- Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia by Ronit Ricci
Drawing from Sheldon Pollock’s concept of a “Sanskrit Cosmopolis” (The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, 2003), Ronit Ricci introduces and elaborates on an “Arabic Cosmopolis” in Islam Translated. Ricci’s “Arabic Cosmopolis” refers to vast regional literary networks in which many Muslims adopted and adapted Arabic to their vernacular languages, driven primarily by the single, scripture-based religion of Islam. In these networks, translation and religious conversion become central.
This book is the first work focusing on the power of language to help us better understand the process of Islamization in non-Arabic speaking societies by focusing on a single literary example, the Book of One Thousand Questions, from the Arabic source composed in the tenth century to the translations into the Javanese, Malay, and Tamil languages between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.
Following the introduction, the book is divided into three parts: translation, conversion, and conclusion. The introduction emphasizes the importance of literary networks—without denying the oral networks—connecting Muslims across boundaries and culture, including South Asia (“the lands above the winds”) and Southeast Asia (“the lands below the winds”), comprising shared texts on a broad range of [End Page 877] topics. Ricci’s inclusive definition of literature and its specific genres (like masalah, suluk, or puranam) was intended to avoid an outsider’s definition that does not do justice to a wide range of agencies and modes of production (histories, stories, biographies, and so forth).
Chapter 2 contextualizes the use of the term “translation” and briefly explains the main story in the Book of One Thousand Questions: a Jewish man, Abdullah ibnu Salam, conversed with Muhammad on religious topics and converted to Islam. It explains the first translation into Latin, before examining the Javanese, the Malay, and the Tamil contexts and terminologies. Chapter 3 discusses the Javanese genre (called suluk, meaning “traversing the Sufi path”) of the translation of the Book (Serat Samud and its variants), written in Javanese script or in Javanese in Arabic script (pegon), emphasizing “mystical teachings that were central to Javanese Islam,” including the one regarding Unity of Being and the idea of secret knowledge, which was introduced by the Sufi master Ibn al-Arabi in the thirteenth century and became popular across the Muslim world. The competition between Judaism and Islam was reconceptualized as the “narrative emphasis shifted to intra-Muslim and intra-Javanese—concerns, tensions, and debates,” being shaped by the Islamic revivalism, Dutch colonialism, and Sufi networking. Thus, Abdullah ibnu Salam shifted from a Jewish disciple to Muslim guru.
Chapter 4 explores the Tamil translation of the Book (Ayira Masala), in a poetic fashion, from Arabic and Persian versions, being shaped by local context, particularly the minority position of Tamil Muslims, Portuguese colonialism, and Hindu terms (such as the vedas and marai to refer to the Torah, Gospels, Psalms, and Qur’an). The version emphasized the distinction of Muslim and non-Muslim, although it did not make any specific reference to Jews or Christians. Despite the common theme, the Tamil translation spoke to a specific audience as well as to more general readers.
Chapter 5 examines the Malay Seribu Masalah (Book of One Thousand Questions), characterized by the strong influence of Arabic in the Malay language and the prose narrative style. The Arabic Ya Rasulullah was retained to refer to “O God’s Messenger,” an example of untranslated Arabic terms. Other particularities include the mention of clothing and music (although negatively). Chapter 6, “Cosmopolitan in Translation,” explores how Arabic traveled to and, more important, impacted the literary cultures of Muslim South and Southeast Asia and was no longer accepted as a foreign language by many Muslims. It explains why certain Arabic terms such as munafiq and kafir remained untranslated while other Arabic terms were rendered in the local language. [End Page 878] It argues that...