Jan 24, 2010
What's in a name?
Translation - openness to expression, thought of other cultures - is key to an open society
By Janadas Devan,
I once received an e-mail from an unknown correspondent in Britain. Dated May 29, 2008, it read:
'A friend here in the UK recently bought some tropical fish and part of the padding around the polystyrene box was pages from The Sunday Times of January 13th, 2008. This contained only a part of your article entitled 'One God, many names' but I found it very interesting nonetheless. I have so far been unable to find any more of your article in the other padding papers and a search online has also proven fruitless. I should be extremely grateful if you could e-mail me the entire article.'
Writing is a solitary business. One never knows how something one writes is going to be received. This uncertainty is compounded for journalists because their writings tend to be ephemeral. Newspapers, as they say, become fish-wrap within a day.
So you can imagine my thrill when something I wrote literally did become fish-wrap - and was read half-way round the world for precisely that reason! As I later learnt, my correspondent's friend had bought tropical fish imported from Singapore. That was how an article that first appeared here became fish-wrap and was uncovered five months later in Britain. Things can go viral electronically; and they can go viral fish-wrapally.
I had forgotten about this incident till this month, when the occasion for the article that became fish-wrap - a quarrel in Malaysia over the use of the word 'Allah' - took a dangerous turn. Amid pockets of Muslim anger over a Malaysian High Court ruling that a Roman Catholic publication can refer to 'God' as 'Allah', many churches in the country, one Sikh temple and one mosque were attacked.
'Heresy arises from words wrongly used,' declared banners held by protesters objecting to the court ruling. They are mistaken. The heresy here arises from a claim of monopoly on words.
To begin with, most of those who insist 'Allah' is uniquely Muslim or Arabic seem unaware that the words for 'God' in Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic are so closely related as to be virtually indistinguishable. The Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have different conceptions of God, certainly, but etymologically-speaking, the Arabic Allah shares the same root as the Hebrew Elohim and the Aramaic Alaha.
Elohim derives from eloh (Hebrew for 'God'), Alaha is an emphatic form of alah (Aramaic for 'God'), and Allah ('The God') is linked to ilah (Arabic for 'God').
'All three of these Semitic words for 'God' - eloh, alah and ilah - are etymologically equivalent,' writes Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, a Muslim scholar. If one heard Elah or Alah in Aramaic (pronounced Al-aw) it would sound almost exactly the same as Allah in Arabic (pronounced Al-lawh or Al-lah, depending on the context).
It is difficult to say Christians cannot say 'Allah' when Arab Christians have been doing so for thousands of years and when Christ, who spoke Aramaic, would probably have said Alah, Elah or Alaha. Both Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 tell us that at the ninth hour on the cross, Christ cried out Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, 'My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' - Eloi or E'li being the personal possessive of Elah, and which probably should have been spelt Elah-i or Alah-i. Still, it would be as meaningless to say Christians have a better claim on the distant common root of Elohim, Elah or Allah, because Christ came before the Prophet, as it would be to say Jews or Muslims do.
Which brings one to another consideration that has not been mentioned in the current controversy: Many great ages of thought, including of religious thought, have also been great ages of translation. The initiates of various religions might believe they are in possession of mysteries unique to themselves - an assumption as old as the pagan mysteries, with the Greek word for 'to be initiated' into the mysteries, muein, meaning originally 'to keep silent' - but the history of religious thought has been anything but silent or secretive.
Take, for instance, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the so-called Septuagint, in multi-cultural Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. 'It is easy to perceive how passionate Hebrew meanings were gradually imported into the cold and clear-cut Greek words', writes Owen Barfield in History In English Words - until classical Greek was transformed into the instrument that later conveyed so remarkably the New Testament.
Take eidolon, the Greek word for 'idol', which originally referred to any sort of mental image, including mental fancy. In the Septuagint, the word acquired the condemnatory colouration that the Hebrew Scriptures ascribed to idolatry - a colouration that remains to this day.
Or take another example, 'paradise', paradeisos in Greek - which initially referred, of all things, to the enclosed park of a Persian nobleman! That did service for the Garden of Eden in the Septuagint, and later heaven.
Thus Greek words that could only have meant 'folly', 'integrity' and 'dirt' to Plato were re-shaped to convey 'sin', 'righteousness' and 'defilement'. Thus concepts such as 'God', 'soul', 'life', 'death', 'spirit', 'self' and hundreds of others were 'first resolved by the chemical action upon them of similar concepts from the minds of other nations and races,' notes Barfield, to take on finally the form they have today. In the beginning was the word - and it has been translated numerous times since.
Or consider that perhaps greatest age of translation, Arab civilisation from the 9th to the 13 centuries. It was the Baghdadis who translated the work of the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta, containing the early ideas of al-jabr, Arabic for 'algebra'. It was Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, the father of al-jabr, who developed this work, and whom we commemorate every time we do algorithms. Originally Arabic words like 'zero', 'cipher', 'almanac', 'alchemy' - not to mention 'tariff' and 'magazine' - all testify to the debt Europe, and thus modernity, owes the Arabs.
Ernest Renan, the French philosopher and historian of early Christianity, once observed of medieval versions of Aristotle, they were 'Latin translations from a Hebrew translation of a Commentary of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) made on an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek text'.
Translation - openness to the thought and expression of other cultures - is the essence of an 'open society'. And the Arabs got there first before the Europeans did. What a comedown from that to lists of words said to be exclusive to only one religion.
'Heresy arises from words wrongly used'? No, it doesn't. It arises instead from people insisting on a monopoly on words and refusing the chemical action of similar concepts from the minds of other nations and races.
To combat this monopoly, to retain the features of an open society, we need ideas and words to spread virally faster than fish-wrap, faster than electronically.
A Malaysia that burns down churches, temples or mosques is unthinkable.
Jan 23, 2010
Just do it, says ex-model to be caned
Malaysian woman caught for drinking beer has lost her job and husband since case began
By Elizabeth Looi, Malaysia Correspondent
KUALA LUMPUR: The former model set to be caned for drinking a beer has lost her job and her husband. Now, she just wants to take her punishment and move on.
'My life is almost destroyed, and I just want to start all over again,' Ms Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, 32, told The Straits Times.
'I wish to go to Mecca to perform my umrah (pilgrimage), and go back to modelling as I am into Islamic fashion.'
The Malaysian from Perak made international headlines when she was ordered to be caned six times and fined RM5,000 (S$2,060) in July last year for drinking alcohol in public.
She would be the first woman caned in Malaysia under Islamic law. The punishment is enforced only in Pahang, Kelantan and Perlis. Civil law does not allow caning for women.
The Pahang Syariah High Court abruptly postponed her caning in August until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The religious authorities there upheld her caning sentence in September, but did not set a date for it to be carried out.
So her life has been put on hold as she awaits the final word from the court, Ms Kartika said in an exclusive phone interview on Thursday.
Even though she is free to leave Malaysia, Ms Kartika decided to stay put because she does not want to give the impression that she is running away from the punishment.
'So, I will wait patiently until the punishment is over, but I hope it will be soon,' she told The Straits Times.
The court's caning order has caused serious damage to Malaysia's international image as a moderate Muslim country. But some Muslim groups have backed the sentence and asked critics not to interfere with laws meant for Muslims.
There have been other cases of Muslims, including women, who were caught drinking, but almost all of them pleaded not guilty and appealed against their sentences.
Ms Kartika was among the few who pleaded guilty, and insisted on not appealing against the sentence despite the advice of government officials, including senior ministers. She said she was willing to accept the punishment to show her respect for the religion and the law.
Her lawyer Adham Ibrahim said he had been in touch with the authorities to speed up the punishment. But the Pahang palace was also concerned about the unique case, which was widely reported by the international media, he said.
In the meantime, the wait continues.
Ms Kartika went through another painful episode this week when her marriage to Singaporean Mohamad Affandi Amir, 38, ended in divorce. The couple, who were married for 13 years, formally split on Wednesday. She now lives with her parents in Kuala Kangsar, Perak.
Ms Kartika confessed that her marriage had been rocky even before her arrest for drinking. But the episode had taken a further toll on their relationship, she said.
Her husband had been supportive, she stressed. But she had failed to 'be a good wife' since her case went to trial as she was always in Malaysia, and he was left alone in Singapore.
'He felt the pressure too, and we are both very sad that things have to turn out this way. But I guess it is for the better since I don't want to see him suffer any more,' she said, her voice filled with sadness. 'I still love him, but it will be difficult for me to accept him back now because I haven't been kind to him.'
But she is grateful that he gave her custody of their two children.
For now, Ms Kartika is focusing on writing a book about her trials and tribulations. She said she started to pen her thoughts after her sentencing, and plans to publish it someday.
'I am focusing on my book now,' she said. 'It is about my daily life, my feelings, my thoughts and the challenges that I have had to go through every day since my case started.'