Islam Translated: IDRF Book Exchange

Ronit Ricci, University of Chicago Press, 2011

Courtney Handman

Ronit Ricci’s Islam Translated is a book of extraordinary scholarship and ambitious scope that follows the paths of Islamic texts and ideas from the Middle East to South and Southeast Asia. Focusing on tellings of the Book of One Thousand Questions in Tamil, Java, and Malay, Ricci argues that translation models different kinds of conversion in each of these unique environments of religious change. That is, one can see the different styles or emphases of these Islamic communities—how they interact with local religious traditions or other cultural practices—in the kinds of translations evident in the various tellings of the Book of One housand Questions.

An example of intercultural exchange itself, the Book of One Thousand Questions depicts a meeting between the Prophet Muhammad and a Jewish leader in which the latter questions the former before converting to Islam at the end of the story. Ample room for local variation is given in the kinds of questions asked, the number of questions asked, the responses given, and of course the language of composition. As Ricci notes, the language varies in terms of not only the vernacular used but also the extent to which that vernacular orients toward Arabic syntax, lexical items, or literary tropes. At the same time, however, Ricci demonstrates that these variations do not ignore the Arabian contexts in which the Book of One Thousand Questions was initially composed. Indeed, the dissemination of this text in all its variations is proof of what Ricci terms (following Sheldon Pollack) an “Arabic cosmopolis,” one in which language communities, like Tamil, Javanese, and Malay, become cosmopolitan vernaculars that orient, to one extent or another, to Arabic and Arabia.

What makes this an especially compelling study, both theoretically and historically, is its focus on the role of language and texts in the construction of globalized religions. An assumption of many observers of Islam is that it is a coherent object of study across its various instantiations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Europe in part because all its followers rely to one extent or another on Classical Arabic and the untranslated Qu’ran. In contrast, many scholars doubt whether globalized Christianity constitutes a coherent object of study given the seemingly endless translations and variations it has taken on (for example, if “the lamb of God” becomes “the seal of God” for Inuit communities, is it the same thing?). But Ricci’s book demonstrates, first, that Islam is not immune to such problems of translation and localization (if not specifically in the Qu’ran) and, second, that translation strengthens cross-cultural linkages rather than weakens them. The sacredness of Arabic and the language of the Qu’ran is emphasized when Malay for example is made to conform to it, a process that simultaneously points to the connections between Arab and Malay communities as well as the differences that exist between them.

Ricci’s emphasis throughout the book is on the ways in which Islam “branches out,” spreading and transforming itself through South and Southeast Asia. She argues that translations were judged based not on the strictness or looseness of equivalences but on a performative notion of desire and success: translations were opportunities to produce conversions or a renewed strength of faith and thus had a kind of poetic license. Given that model of translation, relatively little emphasis is placed on the moments when these localized forms of Islam look back in toward a perceived center in Islamic holy places like Mecca and Medina.

But what authorities existed that limited that license? How were these translations received in Arabia? At one point, Ricci argues that because there is no centralized hierarchy to Islam that governs the use of Arabic (as there is for Roman Catholicism’s use of Latin), there was less emphasis on distinguishing Arabic from local languages and, by extension Ricci implies, less emphasis on distinguishing a pure Islam from local variants. As such, local traditions produced highly particular forms of Islamic practice and theology in the three locales Ricci studies.

But what mechanisms existed for arguing over heresies, and what forms of regimentation were used to promote orthodoxy? How did episodes of schism and sectarian conflict get resolved? (By way of comparison, one can note that evangelical Christianity has no central organized hierarchy similar to that of the Catholic Church and yet it breeds constant schisms and accusations of heresy.) These questions would seem to be important to build upon the concept of the Arabic cosmopolis to show not only that Islam “branched out” but also that it looked back to its roots on occasion.

Ronit Ricci responds:

In my view, there is no contradiction between looking back to Islam’s place of origin in Arabia—and even more precisely, remaining strongly connected to it—and the diverse processes of localization, adaptation, renewal, and change that took place in the Muslim communities I discuss in my book. Rather, these processes of looking back and moving forward complement (and sometimes compete or overlap with) one another. In order to convert to Islam and engage with life as Muslims (individually and collectively), people in Java, Sumatra, and Tamil Nadu had to remain attached to those geographically and culturally distant roots. They did so, I argue, by accommodating and embracing a new understanding of the past that was based on Muslim history and by adopting and adapting the Arabic language in ways that made it local and familiar. This appropriation speaks not so much to “problems of localization and translation” or a “distinguishing of a pure Islam from local variants” but rather to the ways in which ideas, beliefs, and stories that arrive on new soil generate debate, creativity, and engagement that can never be identical across place and time.

Processes of Islamization in these regions produced tensions, schisms, and accusations of heresy. During the long history of Islam’s spread in the regions I explore, different intellectual perspectives, Sufi orders, textual traditions (and their translations), and regimes of practice were accepted and rejected by a variety of individuals and groups. In Java, the Wali Sanga—the council of nine “saints” to whom the island’s Islamization is attributed—are said to have condemned to death Siti Jenar, a member of the council accused of offering profound and transformative teachings to the uninitiated masses, raising the specter of misunderstanding and chaos. Enmity between the Naqshbandiya and Shattariya orders in West Sumatra in the late nineteenth century led to accusations of questionable Arabic recitation and incorrect prayer orientation. During certain periods, Shi’i Muslims in the archipelago were forced to hide their identity from Sunni co-religionists. Although my book focused on a textual tradition that highlights persuasion and devotion rather than overt conflict, one of the broader points I wished to make is that Islam is not a monolithic object of study but rather a civilization of great internal diversity, and schisms and conflicts are part and parcel of that condition.

Rebecca Johnson

Ronit Ricci’s Islam Translated is a remarkable work: it presents a broad literary history of the circulation of Islamic texts, imagery, and literary forms in South and Southeast Asia and at the same time offers a focused case study, through illuminating and precise close readings, of the translation and reception of one particular textual tradition, the Book of One Thousand Questions. Moving between readings of Arabic, Javanese, Tamil, and Malay texts (with forays into Latin, Persian, and Sanskrit contextual examples), its linguistic scope is as impressive as the significance of Ricci’s major claim—that the spread of Islam in the region inhabited today by the world’s largest Muslim populations was achieved perhaps as much by literary networks as by the much-researched networks of trade, travel, and Sufi orders.

In taking this approach, Ricci offers translation as a key concept for understanding this phenomenon, identifying—following Sheldon Pollack—what she calls the “Arabic cosmopolis,” or “a translocal Islamic sphere constituted and defined by language, literature, and religion.” In the Arabic cosmopolis, as Ricci outlines it, local forms of a global religion are negotiated in and through the adoption of Arabic and Islamic texts—which are themselves modified in the process. As such, transnational Islam appears not as a set of universalized or uniform beliefs and practices that were disseminated in South and Southeast Asia but as a literary and intellectual sphere in which converted peoples connected themselves to wider communities of learning and belief and also debated internally about what it meant to be both Muslim and Javanese, Tamil, or Malay in radically different cultural and political contexts.

And it is really here, in the exposition and elaboration of the Arabic cosmopolis as not only the Arabicization of local languages and literary forms but also the vernacularization of Arabic, that Ricci’s argument gains its true force. Because what she shows is not so much that translation matters (though she shows that, too, of course) but that understanding what we are talking about when we talk about translation is essential to our study of translocal literary genres, texts, or cultures. Ricci’s rich readings of the different versions of the One Thousand Questions offer translation both as an overarching theoretical concept linked to conversion and as a set of culturally specific practices, including textual “Javanizing” and interlinear translation (which lie on opposite ends of the translation continuum that Lawrence Venuti has named “foreignizing” and “domesticating”) as well as collaborative translation. Translation is defined as the rendering of words from one language into another but also as the transformations in syntactical and grammatical structures that occurred in local languages through their contact with Arabic and as the process of generic transformation and the complex workings of the accompanying intertextual associations. In the end, Ricci’s subtle attention to complex literary practices and the networks and histories that produced them makes Islam Translated a model for comparative literary studies of any sort, but especially for those that, like hers, are ambitious in their linguistic and temporal scopes.

To conclude, I have two questions for Ronit Ricci:

  1. Translation, conversion, and networks are all important conceptual paradigms for this book as terms that describe the movement of language, peoples, and texts. I wonder if you think anything might be gained by the addition of “circulation” to this list? These texts were circulated, as the book makes clear, orally as well as in manuscript and print forms. How, if at all, did these different modes of circulation mediate or even shape the kinds of interactions, translations, and literary conversions you describe?
  2. The book briefly mentions secular (insofar as that term is valid in this context) literary traditions that were contemporary to the versions of the One Thousand Questions. Do you know if translation practices in secular texts intersected, mirrored, or provided counterexamples to those you describe? This question leads to a larger one that might be too cumbersome to answer here but that nonetheless asks: are your findings about the ways that these literary cultures are constituted and reconstituted in the Arabic cosmopolis exclusive to Islamic texts, or do they tell us something about the ways that all translocal literary cultures are formed and sustain themselves?

Ronit Ricci responds:

Circulation is an important element in the story I tell in the book, as it captures the movement and change inherent in the processes of translation, conversion, and networking. Although “circulation” implies movement in a circuit and the paths of particular manuscripts or tellings are often untraceable, these stories did travel from particular places to reach South and Southeast Asia, and their points of departure to some degree shaped modes of translation and retelling. This is quite clear in some diverging emphases of Tamil and Malay tellings of the Book of One Thousand Questions (deriving from Persian) when compared with Javanese tellings (likely derived from Arabic).

There are differences also in the milieus in which manuscripts or books circulated and in their intended audiences—for example, there are striking distinctions between the sites and audiences of the libraries in the royal courts of central Java and the Islamic pesantren religious schools of the more rural settings on the island. The former tended to preserve the tellings in Javanese script while the latter employed the Arabic script more often, and as I suggest in the book, the choice of script had far-reaching implications. In addition, court tellings tended to retain and embellish the frame story, while tellings likely transmitted in the schools, perhaps due to the emphases within such educational settings, sometimes eliminated the narrative details altogether and highlighted doctrinal issues.

The question of oral circulation and its mediation of interactions and translations is fascinating but difficult to reconstruct without valid evidence. Circulation in print in all three languages allowed the story to reach larger and more diverse audiences but also signaled a narrowing down of this textual tradition by fixing particular tellings and scripts on the page, giving them definitive authorship and dating, and to some extent foreshadowing an exclusion of other tellings as less authoritative or “correct.”

I would hesitate to use the word “secular” in the context of the literary traditions and historical period on which I focus, but there are works that could certainly be defined as didactic, historical, or related to particular forms of expertise more than as religious per se. In the present, many would assume that translations of religious writings require a high degree of precision due to their sacred status and claims of Truth, but as I highlight in the book, this did not seem to be the primary concern or stance taken by Javanese, Malay, and Tamil translators. In fact, translation and other forms of writing often blended, and the lines between them were blurred or indiscernible. Yet, while not secular, forms of translation did exist that provided a counterexample to the flexible, creative mode in which the Book of One Thousand Questions was often retold.

This is especially evident in interlinear translations that present a word-for-word rendering of the Arabic text into another language. In these the translator is not attempting to convey a broad idea or a captivating story that will engage the local audience but rather to capture and explain in as close a manner as possible what each Arabic word, preposition, phrase, and grammatical element (gender, tense, number, and so on) means. These highly structured translations still (as all translations do) offer some form of interpretation by way of the word choices made, but they present a very different perspective on how translation was understood and practiced. In terms of secular translations, although outside the scope of my book, it would be interesting to compare the translations I explored with, for example, those made in colonial Indonesia from the 1870s onward that encompassed Western literary genres, like the novel and science fiction.

Although I would not venture to make a statement about all translocal literary cultures, I do think that my findings about how literary cultures were constituted and reconstituted in the Arabic cosmopolis are not exclusive to Islamic texts nor to the period I primarily focus on, from the sixteenth century onward. I see many similarities to the story I tell in the manner in which pre-Islamic texts were translated and adapted in the Indonesian-Malay world; in the ways language (Sanskrit for the earlier period) was integrated into languages like Malay, Tamil, and Javanese; and in the remarkable creativity and ingenuity that these linguistic, literary, and wider cultural interactions engendered.

Tijana Krstic

In Islam Translated, Ronit Ricci’s inspiring new book, she explores the processes of literary transmission and translation of Islamic texts, ideas, and genres in conjunction with religious conversion within South and Southeast Asia. The main focus of this brave comparative work is a story entitled the Book of One Thousand Questions, which draws on some of the earliest Islamic texts (such as Ibn Ishaq’s Sira), according to which the Prophet Muhammad answered numerous questions pertaining to his prophecy and Islamic belief posed by a prominent Jewish community leader, Abdullah bin Salam (or Ibnu Salam). In light of the Prophet’s answers, Ibnu Salam and his seven hundred companions embraced Islam, and the story of this early Jewish conversion became the basis for one of the most popular question-and-answer catechetic works in the Islamic tradition. Building on Sheldon Pollock’s work on Sanskrit, Ricci adapts his concept of “cosmopolis” to postulate an “Arabic cosmopolis” of South and Southeast Asia—“a translocal Islamic sphere constituted and defined by language, literature, and religion”—within which she then examines the different tellings of the Book of One Thousand Questions in Javanese, Tamil, and Malay, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.

The basic question that Ricci poses is how societies undergoing a profound change such as Islamization come into possession of a corpus of textual sources that allows them to engage with the recently adopted history and religion. She focuses on the phenomenon of translation as the key aspect of this process, and she explores the very meaning of the concept of translation in the different linguistic milieus she studies and how this influences the transformation of the Book of One Thousand Questions in each particular context.

Sensitive to both oral and “scriptural” dimensions of the sources (that is, which script they were written in), Ricci is particularly interested in multiple engagements of the local languages in Java, Tamil land, and Malaysia with Arabic, its sanctity, and the notion of the Qur’an’s untranslatability. In the process, she develops a fascinating tableau of ways in which the Book of One Thousand Questions was translated or “moved” from its Arabic or Persian source to a local language (the resulting “tradaptation” bearing fewer or more numerous imprints of the local religious culture and its terminology and more or less awareness of the larger Islamic geography) and inscribed in each new context (in the local language and script, in the local language but in Arabic script, in combination of both languages and scripts). Ricci argues that as a consequence of these textual “movings” into new contexts not only were the local languages sacralized through Arabic but, by being used for various non-religious writings in local languages, Arabic itself was both secularized and vernacularized, which is one of the essential features of the Arabic cosmpolis she outlines.

Examining the framing, contents, and character of the questions in the Book of One Thousand Questions in different contexts, Ricci notices important differences in surviving manuscripts based on their dating, source language, and provenance. For instance, the Javanese manuscripts that were adapted from an Arabic version of the story contain one thousand four hundred and four questions, rather than one thousand as is the case for most of the Tamil and Malay manuscripts based on a Persian tradition. Furthermore, in the Javanese context, the conversion story featuring the Prophet and Ibnu Salam over time evolved into a Sufi narrative of the master answering the questions of his disciples, with answers bearing evidence of rivalry among different Sufi orders in Java.

Such adaptations happened in other contexts as well, suggesting, as Ricci also points out, that rather than being solely a narrative about intercommunal relations and conversion, the Book of One Thousand Questions had an important intracommunal didactic function that served to draw the boundaries of correct and incorrect belief. Indeed, the importance given to the notion of the munafiq (hypocrite) in Tamil tellings of the story (the oldest surviving in a sixteenth-century manuscript) raises questions about the dynamic within the Tamil Muslim community. As a historian, I was particularly eager to learn more about different historical contexts in which particular manuscripts were produced and ideological shifts within local Muslim communities over time; however, the absence of dates for most of the available manuscripts makes this a difficult task, and Ricci does a remarkable job with the scant data she has.

Ricci also plays with the notion of “conversion,” exploring how it is conceptualized and expressed in the different linguistic contexts she addresses. In her work, not only people convert but texts, scripts, and languages as well, resulting in a much more complex discussion of the process by which Islam as a universal religion becomes part of a local identity and history. By paying meticulous attention to the textual detail and inner logic of texts and local cultures, this book vividly captures the process of Islamization in its various stages without resorting to the discourses of “syncretism” and “hybridity” omnipresent in the discussions of “local Islams.” It is an intellectually stimulating, beautifully written book that sets the standard for any future work on Islamization, especially in the realm of narratives.

Inspired by the discussion in this book, I am curious about the Book of One Thousand Questions in the context of my work on the early modern Ottoman Empire. Cursory research suggests that the Ottoman Turkish version entitled Kırk Su’al, or Forty Questions, which to this day remains a popular catechetic work in Turkey, was authored in the second half of the sixteenth century by Abdurrahman Çelebi Fıraki of Kütahya (a city in central Anatolia), a local Sunni preacher and poet who seems to have fled from Safavid Iran. This would speak to the possibility that the Ottoman version of the text, although containing only forty as opposed to one thousand questions, was based on a Persian version, as Ricci mentions. While Islam Translated discusses at length the Arabic sources for the Book of One Thousand Questions, we learn less about the Persian telling of the story that is the basis for the Tamil, Malay, and possibly Ottoman texts and represents a narrative link between South/Southeast and Central Asia. Although this is outside the scope of Ricci’s book, I wonder if she has any further insights into the Persian context of the story or questions she would like to explore in that direction.

Finally, we learn in Islam Translated a lot about a variety of local and more traditional Islamic literary genres with which the Book of One Thousand Questions engages and from which it borrows, especially various Sufi genres combining literary, mystical, and theological elements. Focusing for a moment solely on its didactic character and question-and-answer format, I wonder about the text’s relationship to the fatwa collections of the local jurists and whether such collections were popular and available in the libraries where copies of the One Thousand Questions were also to be found. How about other juristic genres and catechetic literature that shuns Sufi ideals and embraces more “purist” Islam?

Ronit Ricci responds:

The question of a Southeast Asian–Persian connection—not just in relation to the Book of One Thousand Questions but more broadly—is a very interesting one and also, in my opinion, important to significantly expanding our understanding of Muslim literature in Southeast Asia, especially that written in Malay. That several of the major Malay literary works (including Hikayat Amir Hamza, Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyya, and the Book of One Thousand Questions) have been identified as based on Persian-language sources suggests that further study of Persian-Malay connections will allow for new perspectives on Malay literary history.

I would like to know more, for example, about the paths by which Persian reached the Indonesian-Malay world. India, and especially South India, seems to be the natural point of departure for such study due to the great importance of Persian in the subcontinent, but more direct routes to Persia itself, or to other regions in its cultural sphere of influence, might have existed, and alternatively, Malay pilgrims could have encountered Persian materials while in Arabia. Knowing more about how and when Persian and Malay “met” may shed light on a range of questions regarding intellectual genealogies, translation and generic choices, doctrinal affiliations, and related issues that have been obscured by this missing link in the available scholarship. The main obstacle remains the language barrier, with a dearth of scholars who have a reading knowledge of, and an in-depth familiarity with, both Malay and Persian writing traditions.

The Book of One Thousand Questions does indeed echo in some ways the fatwa tradition, in which diverse questions relating to Islamic belief and practice are answered by a figure of religious authority, and it is interesting that the original form of the fatwa was established in the tenth century, the same approximate period when the Arabic Book of One Thousand Questions was probably put down in writing. Indonesian Muslims looked both to local Muslim authorities and to the Middle East for the issuing of fatwas, with the latter region—especially Egypt and Turkey—becoming increasingly important to religious debates (including, centrally, the state of Islam under colonialism) in the late nineteenth century. I have not explored this potential connection between the Book of One Thousand Questions and the fatwa tradition in depth, though I discussed the continuity between the two and the popular Question and Answer books about Islam that are widely available in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and India. My sense is that fatwa collections may not have been easily found on the same shelves in Java’s royal libraries as manuscripts of the Book of One Thousand Questions. They may have been arranged in closer proximity in the Islamic schools that offered a full curriculum of Islamic sciences, often with a less Sufi and more “purist” attitude toward religion. Many of the collections we can examine today (in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Amsterdam, and London) are inorganic ones, as the manuscripts and books they include were accumulated initially by colonial scholars, missionaries, and administrators with various agendas and under a range of circumstances, and their makeup can be misleading when trying to reconstruct the more natural intellectual and religious contours of such collections in the past.