The Arab-Islamic Gift: Translating Western Culture OR Thanks for the Roots of Western Culture, Savages, Now Scram.
About twelve different things converged this week to make me excited about thinking about the Arabic and Islamic contribution to Greek translation history. Obama gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast referencing “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” to which critics responded that that wasn’t representative of Christianity and that it ignores how the Crusades were provoked by Muslims, never mind that claims that violence done in the name of Allah is not representative of Islam are roundly dismissed or that it isn’t so obvious that Christianity created liberalism. Chris Kyle, the hero of American Sniper, regularly refers to the Iraqis he is killing at a sniper’s distance as savages in that film that has spawned a whole new round of people eager to do violence to Muslims. The standoff between Europe and Greece over debt is currently being negotiated raising questions of what Greece’s relationship to Europe is. I just wrote the course description for my medieval philosophy course next semester that will take up Christian, Jewish and Islamic commentators of Aristotle. I’ve been re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X for a reading group I’m doing on campus for Black History Month with some other faculty and students and I was just yesterday reading the middle chapters about the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s efforts to recast the history of race relations and religion. I’ve been teaching about how social context affects perception in my philosophy of race course. Into this constellation of thoughts and events landed an essay by Azzedine Haddour from the 2008 edited collection Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Haddour’s essay, “Tradition, Translation and Colonization: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement and Deconstructing the Classics,” returned my attention to some themes I was thinking of last summer in terms of the question of ‘ownership’ of the Greeks (which I blogged about here and here). Haddour argues that the Arabic role in the transmission of Greek texts to us, and through Greek texts, Western culture, is effaced when it is considered merely passive, as a conduit that moves what is “ours” through “them” to get it safely back to” us.” Not only was it not passive, Haddour argues, but Arabic culture brought us many of the knowledge practices that we today think of as quintessentially “Western” and Christian: the inquisitive spirit and the primacy of the text. If he’s right, we have Arabic Islam to thank for the tradition of textual criticism.