IZ interview

Question: Dear Hajj Abdassamad Clarke, you are one of the selected group of European born Muslims translators who translate essential Islamic texts into a European language. What are the necessary qualifications for this task?
There is perhaps no need to repeat the obvious, the need for a good knowledge of Arabic, its idioms and usages, its grammar, the culture of the Arabs before and after Islam, and the equivalent knowledge of the language and culture into which one intends to translate.

The translator must beware of a couple of obvious traps:
First, opting for Judaisation or Christianisation of the material by choosing one-to-one mappings of Arabic on to the target language, with the result that translations are peppered with words such as God, religion, litany, liturgy, cleric or even priest, fatally locating Islam as a kind of ‘religion’ at a time when the great majority have rejected religion, sometimes for very good reasons;
Second, preferring archaisms because of the beauty of old translations of the Bible and Shakespeare, since this creates the impression that Islam belongs in a fabulous past as a kind of fairy story, and that it doesn’t connect to our lives today – in fact there is nothing intrinsically in our Arabic source material that requires this antique approach, as it is very accessible in modern European language, of which the Bewley translation of the Noble Qur’an is a splendid example, speaking so directly to us today that there are even Arabs who discovered the Qur’an for the first time through it;
Over-scholarly translations that rely heavily on footnotes and references, and too many expressions in brackets – scholarship has its place and purpose, but, in the main, translators should make works accessible to an intelligent general readership.
However, we should all be aware that translation is a very good metaphor for the work that we have to do here in Europe. There is an act of translation necessary, the same act that the Turks, Africans, Chinese Hui and other nations before us have done. They have a practice that is absolutely clearly Islam and yet it is clothed absolutely naturally in their indigenous cultures. That is our job in Europe today.
Question: Can the translator disappear behind the text or is there also „something“ of him/her in his work?
It is impossible for the translator to remove traces of himself entirely, but his focus should be in transmitting the work faithfully. Doing that, his own signature will always be apparent.
Question: You have translated also Arabic/Islamic works dealing with historic issues. How do you bridge the gap between past events and present-day readers?
The issue is more complex than that. Because of the peculiarities of Christendom in Europe, historians have basically written Islam out of the story, except in specialist works, and thankfully there are more such works appearing in these days. But it is fair to say that for the average Westerner, Islam is a funny anomalous bit of history that they can’t manage. Muslims tend to overcompensate – Arabs/Muslims gave us mathematics etc. – which also skews the perspective. So a modern person, including many Muslims, has to make an effort to visit a very foreign place when he looks at Islam.
Bridging the gap could be dealt with by footnoting, prefaces and appendices, but sometimes that becomes obtrusive, and it is better to let the work speak for itself.
Then the work of relating the past to the present must take place in another arena, and this is in my view a very important labour. A group of us in Norwich pursued this in a number of iterations of our educational initiatives: the Norwich Conference Network and then later The Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies. In the former we set ourselves four questions:
1. Where are we?
2. How did we get here?
3. Where would we like to be?
4. How do we get there?
Clearly these questions and their answers depend on each other. Most specifically, we can’t really understand how we got where we are if we have no sense of history.
In the latter initiative, the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies, in what was one of our two inaugural lectures, the Introduction to the History of the Khalifas (http://themuslimfaculty.org/introduction-history-khalifas/), our Director of Studies, Dr. Tobias Sahl Andersson and I tried to outline a proper discipline of historical studies that would enable our ability to establish what happened, who did it, when it happened and to grasp the meaning of those events, which is actually what our historical studies seek.
There are of course elements of that which are academic, but what gives it focus is if the person is engaged in work to ‘get to where we would like to be’, so to speak. Being academic for the sake of it is no immediate benefit to mankind.
Question: Speaking about history, the history of Islam as well as of Muslims follows quite often an outside narrative and perspective. Do you think there is genuine approach to history and methodology of historiography in Muslim scholarship? If yes, could you describe it for us?
Modern orientalist scholarship starts from the assumption that Muslims are unreliable and dishonest and that real history must be based on Western historiography, but this is a patently unscientific premise, which has only produced absurd and risible work such as that of Tom Holland, whose work has been so ably dismissed by Dr. Jonathon Brown.
It is all too easy to forget that a key element in the Qur’an is that Allah tells stories, of the ancients, of previous ummahs, of Prophets, of believers, of unbelievers, going all the way back to Adam the first human being and first Prophet. Stories are a third of the Qur’an after tawhid – the unitary science, and ahkam – the rulings that govern behaviour, whether acts of worship or ordinary transactions. There is a metaview of history in the Qur’an. There are also passages which speak in a general sense about how history works, about regular patterns that can be discerned in it. This really formed the outlook of Muslim scholars whether they looked at their own history or at the history of others, as did al-Biruni when he wrote his magnum opus on India.
The Muslims went to great lengths to establish, first of all, the actual history of the Prophet, peace be upon him, using the sciences of hadith with genuinely critical approaches. Anyone with an acquaintance with the tafsir, hadith or fiqh traditions would recognise instantly that they were no-holds-barred critical investigations and not merely the work of benighted blind faith. Starting from that basis, a significant number of Muslim historians worked using the same tools to document our history, for example a?-?abar?, al-Bal?dhur?, Ibn Sa’d with his biographical works, Abu Nu’aym with his voluminous biographical work. Dr. Andersson did his PhD on the T?r?kh – History – of Khal?fah b. Khayyat, one of the Shaykhs of al-Bukhari. There are a lot of names one could mention. In the early generations they tried to gather reliable reports about what had happened and when and who had been the actors. Later historians then wrote grander narrative histories drawing on their work. They also treated the histories of earlier nations, such as the Persians and the Berbers etc. But this huge field of biographical works on the khalifahs, amirs, governors, imams, sufis and scholars is the bedrock of our historical studies.
When, in later centuries, Ibn Khaldun appeared with his elegant and critical understanding of history, he did not come out of nowhere, but rather as a splendid realisation of the scientific and critical science of history that the Muslims had always had. The earlier historians had the isn?d science, which in essence boils down to how have you learnt this fact? Who told you? Was he reliable? What was his character? Who told him, and what was his character? Does this fact come through multiple chains of transmission such that it is hardly conceivable that there is any mistake or only through one? Thus, many early narrations were weeded out because their narrators – who were otherwise trustworthy and whose narrations might otherwise be accepted or when they narrated on some topics as opposed to one particular one – were politically inclined to the claim to the caliphate of the family of the Prophet, peace be upon him, to such an extent that people doubted their ability to maintain scholarly accuracy on topics related to that. Thus their narrations relating to that matter become suspect, particularly if they were single unsubstantiated narrations, although their narrations on other topics might cause no trouble whatsoever.
Ibn Khaldun then adds to the existing apparatus a great deal of common sense. He says it’s all well and good that these distinguished men and women conveyed these narrations, but does it defy rationality? And he instantly repudiates fantastical narrations that had been perpetuated, such as the numbers of the Tribe of Israel in their wanderings in the deserts of Sinai for forty years, inflated statistics that Muslim historians had taken uncritically from Jewish scholars without considering the feasibility of such large numbers. And Ibn Khaldun wasn’t alone in that endeavour. Note, he is not just a rationalist rejecting the fantastic out of hand, but he examines the matter critically in some detail before dismissing it.
You mention the key word ‘outside’. While there are particular historical reasons that Western scholars look at Islam from the outside as something alien, there is also the fact that what grew up in Europe after Descartes in general looked on the world itself as something outside, something that Heidegger worked heroically to re-found on another basis. The new history we need is written from the inside and not from the detached position of an observer.
Question: Is there a normative view on human history or does it depend on the individual scholar?
History, as with all the sciences, is the endeavour of a community of scholars who build on each others’ work, criticise it and so on. Within that there are schools of thought, brilliant dissenting individual scholars and all the other things that happen in any body of knowledge. There can also be, as in our current academic environment, a particular school dominating and assuming a kind of orthodoxy that is not really true or productive and which stifles thought.
Among the Muslims, for example, there were the Mu‘tazilah, who were not historians, but the nearest that Muslims ever came to having a ‘Church’. Today there are a number of such schools in Western thinking, for example apologists for the so-called Enlightenment who curiously enough are also fairly outspoken proponents of capitalism and usury finance, ranging from Niall Ferguson to Steven Pinker, who although not a historian as such has ventured into these waters. There are also the various splinter factions of post modernism which is in such vogue in academia.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the time we live in is that the apparent solidity of these different schools is beginning to break up, which can be both alarming and invigorating.
Question: Dear Hajj Abdassamad Clarke, what would be – in your estimate – the main works and schools of historical science in Islam/the Muslim world?
The backbone of Muslim historiography is the isn?d tradition that tries to establish through chains of transmissions of reliable narrators what had happened and who the actors had been. The most important type of isn?d is of course the mutaw?tir in which so many people in each generation transmit to a large number in succeeding generations that there can be no conceivable possibility of fabrication. Rather than a number of competing schools, I would suggest that there is one central school, with some competing peripheral schools, for example, the Shi’ah. I think I have really dealt with the key of this question in the previous responses.
Question: What role and position has the famous scholar Ibn Khaldun in your estimate of Muslim historiography?
Ibn Khaldun was one of the men who really began to ask about the meanings of events. Q??? Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi is also important to remember for his Defence Against Disaster on the civil strife that broke out between the first community of Islam. It is striking that both of these men in addition to basing their works on what has been established by isnad, were faqihs and qadis. In the former capacity they were used to the exercise of that capacity which will bring a mass of disparate data into perspective, because fiqh means ‘understanding’ but understanding in detail. In the latter capacity, they were fully exposed to human nature in all its facets, different contradictions in evidence. In addition Ibn Khaldun, however, had his proximity to power. He was of the power élite and was in and out of court all his life. He understood how power worked and how men and women in power behaved. His insights in this respect are a breath of fresh air.
Most importantly Ibn Khaldun is trying to outline not only history but the nature of what we would call the polis. He has inherited much of the Greeks but in a way that is so natural that you hardly realise that it has happened. He is looking at the nature of civilisation itself as well as history.
The people who took him seriously were, of course, the Osmanl?. Professor Recep Senturk has some interesting insights into that. One aspect was that seeing the cyclical nature of wild people sweeping away the sedentary before themselves becoming ‘civilised’, the Osmanl? constantly brought the wild peoples from the periphery into the centre of their political power to re-invigorate their society, giving their society a resilience, and a longevity that is unmatched except by the Romans.
Question: In the last century, and especially in the past decades, the classical narrative has been overtaken by structuralist approaches and deconstructionist views of history. One result has been the disappearance of the human being as a driving factor. What would be an alternative for this bleak vision?
The worst thing of that perspective is that it reduces the human being to a piece of chaff carried on the waves of history and, in our time, a helpless passive citizen of a stifling state. Some studies have emerged refuting that impersonal picture, and showing how dependent history has often been on a single man or an odd event, for good or bad. Famously, for example, before the outbreak of the Second World War, the entire British Cabinet were united in wanting peace with Germany and were opposed to hostilities. Churchill alone rejected this idea and he argued and cajoled until his view won over, and the rest, as they say, is history. I think that Ian Dallas has done a lot to put the human being back at the centre of historical studies in his four most recent works on the French Revolution, the Elizabethan state, the Romans and in his masterwork The Entire City. Of course that can only be done if we have a psychology that has some depth in it. If the human being is just a unit in the state, a citizen, we can’t expect much from him. If, as with Heidegger, he is Dasein – being there – or in the Sufic perspective a locus of light and the centre of the universe, contrary to that dreadful cliché of scientism that Copernicus removed man from the centre of existence, then we can still expect things from man. And as I said, Muslim historical studies really stands on the shoulders of the great works of biographical compilations, on the stories of all the individuals.
Question: Dear Hajj Abdassamad Clarke, why should we care for history and what is its relevance for the present living?
There are several elements to your question.
First, are we a ‘we’? Is there a body of people who can think of themselves as a ‘we’?
Second, which history? There are histories of science, plain history with the dates of kings’ reigns and battles, Heidegger’s history of Being, histories of the West, of Europe, of the Muslims, histories of business, commerce and, of course, banking, learned studies of the ‘ulama’ and others of the Sufi tariqahs. It is sometimes possible to read one of these histories without realising that it has any connection whatsoever to the others with which it runs in parallel. It is very easy to take one of these, and to take a sub-discipline within it and spend your entire life on the matter without necessarily achieving anything of substance.
Fiqh is the matter we can bring that will give focus. Contrary to the translation ordinarily given to it of ‘jurisprudence’ or even ‘Islamic law’, fiqh means understanding, but in detail. Many people think that fiqh is the detail, and some that it is just the understanding, but it is important to have the two together. We need a fiqh of history. The fiqh of history belongs to people who know they have a reckoning, as much for what they have not done as for what they do, in other words, a people determined to act.

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Abdassamad Clarke is from Ulster and was formally educated at Edinburgh University in Mathematics and Physics. He accepted Islam at the hands of Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi in 1973, and, at his suggestion, studied Arabic and tajwid and other Islamic sciences in Cairo for a period. In the 80s he was secretary to the imam of the Dublin Mosque, and in the early 90s one of the imams khatib of the Norwich Mosque, and again from 2002-2016. He has translated, edited and typeset a number of classical texts. He currently resides with his wife in Denmark and occasionally teaches there. 14 May, 2023 0:03

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