Photo: IZ Media

Translation of Identity: New Approaches to European Thinking through Arabic

(MFAS) – The identity of the Muslim and of the Ummah could not be clearer. Indeed, the issue before us is in some sense behind us: the translation of that identity into a British, European and Western setting. The fact of our meeting and the fact that it is we who meet is proof that this matter is well advanced.

But let us not be triumphalist. As we work, others are working and often more eagerly and dedicatedly. Just as we strive to translate our dīn into this historically new setting, others are far further advanced in translating the secular worldview into a Muslim setting. And others of our own community are working to translate an understanding of the dīn we can hardly recognise into a form that is even more aberrant in order to fit into this age.

It is quite conceivable that lands such as Egypt will loose Islam entirely. But these are not separate issues: the spearheading of Islam here and the preservation there. The issue is not geographical but temporal: the translation of the dīn into the new age we are in, and that is the timeless challenge the dīn has always faced, and thus gives the title for our symposium: Identity and Time. The issue is the same here as it is in Egypt.


Identity – هُوِيَّة ‘he-ness’ in Arabic – is from the Latin idem ‘the same’ and is ‘the relation each thing bears just to itself’. This is a Wikipedia definition, however, that cites as reference the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Since it is written within the paradigm in which things alone have substance and thus meaning, it is full of contradictions. How can a thing relate to itself? It IS itself. So there is authentic identity when a human being is who he is. Who else could he be? Well, he could try, aspire or pretend to be something else, and this is the condition of much of the world, and even of many Muslims today; it is the condition of inauthenticity.

It is the result of taking one’s identity from others, from the eye of others, whether in trying to please the other or displease them, and a surprising number of people take their identity from what is displeasing to an other or others. Trying to be what one is not is the basis of most so-called education. Facilitating the person’s discovery of who they are is the basis of real education. The most confusing of all confusing things is the Muslim who is pretending or trying to be a Muslim. Being who one is, is the condition known as fiṭrah. Islam is the way of fiṭrah.

Man and Society

As with man so with the society. As with the Muslim so with the Ummah. Those things that are true of the individual are true of the bigger social design. And not merely as an aggregate of individuals. Just as the human being is more than an aggregate of cells, so the Ummah is more than just its constituent Muslims.


In both cases, identity is something that persists over time. The man on his deathbed can remember vividly the days of his childhood. The young man pictures the life before him. The human being is a time being. If he had only a present, he would have come from nowhere and be going nowhere. Astonishingly this is the condition of many people and many societies. Stuck in the present not really understanding how they got here nor where they are going. The eternal shopping mall of the present.

As with the individual so with the society, so with the Ummah. The Ummah without its history is lost in the present without a past or a future. Only a past allows one to understand the present and conceive a future. But for identity you have to remember your own history and imagine and intend your future, not take them from someone else. More importantly, one must understand. Even if the other gives you your own history utterly faithfully, it is still not your history until you remember and understand it. The modern Muslim is like an amnesiac whom the doctors – academic historians – are trying to convince has had a past which he himself cannot remember and does not understand, and then on that basis his own politicians try to convince him that he must advance into a future that doesn’t make much sense.


So for the purpose of translation, there has to be something to translate. We have set ourselves the task of ‘the translation of identity’, the translation of that which is authentically what it is into a new being which is exactly that which it authentically is. Or as we saw, it is an issue of time: translating from the past into the future by means of the now. But the nature of identity is that it is the same. It is identical.


If we look at the Europe in which we live and consider its Christian roots, now long abandoned, we discover that the Gospels were written in Greek – not Aramaic the language of ‘Īsā, peace be upon him, – they were quickly translated into Latin and then on into German and other European languages during the Reformation that is at the beginning of modernity. Thus modernity left its moorings far behind and gazes back at them through a glass darkly, thanks to the work of translators. Aramaic was a kind of Arabic, and we will come later to what that means. Greek came carrying a great burden which it was unable to put down: its long cultural and philosophical tradition which had been given a final fateful shape by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is the language that was used to record the words and life of ‘Īsā, peace be upon him, upon which later Latin, German and English translations are based. Upon the basis of a Greek solidification of its own heritage and its misunderstanding of Christianity an entire worldview was built. This is the dark glass through which we peer trying to see.

In our paradigm, however, the translator must give the reader a help to look on the authentic original. The intent is not to look through the glass of the translation but that the translation will be a light shone on the original. Nevertheless, here the waters have been muddied for a couple of different reasons.


When looking at the issue of translation we assume your understanding that we are talking as much about a way of being and practice as we are about words and texts.

Some of our translators are in awe of the culture whose language they are translating into. They are trying to prove themselves to be absolutely amenable to everything in this culture, a culture that is the dark glass through which we are unable to get a clear picture.

Others, not awed by the dominant culture but earnestly wishing to address them in terms they already understand, make exactly the same translation decisions.

For example, unaware of the history of the emergence of the modern state from its roots in Plato’s Republic, through the Peace of Westphalia and the French Revolution, they translate dawlah as state, whereas it means ‘a turn of good fortune’ and came to be applied somewhat loosely to a dynasty. Of their natures, dynasties come and go. Thus, something inherently dynamic was made static. They are trying to persuade the dominant culture that Muslims are in fact ‘modern’, so in awe are they of modernity, so unaware of its history.

The result of these decisions made separately by two different types of translator for very different reasons is to create a new form, which is neither an Arabised form of modernity nor exactly a modernised version of Islam but somewhere in between and a bit of both.

As with the words so with the beings, society and the practice. A new type of being, society and a new type of practice. Therefore it is not the identity because a society’s identity is the same through time.

However, the intention is something prior to this. We do not wish to make self-standing translations, but rather our translators are attempting to give the reader a help to be able to see the Arabic original, which is revealed in the language of the fiṭrah, originally to people of the fiṭrah, but today calling to whatever of the fiṭrah we have in us.


We must note here that usually, the word fiṭrah summons up the image of lost primitive tribes in the jungle. It is romantic, we think in a condescending way. We invariably think of fiṭrah as simple and primitive. The reverse is true. The fiṭrah is sophisticated and complex. The language of fiṭrah has a complexity that no later learning can ever equal. The modalities of fiṭrah family, clan and tribal life are organic, intertwined and complex. It always devolves not evolves. Islam is a vessel designed to safeguard the fiṭrah, whether in the being of its people or in the language.

Arabic – the language of fiṭrah, Islam – the dīn of fiṭrah

Contrary to the place accorded it today, Arabic is not a classical language. Rather it is a completely unpolluted natural language, a language of fiṭrah. Although it has had a superstructure of religious meanings come to adhere to it, its real essence is precisely of the desert and the natural setting, un-programmed by the prior culture, science, civilisation or philosophy of the Greeks, Romans and Persians, peoples whose commonwealths had devolved into highly militarised and aggressive empires. In spite of our own centuries of culture, religion, science and philosophy, our great men of knowledge have striven valiantly to preserve its fiṭrah nature, just as the great have striven nobly to preserve Islam as the dīn of fiṭrah. And they did succeed, in spite of the efforts of others and the natural entropy of history.

So although we have chosen language to some extent as a metaphor for ways of being, types of society and practice, nevertheless the matter of language is pivotal, because most of the contemporary world’s disputes revolve around radical re-definitions and indeed alterations of words’ meanings. We can say that the people of the dominant paradigm are themselves the prisoners of a worldview seen through a glass darkly, but that their tragic imprisonment in it dooms them to be at war in a needless and senseless way in order to bring about the ‘state’ that lies at the root of their tradition – now a world-state – truly a Greek tragedy of universal proportions. The authentic recovery of language, definitions and identity can only serve the good of all. Arabic is a clear translucent glass for that process.

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