Friday 23 October 2009

Islamic literature by converts to Islam - II

This is second in the series of posts on the subject. In this post, we carry out a brief review of works by Muslim converts concentrating on the studies of Qur'an and Hadith.

The magnitude of work that exists makes a detailed review and classification a daunting task. This effort does not aim at presenting a systematic study of literature but merely an attempt to introduce a lay person to the wonderful legacy of these illustrious Muslim converts.

Translation and exegeses of the Qur'an

A quick survey of English translations of the Holy Qur'an shows the valiant efforts that Muslim converts have made to propagate the divine message of Allah. Marmaduke Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an, first published in 1930, was the first English translation to achieve mass popularity. It is noted for its archaic language and is still published and read widely even today.

An extremely important addition to the English translations of the Holy Qur'an is Muhammad Asad'sThe Message of the Qur'an. First published in 1980, it was a result of 17 years of hard work and a lifetime of study and research. Asad's profound knowledge of classical Arabic and deep understanding of Arab tribal culture are reflected in his explanatory notes. This work is noted for Asad's rationalist approach toward understanding the message of the Qur'an. This translation was criticised by orthodoxy for its Mutazilite inclination and was banned in Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally, this is his attempt to explain the message of the Qur'an rationally that makes him extremely popular among the western readers and Muslims who prefer logical argumentation. Another feature of this work is that Asad, explaining a verse, cites opinions of great Qur'an exegete of the past - Daraqutni, Ibn Kathir, Ibn Taymiyyah, Zamakhshari, Abd'hu, Al-Tabbari, Suyuti, just to name a few - and then justifies his preference for one of them. This work is rightly considered his magnum opus.

More recent English translations include Dr T. B. Irving's The Qur'an: First American Version and The Noble Qur'an by Aisha & Abdalhaqq Bewley. Dr Irving was conferred the Star of Excellence by the Government of Pakistan in 1983 for his services to Islam.

Muslim converts have also translated or edited earlier translations of the Qur'an in other languages. Dr Murad Hofmann has edited a German language translation of the Qur'an originally published at the beginning of the 20th century. In September this year, he has been selected as the Islamic Personality of the Year by Dubai International Holy Qur'an Award.

Muslims regard the Qur'an as 'untranslatable'. Therefore, no translation can be perfect or definitive. However, Qur'an translations by Muslim converts have significantly, if not completely, reduced the reliance on the translations carried out by non-Muslims who had little empathy for their subject. We now have translations carried out with intellectual honesty by those who were native to the language and the society.

Translation of Hadith and Fiqh literature

Hadith is the next important source of Islamic Law after the Holy Qur'an. Six major Hadith collections form the canon of Islamic Law along with the Holy Qur'an, eventually resulting in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) as compiled by different canon law jurists. Canon law jurists differ in their explanation of certain traditions of the Prophet (saw) which has resulted in different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Hadith and Fiqh literature was originally compiled in Arabic and subsequently translated into other language as Islam spread in non-Arab territories. As majority of the Muslims don't understand Arabic, therefore, Muslim scholars have always actively engaged in transferring the Hadith and Fiqh knowledge in other languages. The first major attempt to translate into English the most authentic Hadith collection from Al-Bukhari came from Muhammad Asad. He was working on this project in 1947, when flood in the River Ravi and riots that followed the partition of India destroyed some of his manuscripts beyond recovery. His later engagements did not allow him to complete the work but completed parts were later published as Sahih al-Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam.

Several books have been written by Muslim converts that discuss various aspects of Hadith and Islamic Law. The study of evolution of Fiqh has always been a bit of a challenge for an average western reader. Tim Winter's small book titled Understanding the Four Madhabs and The Four Imams and Their Schools by Dr Gibril Haddad are very useful works, especially for those who do not understand Arabic, Persian or Urdu. Another work that is worth mentioning is the translation of Muhammad Abu Zahra's works on the four imams by Aisha Bewley. She has also translated Imam Malik's Mawatta.

A related area of Islamic scholarship is the life and personality of the Prophet (saw). Of all the biographical works on the Prophet (saw) that have been written by Muslim converts, Martin Lings's Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources warrants special mention. It is considered the best biography of the Prophet (saw) outside of Arabic language. Lings was recognised by the governments of Egypt and Pakistan for his work.

In the next post, we'll review efforts made by Muslim converts in other related areas of Islamic literature.

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