Monday, April 16, 2007

Translation and Mission in Islam and Christianity

Islam and Christianity, as missionary religions, are both marked by their global expansion across geographic and cultural borders, and both have experienced periods of staggering growth throughout their histories. However, despite the parallels that might be drawn between the two largest world religions, a vital distinction between Islam and Christianity is revealed in their approaches to translation, particularly of their respective scriptures. While Christianity is characterized by its eminent translatability, “and the very survival of Christianity as a separate faith has evidently been linked to the process of cross-cultural transmission”[1], Islam, conversely, has been characterized by untranslatability, particularly of the Qur’an, and “the success of Islam as a missionary religion is founded upon the perpetuation of the sacred Arabic.”[2] This essential difference in the modes of religious expansion in Islam and Christianity can be understood theologically, in terms of the fundamental distinctions from which it arises, as well as historically, in terms of the impact that these religions have had on the societies with which they have come into contact.

Translation is not an arbitrary or accidental feature of Christian mission. Rather, it is at the very core of Christianity, in the incarnation, that translation has its roots. As Andrew Walls writes, “the great Act on which Christian faith rests, the Word becoming flesh and pitching tent among us, is itself an act of translation.”[3] It is in the incarnation that God makes Himself intelligible, even knowable, in a personal sense. This central miracle of Christianity involves an “emptying” of God, as Paul describes it, and an “identifying” with humanity in which God is perfectly translated. As a result, the incarnation is the ultimate paradigm for Christian mission.

Conforming to this theme, the birth of the Church is associated with another miracle of translation at Pentecost. As the Holy Spirit is poured out on the community of believers assembled after the resurrection of Jesus, the gathering crowd hears praises to God uttered in a variety of local languages[4]. In this event cultural particularity, as expressed in the vernacular languages of the people who were present, receives a divine endorsement which foreshadows the vital relationship between translation and the spread of the gospel throughout history.

Consequently, this principle can be seen from the very earliest period of Christianity. In what Sanneh describes as “tantamount to a revolutionary move,”[5] the first Christians make the strategic decision that Jerusalem would not be the “exclusive geographical center of the faith.”[6] This decision is marked by the transition from an exclusively Jewish to a Gentile (and, then, inevitably, a universal) mission on the part of the early church. As the gospel engages the Gentile world, religious vocabulary and theological notions are “translated” to accommodate the linguistic and cultural divide, thus opening the door for the Christian religion itself to be re-interpreted and influenced by those receiving it. As Andrew Walls writes, “Those Christian Jews in Antioch who realized that Jesus had something to say to their pagan friends took an immense risk,” referring in particular to the decision to leave behind the burden of Jewish titles such as “Messiah” in exchange for a more universal concept of “Lord”.[7] Similarly, it is in Antioch that the terms “Christ” and “Christian” are first used. This act of translation is more than an attempt to find a linguistic equivalent to Hebrew words. Rather, this transition reflects a decision to incorporate or assimilate Greek notions in the description of Jesus in order to meet the intellectual and spiritual needs of a Gentile audience. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reflects the type of distinction he was addressing in his understanding of the cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22).

The history of Christian mission is characterized by this paradigm of translation which has its theological and historical roots in the incarnation, Pentecost, and the “Gentile breakthrough”. The Slavic mission in the ninth century as led by the brothers Constantine-Cyril and Methodius is an excellent example. Fascinated with the “richness of the Slavic language”[8] they were committed to translating the Christian texts into the vernacular at a time when the Church was looking to assert uniformity through the use of Latin, which is of course ironic, since Latin is itself not the original language of Scripture. However Constantine-Cyril and Methodius struggled against the impulse of their authorities to resist the use of the vernacular, and Constantine developed a new alphabet, now known as Cyrillic, for the translation work. When they were called to account for their work by the Carolingian bishops, Constantine ably defended the use of the vernacular on the basis of scriptural passages such as the events of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians chapter 14 which includes Paul’s remark: “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning” (1 Cor. 14:9-10).

As is the pattern throughout the history of Christian missions, the translation work among the Slavs was able “to transpose Christianity into the terms of Slavic culture. The religion became synonymous with the project of Slavic self-identity.”[9] The Slavic mission inspired other translation movements, and while some institutional forces in the church continued to resist the use of the vernacular, history eventually vindicated their work.

It was the development of a Coptic literature in the fourth and fifth centuries which had empowered the Coptic Church which provided those Christians the impetus to preserve their distinctiveness under the pressures of a Muslim Egypt. The Ethiopian church also found cultural and national vitality with the translation of the scriptures into Amharic and the establishment of schools in their own language.[10]

This translation principle, deeply rooted in Christian theology, is worked out over and over again in Christian history. As Sanneh argues, vernacular translation movements provide for cultural and national revitalization, revealing a profound connection between the “populist element” of Christian mission which flows from the “concern for translations that employ the speech of the common workaday world,” and the conviction that “the most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language.”[11]

In contrast, the theological concepts regarding the relationship of Islam to translation lead to radically different conclusions. For the Muslim, the Qur’an is the direct speech of God, literally “lowered” (tanzil) from the highest heaven and revealed verbatim to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. As such the Qur’an is believed to be eternal and uncreated. Muhammad, then, is not the author of the Qur’an, since his job was merely to preach faithfully the revelation that was dictated to him. Rather, God is understood to be the author of the Qur’an, which has absolutely no human interpolation.

Orthodox Islam regards the text of the Qur’an as it appears on the printed page to be an exact replica of the “tablets” of revelation which have always existed in heaven by the throne of God (Sura 85:22). In this way the revelation is specifically associated with the language of the text which the Qur’an itself describes, in several verses, as “an Arabic Qur’an,” praising the Arabic language in the most exalted terms. For example, Sura 26:195 claims that the revelation came in “the perspicuous Arabic tongue”, and 16:103 describes Arabic as “pure and clear”. As Sanneh writes, “Muslims ascribe to Arabic the status of a revealed language, for it is the medium in which the Qur’an, the sacred Scripture of Islam, was revealed.”[12]

This veneration of the language of the scriptures is further emphasized in the doctrine of inimitability, known as i’jaz. By this notion, Muslims understand the linguistic perfection and eloquence of the Arabic Qur’an to be the ultimate proof of its divine origin. Several verses which challenge skeptics to “produce a sura like it” are traditionally understood to be referring to the matchless poetic eloquence of the text.[13]

The meaning of the word “Qur’an” itself refers to a “recitation”, and throughout the history of Islam the correct pronunciation of the syllables has taken precedence over a thorough understanding of its meaning.

It is not surprising, given these characteristics, that translation could not have the same theological significance in Islam as it does in Christianity. Any translation of the Qur’an could not be an exact replica of the tablets in heaven, and so could not actually be the eternal, uncreated word of God. And any attempt to translate the revelation would necessarily mean the use of an inferior linguistic vehicle, since no other language has the status of Arabic. Islam, as Sanneh describes, represents a unique “synthesis of language and religion”[14] which has come to mean that Muslims understand the Qur’an to be fundamentally untranslatable.

Hendrik Kraemer points out this deep contrast between the Muslim understanding of revelation and what he describes as “Biblical realism”: “Revelation in Biblical realism means, God constantly acting in holy sovereign freedom, conclusively embodied in the man Jesus Christ. In Islam it is a set of immutable divine words that take the place of God’s movable acts and His speaking and doing through the living man Jesus Christ. The foundation of Islam is not, The Word became flesh. It is, The Word became book.”[15] In terms of comparison, therefore, it is not accurate to compare the Bible with the Qur’an and Jesus with Muhammad. Rather, since the Qur’an is the primary revelation of God to humans, it functions in a way parallel to the person of Christ in Christianity. In a secondary sense, then, the Hadith, as the inspired written traditions of Islam are somewhat parallel to the Bible in that both of these point to the significance and meaning of the “primary revelation.”

It is, therefore, significant that while the birth of the Christian Church is marked by a translation event at Pentecost, the birth of Islam is marked by the Hijra, which represents the centralization of the shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina and the Arabic language associated with them.[16] The history of Islam, in turn, bears this out in a resistance to translation and an insistent assertion of the Arabic Qur’an.

This was certainly the experience of Ricoldo of Montecroce (1243-1320), a Dominican missionary in Baghdad who worked on a translation of the Qur’an. J.W. Sweetman records Ricoldo’s observations: “And they do not like strangers to read the Qur’an and they resist its translation into other languages.” Ricoldo criticized this reluctance to translate, contrasting it with what he saw as Christian confidence in the truth of God which is expressed in the desire to have it “published for all and to be translated into other languages”.[17]

Paradoxically, a vast majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic as a native language and many of these understand very little, if any, Arabic at all. Still, Arabic is the language of their prayer and devotional life. In fact, this is the strength of Islam in the history of its growth: “As the religion arrived among what has become preponderantly non-Arab populations, its appeal was closely bound up with the authority of its sacred Scriptures in Arabic.”[18]

This was apparently the case in during the long period of Arab rule in large portions of Spain, where Latin and not Spanish had been the dominant language of theology. Even among the Christians “the study of Arabic very rapidly began to displace that of Latin throughout the country so that the language of Christian theology came gradually to be neglected and forgotten.”[19] This also supports Sanneh’s observation that Islam flourishes where a lingua franca has displaced the vernacular. T.W. Arnold quotes from a letter written during this period by a Spanish Christian who is frustrated with this trend:

“Our Christian young men, with their elegant airs and fluent speech, are showy in their dress and carriage, and are famed for the learnings of the gentiles; intoxicated with Arab eloquence they greedily handle, eagerly devour and zealously discuss the books of the Chaldeans (i.e. Muhammadans), and make them known by praising them with every flourish of rhetoric, knowing nothing of the Church’s literature.”[20]

In at least one part of Muslim Spain, Arnold adds, the Bible itself had to be translated into Arabic for the Christians who had simply lost the tradition of Latin literature.
In a contrasting example of a Muslim commenting on the mode of Christian mission, Sanneh recounts the polemic of ‘Abd al-Jabbar against Christianity in 995 A.D. in Tehran. This Islamic scholar reinforces the argument for this basic distinction between Islam and Christianity by insightfully describing the tradition of translation in Christianity and vehemently criticizing it. His basic argument is that from the earliest times Christians corrupted the message of Jesus by compromising with the traditions of the empire, thus incorporating paganism into Christian preaching. He is particularly disgusted with the fact that, “None of these gospels is, however, in the language spoken by Christ and his disciples, i.e., Hebrew…” The translation of the message into other languages, even for its scriptures, represents for ‘Abd al-Jabbar, more than irresponsibility but “corruption indistinguishable from unbelief.”[21]

This fundamental rejection of the translation of religious rites into the vernacular has occasionally been tested in the Muslim world. At one time in India, a Muslim scholar attempted to institute prayers in Hindi for those who would be hindered in prayer by the foreign nature of the Arabic. The religious establishment promptly declared this scholar an infidel and an atheist, apparently for his disregard for the revealed status of Arabic.[22] In more recent history, during the 1920’s in Turkey, Ataturk introduced a law requiring that muezzins perform the call to prayer from the mosque in Turkish and not in Arabic. However, as soon as an opposition party was allowed to run in the national elections, the new party repealed the prohibition on Arabic based on overwhelming public outrage at the practice of performing the call to prayer in the vernacular.

A serious implication of the theology and practice of translation can also be found in the respective understandings of local culture in Islam and Christianity. The relationship of Islam to local cultures is characterized by imposition and conformity. Arabic can be seen to “disenfranchise” the local Muslim languages given the inherent inferiority of the vernacular to the sacred Arabic. Local languages aren’t suppressed, and may even flourish in other arenas, but they can’t have any real religious currency. And while schools in the local languages are a characteristic feature of Christian missionary activity, particularly in Africa, it is the Qur’an school, which teaches the rote memorization of passages from the Qur’an in Arabic, which is the “mode of Islam’s expansion through sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.”[23] Consequently, Islam is able to foster a “single recognizable culture”, notwithstanding variations, wherever it takes root, a fact which Andrew Walls associates directly with the “ultimate untranslatability of its charter document, the Qur’an.”[24]

Christianity’s relationship to culture is profoundly different, however. The gospel transcends culture in terms of its origin and universal relevance, however, there is no such thing as a “supra-cultural” expression of the gospel. It is always embodied in a cultural context. As Andrew Walls writes, “when Divinity was translated into humanity he did not become generalized humanity. He became a person in a particular locality and in a particular ethnic group, at a particular place and time.”[25] This idea denies the existence of a “Christian culture” in any universal sense.

Christian mission cannot be properly be described as an attempt to reproduce some “Christian” or “Biblical” model of culture as if it is to be found pre-fabricated in the pages of Scripture. Rather, “translation destigmatizes culture – It denies that culture is “profane”… [and] also relativizes culture by denying that there is only one normative expression of the gospel.”[26] Since the message of Christianity is understood to be completely translatable, no language or cultural expression can have any exclusive claim to its content, not even the language of its Scripture. Therefore, it should be the concern of Christian missionaries to “foster vernacular self-confidence”, since the vernacular is the vehicle of the message. Christian missionaries have, in fact, been the proponents of vernacular revitalization and “cross-cultural participation”, even where this was inadvertent, by their insistence on the sufficiency and necessity of local languages for the transmission of the faith.[27]

With profoundly divergent theological underpinnings, Islam and Christianity have vastly different conclusions with regard to translation and the modes of missionary expansion. These conclusions lead also to a stark contrast in the relationship between religion and local culture. Christianity, anchored in the incarnation, sees translation as inevitable and beneficial, and thus promotes diversity and elevates local cultures, often leading to national and cultural revitalization. Islam, on the other hand, resists translation on the basis of an unbending view of the Qur’an as the direct, eternal, exclusive, verbatim speech of God in Arabic, and thus flourishes where use of the vernacular is weak, resulting in a conformity and unity which supersedes local cultural particularity.


Arnold, T.W. 1913. The Preaching of Islam. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Kraemer, Hendrick. 1938. The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Sanneh, Lamin. 1989. Translating the Message. New York: Orbis.

Sanneh, Lamin. “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex”. The Christian Century. April 8, 1987.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2002. “Translatability in Islam and Christianity in Africa”. Global Religious Movements in Regional Context. John Wolffe, ed. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Sweetman, J.W. 1955. Islam and Christian Theology, Part 2, Volume 1. London: Lutterworth.
Walls, Andrew. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History. New York: Orbis
[1] Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (New York: Orbis, 1996), 22.
[2] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message, (New York: Orbis, 1989), 213.
[3] Walls, 22.
[4] Acts 2
[5] Translating the Message, 215
[6] ibid. 232.
[7] Walls, 17.
[8] Translating the Message, 73.
[9] Translating the Message, 215.
[10] Translating the Message, 216.
[11] Lamin Sanneh, “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex”, The Christian Century, April 8, 1987.
[12] Translating the Message, 211.
[13] Sura 2:23, 10:38, 11:13
[14] Translating the Message, 213.
[15] Hendrick Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1938), 217.
[16] Translating the Message, 220.
[17] J.W. Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, Part 2, Volume 1 (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 140.
[18] Ibid, 213.
[19] T.W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 137
[20] Arnold, 138.
[21] Translating the Message, 218.
[22] Ibid, 213.
[23] Lamin Sanneh, “Translatability in Islam and Christianity in Africa”, Global Religious Movements in Regional Context, John Wolffe, ed. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 307.
[24] Walls, 22.
[25] Walls, 27
[26] “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex”
[27] Translating the Message, 234.

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