by Sheila Musaji
Pamela Geller said Now I also believe that a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I’ve spoken to. That’s deeply troubling. And I don’t think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don’t think they know that. in a 10/8/2010 article in the New York Times.
Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic wondered about the accuracy of this statement and did a little research:
I sent some of Geller’s quotes to my friend Reuel Gerecht, a genuine expert on Islam, to see what he thought of them. Reuel, as many of you know, is no apologist for radical Islamism; quite the opposite. He believes we are at war with a dangerous ideology. But he also has respect for Islam, and a great deal of knowledge of it. Here is what he says about Geller’s assertions:
I have to plead an embarrassing ignorance about Pamela Geller. I was well aware of the Internet-driven opposition to Feisal Abd ar-Rauf’s Ground Zero/Park 51 mosque, but had not entered her name into my memory. I don’t read blogs much—except Goldblog and those that publish me—and I was more than a little taken back when Jeffrey sent me a note containing comments by Ms. Geller about English translations of the Qur’an. The intersection of politics, public policy, and scholarship isn’t always pretty, and we are most often fortunate that scholars don’t write our domestic and foreign policies. However, there is a certain deference that activists must give to scholars when they tread on what is clearly academic terrain. A good cause—and Ms. Geller’s general concern about the harm that violent Islamic militants can do is an estimable fight—is no excuse for agitprop and what amounts to a slur against some of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century. According to the New York Times, Ms. Geller has stated:
Now I also believe that a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I’ve spoken to. That’s deeply troubling. And I don’t think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don’t think they know that.
Let’s take the Qur’an first, Muslim prayers second. Concerning the translation of the Muslim Holy Book, who might these Islamic scholars be? Since Ms. Geller is without Arabic, it’s impossible for her to compare the original to a translation. She must depend upon others, who, if I follow Ms. Geller, are involved in a conspiracy to hide the ugly truth about Islam. If the translations were more “accurate,” we would all see what’s apparent to Ms. Geller, who ascertained the truth despite the blinding scholarly conspiracy. One has to ask whether Ms. Geller has perused the translation masterpiece by Cambridge’s late great A.J. Arberry or my personal favorite, the awesomely erudite, more literal translation and commentary by Edinburgh’s late great Richard Bell? Both gentlemen are flag-waving members of Edward Said’s most detested species—Orientalists. Now if you look at these translations—especially if you look at Bell’s, which is blessed with exhaustive notes in a somewhat complicated formatting—even the uninitiated can get an idea that Muhammad had trouble with Christians and especially Jews during his life. If you look at the Qur’anic commentary by Edinburgh’s late great William Montgomery Watt (another Orientalist), who was always attentive to Muslim sensibilities in his writings, you can also find in clear English Muhammad’s unpleasant ruminations about Christians and Jews.
Now what all of this means to contemporary Islamic militancy is a very long discussion, for which I suspect that Ms. Geller doesn’t have abundant patience. Islam has been having awful problems absorbing modernity; its travails so far—let us underscore—have been less bloody than what we witnessed as Christianity modernized. Any non-Muslim certainly has the right to study, question, and criticize the Islamic faith, as Muslims have the (well-exercised) right to let loose against what they see as the imperfections of Christianity, Judaism, and humanist secularism (the West’s dominant faith). As Iran’s robust, astonishing intellectual wars over the last twenty years have shown, it’s good for Muslims and non-Muslims not to pull their punches. Muslims should never be treated as children, which is a debilitating disposition found widely now on the American Left. (President Obama has not helped.) But the great Islamic scholars of the past did not lie. There is no conspiracy. We are blessed with illuminating English translations of the Muslim Holy Book. Ms. Geller might consider blogging less, and reading more.
And about Muslim prayer: I certainly have no perfect way of knowing what Muslims think when they pray, but I really do think they know what they’re doing. If westernized Muslims are facing the Almighty, they know what’s in their hearts. Devout Muslims need not hate Jews and Christians to worship the Creator. Christians have slaughtered Jews through the centuries. But it would be theologically atrocious to believe that the Christian message requires Jewish blood. (Christians’ killing Jews so often did provoke some Christians to question the foundation of their faith—a theologically estimable exercise.) The Prophet Muhammad is certainly a different kind of historical figure than Jesus, but it should not be startling to discover that Muslims through the centuries have not seen the prophet’s slaughter of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina as a mainstay of their creed. In my experience—and I’m intuiting here—most Muslims do not think about Jews and Christians at all when they pray. Suffering, in all its merciless variety, takes center stage, I suspect. When I’ve watched Muslim pilgrims come to Sunni and Shiite tombs and sacred sites in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, I’ve not seen a conquering people. I’ve usually just seen misery and the human hope that good fortune will come with a better heart. I’ve seen fraternity among a men who live in lands where fraternal behavior is rare. Ms. Geller would do well to travel more. It’s a very good and essential cause to fight jihadism, but such a struggle should not incline us to maul Islamic history or to treat Muslims as if they were merely a walking version of this surah or that legal treatise. Christians and Jews and atheists are much more than the sum of their parts. So, too, are Muslims.
After this exchange, Geller’s partner, Robert Spencer published a defense of Geller’s statement in which he brings in “translations” like the Hilali-Khan, commentaries and interpretations as if they represent what most Muslims (or particularly American Muslims, or “westernized Muslims” as Geller calls them) understand about the meaning of Surah Fatiha. The Hilali-Khan translation is an extremist interpretation of the Qur’an produced in Saudi Arabia and given out free. I wrote about the Hilali-Khan translation at length here. Here are a few passages from that article:
The number of comments in parenthesis in this particular translation is more than excessive, and instead of clarifying the text or explaining a word or phrase that cannot be easily translated into English, these comments make the text very difficult to follow and often distort rather than amplify the meaning.
The appendices contain discussions of Christian versus Muslim beliefs that read more like a polemical debate and really do not belong as part of a translation.
I will give just a few examples of the difficulties with this translation. Sadly, I could give many more examples, but these should sufice to show the extremist character of this translation.
Beginning immediately with Surah Fatiha 1:1 (the opening chapter of the Qur’an) we find a translation not to be found anywhere else:
“Guide us to the Straight Way. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who have earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).” (HK translation 1:1-7)
This can only give the impression to any non-Muslim or Muslim who either does not have fluency in Arabic or access to individuals with competency in Classical Qur’anic Arabic that the Qur’an denounces all Jews and Christians. This is a great untruth.
This unique translation is then followed by an extremely long footnote which justifies this hateful translation based on traditions from texts that go back to the Middle Ages (Ibn Kathir, Qurtubi, Tabari) as if these are the only interpretations, and without any discussion of the history of these commentaries and the hadiths on which they are based.
… In the interests of preserving the purity of the Qur’an as much as possible for non-Arabic speakers and also as a means to combat the tirades of professional Islam bashers and Muslim haters, I would strongly recommend that every copy of the Hilali-Khan translation be removed from every mosque in the U.S. … This current crisis (and many others), I believe is a direct result of such translations as the Hilali-Khan which have been responsible for influencing some Muslims with extremist interpretations (and also providing them “justification” for criminal actions), and for providing Islamophobes with “proof” of the supposed “savagery” of Islam. Basically, this translation (and others like it) are propaganda coming out of Saudi Arabia which attempts to spread their particular supremacist, divisive, bigoted, and very dangerous interpretation of Islam.
There are only two groups who equate jihad and terrorism – the terrorists and the Islamophobes.
Across the world, even in countries where Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors have lived together for centuries in peace, we are seeing violence against churches and against minorities, and seeing violent non-Islamic responses to the provocations of Islamophobes. Why?
I believe that propaganda such as the Hilali-Khan translation and other materials coming primarily out of Saudi Arabia are one of the root causes.
We need a counter-narrative, not only to the Islamophobes, but to the Muslim extremists, and our scholars and community leaders need to help get the message of traditional Islam out to the masses.
I believe that it is time for ordinary Muslims to go into their local mosque or Islamic bookstore and see if this translation is there, and if it is to ask the Imam or mosque leadership to remove it immediately and dispose of it in the appropriate Islamic manner. And, it is time for the leadership of national organizations to speak out loudly and clearly condemning such translations and materials. The Saudi’s may provide “free” copies of this translation, but there is a cost, and we are all paying it.
Here is a transliteration and translation of Sura Fatiha by Shakh Kabir Helminski of the Threshold Society:
Bismillaah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen
Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem Maaliki yaumid Deen
Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim
Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen
In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those who have received your grace;
not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.
Here is the introduction to this verse from the translation by Muhammad Asad
THIS SURAH is also called Fatihat al-Kitab (“The Opening of the Divine Writ”), Umm al-Kitab (“The Essence of the Divine Writ”), Surat al-Hamd (“The Surah of Praise”), Asas al-Qur’an (“The Foundation of the Qur’an”), and is known by several other names as well. It ismentioned elsewhere in the Qur’an as As-Sab’ al-Mathani (“The Seven Oft-Repeated[Verses]”) because it is repeated several times in the course of each of the five daily prayers.According to Bukhari, the designation Umm al-Kitab was given to it by the Prophet himself,and this in view of the fact that it contains, in a condensed form, all the fundamental principleslaid down in the Qur’an: the principle of God’s oneness and uniqueness, of His being theoriginator and fosterer of the universe, the fount of all life-giving grace, the One to whom manis ultimately responsible, the only power that can really guide and help; the call to righteousaction in the life of this world (“guide us the straight way”); the principle of life after deathand of the organic consequences of man’s actions and behaviour (expressed in the term “Dayof Judgment”); the principle of guidance through God’s message-bearers (evident in thereference to “those upon whom God has bestowed His blessings”) and, flowing from it, the principle of the continuity of all true religions (implied in the allusion to people who havelived – and erred – in the past); and, finally, the need for voluntary self-surrender to the will of the Supreme Being and, thus, for worshipping Him alone. It is for this reason that this surahhas been formulated as a prayer, to be constantly repeated and reflected upon by the believer.“The Opening” was one of the earliest revelations bestowed upon the Prophet. Someauthorities (for instance, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib) were even of the opinion that it was the very firstrevelation; but this view is contradicted by authentic Traditions quoted by both Bukhari andMuslim, which unmistakably show that the first five verses of surah 96 (“The Germ-Cell”)constituted the beginning of revelation. It is probable, however, that whereas the earlier revelations consisted of only a few verses each, “The Opening” was the first surah revealed tothe Prophet in its entirety at one time: and this would explain the view held by ‘Ali.
Here is Asad’s translation and commentary
In the name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace:
ALL PRAISE is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds,
the Most Gracious,the Dispenser of Grace,
Lord of the Day of Judgment!
Thee alone do we worship; and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid.
Guide us the straight way, the way of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed Thy blessings,
not of those who have been condemned [by Thee], nor of those who go astray!
According to most of the authorities, this invocation (which occurs at the beginning of everysurah with the exception of surah 9) constitutes an integral part of “The Opening” and is,therefore, numbered as verse 1. In all other instances, the invocation “in the name of God” precedes the surah as such, and is not counted among its verses. – Both the divine epithets rahman and rahim are derived from the noun rahmah, which signifies “mercy”, “compassion”,“loving tenderness” and, more comprehensively, “grace”. From the very earliest times, Islamic scholars have endeavoured to define the exact shades of meaning which differentiate the two terms. The best and simplest of these explanations is undoubtedly the one advanced by Ibnal-Qayyim (as quoted in Manar I,48): the term rahman circumscribes the quality of abounding grace inherent in, and inseparable from, the concept of God’s Being, whereas rahim expresses the manifestation of that grace in, and its effect upon, His creation – in other words, an aspect of His activity.
In this instance, the term “worlds” denotes all categories of existence both in the physicaland the spiritual sense. The Arabic expression rabb – rendered by me as “Sustainer” -embraces a wide complex of meanings not easily expressed by a single term in another language.It comprises the ideas of having a just claim to the possession of anything and, consequently,authority over it, as well as of rearing, sustaining and fostering anything from its inceptionto its final completion. Thus, the head of a family is called rabb ad-dar (“master of the house”) because he has authority over it and is responsible for its maintenance; similarly, his wifeis called rabbat ad-dar (“mistress of the house”). Preceded by the definite article al, the designation rabb is applied, in the Qur’an, exclusively to God as the sole fosterer andsustainer of all creation – objective as well as conceptual – and therefore the ultimatesource of all authority.
According to almost all the commentators, God’s “condemnation” (ghadab, lit., “wrath”) is synonymous with the evil consequences which man brings upon himself by wilfully rejecting God’s guidance and acting contrary to His injunctions. Some commentators (e.g., Zamakhshari)interpret this passage as follows: “… the way of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed Thy blessings – those who have not been condemned [by Thee], and who do not go astray”: inother words, they regard the last two expressions as defining “those upon whom Thou hast bestowed Thy blessings”. Other commentators (e.g., Baghawi and Ibn Kathir) do not subscribeto this interpretation – which would imply the use of negative definitions – and understand the last verse of the surah in the manner rendered by me above. As regards the two categoriesof people following a wrong course, some of the greatest Islamic thinkers (e.g., Al-Ghazali or, in recent times, Muhammad ‘Abduh) held the view that the people described as having incurred “God’s condemnation” – that is, having deprived themselves of His grace – are thosewho have become fully cognizant of God’s message and, having understood it, have rejected it; while by “those who go astray” are meant people whom the truth has either not reached at all,or to whom it has come in so garbled and corrupted a form as to make it difficult for them.
And, before Pamela Geller gets too attached to her specious claims, she should consider that the Blessing/Benediction recited each morning by Orthodox Jews is the following: “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me . . . ” and conclude, respectively, “a goy [Gentile],” “a slave,” and “a woman.”
Another Islamophobe, Andrew Bostom has jumped on this bandwagon of insisting that the Hilali-Khan translation/commentary reflects the meaning of Surah Fatiha.
Geller again raises this spurious issue saying: “The Muslims refer to Christians in their daily prayers as “those who are led astray” (Muslims curse Christians and Jews multiple times in daily prayers). This madness validates their contempt and supremacism.”
Geller is nothing if not consistent. Today she published Hamas-CAIR leads Arizona State Senate in anti-Jewish, Anti-Christian Prayer raising this same debunked issue yet again. She says: “How many people actually know that every time Muslims get down on their knees, posteriors in the air, they are cursing Christian and Jews? Obama says, “respect it!”
All of this fury on the part of Geller (and her partner in hate Robert Spencer) was because an Arizona Imam, Anas Hlayhel, who is also the Chairman of the Arizona Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations CAIR-AZ led the Arizona State Senate’s prayer invocation with a reading of Surah al-Fatiha.