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Dec 19, 2018

Breaking the Language Barrier

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John Walbridge

Indiana University Bloomington

John Walbridge is a Near Eastern languages and cultures professor at Indiana University Bloomington.

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Breaking the Language Barrier

The Han Kitab and the Implications of Radical Translation

Detail on Grand Mosque

Detail on Grand Mosque, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China; Photo: Peter Sanders Photography

A decade or so ago, my breakfast was darkened by the appearance in our local newspaper of a letter to the editor refuting an earlier letter that had happened to mention that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worship the same God. The writer indignantly claimed that while Jews and Christians worship Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Muslims worship Allah, one of the many false gods and other forms taken by evil. The writer went on, rather more plausibly, to point out that the Christian view of sin and salvation is different from that held by Muslims (and by Jews and the Old Testament writers, although he did not mention that). He also mentioned that the Christian Messiah is Jesus Christ.

I wrote back to the newspaper pointing out that the claim that Allah is not God would startle Arabic-speaking Christians, who have always prayed to “Allah,” just like their Muslim neighbors. Allāh is the third word in the Arabic Bible. It would doubtless be a shock to Jesus himself, who would have used a closely related Aramaic form, Elāh. If he happened to be speaking Hebrew, he would have said Elōhīm, which is the plural of the same word and the third word of the Hebrew Bible. (Yahweh is normally translated as “Lord” in the Bible, following Jewish custom.) The Arabic word Allāh was almost certainly borrowed by early Arabic- speaking Christians from the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) word Alāhā. All this is helpfully confirmed by the Gospels of Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46), which quote Jesus’s despairing cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi [or Eli, Eli], lama sabachthani” and comment that it means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew gives the Hebrew form and Mark the Aramaic, but in both cases, a Greek translation is added, ho Theos, which is the Greek word used for “God” in the New Testament. Muslims, I added wearily, venerate Jesus as the Messiah (al-Masīĥ) and expect his return before the Day of Judgment.

Several years later, the attorney general of Indiana published an op-ed in our paper supporting his doomed lawsuit that “prayers that invoke God, Jesus, Allah, and other deities do not violate the First Amendment.” I wrote another letter to the editor to much the same effect, adding the details that in the Arabic Bible, John 1:1 reads, “The word was with Allah, and the word was Allah,” and that our word God is just an old Germanic word carried over from paganism.

All this made me a minor hero in the Muslim community in our town, which was gratifying, but why am I mentioning this now?

Many, many years ago, when I was first studying Islam as an undergraduate, I wrote to the mosque in Washington to ask for a copy of the Qur’an and was rewarded with a handsome copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation. Yusuf Ali was a British Indian Muslim, a classical scholar, and a master of English prose whose translation was deeply influenced by the King James Bible and Anglican liturgical prose. Unfortunately, newer editions of his translation have replaced “God” with “Allah,” spoiling many of Yusuf Ali’s elegant English cadences. A quick internet search of the question “Should Muslims say Allah or God?” generates twenty million responses. Western translators of the Qur’an have unanimously rendered “Allah” as “God,” as did earlier Muslim translators and some more recent translators, as in The Study Quran. Most recent translations originating from the Muslim world, though, have tended to treat “Allah” as a proper name, as in Ansari’s translation of Mawdudi’s Tafhīm al-Qur’ān.

Leaving aside my slightly snobbish view that using “Allah” is jarring in English, what is happening? The justification for this translation is the claim that “Allah” is the proper name of God, whereas god can also be used to refer to a great many imaginary entities that are not God. This is, in fact, a defensible position. The testimony of faith, lā ilāha illā allāh, “There is no god but Allah,” plays on this, though one might argue that the wordplay is better rendered by using the English convention of capitalizing references to the deity: “There is no god but God.” In any case, the Arabic grammar clearly indicates that Allah is an ilāh, a god, though the only one that there is. Obviously, on one level, for Muslims to insist on saying “Allah” rather than “God” in English can be counterproductive, as my correspondence with my local paper indicates, encouraging the very many speakers of European languages who are already prone to be suspicious of Muslims to think that Allah is, for example, a moon god (10,200,000 hits on Google).

However, I have a different concern: What happens when Islam comes to a language community that does not or cannot adopt Arabic religious terminology? The nations of the central Islamic world adopted the Arabic language if they had previously used a Semitic or Hamitic language (a language closely or distantly related linguistically to Arabic), as happened in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa—and with it, the Arabic script and Arabic religious terminology. The groups speaking non-Semitic languages usually adopted the Arabic script, and with it, religious loan words from Arabic, which they pronounced as though they were Turkic, Persian, or whatever, much to the bemusement of actual speakers of Arabic. Here I would like to look at two cases where even this could not happen: American English and Chinese.

In the case of American English, there is, of course, no obstacle to importing Arabic religious terminology into English. Allah is well known, and terms like śalāh, ĥajj, and Ramađān find their way into English dictionaries. English-speak- ing Muslims use such terms all the time. English is a remarkably slutty language, and objections by purists notwithstanding, words from innumerable languages have found their way into common English usage. The difficulty, though, is demographic: Muslims comprise a little over 1 percent of the American population, so while a few words may become generally familiar (jihād and sharī‘ah, to take two notorious examples), the bulk of Arabic words commonly used by Muslims—wuđū’, ¢umrah, fiqh, and the like—will be incomprehensible to ordinary American speakers of English. They certainly are not going to supplant terms such as ablutions, Islamic law, and pilgrimage in American English, at least not in the lifetime of anyone now alive.

For those trying to present Islam—whether scholars writing about it for a nonspecialist audience or Muslims simply trying to present their faith—this poses problems. For the scholar, the problem is precision and accuracy of translation. If he writes Sharī‘ah and fiqh, his readers will likely misunderstand the first and simply not know the second. He can explain the terms, but then he must hope that his readers will both understand his explanations and remember them when he next uses the terms. On the other hand, if he writes Islamic law, he could mean either Sharī‘ah or fiqh, and in ether case, the Western understanding of law doesn’t closely correspond to either. It’s not a problem for which there is an easy solution or any solution at all. For Muslims attempting to explain their faith to non-Muslims, the problem is—or at least I strongly think should be—not to make Islam seem more alien than it already appears. And that brings me back to my initial point: insisting on the use of words like Allah in Islamic public discourse simply plays into the hands of those wishing to prove that Islam is an alien and dangerous force in the West.

China and Chinese are quite another problem. Chinese Muslims claim that the first Muslims in China were companions of the Prophet during the lifetime of the Prophet himself. This seems improbable, but it is certainly the case that there have been well-established Islamic communities in China for well over a thousand years.

Calli G Walbridge

In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, Arabic calligraphy in Chinese style, Haji Noor Deen Mi Guang Jiang

Though all the details of their history will likely never be known due to the fragmentary nature of the sources, the general picture is clear enough. In the northwest live the Uyghurs and some smaller groups. The Uyghurs are a Central Asian Turkic people who write their own language in a script derived from Arabic. They did not so much go to China, as China came to them, since their lands happened to be under the at least nominal control of the Chinese state when modern national borders took shape. The other major group of Chinese Muslims is the Hui, ethnic Han Chinese who practice Islam and not uncommonly claim to be descendants of Muslim traders or soldiers who settled in eastern China. These are almost all native speakers of Chinese.

For many centuries, Muslims in China seeking religious knowledge seem to have traveled to the northwest to study Arabic and Persian. They wrote little or nothing about their religion in Chinese and left few distinctive traces of their thoughts. This began to change in the latter part of the Ming Dynasty, with the rise of a distinctive Muslim educational network in eastern China whose teachers, often well educated in the Confucian classics, wrote and taught in Chinese. The traditional founder of this network was one Hu Dengzhou (ca. 1522–1597), known in Chinese Islamic tradition as “Great Teacher Hu.” Abandoning the study of the Chinese classics, Hu went to Central Asia, and then Mecca, to study Islam. On returning to China, he established a school in his hometown following methods resembling those of the madrasas of the central Islamic lands. With connections to the northwest weakened by war, Hu’s disciples began spreading his methods.

The key part of our story begins a half century later with Wang Daiyu (b. ca. 1570), a member of a family of Muslim astronomers in Nanjing, the Ming capital in east central China. Though he apparently came late to the study of the Chinese classics, he chose to write in Chinese, using a Chinese idiom for Islamic terminology. Though he wrote a number of books, Wang’s best-known work is the Zhenyi, “The True and One,” a two-volume guide to Islamic doctrine and practice. A series of scholarly works in Chinese and Chinese translations from Arabic and Persian by other Chinese Muslim scholars followed, until the tradition tapered off in the mid-eighteenth century. This literature constituted the famous Han Kitab, which is now beginning to regain its prestige among Chinese Muslims.

The Chinese language poses a fundamental obstacle for those who wish to express Islamic ideas in Chinese. The standard Chinese language, known in the West as Mandarin, has only about four hundred basic syllables, most of the consonant-vowel pattern. Though this can be increased to around two thousand by the five tones, that does not help in the rendering of foreign words, which are generally unrecognizable when transcribed in Chinese characters.

The Chinese ideographic script, though it helps the Chinese deal with their pervasive difficulties with homophones, does little to solve the problem of making loanwords and names recognizable. The handful of scholars exploring the Han Kitab literature are often unable to identify persons and books mentioned, even when their names are given, due to this highly ambiguous transcription. As knowledge of Arabic and Persian became less common, the Han Kitab authors were faced with the problem of how to render the basic concepts of their faith in a language highly resistant to loanwords. They were not the first to face this difficulty. The Jesuits in China in the sixteenth century faced the same issue, setting off a battle over the use of Chinese terms for Christian concepts and a related controversy over whether Chinese Christians could continue to practice traditional Chinese rituals. This struggle resulted in the defeat of the Jesuits by their Dominican and Franciscan rivals and dragged on until the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. The disputes were both practical and linguistic: Should Chinese Christians be allowed to participate in traditional practices such as veneration of Confucius or ancestor worship? What should be the name for God: Tian (heaven), Shangdi (Emperor above), Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven), or dousi, a transcription of deus? The dispute boiled down to whether the goal of missionaries should be to integrate Christianity into Chinese culture or to supplant traditional culture, as had been done in Spanish America.

The problem faced by the Han Kitab authors was similar. They themselves were very much part of Chinese culture. Members of their communities sat for the Imperial Civil Service Examination, something that required intense study of the Confucian classics. They wanted not to supplant Chinese culture but to make Islam part of it. That required making Islam comprehensible to their Confucian fellow countrymen, and that in turn required both avoiding incomprehensible foreign vocabulary and appropriating Confucian concepts into their presentation of Islam. What makes this more than a philological curiosity is that the results are genuinely interesting and insightful, showing Islam in a light very different from how it appears from a Middle Eastern perspective. The Han Kitab authors had not simply explained Islam in Chinese: they had made Islam Chinese in a way that simply did not happen anywhere else. When Muĥammad becomes “the Sage” and the Qur’an “the Classic,” we are no longer simply dealing with translation; Islam has become part of an entirely different cultural world. If Muĥammad is “the Sage,” his context is not Judeo-Christian sacred history but the succession of the great teachers of ancient China. If the Qur’an is “the Classic,” its scriptural peers are not the books of the Bible but the Analects of Confucius and the other classics of ancient China. In such a context, Islam is to be understood in terms of the rich heritage embodied in the Neo-Confucianism of Ming and Qing China.

The intellectual wealth of the Han Kitab is only now being studied and made accessible to the larger scholarly and Islamic world. There are not, after all, that many scholars comfortable in Arabic, Persian, and Chinese, Islamic and Sufi thought, and Neo-Confucianism, and I have no claim to be one of them. However, the fact that Islamic texts can be translated into a language and an intellectual framework so different from the cultural world created in the Middle East by medieval Islam raises questions about just what the Islamic revelation is. Can we simply identify Islam with its classical formulations? The Han Kitab is evidence that we cannot. We might now ask ourselves whether the whole tradition of the Islam found in Arabic and Persian books is only one possible way in which the Islamic revelation can be expressed. Might there not be other expressions of Islam whose roots are not in the culture of seventh-century west-central Arabia or of the Middle East in the last centuries of the first millennium? Indeed, I can think of one such example of reframing the Islamic tradition, though by a non-Muslim: Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an, which reimagines the Qur’an as a product of ordinary American life. With its evocation of the divine in the ordinary, it seems to me—another non-Muslim—truer to the original spirit of the Qur’an, with its constant reference to what was once familiar, than do the elegantly calligraphed and illuminated Qur’ans produced by high Islamic culture, beautiful though they certainly are.

What then, I might ask, are the opportunities that could be opened by bringing the Islamic revelation into new cultural worlds? And what would be lost by clinging too tightly to the cultural particularities in which Islam emerged? The Han Kitab is evidence that the full universality of the Islamic message might not yet have been realized.


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