Re: How factual are second-hand translations?

From: Geraint Rees (
Date: Sat Jan 05 2002 - 16:59:05 MST

On 1/5/02 9:59 PM, "Samantha Atkins" <> wrote:

> Islam however is
> centered around a much deeper belief that the Koran is literally
> revealed truth, literally the Word of God and utterly
> unquestionable along with many other "sayings of Muhammad".
> There is far less "wiggle room".

I'm no Islamic scholar, but I think this is way over the top. Many
Christians that I know believe that the Bible is literally revealed truth.
However there are basic textual problems with this, such as inconsistencies
between different gospels in the timing of events, that mean that the
entirety of the Bible cannot be literal truth in that sense.

Similar problems are reported by Koranic scholars with the Koran e.g. (sorry
for quoting at length from this Washington post article, original at
but I think it makes the point and is directly relevant to this
translation-focused thread):

"Understanding the Koran is essential for understanding Islam, because
Muslims believe the scripture Prophet Muhammad received in the 7th century
from the angel Gabriel to be the "true word of God."

But the Koran, like the Bible, presents problems of interpretation because
of contradictory passages about vengeance, war and peace.

In one instance, the Koran advocates doing a good deed for an enemy instead
of retaliating against him. "We ordained therein for them: 'Life for life,
eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal
for equal,' " says Surah (Chapter) 5. "But if any one remits the retaliation
by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself."

Just a few verses earlier is this harsh warning to infidels: "The punishment
of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and
main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the
cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land:
that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in
the Hereafter."

In Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah in the Hebrew Bible, Moses
shares this fiery message from God as the Israelites prepare to enter the
Promised Land: "I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall
devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from
the beginning of revenges upon the enemy."

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus amends an Old Testament call for vengeance
with a pronouncement that might have been the source for the similar text in
the Koran: "Ye have heard . . . An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee
on they right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Yet a few chapters later, Jesus makes a pronouncement that has perplexed
Christians for centuries. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth,"
Jesus tells his disciples. "I came not to send peace, but a sword."

The words of the Koran, which is about the same length as the New Testament,
are infallible -- but only in the original Arabic. Tradition holds that
other languages cannot approach the Arabic in style and accuracy, so Muslims
are required to read, recite and pray in Arabic.

But some Arabic words present differing interpretations for Muslims and
non-Muslims alike, said Barbara Stowasser, a Koranic scholar and director of
the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

The most controversial example is jihad, whose noun and verb forms appear
more than 30 times in the 114 chapters, or surahs, in the Koran, Stowasser
said. In English translations, the word appears variously as "struggle,"
"strive" or "fight."

But in any language, mainstream Muslim scholars say, jihad refers primarily
to the inner faith struggle of the believer, not to physical confrontation.
They often recite a statement attributed to Muhammad after he returned from
battle: "We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad --
jihad against the self."

Osama bin Laden and other Muslim extremists "pick and choose" passages from
the Koran to support a global jihad, or holy war, against the United States
and other countries, Stowasser said, citing a passage from Surah 9 that is
sometimes used by militant Muslims.

"Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the
Apostle, and took the aggressive by being the first [to assault] you? . . .
Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame,
help you [to victory] over them, heal the breasts of Believers, and still
the indignation of their hearts."

The Arabic word for "fight" in this passage is not jihad but qital, which
means "fight with weapons," Stowasser said. The word jihad, translated below
as "strive," is used two verses later to refer to the inner struggle of
Muslims who in 622 followed Muhammad into self-exile in Medina after a
decade of persecution in Mecca.

"Think ye that ye shall be abandoned, as though God did not know those among
you who strive with might and main, and take none for friends and protectors
except God, His Apostle, and the [community of] Believers? But God is
well-acquainted with [all] that ye do."

The struggle within sometimes refers to using restraint during times of war.
"Fight in the cause of God those who fight you," reads Surah 2, "but do not
transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors." That means using only
the "absolute minimum of destruction," Stowasser said.

Two conditions warrant war, according to the Koran -- defense against
attackers and deposing an unjust ruler. But combatants are prohibited from
killing noncombatants, especially women and children. That injunction comes
from the Hadith, an extensive collection of Muhammad's sayings that were
written down by his followers and is, after the Koran, the second-most
sacred of Islam's texts.

Mohammad Abu-Nimer, a professor in the International Peace and Conflict
Resolution Program at American University, said the prohibition against
killing innocents has been understood for centuries. Abu Bakr, the first
caliph, or great Muslim leader, after Muhammad's death in 632, instructed
his soldiers "not to deviate from the right path," which included not
killing women, children or old men, and not mutilating dead bodies.

Abu-Nimer, a Muslim Palestinian who grew up in Israel, frequently visits
Islamic countries and addresses concerns many Muslims have about the "threat
against Islam" posed by the United States and other Western countries. He
quotes passages from the Koran to underscore what he says is the underlying
theme of Islam -- peace.

One is from Surah 17: Do not "take life -- which God has made sacred --
except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his
heir authority" to demand justice for the death or to forgive it. "But let
him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped [by the

Surah 5 says that a person who kills another person for reasons other than
in response to "murder or for spreading mischief in the land -- it would be
as if he slew the whole people: and if any one save a life, it would be as
if he saved the life of the whole people."

Radical Muslims act out of a "deep sense of injustice," Abu-Nimer said.
"Certain groups take that injustice and fuel it with religion to justify
[terrorist] acts. That doesn't mean those actions are right, but it also
doesn't mean the injustice does not exist."

Abu-Nimer said some clerics read literally passages in the Koran that talk
about going to war against the enemies of Islam and argue that the action is
defensive as the holy book requires. But he said the violent imagery, and
brutal punishment for the enemy, might have been appropriate for the "tribal
culture" of 1,500 years ago, when the text was written, but not today.

"Islam is a dynamic religion that interacts with the times. It's not
static," he said. Muslims who cannot adapt to the times "are capable of
doing this crime as they've done it," he said of the attacks in Washington
and New York.

Extremists who mete out punishment through terrorist attacks on innocent
people are "blinded by their feeling of oppression and hatred," Abu-Nimer
said. "They have an inability to distinguish what's in their religion and
what's without."

The Koran is "mainly about the values of peacemaking and how to bring
justice to an oppressed people," he said. "It's not about how to use
violence indiscriminately."

Surah 2 warns against using the name of Allah to justify evil acts: "And
make not God's [name] an excuse in your oaths against doing good, or acting
rightly, or making peace between persons; for God is One Who heareth and
knoweth all things."



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