Linguistics and Islam

Kim Stanley Robinson’s  alternate history novel,”The Years of Rice and Salt” posits a world in which an overwhelming majority of Europeans are decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century thereby Christinaity and the white race never get the chance to shape the world as we know it. History of the world, thus, is informed by dominant cultures of the day; the Islamic world, India and the Far East. One of the qualities that sets this novel apart from other novels of the what-if genre is the  intelligent observations, commentary and inquiries the writer makes into the nature of Islam. The following extract is taken from a book within this book entitled “Mohammed [pbuh] Meets Confucius”.    Zia Ahmad

When observing the tendency towards physical extremism in Islam, ranging from fasting, whirling and self-flagellation, all the way up to jihad itself, one wonders at its causes, which may be several, including the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) sanctioning jihad, the early history of Islamic expansion, the harsh and otherworldly desert landscapes that have been the home of so many Muslim societies, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that for Islamic peoples the religious language is by definition Arabic, and therefore a second language to the great majority of them. This has fateful consequences, because one’s native tongue is always grounded in a physical reality by vocabulary, grammar, logic, and metaphors, images and symbols of all kinds, many of them buried and forgotten in names themselves; but in the case of Islam, instead of having a physical reality attached to it linguistically, its sacred language is detached from all that, for most believers, by its secondary and translated quality, its only partly learned nature, so that it conveys only abstract concepts, removed from the world, conveying the devout into a world of ideas abstracted and detached from the life of the senses and the physical realities of life, creating the possibility and even the likelihood of extremism resulting from a lack of perspective, a lack of grounding.

To give a good example of the kind of linguistic process I mean: Muslims who have Arabic as a second language do not ‘have their feet on the ground’; their behaviour is all too often directed by abstract thought, floating alone in the empty space of language. We need the world. Each situation must be placed in its setting to be understood. Possibly, therefore, our religion should be taught mostly in the vernacular tongues, the Quran translated into all the languages of Earth; or else better instruction in Arabic be given to all; although taking this road might entail requiring Arabic to become the first language of all the world, not a practical project and likely to be regarded as another aspect of jihad.

pg 235 The Years of Rice and Salt

Bantam books, 2002

19 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, History, Islam, Literature, Religion

19 responses to “Linguistics and Islam

  1. yasserlatifhamdani

    Or is it the centrality of the Arabic language to Islam?

    In any event, this idea that physical extremism of any kind is somehow unique to Islam itself is questionable. All faiths have gone to war and waged holy wars … All faiths have hermits and socially reclusive “saints” (others more than Islam), fasting, sacrifice, self denial, sexual hang ups etc.

    Therefore this is not unique to Islam.

  2. bonobashi

    @YLH

    I’ll say it isn’t!!

    Just replace the concepts and situations with the Hindu/Sanskrit/Indic equivalents and you get the same effect. When I say replace, I mean paraphrase intelligently. For two pins, I’d do the re-write, just for a laugh.

    Pathetic!

  3. D_a_n

    ‘whirling’ is physical extremism???????!!!!!!!!!

    Surprised the half wit didn’t put the pre prayer abolition in that category as well…

    Rubbish.

  4. D_a_n

    Can someone please explain what purpose was served by putting this up?

    If this was food for thought then I’ve already got the runs.

  5. bonobashi

    @YLH

    Consider the equivalent text below; any of these vapoury passages can be used to preach religious hatred.

    When observing the tendency towards physical extremism in Hinduism ranging from fasting, self-mortification and self-flagellation, all the way up to the Gita’s concept of war as an abstract duty, which attracts no punishment for death or destruction caused while waging war, one wonders at its causes, which may be several, including the words of the Gita sanctioning war, the early history of Hindu expansion, the harsh and otherworldly desert landscapes that have been the home of so many warrior Hindu castes and tribes, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that for Indians, the religious language is by definition Sanskrit, and therefore a second language to the great majority of them. This has fateful consequences, because one’s native tongue is always grounded in a physical reality by vocabulary, grammar, logic, and metaphors, images and symbols of all kinds, many of them buried and forgotten in names themselves; but in the case of Hinduism, instead of having a physical reality attached to it linguistically, its sacred language is detached from all that, for most believers, by its secondary and translated quality, its only partly learned nature, so that it conveys only abstract concepts, removed from the world, conveying the devout into a world of ideas abstracted and detached from the life of the senses and the physical realities of life, creating the possibility and even the likelihood of extremism resulting from a lack of perspective, a lack of grounding.
    To give a good example of the kind of linguistic process I mean: Hindus who have Sanskrit as a second language do not ‘have their feet on the ground’; their behaviour is all too often directed by abstract thought, floating alone in the empty space of language. We need the world. Each situation must be placed in its setting to be understood. Possibly, therefore, our religion should be taught mostly in the vernacular tongues, the Gita translated into all the languages of Earth; or else better instruction in Sanskrit be given to all; although taking this road might entail requiring Sanskrit to become the first language of all the world, not a practical project and likely to be regarded as another aspect of .the appropriate behaviour of a man of a warrior caste.

  6. bonobashi

    Needless to add, we could do the exact same thing, substituting Christianity and equivalent phrases for the signifiers used. Or Judaism.

  7. Zia Ahmad

    Mr DAN
    It’s just a piece of fiction. Extremism begets tolerance and at times it apparently goes the other way as well.

  8. D_a_n

    @zia Ahmed

    oh please. Spare me.

    What I have an intolerance for is sub standard fiction that’s meant to pander to the lucrative ‘islamophonbia’ market.

    If your going to put up fiction them at least make it worth our while to read and discuss.

  9. yasserlatifhamdani

    Bonobashi,

    It was hilarious.

  10. yasserlatifhamdani

    Dear Zia,

    In the great battle for hearts and minds of the multitudes of Muslims around the world – between the Modernists and revivalists, between the rationalists and the witchdoctors, this undue unnecessary and quite pointless excerpt only discredits the liberal, progressive and sane forces…

    I must agree with Dan that I don’t see any point to this particular excerpt being put up even though I am intrigued by the main theme of the book mentioned above!

  11. awaam

    ” …… history of the world, thus, was informed by dominant cultures of the day; the Islamic world, India and the Far East….. lo and behold the world ended up better in this reality…..”

    ” Watching multiple Universes… a view from Q”

    hehehe

  12. Zia Ahmad

    @ Dan
    Talk about judging the book by its cover.Your searing literary criticism aside,it would help immensly if you read the book before passing those valubale judgments. It would only be fair. Branding anything that offends your selective sense of aesthetics as islamophobic falls in the same vicinty as intolerance and is a lazy exercise. So the puh-leez factor can wait for the moment.

  13. Zia Ahmad

    It has been said of this post that it is, plainly and simply, pointless. Due to public demand, I’ll furnish a reason or two for posting the piece and attempt to address the generally dismissive comments the passage has invited.

    I did try to give a general context to this excerpt from an imaginary book (within the pages of an actual book I assure you), outlining the background against which the text is written. This piece is written by a Muslim character in the book which conveniently can be argued as to give the writer of the actual book a mouthpiece to forward his reflections on Islam, the Arabic language, jihad and all that goes into what is seen as islamophobic rhetoric. Let’s get past this pre-conceived notion, which appears to be a big problem here, and merely see the passage for what it is, an inquiry into the extremist facet of Islam.

    At the start, in ascending order, the writer draws up a range of activities and rituals that have a degree of excessivness attached to it. Compared to the rest of the days of the year, denying oneself of food and drink for an extended period of time a day is a physical test of a person that is underscored by a religiously sanctioned form of ritual that asks for a modicum of physical trial as well as a spiritual one. Whirling is in itself a more pronounced form of physical extremism than fasting and is a manifestation of devotional abandon and ecstasy. The bar of physical extremity is raised considerably when it comes to self-flagellation and meets its pinnacle at that most sensational and misunderstood concept of jihad. There is a pattern that begins with physical endurance that is steeped in the devotional and spiritual and somewhere along the way, at times, is hijacked by more hardlining factors.

    To say that other cultures and religions have similar trends of physical extremism is to completely miss the point. In the body of the novel, or for that matter, in this living and breathing world, the causes of such borderline behavior that veers towards the violent demand to be investigated. It just might be one of those little somethings that defines the human condition, then again since the exposure and influence of Islam is what is closest to us by default, it doesn’t matter much how the same template can be applied to other cultures.

    One of the causes identified is the secondary place of Arabic as a language amongst Non-Arab muslims that is given a status above the mother tongue. It starts to take precedence and is manifested by someone anyone of you might know who names their children in odd-sounding Arabic names, in an attempt to be more pious, or donning Arab style monikers. Other than this superficial illustration, our faith comes to us second hand. Some of us feel a need to take Arabic classes or attend Dars, which by themselves can be noble endeavours. The religious language is given a sacroscant value where a majority of the muslim populace takes anything with Arab association, particularly the language as holy and sacred. A not too distant incident that comes to mind is the Gojra blasphemy fiasco the details of which are known to all.

    So yes, I feel this post is miles away from being pointless and would really like to hear something that runs counter on a beat which constitutes of more than dismissive words ending with exclamations marks. Bonobashi and Yasser are more fluent in matters of history than I am and I look forward to amendments to any errors or oversights I might have made and even Mr Dan provided he doesnt lose his cool.

    @Yasser
    “Years of Rice and Salt” comes strongly recommended and I feel you will find it of interest. It observes the same battles between the Modernists and revivalists, between the rationalists and the irrationalists that you mention. And would you eloborate on how this excerpt is detrimental to the progressive cause.

    Regards.

  14. Bloody Civilian

    Zia

    the causes of such borderline behavior that veers towards the violent demand to be investigated. It just might be one of those little somethings that defines the human condition, then again since the exposure and influence of Islam is what is closest to us by default, it doesn’t matter much how the same template can be applied to other cultures

    i think your argument in the para quoted above was making sense, to me, until the line starting “then again..”. without looking further than what is closest there can be no claim to any kind of rigourous analysis. without that basic effort, there can be no claim to validity. the ‘analyst’ is open to accusations of being blinkered, in the sense of taking the bug’s eye-view, and lazy.

    how can it be valid without a comparison to the ‘bodily’ extreme practices in budhism? why is it not a valid criticism that, by and large, whirling dervishes tend not to be the jihadist type? or the link between mullahs and misogyny? or the taliban jhadists and homosexuality (which again would land one in a nonsensical mess if one were to limit the invetigation to taliban… since they are in the vicinity)?

    the thing about arabic makes relatively more sense. but without delving a bit deeper in to it, it alone does not make up for the other shortcomings. now i’m no expert in any field relevant to the discussion here. my views are entirely those of a common reader… who has only read what you have written. if the article above or the book behind it was not written for the likes of me… than i apologise with a request to kindly ignore my comments.

  15. bonobashi

    @Zia Ahmed

    I am taken aback to find that my anger at this rather warped point of view towards one religion, anger born out of the blatant bigotry involved, should have come across as a reflection against you personally. Nothing of the kind was in mind, nothing of the kind was intended, and if my response caused offence, please accept my apologies.

    Perhaps it deserves a slightly more detailed explanation. Most religions have served their followers ill, in my opinion. In addition, their followers tend to be angry people who will not accept criticism, who deem criticism of their own religious practices to be criticism of God. It is not worth tangling with such furious and channeled intellects, if intellects they still are, and I am reduced to maintaining complete silence on matters relating to religion.

    In this case, it seemed that the passage was Islamophobic, in a sort of assumption that others were better. I translated the passage to apply to Hinduism only to make the point that all religions were vulnerable to this criticism, that strange practices, bizarre behaviour and irrational thought driven by an alienation from one’s physical surrounding are not monopolies of any one religion, not even of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic complex.

    You have made the point, correctly for PTH, that Islam is the closest religion for examination. Of course that is true, specifically for you (in my case, you will understand, there is a difference), but it was not the first thought that struck one; the first thought that struck one was,”Oh no, another grinning western ape, presenting in what he thinks is readable prose yet another spin on why the religion of Mahound is diabolical!” (I now understand that you are allergic to exclamation marks, and shall seek exemption for that single one).

    If this is to be a critical review of Islam, I must excuse myself; my position is that all religions cause equal harm, so if you are unwilling to take up others as well, it seems from my point of view to be an internal matter among votaries of Islam or their immediate neighbours.

    If this is to be a critical review of all religions, I would like to be there; that’s much more my ticket (exclamation mark carefully averted).

  16. Hayyer

    All information is second hand and, by implication inauthentic. So, only the Arabic or Sanskrit or Aramaic version is the correct one-that much is valid.
    Except in the sciences where experimentation and replication is required what else is there that can be taken as non falsifiable, and also not lost in translation. So it is natural to study Arabic or Sanskrit. I’m planning on learing Persian, the better to understand Ghalib-there has to be a fallacy there.
    But more than that was it not an issue of universals versus particulars? Universal human failings, universal human problems, the universal human condition; but why should the narrator (or whoever utters those words) not particularize from his personal position. To require universal statements from before taking particular position is a form of thought control. How many can
    ‘see a world in a grain of sand
    and heaven in a wild flower.
    Hold eternity in the palm of your hand
    And infinity in an hour’
    The whole trouble with humankind seems to be an egregious particularism.

  17. D_a_n

    @ Zia Ahmed…

    ‘I am and I look forward to amendments to any errors or oversights I might have made and even Mr Dan provided he doesnt lose his cool.’

    Zia, what can I say that hasn’t already been said on this by Bonobashi….

    but I’ll tell you why i lost my cool…it is because for the better part of the last decade, I and others have had to (and continue to) endure utter drivel and rubbish in the name of fiction and/or ‘scholarly’ examination of Islam and Muslim behaviour (two very different subjects).

    There is a very lucrative market for books out there seems dedicated to entirely discrediting not only my belief system but my way of life as well….so please excuse me for being very touchy on this. I have just about had more than a sane man should be asked to bear of such writing. It feels like a constant state of siege.

    To my mind such works and writings are badly disguised ‘Islam-o-phobia’ that’s meant mainly to cash in on a very lucrative market for such books (a walk through most book stores will unfortunately confirm this)

    There is nothing more that discredits practicing Muslims like myself in front of those that are less reasonable….

    I stand by my point that I just did not understand the point of putting this up. If there was one, I completely missed it. My attack was not meant to target you personally but the passage itself.

  18. “To give a good example of the kind of linguistic process I mean: Muslims who have Arabic as a second language do not ‘have their feet on the ground’; their behaviour is all too often directed by abstract thought, floating alone in the empty space of language”. I think the author lost so much in words that he forgot to mention example to clarify his point……
    Besides, Arabic is the language of Islam and every one of us should strive to learn it as one can not understand Islam well and do Ijtihad without knowing it.

  19. tahazaidi

    Calling this novel ‘fiction’ won’t change the fact that it is written with only one point in mind, and that is to present a defaced terrorist image of Islam and Muslims. Secondly, how can a novel based on history and present day commentary be fiction? it is only a lie, made just to defend the bogus Zionist satanic attack on Islam.

    Besides, the author over looks the basic fact regarding communication .. which is ‘language’. There has to be a language for Quran to be presented by, just like there was Hebrew for Bible and other languages for other books, sacred or not. so blaming it all on the language or telling it to be a culprit or an active agent in arising people for terrorist activities is not just unthoughtful yet unveils the underlining satanic message of abhor that Lucifer has for this Holy Script.

    I don’t mean to be harsh or sound like an extremist but the fact is that I am a fundamentalist .. and when writings like this one come up, I just cant hold my self back .. despite this novel, we should have a brief sight and should understand the purpose this or other such novels and tales are serving. Today, its Arabic which is under attack and we all might be thinking hey! what the heck, so what if a lunatic says something about Arabic that aint right, the rest of the book is artistic and the new gossip in town. but what we fail to see is the fact that when unaware and infant minds (not in particular pointing at children) read this material they fall prey to this propaganda. and that is what we cant afford.

    in a nut shell, there are plenty of things artistic around us that we can talk about .. and what ever, if for once we are not taking part in down town gossip .. we are serving what we think is right! DISCOURAGE SUCH MATERIAL. make a topic of your own .. discuss some literature book or a Billy Johns latest album .. but don’t support and spread the satanic message .. please don’t!!