Islamising Language: Ontology in the Modern Era

I’ve spent the past few months in perplexed introspection. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that cognitive scientists have gathered a tremendous amount of evidence that suggests that the language(s) we speak changes not only how we see the world, but also who we fundamentally are. Language influences our values and shapes how we code our experiences [1,2]. Knowing this, I’ve questioned how much of my understanding of Islam is colored by the lens that my primary language, English, provides. I’ve tried to understand how scholars of the past approached revelational texts (namely, the Qur’an and Hadith): how they translated and made meaning of classical Arabic, how they used their local cultural or ideological norms in law making, and whether they too struggled in relating concepts that had once only been captured in specific languages like Arabic into other languages.

The English language “…brings with it the possibility of articulating entirely new concepts…bound to have an effect on the evolution of Islamic culture and civilization” [3]. It offers us the potential of understanding unique life experiences that cannot be captured by traditionally Islamic languages like Arabic, Persian, or Urdu. This is not to suggest that traditional Islamic languages are impoverished, but to recognize that world-changing things like the Internet, artificial intelligence, etc. have been, for the past twenty or so years, coming out of the West. Thus, conversations about such new technologies and ideologies are not only had in English, but are often defined and shaped by the unique richness the English language can offer. When concepts like artificial intelligence and organ engineering are first coded in the English language, it seems logical that downstream conversations about bioethics and the fiqh of artificial life will not only be informed by the English language and its related experiences, but also fundamentally shaped and understood through the lens it offers. In the wake of Western colonialism and globalization, or rather, Americanization, English has not only become the world’s most dominant and strategic language, but has come to define the modern world. Colonialism’s role in erasing local languages and mandating that all official discourses be conducted in English means that it now has a unique monopoly on not only how we discuss, but also how we unconsciously process global politics, communications, economics, and even religions.

This becomes particularly interesting when one considers how language can rewire existing neural networks, influencing how the brain processes events to ultimately shape one’s personality. As such, language acts as “a vehicle for cultural transmission,” as those who speak specific languages often share cultural values and understand cultural norms that can only be coded in said specific languages [2]. Words like the Arabic word and concept najasah (roughly: uncleanliness) affirm both how difficult it is to find semantic pairs for certain culture-shaping terms in other languages, without reducing their true essence with such cheap generalizations. Nevertheless, a multitude of languages can expand how we both understand and articulate our lives and our experiences with our deen [2].

A problem arises when one realizes that English is traditionally a West Germanic language. Starting in the year 600, however, the spread of Christianity introduced over 400 Latin words in Old English, including terms like priest, paper, and school [4]. Because of this, specific English terms related to religion already have specific cultural gravity. Take for example, the English word “religion.” Because paganism and then Christianity, an increasingly privatized faith/religion, had informed the original meaning and experience of “religion,” transposing this English word in an attempt to capture the full essence of the Arabic term “deen” presents problems. The Arabic understanding of deen (in contrast to the English understanding of religion) is not a privatized affair, but one that fully and fundamentally informs all aspects of life. This stresses the importance of being cognizant of the unique epistemology that not only provides specific meaning for specific words, but also shapes mentalities and psychologies. How do we ensure that when we engage in such Islamic discourse initiatives, we utilize an epistemology that is rooted in Islamic spirituality and affirms taqwa (God-consciousness)?

Historically, other languages like Persian have faced similar challenges of embracing an Islamic worldview. However, Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal explains,

When Islam came to Persia, there was already a conceptually rich religious structure to the language. Thus, when the Persians first started to use the word ‘khuda’ for Allah, they had to dissociate their new Qur’anic concepts of God from their prior beliefs, reconfiguring the semantic map of Persian. It took time and effort, but three generations later no Persian-speaking Muslim had to struggle with discursive schizophrenia: ‘khuda’ was now a patently Islamic word [5].

Nevertheless, for the reasons mentioned above, English poses a challenge, as it often has no semantic terms to parallel or capture the essence of uniquely Islamic concepts, like deen or salah. Moreover, because of its non-Islamic foundation, it has the potential to inform subconsciously our understanding of Islamic principles through such a non-Islamic theological lens. When we read our primary texts (namely, the Qur’an and Hadith) and see terms that have been translated from their original Arabic into recognizable English terms, we toy with the risk of understanding these Islamic concepts through such an English lens. Examples of this include the terms maslaha (roughly: common/public interest, a basis of Islamic law) and “justice.” When we read translated texts that use the terms “common interest” or “justice,” how do we ensure that our understanding of these concepts is not colored by how English-speaking societies define them to be? This, of course, is not a problem in and of itself, but one that very quickly can be when said understanding questions or defies the respective Islamic understanding, assuming of course, that the original Arabic term that God Himself chose to use is the proper and intended meaning.

Without engaging too deeply in a history lesson, even great Islamic scholars of the past, including Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Shafi’i, disagreed on how to understand and contextualize revelational Arabic. Imam Abu Hanifa argued that such Arabic should be understood as it was understood in pre-Islamic Arabia (to give a hyperbolically simplified example in English: if the term “shirt” was always understood to refer to a collared shirt pre-Islamically, then it should always be understood in that way in the revelation), while the Ash’ari school of legal theory believed that Islamic scripture dictated the meaning of words [6]. Our task today is the inversion of such a historic debate. Though scholars continue to struggle in translating revelational texts, we face the challenge of internalizing that which has already been translated with a lens that is informed by and is honest not to any other ideology/faith, but Islam. As Dr. Jonathan Brown writes,

One perennially pressing issue is the challenge of reconciling the claims of truth and justice made by scripture with what the human mind considers true and just outside it [6].

What the human mind considers true and just is informed, in part, by how our language, in this case: a historically non-Islamic one like English, codes it. This becomes further complicated when a language like English has been uniquely responsible for informing discussions on modernity and its related ideologies, like feminism, liberalism, nationalism, etc. While we can acknowledge consciously the importance of rejecting ideologies like scientism that have their own unique epistemology, how can we ensure that our worldview is not even subtly informed by such -ism’s?

How do we do that?

Perhaps the only solution to overcoming the challenges mentioned above is to study directly at the feet of scholars who they themselves studied at the feet of traditionally trained scholars. For one, scholars have developed checks systems like Qanun al-Ta’wil (the Rule of Interpretation) to ensure that they do not stray too far from the overall message of the Qur’an and Hadith [6]. Though Islamic scholars have always been and will always be influenced by their local cultures (in fact, incorporating local culture is an accepted practice in Islamic law making or fiqh), sticking to well-trained scholars reduces the probability of one becoming fallible to their own reasoning ability (reasoning that as mentioned earlier, is cognitively shaped by one’s own life experiences). It also increases the probability of learning from those who use Islam as their primary epistemological tool in understanding the world and revelation. In doing so, one also overcomes the vacuum a purely academic approach bears, as traditionally trained scholars provide not only reports of the way knowledge was transmitted, but embody it as well, providing much needed lessons on adab (roughly: etiquette, considered to be the sister twin of knowledge in the Islamic tradition) that modern oriental or secular studies of Islam superficially, if ever, acknowledge.

Knowing that our experiences shape our cognitive understanding of language and thus, our reasoning, I wonder if we have enough scholars who come from a wide variety of racial, gender, ethnic, class, national, etc. experiences and who understand the increasingly dominant and unprecedented force of modern -ism’s in unconsciously shaping the perspectives of us lay Muslims, who may not have studied Islam’s epistemological tools. I question if we have enough well-trained leaders who understand what it means to exist as a young woman in a hypersexualized society or as a Black Muslim in the face of an apex of American racism.

Such a question, in fact, only stresses the need to stick closer to the jama’ah (majority) of scholars and to resist one’s own identity politic-centered reading of Islam, as it is a reflection on whether we can ever truly escape the influence outside ideologies, cultural baggage, and personal egos and experiences have on the way we utilize language to assign meaning both to the events that we experience and to the language of timeless scriptures. But knowing that it may well never be possible to deliver a truly “objective” understanding of revelational language or applying concepts coded originally in languages like English, stresses ever more the importance of the maxim of staying close to the jama’ah, as the long lines of knowledge transmission that scholars have, going back to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH himself, and the promise that the ummah will never settle/agree on falsehood is perhaps our greatest safety measure from reformists who rely naively and dangerously on their own independent reasoning skills. Appeals to Reason, of course, remain fallible as they do little more than appeal to “the conventions and sensibilities of their particular culture” [6]. Appealing instead to a transcendental authority like God avoids this pitfall of using one’s self-exaggerated “objective” reasoning abilities to develop the vocabulary needed to understand and actualize revelation. Modernist revivalist groups, including those who use ideologies like feminism to guide their understanding of Islam, claim to understand revelation by reading it themselves. They dismiss chains of knowledge transmission and predictably and dangerously elevate their purported intellect over divinely guided knowledge. (More discussion here and here and here).

Traditionally, scholars have avoided these dilemmas by mastering classical Arabic, a prerequisite for engaging with primary revelational scriptures. However, for terms like artificial intelligence and phenomena like cultural identity, multiculturalism, and modern global finance that have become uniquely articulated by the English language, it is more important than ever to first, both learn and learn about language and second, to learn Islam at the feet of traditionally trained scholars, avoiding the temptation to do one’s own reading and reasoning of revelation. Ultimately, it will never be possible for any man, save perhaps a prophet, to understand the gravity of God’s words and the world He has created. However, by remaining close to the jama’ah (majority) of scholars, who are the heirs of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH not only in the knowledge they possess, but in the way they actualize it as well, we can use our unique cultures and languages to get as close as possible to embodying the rich tradition of our deen. After all, God informs us in the Qur’an in verse 49:13 that He made us into various tribes and nations, so that we may know one another, and in exchanging the unique experiences and insights that our cultures unlock, so that we may know our Creator more intimately as well.

Works Cited:

  1. Li P, Gleitman L. Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition. 2002;83 :265–294.
  2. Jaffery, Rabab. “Islam and the Role of Language.” Islamic Insights, http://www.islamicinsights.com/religion/islam-and-the-role-of-language.html.
  3. Allawi, Ali A. The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. Yale University Press, 2010.
  4. Baugh, Albert and Cable, Thomas. 2002. The History of the English Language. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 91-92.
  5. Iqbal, Muzaffar. “English as an Islamic Language.” A Day in the Life of a Muslim: From Waking up till Late Morning, 12 Sept. 2012, islam.ru/en/content/story/english-islamic-language.
  6. Brown, Jonathan A.C. Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. Oneworld, 2014.

About the author: Eeman is the co-founder of More Than 10,000, an organization that advocates for Syrian refugees. Her interests include Hanafi jurisprudence, neuroscience, health and human rights, and the food industry. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Image Credit: https://fesq.tumblr.com/

3 thoughts on “Islamising Language: Ontology in the Modern Era

  1. Well written and important piece. It is important to be aware of the metaphysical assumptions that are storied in our language. Once we are cognizant of those assumptions we can wield language with the appropriate nuance to embrace the complexities of the ever-changing world while holding fast to the rich and diverse traditions that inform it.

    Like

  2. Nice article. It’s said in Islam that Allah is the creator of language and has given that as a mercy to mankind. Of course we change words and meaning over time.

    My focus on language is how the world would have been if Arabic would have spread as did Islam. A common language unifies a people and creates a bond. Just think if Persia, India, & Anatolia spoke Arabic as a first language? The would would be quite a different place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Salaam!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read my article. You’re right; the world would certainly be very different than it is today! Part of me thinks that our ummah would be more united under one language because, as I’ve written above, those who speak the same language often share the same values. Nevertheless, I think the best part of us not speaking the same language is the fact that each of our languages, with its respective semantic/linguistic nuances, helps us understand a different aspect of life more fully, and that we can share these insights with one another to enrich our understanding of deen and the world! After all, one of the most beautiful things about Islam is its unity in its lack of uniformity.

      What do you think?

      Like

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