Lost In Translation In The U.S. Media – Part I: ‘Allahu Akbar,’ ‘La Ilaha Illa Allah,’ ‘Istishhad’
Translating concepts from one language into another is a difficult endeavor. Translating concepts that have no equivalent in the target language is even harder. Translating religious concepts for a culture in which religion has ceased to play a central role in the life of the individual and in society is hardest of all.
Perhaps this is the reason why religious Islamic idioms representing concepts such as Allahu Akbar, la ilaha illa Allah, and istishhad are routinely mistranslated in the American media.
The American failure to understand religious concepts does not apply only to Islam. A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1993 between the authorities and fundamentalist Christian David Koresh, who had holed up at a remote complex outside Waco, Texas along with dozens of his followers, including women and children, and an arsenal of weaponry. Besieged by the authorities, who attempted to negotiate with him, Koresh recited Biblical prophecies about the End of Days. Trying to peacefully end the standoff, the authorities urged him, “Let’s not discuss religion now.” Koresh, immersed in his religious beliefs, could only reply, “But religion is life and death.” It was a “dialogue of the deaf,” doomed to end as it did, with the loss of many innocent lives.
The problem is not one of linguistic relativity – as comprehensively discussed in the last century by the renowned linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf – since there are ways to convey original meaning in a proper, brief explanation. Instead, it is about the tendency of the media to choose the easiest solution, that is, to translate to what will sound most familiar to readers, even if inaccurate.
This is why the word istishhad – denoting a religious act of faith in which a believer strives to kill as many perceived enemies as he can, at the price of his own life, as a means of getting closer to Allah, with the prophets, the righteous, and the martyrs in Paradise. The goal of this act of faith is to make Allah’s religion supreme on Earth, in what the perpetrator believes to be an imitation of the battles of early formative Islam of the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the four righteous caliphs. This is often recklessly and inaccurately translated as “suicide,” which is an act motivated by personal desperation, and for which a different word – intihar – is reserved in Arabic.
This is also why Allahu Akbar and la ilaha illa Allah – both statements of faith that embody the religious concept of the supremacy of Islam and of Allah – are mistranslated. First it was the struggle to establish the supremacy of the monotheistic Islam over the pagan idols of seventh-century Mecca. Then it was a struggle for supremacy over other religions, including monotheistic ones, in the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the expulsion of non-Muslims, as related in the compilation of hadiths on behalf of the Prophet Muhammad: “I shall take out the Jews and the Christians from the Peninsula” – a ban that is in force to this day against non-Muslim religious institutions. Later it was a struggle against other religious empires, such as the Persian and the Byzantine. However, the rendering of Allahu Akbar in the U.S. media as “God is great” omits the aspect of superiority in the word Akbar (which but means “greater” or “greatest,” not merely “great”) and blurs the specific reference to Allah rather than to another deity. In the same vein, la illaha illa Allah is often translated in the U.S. media as “There is no god but God” (rather than “There is no god but Allah”). Omitting the supremacy of Allah over all other deities is a mistranslation, and moreover leads to a logical fallacy – reminiscent of Carrollian nonsense verses.
One of the reasons for such mistranslations is the fact that in the modern Western world the struggle for supremacy among religions has almost completely ceased, and to the extent that it still exists, it is nonviolent. Therefore, statements of religious faith that embody a continuing historical struggle for divine religious supremacy lack a modern religious/cultural conceptual basis through which to be understood in the West, and consequently lack a linguistic equivalent. The American media, facing the risk of not being understood in translating these Islamic concepts, prefer to provide an approximate translation, even though these are inherently misleading.
This is not to say that Allahu Akbar is uttered only by jihadis continuing the age-old struggle for the supremacy of Islam and of Allah. Over the centuries it has come to be uttered by non-religious Muslims as well, and even by Christian Arabs. In many cases, it carries a variety of meanings – ranging from admiration for what is perceived as a wonderful act of Allah to an expression of shock and horror in the face of calamity.
A translation should always reflect the context, the speaker, and his intent. But what often happens in the U.S. media is that when Allahu Akbar is said by a jihadi, it is translated as if said by a non-religious Muslim or a Christian
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