Sacred Language and Vernacular Translation of Scriptures:
Why Some Muslims Just Cannot Understand/Accept the Use of “Allah” in the Alkitab (Bahasa Bible)
I. Sacred Language and Religion of Diffusion
Some Muslim activists have repeatedly charged Christians for having ulterior motives when they use the word “Allah” which include attempting to “deislamize Malay language” and to proselytize confused Muslims. It is significant that these activists have not denied the fact that the Malay speaking churches have been using the word “Allah” in their liturgy and instructional materials for centuries. Still, these Muslim activists simply brushed aside the historical fact and the charge of ulterior motives is repeated ad nauseum. Wherein lies this visceral reaction that overwhelms, if not precludes rational discussion in the dispute over the use of “Allah”?
Perhaps, one primary reason why these Muslims fail to comprehend, much less accept the propriety for Christian to use the word “Allah” in vernacular translation of the Bible originates from their conception of Quranic Arabic as the incomparable sacred language and the most appropriate medium of revelation. Indeed the language of the Quran is sui generis and is in principle untranslatable.
For example, Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book, Ideals and Realities of Islam, describes the sacred qualities of Quran Arabic in exalted terms:
The form of the Quran is the Arabic language which religiously speaking is as inseparable from the Quran as the body of Christ is from Christ himself…Arabic is sacred in the sense that it is an integral part of the Quranic revelation whose very sounds and utterances play a role in the ritual acts of Islam…
But the formulae of the Quran read in prayers and acts of worship must be in the sacred language of Arabic which alone enables one to penetrate into the content and be transformed by the Divine presence and grace (barakah) of the Divine book… That is also why the Quran cannot be translated into any language for ritual purposes… (pp. 44-45).
…non-Muslims, who read the Quran for the first time are struck by what appears to be a kind of incoherence from the human point of view…The text of the Quran reveals human language crushed by the power of the Divine Word…yet it is not the sacred text that is incoherent. It is man himself who is incoherent and it takes much effort for him to integrate himself into his Centre so that the message of the Divine book will become clarified for him and reveal t him its inner meaning (p. 48).
Now, the power of the Quran does not lie in that it expresses a historical fact or phenomenon. It lies in that it is a symbol whose meaning is valid always because it concerns not a particular fact in a particular time but truths which being in the very nature of things are perennial…
The miracle of the Quran lies in its possessing a language which has the efficacy of moving the souls of men now…it is said that a test of a person’s faith (iman) is whether he is moved by the daily calls to prayer (adhan) and the chanting of the Quran or not. This power lies precisely in its nature as symbol not fact, as the symbol of a truth which concerns man vitally here and now (p. 49).
The sacred language is then envisaged as infusing spiritual power into Islamic devotion and practices. There can be no contextualization of the faith into local cultural forms. As a religion of diffusion (in contrast to translation/contextualization) Islam is the primary carrier of Arabic linguistic and cultural heritage and the success of the Islamic missionary enterprise (dakwah) is gauged in terms of the perpetuation of its sacred language (Quranic Arabic) and its cultural formation. The message and culture of Islam is expected to displace and replace non-Islamic cultures and institutions deemed to belong to the age of ignorance (Jahiliyyah).
II. Vernacular Languages and Religion of Translation
In contrast, Christianity accepts the possibility of revelation being communicated through a variety of languages. I quote generously from Lamin Sanneh’s celebrated study Translating the Message.
God is not an interchangeable cultural concept, a pious embodiment of cultural self-guard. But neither is God an abstract force who is encountered outside the limits of cultural self-understanding. To the Jew, God must speak as a Jew, with a repetition of the particularity in respect to the Gentiles. (p. 30)
The translators in the Christian tradition, then, assumed that God’s universal truth was the reasonable guarantee and safeguard for responsible pluralism. Bible translators believed that in Jesus Christ was to be found the message of salvation, a message that was expected to cohere in the vernacular. Thus they expected the vernacular to be the congenial locus for the word of God, the eternal logos who finds familiar shelter across all cultures, but one also by which and in which all cultures find their authentic, true destiny. Jesus Christ was assumed to be universally accessible through the medium of particular vernacular cultures, so that universality might propagate the spirit of unity without demanding cultural conformity for its real efficacy. We must separate this from a popular misconception that translation is possible only because there is something intrinsic about the nature of language as divine. Rather, translation particularly in its Christian form, stripped language of its inert, fixed power and invested it with a potential for mutuality. Linguistic variety was not, for missionaries, a religious problem but rather a vocational challenge that often resulted in cultural self-criticism. When missionaries could not adequately translate a Western cultural notion, they encountered in that difficulty the issue of radical pluralism, of how dispensable in the Christian scheme Western culture was to indigenous appropriation. (pg. 205)
…in endeavoring to accomplish this vernacular task, translation may make commonplace passages of Scripture come alive, while also stimulating indigenous religious and cultural renewal… Such confidence in the value of the vernacular has encouraged the role of recipient cultures as decisive for the final appropriation of the message. Fifth, the internal developments that generally follow from the promotion of the vernacular have included the anti-elitist popular impulse of ordinary usage, the consequences for society of the open and public nature of religious faith and organization, the premium that missionary translation places on pluralism in language and culture, and the political ramifications of the importance Christians attach to free and equal access to the things of God (p. 208).
Religious life founded on a non-substitutable sacral language renders local language secondary in the profession and practice of faith and results in the marginalization of the vernacular [my emphasis]. In contrast, a religion of translation affirms the necessity of the local culture and language as a medium of divine revelation. The necessary implication is the imperative to translate Scripture and liturgical materials of Christianity into in everyday language and develop forms of devotion that are congruent with local cultural forms.
The inescapable corollary is that the language of the missionary messenger-carrier is relativized. For example, even though historically Western missionary agencies have been instrumental in spreading the message of Christianity, nevertheless, the Christian message must in principle be distinguished from Western values embedded in Western languages and cultures.
Historians have recently begun to appreciate the fact that the Christian missionaries were instrumental in the renaissance of vernacular languages and local cultures in Africa and Asia. Indeed, Bible translators were the scholars who initiated the task of codifying the languages of many oral societies. The newly translated version of the Bible consolidates the oral language into a repository of linguistic resources for the cultural formation of the vernacular society.
The effort of Bible translators to come as close as possible to the speech of ordinary, everyday life is a remarkable example of their confidence that the profoundest spiritual truths are compatible with commonplace words, ideas and concepts (p. 200).
Indeed, the African scholar Lamin Sanneh who hails from Sierra Leone, points out that “Missionary translation was instrumental in the emergence of indigenous resistance to colonialism. Local Christians acquired from the vernacular translations confidence in the indigenous cause. While the colonial system represented a worldwide economic and military order, mission represented vindication for the vernacular. Local Christians apprehended the significance of world events, and as such the purposes of God, through the familiar medium of mother tongues, with subject peoples able to respond to colonial events in light of vernacular self-understanding” (p. 123).
Lamin Sanneh elaborates from his outstanding study on the positive impact of the translation of the Bible into diversity of African vernaculars:
It follows from this that radical pluralism is radical in the boldness with which the word of God is assumed to have a vernacular form, and pluralist in denying to any one language an exclusive claim in the “plan of salvation.” It is one of the interesting ironies of the Western missionary enterprise that the evangelical motive actually helped to shield indigenous populations form the unmitigated assault of the West and that, through the elevation of the vernacular in translation, missions furnished the critical language for evaluating the West in its secular and religious impact(p. 203).
By that procedure, such missionaries acted to shield indigenous cultures from Western religious and intellectual dominance. Equally important, such stress on the Bible as alone sufficient to effect God’s purpose conferred on the vernacular an autonomous, consecrated status as the medium of God’s word, a consecration often more in tune with indigenous attitude toward language than the attitudes of missionaries toward their own culture…
Two general ideas stem from this analysis. First is the inclusive principle whereby no culture is excluded from the Christian dispensation or even judged solely or ultimately by Western cultural criteria. Second is the ethical principle of change as a check to cultural self-absolutization. Both of these ideas are rooted in what missionaries understood by God’s universal truth as this was revealed in Jesus Christ, with the need and duty to work out this fact in the vernacular medium rather than in the uniform framework of cultural homogeneity. This introduces in mission the logos concept wherein any and all languages may confidently be adopted for God’s word (p. 208-209).
Such as approach has two immediate consequences for our understanding of mission. First, Christian expansion was not at the expense of the authentic values of culture. Those cultural features that were already weakening, either because of a lack of necessary stimulus or from natural exhaustion, received the coup de grace. Other elements capable of combining with the tide of Christian advance acquired a renewed strength. Second, cross-cultural experience helped to check the tendency toward the divinization of one cultural stream by promoting all cultures as essentially equal in the scale of divine providence (p. 51).
God has no linguistic favorites!
To conclude – the manifest inability of some Muslims activists to understand and empathize with the Christian historic practice of translating their Scriptures into vernacular, and that includes utilizing the local references to the one creator God, arises because these Muslims presuppose that religion must be based on a preeminent sacred Arabic language, evidenced by their insistence on the doctrine of non-translatability of Holy Scripture. In turn, the sacred language (Quranic Arabic) associated with mystical power must be guarded from linguistic corruption. As Nasr puts it,
The Quran contains a quality which is difficult to express in modern language. One might call it a divine magic, if one understands it metaphysically and not literally. The formulae of the Quran, because they come from God, have a power which is not identical with what we learn from them rationally by simply reading and reciting them. They are rather a talisman which protects and guides man. That is why even the physical presence of the Quran carries a great grace or barakah with it (p. 51).
Not surprisingly, these Muslim activists demand non-Muslims be prohibited from using linguistic expressions, religious terms that occur in the Quran, words such as Allah, Firman Allah, Akhirat, Iman, Injil, Nabi, Wahyu, Salat, etc. There is apprehension that improper use of these religious terms may, so to say, pollute the sanctity/purity of the sacred language and undermine the ‘magical’ power of the sacred language.
In contrast, Christians see all languages (including the vernacular) as worthy of becoming a medium for the transmission of the divine message. In other words, Christianity as a religion of translation promotes cultural particularity while affirming a universal God. The vernacular is dignified as having the potential of becoming transformed into a medium of divine revelation.
Put in emphatic language, Christianity affirms linguistic pluralism wherein all languages and cultures are in principle equal in expressing the word of God. God has no linguistic favorites! The Good News must be heard in all native languages.
In the same spirit the local translation of the Bible (in this case the Alkitab), follows the centuries-old practice of the local communities/tribes that refers to the one creator God as “The God” or “Allah”.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam. Allen & Unwin 1966.
Lamin Sanneh. Translating the Message. Orbis Books, 1989.
4 thoughts on “Sacred Language and Vernacular Translation of Scriptures”
Comments deleted by admin. Merely a list of questions not related to the post.
Dear Dr. Kam Weng, Shalom:
Your scholarly and relevant discourse on monopolization of the term ‘Allah’ is deeply appreciated. As I look at it, the crux of the matter is Islamist imperialism and ‘kiasuism’, and I think the most appropriate response is exposure of Islamic and Qur’anic roots and sources. besides others, I find the few down-loadable on-line books on http://www.islam-watch.org helpful in this regard.
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