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Islamic Jerusalem – An Introduction

BS”D

I have a feeling that the posts dealing with this subject, Islamic Jerusalem, are bound to provoke some people out there, both people who are afraid of a “Judaization of Jerusalem,” as well as people having troubles with the notion of an “Islamic Jerusalem.” Nevertheless, that is going to be the subject for a number of posts, I’m not sure how many, where I’m going to deal with my studies on the subject.

We had our first class yesterday, after two weeks of cancellations caused by strikes. Finally. From what I could see it mostly consists of students from the ME/Islamic program, but we were two from the Comparative Religions program.

Anyway, the class consisted mostly by an introduction to Archaeology and archaeological findings related to the Islamic conquest of greater Syria, and especially Jerusalem, as well as a definition of various terms and names. These names and terms seem to need an explanation before I continue, since I most likely will take use of them in other posts connected to the subject.

When it comes to the places and cities I will use the Arabic names, since – after all – it is in an Arabic context we’re studying them. What is interesting about the Arabic naming of the places and cities, they are mostly based on earlier names, which – I believe – would be obvious, but it is a mix of Greek and Hebrew names.

The area

The wider area of focus here is what is termed in English as “Greater Syria.” In Arabic that part is known as ash-Sham (al-Sham), which covers what today is Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, and Jordan (more or less). This area was original divided in four counties, “ajnad” in plural, “jund” in singular, which were Jund al-Dimashq, Jund al-Hims, Jund al-Urdun, and Jund al-Filastin, where we also find Jerusalem. Later a fifth jund was added, or created out of Jund al-Hims, namely Jund al-Qinnasrin.

The capitals of the ajnad are as follows: Damascus, which is called Dimashq in Arabic, for Jund al-Dimashq (obvious), Tiberias (Tabariyyah in Arabic) in Jund al-Urdunn, Homs (Hims in Arabic) for Jund al-Hims. When it comes to Jund al-Filastin the capital changed during the times. The original capital was Lod (Ludd in Arabic), but later the son of ‘Abd al-Malik, Suleyman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, founded the city Ramla (yes, hevrey, Ramla is an Arab city founded by Muslims) and moved the capital of the Jund there. Only later, under the Fatimids, did Jerusalem become the capital of the Jund.

The cities

When the Muslims conquered ash-Sham it was a Byzantine-Greek area, which had taken Hellenistic names for the cities, having a more Greek than a Middle Eastern culture. As such it isn’t weird to find that many Arabic names are based on Greek names, as we will see is the case. First of a little background. As many of you probably are aware, the Middle East, as well as regions east of it, was conquered by the Macedonian king, Alexander (known as the Great), who had a vision of creating one “super-culture”, where people would be united from the far ends of the worlds. He didn’t succeed in this, but he did certainly leave his imprints on the wider ME, creating the basis for a culture which would be a mix of Greek and Oriental culture, known as Hellenism. He did establish various cities, still existing today, such as Alexandria in Egypt, bearing his name, as well as we can see his name being mirrored in many languages, such as Iskander in Turkish, Xander in Spanish, and so on. 

Later on some cities, already existing before Alexander, would be given Greek names, such as Beyt Shean, which would be known as Scythiopolis, though this would mostly be done in later time, as reaction against revolts or other things. One of the – I hope – best known examples is Jerusalem, which – after the revolt of Bar Kochba in 132-135 – was renamed Aelia Capitolina, or rather, Jerusalem was so destroyed that Hadrian, the then emperor, had to rebuild a city, which was to be known as Aelia Capitolina, a city dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. Another city having its name changed was Sh’chem, the city were the sister of the twelve Israelite brothers (who would give names to the twelve Israelite tribes), Dinah, was raped and later revenged. Sh’chem was to be called Neapolis and stay under that name for many years, and only today is it again known as Sh’chem, though only in Hebrew.

As will be shown, some of these cities would keep their Greek names in Arabic form, while others would return to their original Hebrew (or other Semitic) names, though also in Arabic form. The city of Beyt Shean/Scythiopolis would return to its original name, but as Beysân. Sh’chem/Neapolis would keep its Greek name, but as Nablus, since the ‘p’ doesn’t exist in Arabic. Jerusalem would be known as Ilya from the first part of the Latin name, Aelia, though it today is most known as “al-Quds”, the Holy. This name though is derived from the Jewish/Hebrew description of the Temple, “Beyt HaQodesh,” “The Holy House,” and as such focus on the Temple Mount more than the city. As has already been told, the first capitals were Ludd and Ramla respectively, the first keeping its original name even in Greek (Lydda) and then Arabic, the other being a pure Arabic/Muslim city, both in name and creation.

I found this map showing the area of focus:

I did think about adding more to the post, some thoughts I have had about the first archaeological findings we were introduced for, coinage, weights and other things, which made me think about the role of Iliya, but I think I’ll keep that for the next post on the subject. An introduction should be enough for this time.

Take care.

Written Scripture and Oral Tradition in Judaism and Islam – The Written Scriptures

BS”D

Some of the most obvious differences between the Chumash and the Quran is the language, style and organization. Where the Chumash is written in Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew more correct, the Quran is written in Arabic. Where the Chumash is more or less told as long story, presented chronically, with Deuteronomy somehow standing out from the four other books, the Quran seems to be a mix of random revelations, dealing with various themes. Where the Chumash is beginning from one end, with the creation of the world, and ending at the other, with the death of moses, the Quran is organized after the length of the chapters, the suwar, with the longest first and the shortest last, except the opening surah, surat al-Fatihah. We are not told which suwar are from Mecca or which are from Medina, though the general notion is that the short suwar are Meccan, while the longest are Medinian.

The Chumash seems to want to tell a story, where the Quran is more focused on explaining various conditions appearing during the life of Muhammad. True, there are parts which relates to earlier prophets, but the appearance of these parts seem to be provoked by either incidents needing them or questions about them. See for example when Muhammad reminds the Children of Israel of Allah’s former favors bestowed upon them (2:40 and 2:47), or relating to Abraham (2:124 and 6:161). The Quran is a constant dialogue involving its readers and reciters. The Chumash on the other hand relates a story, telling about what happened to the pre-Israelite world (in Genesis) and the Israelites themselves (Exodus and onwards). Of course, when the religious Jew is studying the Chumash, he – as much as the Israelites being told about – takes part in the incidents. He is not outside, but inside the Biblical account. He too was present when the Israelite received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But this is the traditional way of relation to and studying the Chumash, based on interpretations of it.

The relation to the languages of the two Scriptures is only explained in the case of the Quran. According to 12:2 the Quran was revealed in Arabic, in order that “you,” the Arab tribes, would understand it, and this is being expanded all through the Quran. The awareness that the Quran is being revealed in Arabic is very central, which can be seen from the many places this is being mentioned, whether when it is outright stated that the Quran is in a “clear Arabic language” in order to make it “easy” to understand(16:103, 19:97, 26:195, and 43:3). But that is not the whole purpose of the Quran being in Arabic, it is also in Arabic in order to be a warning ( That there are non-Arabs is also considered by the Quran (20:113 and 42:7) whether it is to warn the individual or the “Mother of Cities” (Mecca). There are other verses dealing with Arabic as the language of the Quran, but this is enough to show how central the awareness of the Quran being an Arabic revelation is. We don’t see the same focus on language in the Chumash, only relating the language in relation to the tower of Babylon, where it states that “all the nations were of one language,” and how God changes this in order to confuse them. The Hebrew language of the Chumash is not explained, except – maybe – in relation to Abraham and his descendants being descendants of a Hebrew, themselves Hebrews, and in that regard simply taking it for granted that their Holy Scripture is in Hebrew as well. But still, if we relate to the wider context of the whole Jewish Bible, we don’t see anything of the same awareness of the language, even having some books in another language, e.g. the Book of Daniel and the Book of Ester, both being in Aramaic. It seems that Aramaic in later times was as much the language of the Hebrews as Hebrew was.

 

Though the two bodies of writings might seem very different in their structure, where they have things in common is their followers reverence for them. Both the Chumash and the Quran take the central focus par excellence in Judaism and Islam. Both are found as the basis for any legal decision or any discussion on metaphysic matters. Both takes the focus as the main object of study, whether it being the Jewish tradition of reading the whole Chumash during a year or the Islamic ditto with the Quran during the holy month of Ramadan. We see it as well in the discussions in the Talmud, which mostly are related to and centered on Biblical verses, such as the discussion of the three daily prayers, which are related to the practice of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

If we relate to the various sectary strives in both Islam and Judaism, we see the same centrality and acceptance of the Quran and the Chumash, whether it be the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, or the various Jewish groups either accepting or refusing the Oral Tradition, all Muslim groups accept the central status of the Quran, as well as all Jewish groups to our days have accepted the status of the Chumash. This is so central, that it might even be possible to deem a sectarian group either outside the Islamic sphere or the Jewish sphere, religious speaking, in their relation to the Quran and Chumash respectively.

So while we do find many differences between the Quran and the Chumash, that is when we relate to the two Scriptures as pure texts, not as holy religious scriptures. In that matter the reverence shown them by their followers, shows a very similar attitude.

Abraham as an Early Monotheist

BS”D

 

Yet another post on Avraham Avinu, A”S. I know it, I’m going crazy, but there’s a reason. As you know, I’ve been writing that I’m doing an assignment on him for one of my exams, and where the other courses haven’t been so extensive or focused on one theme, it has been easier (or just more compelling) to go really deep with my studies on Avraham Avinu, A”S.

I will be going on with my posts on him for a little more time, but there will also be presentations of other exams I’m doing, for example in Early Christianity and Approaching Classical Jewish Texts. The exam in the course in Early Islamic Texts has been given, orally, and didn’t take so much, since the course continues into next semester. The same is the case with the course in Early Christianity, which does have a shorter written assignment on some six to eight pages. I’ll present that within a couple of days, there are some interesting things there. I still haven’t received that questions for Approaching Classical Jewish Texts, so I can’t share my thoughts on that one with you yet.

 

Anyway. I’ve made a habit of making a working paper when I have to deal with assignments, and this is also the case with this assignment. Sometimes they are given as presentation to the teacher or incorporated in the introduction for the assignment itself. This one is mostly for my own though, so I don’t feel bad about sharing it with you, so you can see what I will be focusing on in my assignment.

When I studied on University of Copenhagen, I usually put my assignments up after evaluation, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to do that now though I don’t see how it should be a problem. If there won’t be any problems in it, I will share my assignments with you, as soon as they have been evaluated.

Here’s my working paper – feel free to comment:

 

Abraham as an Early Monotheist

 

Abraham plays a very central role both in Judaism and Islam. Many examples on this can be mentioned, but just to mention two examples, one from Judaism, one from Islam, then we can think of the Jewish convert receiving the title of “ben Avraham” (son of Abraham), or the way he is described in Quran as Hanif and being the only one called “Khalilat Allah” (friend of Allah). Abraham is a role model in both religions, one being emphasized in attempts to console and bringing Arabs and Jews together, focusing on his role as forefather for both people. Therefore it could be interesting to see how he is described as a faithful role model for the two people.

What I found interesting in this relation is to find out how he is described in early Islamic literature, and then see if we can find Jewish sources for these descriptions, or whether he is described in a genuine Islamic way. Where we find Jewish sources, it could be interesting to see how far back they are depicted, and whether there has been any evolution in them. This is to see if it is the same Abraham the Muslims and the Jews are focusing on as a role model at all, or whether there are related to two different forefathers.

The questions I will attempt to answer are to be presented as:

What are the main points presented about Abraham in early Islamic literature in regards to him being an early monotheist? Are there any examples of these representations of him in pre-Islamic Jewish sources, and if there are, do we find any evolution in these?

 

My approach will thus be to find accounts in early Islamic literature, depicting Abraham as a monotheist, then to see if I can find any similar accounts in earlier Jewish literature, starting with later Jewish literature and then working my way back, to end with Biblical account of Abraham.

What I will not be dealing with, are the questions on whether there has been later Islamic influence on Jewish thoughts on Abraham, since part of my approach is to find examples on Jewish thoughts in Islamic presentation of Abraham, as well as examples being purely Islamic.

I will do this by doing comparative analysis between the texts, but in order to get to a better understanding of the meaning applied to certain terms, as well as finding elements which can be said to be similar or where they differ from each other. This point is also important in order to determine whether Ibrahim is depicted as Avraham from an earlier or later stage of Jewish literature.

It will be done in various stages, starting by finding the Quranic meaning of Abraham as a Hanif, finding Quranic accounts relating to this meaning, comparing this with later similar Islamic representations, and then working backwards through Jewish literature, to see if and where those representations can be found and when they can be found. When this is done, I believe it will possible to determine how Abraham is described in early Islamic literature, where we can speculate on Jewish influence, when the Jewish representations have first evolved, and finally what can be said to be pure Islamic description of Abraham.

What I will not be doing here, is relating to Christian sources, unless it is needed, so when I state that I will find “pure Islamic descriptions of Abraham,” it is with the reservation that this can be found in Christian sources, rather than being “purely Islamic.” Also in this, even if not found in Christian sources, it might be found in pre-Islamic Arabic legends on Abraham.

I will be using a number of sources, a list of which can be found in the end of the assignment, the primary sources being found among following literature:

The Quran – Yusufali’s translation unless otherwise stated.

 Ahadith – Here only Sahih Bukhari and Muslim.

Sirat al-Nabawiyya – Here only Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s History.

Piyutim.

The Talmud – Primarily the Babylonian Talmud.

Midrashim – Primarily Bereshit Rabbah.

Targumim – here only Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan.

Rewritten bibles – here only book of Jubilees, Josephus’ “Antiquities,” and Philo’s “On Abraham.”

The Bible – The JPS 1999 translation unless otherwise stated.

People who Inspire me – ‘Amir Benayoun

BS”D

 

 

It shouldn’t all be about me, so I think that I’ll be writing some posts in the near future about people who inspire me. The first of them is a – in my eyes – amazing singer, ‘Amir Benayoun, who I really have appreciated since my first contact with Israeli music.

 

‘Amir was born in Be’er Shevah by Moroccan parents, being exposed to music from childhood, having a father who was an Oud artist. ‘Amir himself began to write his own music from a young age, wanting to devote his life to his love. Unfortunately, when he was inscribed to the army, he was soon released because of problems with drugs, something he went to rehab to get out of.

After that he worked with his father, in order to save enough money to record his first album, Raq At (Only You), which soon was followed by his second album, Oto Maqom, Oto Ruah (Same Place, Same Spirit). His third album, Shalechet (Fall), is considered his breakthrough, establishing him as one of the bigger stars in the Israeli music industry. After that he has recorded eight other records; Nizaht Iti HaChol (You Won Everything With Me), Hakol ‘Ad LeChan (Everything until Here), Aluf BeShahor (Commander In Black), ‘Omed BaSha’ar (Standing In The Gate), Mahshavoth (Thoughts), Leda’ath HaChol (To Know It All), Zini, ‘Etz Al May’im (Tree On Water).

The album HaKol ‘Ad LeChan is the first he published as independent, after haven broken with the music industry in 2004. This is also after he “returned” to the religion, becoming Hozer T’shuvah[1].

In 2011 he recorded the album Zini in support of the Syrian people, being oppressed by al-Assad.

 

His style is somehow melancholic and very catching. Some describe him as being “crying,” which has some justification. Personally his style really catches me, whether he sings songs of joy or more sad songs. Anyway, instead of wasting a lot of words on him, I’ll let you judge for yourself.

HaKol ‘Ad LeChan:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBLAdvPwGCw]

 

Ana (From Zini):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoLrhRHEzMc&feature=related]

 

Why is he an inspiration for me?

One reason is his break with fame, in order to find the deeper meaning with existence. One thing is to be an “ordinary” person (no such thing, we are all created as miracles), but to give up fame, to acknowledge the emptiness which often comes with a life like that, takes a man or at least an open heart. That he is ready to stand strong on his principles, even to the extent that refusing to bend in order to have his albums, is another trait I respect. He believed in himself, and he succeeded in it. But one thing that really makes me respect him, is that he rose after having felled. I’ve never been on drugs myself, but I know how it is to be broken and having to admit that to oneself, that you simply can’t make it on your own, and anyone doing that and getting out of it with success, deserves my respect.

There’s also another matter, him as a person. I’ve never had the chance to meet him in person, unfortunate, but all the interviews I’ve seen with him, the articles I’ve wrote about him, the performances I’ve seen, he comes out as an humble person, one accepting his role and place in this world, without wanting to do a big deal out of himself.

I believe that also can be seen from the song, HaKol ‘Ad le’Chan, which I’ve presented you for above, which is about how we can feel strong, being mislead by false words of praise, though still knowing that it will end someday, leaving us on the ground, and if that is all we build our lives on, then there’s nothing to it.

Anyway, I hope you will appreciate him as much as I do.

 

Take care.


[1] Hozer T’shuvah is the Hebrew designation for a Jew who becomes religious, not to confuse with a non-Jew who converts, who is called “Ger Tzedeq,” “Righteous Convert.”

Ibrahim il-Hanif

BS”D

 

The other day I presented you for something looking like a comparative analysis of Josephus on the Bible, as part of my quest for an understanding of views on Abraham, A”S. Today I will present you for yet a comparative analysis (or at least it’s meant to be so), though this time within the boundaries of Islam (finally getting closer to the real focus in this assignment).

The main focus in my assignment is to see influences on and evolution in Islamic views on Abraham, or rather – should I say – Ibrahim. Part of this is by researching pre-Muslim Jewish material on Abraham, see how or whether it is represented in later Islamic material, and then finally see if there is any changes in the various Islamic sources I have used, which will primarily be focused on the Quran and al-Tabari’s History (Volume II – Prophets and Patriarchs).

In order to keep it concise – I’m not going to write a book after all – I will be focusing on Ibrahim as a Hanif/early Monotheist, and in getting an understanding about him in this context, I have been trying to get to a deeper understanding of what it means when Ibrahim is called “Hanif.”

A question on analyzing a term is how to do it, which approach to take. When it comes to Hanif, one could research the etymology of the word, comparing it to the meaning of the same root in other Semitic languages (e.g., in Syrian the root has – as is the case in Arabic – the meaning of someone inclining or declining, though where it is considered in a positive sense in Arabic, it is negative in Syrian, designating someone who turns away from the right path. Also in Rabbinic literature, in Hebrew, it has a negative meaning, being used about pagans who outwardly embraced Monotheism, but actually stayed polytheists. A sincere thank you to Rabbi Benyamin Abrahamson, who explained this to me. Today in Hebrew the root appears as an adjective, meaning someone who flatters or fawns).

One could also simply look it up in a dictionary and finish there, which would make things much easier, but at the same time leave me with nothing to write.

I have chosen to focus on the Quranic verses (suwar; sura in singular), where the term appears, analyze them in two ways; 1) by comparing them to other keywords in the verse and 2) compare how it is translated by a number of English translations, namely Yusufali, Pickthal and Shakir.

 

The term is mentioned twelve time in the Quran, ten times in the singular form, Hanif (حنيف‎)[1], and twice in the plural form, Hunâfa (حنفاء)[2]. Eight times it is used to describe Ibrahim.[3]

 

In the analyzed verses I have found following keywords (besides Hanif):[4]

Religion, Milah (ملة) – Verses 2:135,3:95, 4:125, 6:161,

Idol worshiper, Mushrik (مشرك) – Verses 2:135, 3:67;95, 6:79;161, 10:105, 16:120;123, 22:31

Muslim (مسلم) – Verse 3:67

Well doer, Muhsin (محسن) – Verse 4:125

A close friend, Khalila (خليلا) – Verse 4:125

Religion, Dîn (دين) – 6:161,10:105,30:30, 98:5

Worthy, Qiyam (قيم) – 6:161, 30:30, 98:5

Nation, Umah (امة) – 16:120

 

As the words stand above they might not make so much sense, but in the context of their appearance they do give quite a lot meaning.

The word Milah, which means religion, is presented as Ibrahim’s religion and only appears as such. This is interesting since it isn’t the only word for religion, the other being Dîn, which in turn is used either “worthy religion” (with Qiyam as adjective) or in connection to Allah (“My Religion”). The differences in understanding might be perceived from the translations, Yusufali translating Milah as “religion,” “way,” and “path,” while Pickthal translates it as “religion,” “tradition,” and “community,” and Shakir translates it as “religion,” and “faith.” The word Dîn they translate as “religion,” “faith,” and “sincere devotion” (Yusufali), “religion” solely (Pickthal), and “religion,” and “sincere obedience” (Shakir). Looking at the differences we can understand both words as surely meaning religion, but Milah having an understanding as being something based on practice, tradition, which might hint to a set practice performed by Ibrahim, whereas Dîn is being on a somewhat higher level, being understood in a more spiritual sense.

Mushrik, which is translated as “one who join gods to Allah,” “pagan,” and “unbeliever” by Yusufali, as “idolater,” and “one who ascribes partners to Allah,” and “polytheist,” and “one who associates others with Allah” by Shakir, is always presented as an opposite to Ibrahim, as well as the usage of Hanif in general, deeming this something that should not be encourage.

The word “Umah” is used about Ibrahim once, being translated as “model” (Yusufali), “nation” (Pickthal) and “exemplar” (Shakir), and though “nation”[5] is the correct translation, it seems that there is an understanding of the term here as something being a good examples (relating to Yusufali and Shakir). I would think that there is a combined sense here, stating that by having people following the example of Ibrahim, he became a nation.

Ibrahim is further described as a Muslim and a Khalila of Allah, one who succumbed to Allah and was chosen by Him to be a dear and close friend. As far as I am aware, Ibrahim is the only one being described as Khalilat Allah in the Quran. I would suppose that he is also considered Muhsin, though it is used about those who follow his Milah.

Regarding the word Hanif, then we see three different understandings. Yusufali is translating it as being “true”, especially in faith. Pickthal is translating it as being “upright”, especially as something born, by nature upright, and Shakir translates it as “upright.” I think we can establish an understanding of the word Hanif, especially in the meaning of “inclining, declining,” as being someone who turns away from doing wrong, being upright/true in his approach to Allah and the world.

Besides this there are two keywords which I haven’t related to, namely Jew and Christian. Though these two are not connected to being Mushrîkin, idolaters, it is still stated that Ibrahim is neither a Jew nor a Christian (Verses 2:135 and 3:67).

All that said, it seems to me that we can conclude – at least in context of Ibrahim being a Hanif – that he had his own religion, he was a dear friend of Allah, a good example, becoming a nation, and standing opposed to the polytheists. A Hanif is one who is upright and true, inclining towards Allah, does good to others, and is denying idol worship, nor is he a Jew or a Christian.


[1] Suwar 2:135, 3:67;95, 4:125, 6:79;161, 10:105, 16:120;123, 30:30.

[2] Suwar 22:31, 98:5.

[3] Suwar 2:135, 3:67;95, 4:125, 6:79;161, 16:120;123.

[4] I hope that any Arab speaker will forgive me for any mistakes in how I present/spell/translate the words. If you have any corrections, then please let me know. The translations I have based on the three previous mentioned translations.

[5] The word cannot be understood in the modern sense of nation/state, for which would be used Dawla. Rather it is, as the Hebrew word ‘Am or Um, understood as a greater group of people accepting the same body of laws.

Bney Abraham

BS”D

 

I’ve mentioned some of my projects elsewhere, and now I feel that I want to introduce and welcome you to one of them.

As the title reveals, this is about the Bney Abraham, which is a combination of Hebrew and Arabic, meaning “Sons of Abraham.” That it was Abraham was more because of the combined way of writing the name of Avraham Avinu, A”S, in Hebrew and Arabic, namely Avraham and Ibrahim, which – interestingly enough – lead to the English version of his name.

Why Bney Abraham?

Well, we were some Jews and Muslims, who were tired of the ignorant attitude and hateful approach that many of our co-believers have to each other. By using a quote by Harold Kasimow:

“My thesis, therefore, is: no world peace without peace among religions, no peace among religions without dialogue between the religions, and no dialogue between the religions without accurate knowledge of one another.”

 

Is it possible that by getting a deeper understanding and knowledge of each other, we can get closer to a more peaceful realization of our relationship? I believe so.

Too often it is the lack of knowledge and mutual understanding which creates mutual enmity, that being overcome by the closer relation and knowledge to each other. That can only be done by talking with each other, not in an atmosphere of hostility, but of mutual respect, in realizing the worth of the other, all of us being created in the image of G-D.

To quote part of the welcoming statement:

Too many Jews and Muslims are busy looking for flaws in the other, instead of taking their commitments as G-D-fearing believers serious, and work on their own flaws. We have established this group in order to promote the awareness of the improving of the self, and how our religions are demanding just that, instead of – as it unfortunately is today – searching for reasons to disapprove of “the other”. Whether it is the concept of struggling against the “Yetzer haRa” (the evil inclination) or the Jihad (which is also struggling against the lower part of the self), it is our goal to create a larger ethical awareness, both among Muslims and Jews.

 

If you are a Jew or a Muslim, who are tired of the lack of respect and knowledge between us, then I invite you to join our group. Hope to see you there, insh’allah!

 

Kol Tuv

Lost in translation

BS”D

One of the things which made me reconsider my Christian faith, and eventually convert to Judaism, was the inherent different understanding I got of the Scriptures, when I finally got access to the Hebrew language and insights of the Jewish commentaries, who – more than any Christian commentary – understood the depths of the Hebrew language.

Unfortunately many Western readers and layman students of the Bible, don’t speak or understand Hebrew, even less Biblical Hebrew, something they shouldn’t be blamed for, no one can be expected to throw themselves out in intense studies of an ancient language, just to get an idea of what some Scriptures may really mean, though I would encourage it.

But the problem arising when trusting (blindly) in various translations, especially into Western languages, is the lack of the words covering aspects of words used in Hebrew. This is not only something that goes for the Jewish Scriptures, but also when talking about translations of the Qur’ân, of which I have seen many different translations, sometimes even ridiculous translations, more being an attempt to present a certain view than an honest attempt on letting the translation following the original text itself. And so also with the Hebrew Scriptures, where most English translations more are collections of interpretations than translations[1].

I don’t intend to make this post an attack on Christian translations though, but more ponder a little about the many details, which unfortunately are lost in a translation.

We can take my earlier posts on Bereshit as an example, where the word “r’du” is translated as “rule” or “govern,” which are not totally wrong translations, but the word carries a sense of “oppression” in it, not just “ruling.”

Another example is the word “yom,” which – and not incorrectly – are translated as “day.” But given the whole context of the Creation, the “days” at stake here cannot be “days” as we understand them. And indeed, “yom” can be translated to “period,” in the sense of having a beginning and an end. There is no, to say it straight, reason to read the Creation as being six days of 24 hours, as some people would prefer to read it.

And so it goes all the way through the Scriptures.

But learning the language isn’t the key to the “right” or “perfect” understanding of the Scriptures. Surely, it is helping to get a much deeper sense of what is being told, and an appreciation of it, but it actually also opens up for much more ways of interpretations, especially because one is left to one’s own reading and understanding, and doesn’t follow another person’s interpretation. We have the case of the “Ish Tzaddiq Tamim b’Dorotaw” of Noah[2], where some understand it to mean one thing, and others to mean another thing. But this just make the study of the Scriptures so much more interesting.

Another thing which I find interesting in this light, though it is only related to the subject, is the attempt to trace down the original meaning of words, by comparing them to other similar languages. I followed a course in comparative religion, where I focused on Law in Islam and Judaism, and attempted to find the true meaning of the word “Dîn,” which normally today in Arabic means religion, while in Hebrew it means judgment. The Hebrew meaning goes a long way back, but the Arabic meaning isn’t so clear, being used both in the understanding of religion[3], or as in judgment[4]. Another example, in Hebrew and Aramaic, is “Dat,” having in Aramaic the meaning of “ruling,” while not existing in Biblical Hebrew, but today is used as “religion” in Hebrew.

Also the word “lehem/lahem,” which means “bread” in Hebrew and “meat” in Arabic, seems to have changes its original meaning form “food” in general, into being more specific in Hebrew and Arabic.

That said I can only encourage all of you to spend just a little time to learn one of the amazing Semitic languages, and experience the opening of a new world of understandings.

All the best.


[1] Basically a translation is always an interpretation, but some put more emphasis on the interpretation than the translation. Even some Jewish translations are used as commentaries, take for example Onkelos’ Aramaic translation.

[2] See my post on Parashat Noah.

[3] Al-Qur’ân, al-Baqara, 256.

[4] Ibid, al-Fatiha, 4.