mark Twain, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, translated into French and back again into English. More empirical evidence :)

UPDATES 071902

Traveling Shoes (H.D. Miller) comments

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About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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