paleo Ideofact

Wednesday, July 17, 2002
An interesting post from Aziz Poonawalla, who's been kind enough to link me (I should have a reciprocal link up tonight), and kind enough to correspond with me. He noted in one email that he doesn't agree with everything I write -- fair enough, I don't even agree with myself 100 percent of the time, let alone anyone else. Mr. Poonawalla writes on the subject of translation, one of those topics that fascinates me (I'm about half-way through an excellent William Tyndale, who translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English. Tyndale gave us some of the most memorable phrases in the English language, including "the powers that be," "my brother's keeper," "the salt of the earth" and "a law unto themselves." Tyndale's work was not inevitable; in the King James version of the Bible, the Prophetic Books (which Tyndale did not have a chance to translate -- he was burned at the stake as a heretic before he got to them) are unreadable.

Mr. Poonawalla begins with a babelfish exercise which in my view isn't particularly enlightening. Computers don't speak English, or Chinese or anything else; if I sat down with an English-Chinese dictionary and translated the opening of the Declaration of Independence into Chinese, and a native speaker of Chinese who didn't know English did the same with a Chinese-English dictionary, I'm sure we could achieve a comparable result. But that's not really translation.

He goes on to a discussion of the Qur'an. First, let me concede a few points: Translation is a poor substitute for reading a work in its original language. From what I understand from people fluent in it, Arabic is a beautiful, expressive language. And in matters of faith, I'm generally respectful. That said, I find discussions like this odd:
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.
I am reminded of three passages from Borges -- well, two of them are from him, and a third is quoted from G.K. Chesterton. The first is on language:
At one time or another, we have all suffered through those unappealable debates in which a lady, with copious interjections and anacoluthia, swears that the word "luna" is more (or less) expressive than the word "moon." Apart from the self-evident observation that the monosyllable "moon" may be more appropriate to represent a very simple object than the disyllabic word "luna," nothing can be contributed to such discussions. After the compound words and derivatives have been taken away, all the languages in the world (not excluding Johann Martin Schleyer's volapuk and Peano's romancelike interlingua) are equally inexpressive. There is no edition of the Royal Spanish Academy Grammar that does not ponder "the envied treasure of picturesque, happy and expressive words in the very rich Spanish language," but that is merely an uncorroborated boast.
Borges' point, I think, is that the sounds we use (and the symbols that represent them) to express reality are arbitrary human contrivances.

In another essay, Borges compares the "classic" book (the term comes from classis, or frigate -- as he points out, a classic book is one on which everything is shipshape) with a sacred book:
Spengler points out in his chapter on magical culture in Der Untergang des Abendlandes that the prototype of the magical book is the Koran. For the ulema, the doctors of Moslem law, the Koran is not a book like others. It is a book -- this is incredible, but this is how it is -- that is older than the Arabic language. One may not study it historically or philologically, because it is older than the Arabs, older than the language in which it exists, and older than the universe. Nor do they admit that the Koran is the work of God; it is something more intimate and mysterious. For the orthodox Moslems that Koran is an attribute of God, like His rage, His pity, or His justice. The Koran itself speaks of a mysterious book, the mother of the book, the celestial archetype of the Koran. It is in heaven and is worshipped by the angels.
I do not think Borges, who was a modest man, a polite man, a respectful man, means to challenge these beliefs; I think in any case he has taken some poetic liberties in stating them. The passage comes from a lecture he delivered on the Kabbalah, which, like Amirul Mu'mineen and his nuqta, ascribed sacred meaning not just to the words, but to the very letters of the Torah. This is something of an alien concept in the West, especially in the English speaking world. For the English of the 16th century, the important thing was not learning Hebrew or Greek, but rather having the Bible in English -- in the vernacular. Tyndale wanted to render the text "in proper English" so that any ploughboy could read and understand the scriptures. Latin lost its hold as the language of religion, although unlike the Qur'an and Arabic, the Vulgate (and Erasmus' Novum Instrumentum) was a translation itself. The idea was that a translation could convey the meanings of the Bible to believers, and that a translator could find the "proper English" to preserve the sense of the Hebrew and Greek for English speakers. One can certainly debate whether or not this is true.

I'll close with the quote from Chesterton, which is solely about language, and I think was one of Borges' favorite passages. I am glad it was written in English; otherwise I would have to read it in translation. It goes,
Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest; ... Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

A while back, I linked this U.N. report, and, earlier, this Gulf News story announcing it. I recall there was a good deal of speculation that this was yet another "hopeful sign" that rationality was taking root in the Arab world. Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs linked a New York Times story that also announced the study; one of the comments, from "Maine's Michael," said,
From the same article:

"For the Palestinians in particular, the report says, human development is all but impossible under Israeli occupation. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "has been a cause and a pretext for delaying democratic change," contended Ms. Khalaf Hunaidi, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents. "

Israel once again emerges as a bogeyman of the arab world, never mind that the Pals living adjacent and within Israel have more access to eduation, technology, and other factors enumerated on the UN's Human Development Index to a greater degree thatn anywhere else in the arab world.

Allowing hatreds to cloud objectivity is of course a major failing of the arab world in general, if one can generalize at all.

That, and lying. Lying is a big one too.
Well, Nader Fergany, the lead author of the report, gave interview to Al-Ahram, which makes MM's comment look almost conservative:
Q: The report has been interpreted by some foreign newspapers as clear evidence that it is deficits within Arab society, not the Arab-Israeli conflict, that constrain human development in the region. How do you see this?

A: I believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a major impediment to development in the region. Occupation destroys human capabilities and welfare, not only in the occupied territories, but throughout the entire region. Moreover, I think that the US response to the 11 September attacks have been detrimental to human development in the Arab region, as well as inside the US itself. This is why the report's main message regarding the expansion of freedom should be directed at the US administration as well as Arab regimes. [emphasis added]

The fact that Iraq is a candidate for the same scenario that took place in Afghanistan is a major threat to human development, not only in Iraq, but in the region as a whole. The extent of destruction and suffering that the US sanctions have inflicted on Iraqi people, particularly children, have resulted in grave losses in human development.

The major thrust of the report, however, is that reform initiated from within is the only guarantee for sustainability. We have every right to be sceptical of a reform initiated by a US government that has consistently adopted a biased stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Er...okay. So let's get this straight. What happened in Afghanistan was bad -- development-wise. Getting rid of Saddam would set back the region even further. If toppling Saddam is bad for the region, exactly what kind of liberalization does Fergany favor? If, as he asserts, freedom is a precondition of eradicating poverty, and if Saddam's people can't see how to revolt because Saddam's boot is resting on their faces, would U.S. intervention be worse because of our policies toward Israel? I suppose you could argue that a war would harm Iraqi civilians as well as toppling Saddam, but isn't Saddam already doing a fine job of abusing his captive population on his own? As for the United States needing more freedom -- well, I'm always in favor of that. Somehow, though, I don't think we need to worry about being overtaken by the Arab world in that department anytime soon, nor do I think that, say, rolling back some of the more obnoxious notions of the nanny state would necessarily lead to a renaissance in the Arab world. And I can't help wondering what kind of freedoms we supposedly lack. As for the Arab-Israeli question, well, the notion that Israel is responsible for the suppression of women, the terrible education, or the basket case economies in the region is too ludicrous to refute.
Q: Why, then, didn't the report focus more on the Arab- Israeli conflict as a major impediment to development (The report includes only five paragraphs on the issue in its foreword)?

A: Frankly, the report team didn't have absolute freedom in producing this report. There was always a process of negotiation between the report team and the UNDP. Certain issues were considered to be very sensitive since the report carries the emblem of the UN.

But that was not the only consideration. The mere fact that the report refers to the Israeli occupation as a major obstacle to human development, and includes a strong quote by Hanan Ashrawi on the topic, was considered sufficient to make the point.

Again, we definitely do not want to appear to be blaming our developmental problems entirely on an external factor. We firmly believe that building Arab capacities is the right answer to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Ah, okay. But by "building Arab capacities," you surely mean building civil societies, increasing freedom, democratic reforms, respecting women's rights, and peacefully resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, don't you?
Q: The foreign media has tended to forge direct links between the overall frustrating Arab environment profiled in the report and the rise of 'terrorism'. Do you find the two are inter-related?

A: Injustice that cannot be addressed through peaceful and effective political mechanisms is an invitation to violence. This applies equally to the repressive political regimes in the region, the Israeli occupation and the injustices inflicted on Arabs by an unconditionally biased US administration.
Hey, what the hell were those towers doing getting in the way of those airplanes, anyway? If that's not an example of unconditional bias, what is?

Monday, July 15, 2002
I haven't seen anyone link this letter published by the Arab News, about the inability of Saudi women to find husbands:
...the real blame lies with a detestable social class system. In this system, a prominent family, of distinguished origin, which enjoys wealth and influence, will not allow its daughters to marry as they wish. Girls from such families are pressured to marry a cousin — even if he is corrupt and immoral — or someone who is from a family enjoying a similar economic and social position. If neither of these is available, the girl must live as I do — unmarried, a spinster, a so-called old maid.

What an injustice is being done to me and to my fellow women because of abhorrent pre-Islamic traditions! The Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) told us we should marry those whom we know to be good Muslims with good manners. The Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) did not mention any social or tribal status as a condition for marriage.We live in a time in which we regularly encounter right masquerading as wrong and wrong masquerading as right. Despite this bleak picture, there is still a glimmer of hope that one day the situation will change. In the meantime, we must endure and thank God for the blessings he has bestowed upon us and for what He has chosen for us.
The Arabian penninsula has been Islamic for almost 14 centuries. If it's true that pre-Islamic traditions prevail even today, what chance does, for example, Qutb's pure Islamic paradise have of being realized?

Qutb 3:3
Sorry I didn't get around to posting this last night -- this was an exhausting week at work. After Qutb covers "absolute freedom of conscience" -- which is essentially the freedom to worship only Allah -- and "the equality of all men" -- which is qualified with respect to women -- Qutb moves on to the topic of the "mutual responsibility in society." He begins by arguing that chaos ensues when every individual merely pursues his absolute freedom without bounds or limits. This is true to some extent -- a society with no law, in which anything (murder, theft, rape) was permitted, would not be a very nice place to live. But this is a ridiculous argument -- no society worthy of the name has ever existed that permitted such things. Qutb writes that society must set bounds and limits. This particular sentence, the second in his ruminations upon "mutual responsibility," caught my eye:
Such freedom he might be led to expect by his belief in the absolute equality that exists between himself and all other individuals, in respect of all his privileges; but such an expectation is responsible for the destruction not only of society, but also of the individual himself.
Ideas, as they say, have consequences, and it seems to me that one of the consequences of the idea that all men (and women, of course) are equal before God is that all men have not privileges, but rights. It's too bad I'm working off of a translation -- it would be nice to know what word Qutb uses for "privileges."

Needless to say, the "bounds and limits" (the phrase is Qutb's) are set by Islam. A man has responsibilities to himself -- to control his appetites, rather than be controlled by them. This is all well and good as far as it goes, but it seems to this observer that Qutb contradicts this idea of self-control, at least as far as sexual relations are concerned, by insisting on separating men and women insofar as possible (how else can we interpret his notion that women in, for example, sales are forced to sleep with their customers, or, almost as bad, to be ogled by them?). If Islamic virtue is so fragile that a low cut blouse can undo it, then how is that virtue supposed to prevent rulers from abusing their power? Qutb never explains this.

Qutb goes on to explain the mutual responsibilities in the family, to one's contemporaries, and between the generations (inheritance laws, largely).

Of the family, Qutb writes is the nest in which and around which are produced all the morals and the manners that are peculiar to the human race; these are essentially the morals of society, which is raised by them above the license of the animals and above the anarchy of a rabble.
Fair enough, although there are animal species that are more or less monogamous -- something Islam doesn't require of men. Oddly enough, Qutb never addresses the question of polygamy in his discussion of the family. Rather, he saves his ire for...drum roll...promiscuous women.
...the family is a biological and a psychological institution as well as a social institution and the idea that a woman should belong exclusively to one man is biologically sound and is conducive to the reproduction of healthy children. It has been noted that a woman who is shared by a number of men becomes barren after a certain time or produces unhealthy children.
Qutb is silent on the question of the harm to the biological, psychological and social institution of the family posed by polygamy. He notes that children without a father are worse off than children who have a father -- I happen to agree with this generalization (of course, there are specific cases where this may not be the case -- notably where there is child or spousal abuse). Polygamy, I suspect, diminishes the connection between children and their father. Qutb might have felt differently, but he completely avoids the subject.

Next, Qutb discusses inheritance and the provision for the poor (this takes eight pages) before changing the topic to how the Islamic order is to be maintained, through punishments. Thus we learn that the punishment for fornication: for married men and women, the penalty is stoning to death, for the unmarried, 100 lashes with a whip (which can prove fatal). For those who falsely accuse chaste women, it's 80 lashes. Thieves have their hands cut off; Qutb never adequately explains what societies interest in crippling criminals is.

The penalty for those who "threaten the general security of society" is death, via crucifixion. I was going to take a cheap shot and suggest that something as innocuous as a short skirt could threaten the general security of society in Qutb's view, but I'll let this pass for now.