For the past twenty years, a project called the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI) has been underway at Brigham Young University. METI publishes accessible translations of philosophical, theological, and mystical literature of classical Islamic civilization. In part II, project director Morgan Davis discusses the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship’s engagement with these valuable ancient texts. See part I here.
The Middle Eastern Texts Initiative is a part of the modest but persistent effort to renew the memory and knowledge of a people whose intellectual efforts shaped our present world in all-but-forgotten ways. METI’s main project is to edit, translate, and publish texts from the classical Islamic world. A large stone sits next to the entrance of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute building bearing the name of Brigham Young University and, in Arabic, the words Bayt al-Hikma (house of wisdom)—the name of the original “Greek into Arabic” translation program at Baghdad centuries ago. We are collaborating with scholars from numerous universities who have backgrounds in Islamic studies, Arabic, philosophy, medieval science, and other fields, to bring important texts back into circulation. Arabic is the primary language of most of the source documents that we publish, but Hebrew and Syriac are also represented. The medieval authors of these works were Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, and their work is presented in parallel format, with a scholarly edition of the original text on one page and an expert translation on the facing page. In addition, our contributing scholars annotate their editions and translations with comments that discuss the contexts and relevance of the writings in question.
Though translation is often an enterprise fraught with perils (every serious translator is eventually confronted by the sobering epithet traduttore, traditore—“the translator is a traitor”), there are a number of compelling reasons why translations are desirable in the case of classical Middle Eastern texts.
First, even though Arabic was the language of Muhammad, of the Qurʾān, and of most serious scholarship during the classical Islamic period, it is not the language spoken by the vast majority of Muslims today. For example, Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim country—is not an Arab nation and is not even in the Middle East. Yet there, as in other areas with large Muslim populations who do not speak Arabic natively, there is a keen interest to connect with the texts that have been in one way or another significant to Islamicate civilization through the centuries. At the present, English is the most widely spoken language of scholarship. It is the language most likely to be in the repertoire of an educated Muslim, whether or not she knows any Arabic beyond what is required for prayer and other rites. So the availability of these texts opens doors for many Muslims to their own tradition.
Shortly after the publication of the first volume in the Islamic Translation Series, a reader in Singapore sent a word of gratitude:
Peaceful Greetings!… I am a passionate reader and collector of Islamic literature for about thirty years…. I am a social worker by profession, working with the visually and physically handicapped people.
I am more than delighted to come across by chance your magnificent publication: The Incoherence of the Philosophers of al-Ghazali…. This… is one of the greatest books I have read in my thirty years of reading Islamic literature…. This is also the view of several of my friends. We are all looking forward to read all forthcoming titles in the Islamic Translation Series…. GOD bless all.
This and other indications we’ve received show that there is more than just a scholarly interest in these texts. The desire for them extends into Muslim communities around the world, regardless of the primary language spoken.
Second, these texts are properly the intellectual heritage not just of Muslims, but of people everywhere. What the Islamic empires inherited from the Greeks was not the intellectual property of the Greeks alone, but of many civilizations that had nourished and enriched Greek culture and thought. And what Islamic civilization bequeathed to succeeding thinkers was a legacy of learning, reasoning, and investigation that was as significant to those who received it as it is unknown by most of us today. Simply stated, without an account of the contributions of Islamic civilization to the development of human knowledge and achievement, the story is incomplete and woefully inaccurate, as volumes of recent scholarship assert.1 But those who write the histories and the curriculum for schools, colleges, reading groups, and laypersons are seldom in a position to read the enormous variety of languages it would require to compile such histories from the original documents. Translations thus become the answer for serious scholars whose project it is to write broad historical accounts of the world or of significant regions of the world. If the specialists who have command of the relevant languages will not pave the way with translations, then generalists can hardly be expected to engage meaningfully with such difficult texts. The histories they write will be impoverished, and the education of another generation of students will suffer as a result.
Third, even amongst specialists there is much that remains to be worked out regarding what these texts actually say and what they mean within their various historical and philosophical contexts. In a very real way the production of translations portends future work yet to be done in order to understand these texts both as units in themselves and as parts of a larger picture. The care and intimate familiarity required to produce a good translation of a text has obvious beneficial ramifications for the scholar-translator and for his colleagues in the discipline. A translator of a philosophical text, for example, will pay special attention to the way his author uses terms, defines them, and deploys them in his reasoning. Translators become authorities par excellence on the texts that they render into another language. Furthermore, in the process of translation, a scholar almost always develops or adds to a glossary or lexicon of technical or specialized terms. These lists help the translator maintain consistency in his translation and at the same enrich the debate—and often, the emerging consensus—around what certain terms mean (either as obscure names of plants, animals, etc., or as “loaded” philosophical concepts), and how they ought best to be rendered into English. Whenever possible, these glossaries of termini technici are published as appendices to the texts from which they derive. As they accumulate over time, they provide an invaluable resource to future explorers of this ocean of Middle Eastern texts.
The volumes published thus far by the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative reflect the stunning breadth and variety to be found in the ocean of literature that has come down to us, and to the vibrancy of the civilization that produced them. It was a civilization where Christians and Jews joined with Muslims of various schools to create monuments of soaring beauty and works of profound insight, all the while acknowledging (and arguing) the significant points of disagreement between their several traditions.
This is an ideal to be pursued in our own times. What is needed is a commitment to the fundamental and ennobling values common to all faiths—that God is the creator and cherisher of all flesh, that people are accountable before God for their treatment of one another, and that they all have a share in the common bond of humanity, despite their differences. In the face of modern extremist attempts to tear down the humanizing bulwark of the values to which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all historically contributed, it is now more critical than ever that people of faith and goodwill find ways to seek understanding through dialogue. Once again, scholars from all three major faith traditions and from a wide range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds are participating in an effort to widen the circle of human knowledge and to enhance individual understanding of great ideas from the past which still reverberate today.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are under obligation “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places.”2 Projects like the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative on the part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University are an outgrowth of such covenant-based commitments. The specific ways that this endeavor has already borne fruit comprise a story too long to tell in a blog post, but if these fruits are any indication of what is yet to come, we confidently expect that the future is bright!
1. See, for example, John Freely, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World (New York: Knopf, 2009); Michael Hamilton Morgan, Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2007); David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215 (New York: Norton, 2008); Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009); and Jacob Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).