Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology between Christians and Muslims: Pt. I

9

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Introduction

This paper is based on almost forty years of involvement in Bible translation in various Middle Eastern languages.[1] My career as a Bible translator began in 1973 when I embarked on a tour of the Arab countries trying to understand the distinct dialects and how they relate to each other and to the classical/formal Arabic taught in schools. I was searching for an answer to this puzzling question: “How can I produce an Arabic Bible that communicates the Christian message to the majority of Arabs, namely Muslims?”

In addition to my experience and research that I have personally conducted in a number of these countries, I collected a number of books written by Christians and Muslims on a particular topic. By comparing the terms and idioms used to express the same thoughts, I was able to arrive at the meanings as perceived by the two cultural groups, Christians and Muslims.

My goal was to produce a translation that serves the Church and at the same time communicates clearly and accurately to Muslims.

Part I: The Historical Development of the Arabic Bible

The Arabic translations of the Bible have an older history than that of the English Bible. Scores of Arabic versions had been in existence when the first English Bible known as the Wycliffe Bible was completed in England shortly after John Wycliffe’s death in 1384.

There is no conclusive evidence that Arabic was among the languages to which the Bible was translated before Islam. However, Anton Baumstark (1872-1948) was convinced that the gospel had existed in Arabic in pre-Islamic times. He argues that a certain Armenian monk, Euthymius (377-473) evangelized the Arabs.  Naturally then he must have used at least one gospel or selections from the New Testament in his work. Irfan Shahid argued that the Najran tribes in Southern Arabia had been Christianized and that their primary language was Arabic. Therefore their Church liturgy could not have been Syriac since Najran is far removed from Syria and Palestine. He writes: “…there was a Gospel in South Arabia around 520 AD. Whether the whole of the Bible or only a part of it was translated is not clear; it is safe to assume that of the books of the Bible, the Gospels and the Psalms, and possibly the Pentateuch, were the first to be translated.” [2]

Others argue however that the language of Christians was Syria/Aramaic, which was the liturgical language. If any Christian Scriptures existed in Arabic, they were probably only portions of the New Testament translated from Syriac.

Even if no portion of the Bible was ever translated to Arabic, the fact that there were many Christians among the Arabs allows us to speculate that they may have orally translated portions of the Bible from Aramaic, the ‘lingua franca’ of the time.

Early Christian-Muslim Relations:

The first century of Islam (7th Century AD) was difficult for Christians living under Islamic rule. Muslim rulers considered them ‘Dhimmis’ (subjects) under the tutelage of Islam. Christians, on the other hand, saw Muslims as oppressors. The main language of Christians in the Middle East at that time was Syriac or Aramaic. In the second century of Islam, Christians began to write apologetic literature in Arabic countering Muslim polemics. Griffith writes:

“Perhaps it was in response to this Christian apologetic offensive in Arabic that, in some of the renditions of the “Covenant of Umar” dating from the first Abbasid century, we find among the conditions which the Christians should observe, the agreement that they would not use the language of the Muslims. Under the caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 86l) this stipulation was at least theoretically strengthened to the point of prohibiting Christians even from teaching Arabic to their children.” Despite this serious restriction, Christians managed to produce several translations of the New Testament in Arabic.

Early Arabic Bible Translations:

Beginning with the eighth century, Muslim-Christian encounters sparked a flurry of debates that led to a rich body of literature by Christian apologists defending the faith against Islamic polemics. As a result, and particularly in the ninth century, many embarked on translating the gospels and other portions of the Bible to Arabic.

Sidney Griffith embarked on a serious inquiry into the appearance of the Arabic Bible in the early Islamic period. In 1985 he wrote a well-researched article detailing the development of the early Arabic manuscripts. Griffith found out that the first known Arabic manuscripts of portions of the New Testament date back to 867 A.D. It was translated by Bishr Ibin Assiri and was known as the Sinai Arabic MS 151[3]. This was published in the latter part of 20th Century by Harvey Staal. Around that time and later other translations appeared such as the Sinai Arabic MS 72, MS 154, and MS 155.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study of Arabic manuscripts of the gospels was conducted by Lebanese Scholar Hikmat Kashouh who recently published his phenomenal volume of 761 pages under the title “The Arabic Versions of the Gospels.” Kashouh cites a 1902 German researcher, Caspar René Gregory who listed one hundred and thirty seven Arabic Manuscripts of the NT and identified their locations in the various European Libraries and museums including the Vatican.[4]

These Arabic translations fall under three major categories depending on the language from which they were translated being Syriac, Coptic or Greek. Of critical importance is the fact that Muslim Arab literature written by Al-Ghazali, At-Tabari, Ibn Ishaq and many others contain biblical quotes in Arabic. This indicates that either the Arabic scriptures were available to them or  that they translated those particular portions they included in their writings.

One noteworthy common feature of all these translations from Greek, Coptic and Syriac is that they all utilize Christian, not Muslim terminology. This is a significant observation because Christians were living as subjects to Islam and would have been tempted to compromise or reduce the pressure on them. Yet they were consistent in faithfully retaining the language of the Church in the Bible.

An Early Attempt to Islamize the Arabic Bible:

The one time when Christians were asked to Islamize the Bible to accommodate Islamic thought, they refused to do so. It was in 12th Century when Patriarch John was ordered by the Arab ruler to contextualize the Bible with these orders:

“Translate your gospel for me into the Saracen language, i.e., Arabic but do not mention Christ’s name, that he is God, or baptism or the cross.” Fortified by the Lord, his Beatitude said, “Far be it that I should subtract a single yod or stroke from the Gospel”, even if all the arrows and lances in your camp should transfix me.” When he saw that he would not be convinced, he gave the order, “Go, write what you want”. So, he assembled the bishops, and he brought help from the Tanukaye, the Aqulaye, and the Tuaye, who were knowledgeable in both the Arabic and in the Syriac language, and he commanded them to translate the Gospel into the Arabic language.”[5]

The Arabic Bible in the Protestant Era:

Until the twentieth century, Bible translations in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages were based on the original languages and some cases on Coptic and Syriac manuscripts. The protestant reformation of the sixteenth century turned the tide. The focus in Biblical scholarship shifted from the East to the West. Most prominent among all the English language translations was the King James Bible first published in 1611 which became the favorite Bible for the English-speaking world until recently.

The availability of scripture in the vernacular brought about an emphasis on evangelizing the Muslims by western missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A wave of modern translations hit the Western world towards the middle of the twentieth century. The discovery of many Greek papyri documents in Egypt at the turn of the century and in following years, contributed a great deal to a new trend in Bible translation. Much of New Testament vocabulary which once was thought of as highly classical, was proven by these papyri to be part of everyday life of the people in New Testament times. Christian linguists observed that God spoke the language of the people. This realization inspired many modern speech versions in the first half of the twentieth century both in England and the USA.

A Major Shift in Bible Translation Theory:

These 20th century non-literal translations triggered a significant revolution in the theory and practice of Bible translation. Their sweeping popularity was a clear indication that people began to look for a Bible that actually speaks the language of the heart, the mother tongue. American translators were contextualizing the English Bible to an American audience with the goal of letting God sound American. One example of the cultural contextualization of the New Living Bible for instance is found in Romans 16:16 “greet each other with a holy kiss” is translated as “Greet each other in Christian love.” The rationale behind it must have been that the Middle Eastern times of Jesus people greeted each other with a kiss, but Americans do not.

James Moffatt produced the first translation of the Bible that diverged from the traditional philosophy of literal translation. The New Testament was published in 1913 and the full Bible thirteen years later. Moffatt taught that to achieve an accurate translation, we need to break the tradition of word for word transfer. The Moffatt Bible was controversial because it incorporated interpretations which were met with opposition by many Christian scholars. The language was more readable than the King James. Although it was not completely a paraphrase, it became the first serious modern translation that set the stage for a number of paraphrases that were a lot more daring such as,

  • J.B.Phillips, 1958
  • Cotton Patch Gospel, 1968
  • The Living Bible, 1971
  • Good News Bible or Today’s English Version, 1976
  • The Message, 2002 Eugene Peterson.

The New International Version, 1979, struck a balance between the literal conservative translations and the paraphrased Bibles. This contributed to its success and popularity for half a century. The NIV also became a model for other Bible translators who tried to achieve clarity with accuracy.

The Influence of English Bibles on Arabic Translations:

With the exception of the Van Dyck translation which was influenced by the King James Version, it was not until the twentieth century that English translations started influencing the philosophy and style of Arabic translations. The Jesuit New Testament of 1969 leaned heavily on the Jerusalem Bible first published in French (La Bible de Jérusalem) in 1956 then in English in 1966. ‘Kitab al Hayat’ (Word of Life) was partially modeled after the NIV which was beginning to become popular. Today’s Arabic New Testament, 1993 better known as the “Common Translation” is practically a translation of the the Good News Bible or Today’s English New Testament. It was later modified against Kitab al Hayat and other Arabic translations that have become available.

Theories of Bible translation were coming from the West. Nida, Wonderly, Taber and others enjoyed great influence among Bible Translation agencies. My own training came from their materials and the teachings by trainers who were influenced by them.

Islamized Bible Translation Projects:

Traditionally literal translation philosophy was being replaced by a more progressive and freer approach. Some have experimented with a high level of contextualized Bible that went so far as to adopt Qur’anic terminology and even Islamic theology. Here are the most serious attempts to Islamize the Bible.

Paul Ferree: American named Paul Ferree spent thirteen years creating a Muslim Idiom translation of the Entire New Testament. In 1959 he only printed Gospels, Acts and Romans in one book. I am in possession of a copy plus the entire manuscript of the New Testament which he gave me. That project failed due to massive opposition by Church leaders and was never distributed.

David Owen: He was an American graduate of Fuller School of World Mission, hired a Palestinian Muslim, Adnan Baidun to translate the Diatessaron into Arabic. The Diatessaron is a chronological harmony of the Gospels from the late second century. The work which took thriteen years was published in 1987 under the title ‘Seerat Almaseeh’ (The life of the Messiah). It reads like a Qur’an in that it uses Qur’anic terminology and style including rhyme. David printed 2000 copies, but the project came to a halt and never made it to the open market.

Sobhi Malek: In 1990 the New Testament under the title of “The Noble Gospel” ‘Al-Injeel Al-Shareef’ was published by Sobhi Malek. The entire Bible followed in 1999. This is a semi-contextualized translation that uses Muslim religious terminology especially names such as Isa for Jesus rather than Yasou’.

Mazhar Mallouhi: This recent work was sponsored by Frontiers through Mazhar Mallouhi, a Syrian convert who calls himself a Sufi Muslim follower of Christ. “The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ” was published in 2004 and uses modern Arabic, unlike Owen’s, but is a Muslim Idiom Translation because it uses Qur’anic names of biblical characters. The main feature of this work is it is the first to daringly remove all references to God as Father and most references to Jesus being the Son.

Opposition to Islamized or contextualized translations into Arabic have been passionate by Christians and Muslims alike. Dudley Woodberry who himself is not opposed, wrote an article quoted Gabriel Habib, the Greek Orthodox director of the Middle East Christian Council, who in a letter to many evangelical leaders in North America, asserted:

Unfortunately, we have all too frequently attempted to “contextualize” our sharing of the gospel-at the risk of diminishing the value of the churches’ spiritual heritage. The loss of such a precious spiritual heritage in our efforts to communicate the message of Christ diminishes the real potential of accumulated spiritual experience. [6]

Muslims have accused Christians of deception and trickery in using Islamic terminology in the Bible Translations. Woodberry writes: “Whatever the final outcome, it is significant that the Muslim community felt these words and exclamations were exclusively their own.”

Conclusion:

It is not not absolutely certain that the Bible existed in Arabic before Islam. If it did, it was either translated orally or in written form from the Syriac. Over 137 manuscripts in Arabic existed however before the dawn of the 20th Century. The Arabic translations were free from Western influence until the missionary era beginning with the 19th century. More recently, in the last 50 years, several attempts were made to Islamize the Arabic Bible by utilizing Qur’anic terminology. History teaches us that this is not a wise idea as it confuses both Christians and Muslims and hinders the communication of a clear message among them.

 


[1] As Director for the Middle East and North Africa I supervised translation projects in Arabic and Kurdish. And helped in the initial phase of translations into Farsi, Turkish, and Kabyle for Living Bibles International which later merged with the International Bible Society, now Biblica.

[2] Irfan Shahid, The Martyrs of Najran, (Subsidia Hagiographica, 49; Bruxelles, 1971), pp. 242-250.

[3] MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151 published by the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies in cooperation with the United Bible Society, Beirut, Lebanon. 1985.

[4] Hikamt Kashouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels. (De Gruyter: Berlin/Boston, 2012), page15.

[5] Sydney Griffith, The Gospel in Arabic: an Inquiry into its Appearance in the First Abbasid Century. (Otto Harrassowitz:. Wiesbaden Germany, 1985), page 136.

[6] J. Dudley Woodberry, “Contextualization among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars,” in the International Journal of Frontier Missions, Vol 13 no 4 (Oct-Dec 1996), page.

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About Author

Georges Houssney was raised in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon. He came to faith in Jesus Christ as a teenager. Soon God grew a deep love for Muslims in his heart, and he began to sense God's call for full-time service among them. Well-known for his work supervising the translation and publication of the Bible into clear modern Arabic, Georges and his family moved from the Middle East to the United States in 1982 to minister to international students. Georges is passionate about reaching internationals here and abroad with the great news of salvation. He writes and lectures internationally about ministry to Muslims, and he strives to awaken a new generation who will proclaim the gospel boldly. Georges is founder and director of Horizons International and does Muslim evangelism training through his training Engaging Islam.

9 Comments

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  4. I would be interested in anyone who could write a Christian (Evangelical and accurate) response to this. It is called, “A 7th Century War on Terrorism” – by Adnan Rashid – he basically says that the first 100 years of the Arab Muslims conquering Byzantine, N. Africa, and by implication, Persia, were just wars wages by Islam and judgments on the injustices of the Byzantium Chalcedonians (those who accepted the 451 AD Chalcedonian Creed and were persecuting the Monophyites in Egypt, Syria and other places) and, by implication, that it was a just war against Persia because the Zoroastrian government of Persia was unjust against the Nestorians. (I have read other Muslims make that claim.)

    http://www.ummah.com/forum/showthread.php?233960-A-7th-Century-War-On-Terror-Adnan-Rashid

    All modern issues and debates about all the wars/ harb / Qatal / Jihads, etc and the Palestinian issue, when understood better – it seems to me, to go all the way back to this issue – the beginning of Islam. It all seems to be the Arab Muslims carrying out and obeying Surah 9:5 and 9:29, and 8:39 and the Hadiths that say the same things.

    Ken T.

  5. Thanks Georges!

    I agree that the C1-C6 spectrum thing is not totally accurate or scientific, etc. – there is a lot of fuzziness in the C-3 to C-4 level; that is why I called it a “general template”. I think it has some general value – understanding that C1 is not speaking at all the language of the Muslim – staying trapped in their sub-cultures of Coptic, English(international churches of expatriates expecting Muslims to come to their services, etc.), Armenian, Assyrian, etc. (Yes, mostly forced on them by the Dhimmi system) – and not reaching out in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, etc. – seems to have been a problem for centuries.

    Is there a better template or chart, without being too simplistic that would help foreign missionaries in this issue of legitimate contextualization (translation, communication, illustration in their culture) and where the line is crossed into syncretism? It seemed clear to me that the line was between the C4 level and C5 level of contextualization.

    I agree that it is wrong for an outsider to impose on the Arab churches – Isa – but I just wonder if in Evangelism – they would be willing to use it, just at the beginning, but then later explain the roots of the Yasou’a word – that that is the word closer to the original “Yashou’a” (Joshua).

    You wrote:
    “To your question about Christians welcoming Muslim invaders, this is what many historians testify too.”

    Are they completely right? or have they just adopted the Islamic line and view?
    Many are questioning this today.

    A professor said to me, “there is some truth to that”, but, [the rest is from my memory and compilation of what I have heard other Middle Easterners say] later, the Christian groups (Copts, Monophysites in Syria, etc.) saw the Islamic invaders as deceptive and they were not so welcoming when they saw their real agenda to take over, but it was too late. (The Jiziye and Dhimmi system developed later from Omar 1 to Omar Pact 2. An Egyptian Evangelical Christian and others have told me the same thing.

    The evidence from St. Sophronius of Jerusalem does not seem to line up with that view. But he was Chalcedonian. Do the Copts, the Maronites, the Oriental Orthodox, the “Rum” (those that are left from the Byzantine/Syriac ancestors that were in unity with Rome and Constantinople), Assyrians, Armenians still think that, that they were liberators?

    ” The people groups in the Arab world who see Arabs as conquerors are usually the ethically non – Arabs such as Kurds, Berbers, Circassian, etc…”

    Though not in the Arab world – the ethnic tension is especially high with Persians (Iranians) – there is a deep ethnic hatred and they especially, generally hate Omar, the second Caliph, because he led the Jihads/Wars against Persia.

    But also, many Egyptians (Copts, and evangelicals who came out of the Coptic church) and Lebanese and Jordanian and Syrian Christians have said to me, “I am not Arab” – my ancestors are Egyptian, or Phoenician, or Byzantine, or Syrian or Assyrian, or Armenian.

    Thanks so much for your time and work in these areas!

  6. Dear Ken,
    Thanks for your comment.
    On the matter of the name Isa versus Yasou’ I am in full agreement with you. I am well aware of the fact that in Farsi and Turkish the standard is to use Isa. But this is not the case in Arabic. The Arabic Church has chosen to translate from Hebrew Yashoua rather than Greek Isous. It would be wrong for an outsider to impose Isa on the Arabic Church. This has been a divisive issue. I supervised several Bible translations other than Arabic. In Kurdish for example we chose Isa but in Arabic we retained Yasoua.
    I know about the organization you left. They are losing people and support but they are not changing their views because they see themselves are leaders in the Insider Movement. I pray they will wise up and reform their ways.
    Ken, I agree that there are legitimate contextualization practices. But much of the current use is not appropriate. We need better guidelines to help churches and missionaries do appropriate Contextualization which I believe I do often. But I do not subscribe to the paradigm of the C1-C6. It takes people deeper and deeper in the direction of C6. I believe the emphasis in our work should not be on contextualization but rather on Transformation. Contextualization and Transformation meet somewhere in the middle but they are going in different directions. Like a trail in the mountain, a hiker going up the trail and another going down the trail see the same trees and rocks along the way but they are going in different directions. Contextualists tend to move toward acceptance of culture therefore it they do not challenge people to change. They certainly want to change some evil practices but the trend is acceptance rather than change. Transformation begins with change and retains what does not need to change.

    To your question about Christians welcoming Muslim invaders, this is what many historians testify too. The people groups in the Arab world who see Arabs as conquerors are usually the ethically non – Arabs such as Kurds, Berbers, Circassian, etc…
    Thanks again for your post.
    Georges

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  8. Georges,
    Thanks for this excellent summary of the history of translation of the Bible into Arabic and the influence of missions efforts by westerners on the situation.

    I don’t see the problem with using “Isa” عیسی instead of “Yasou’a” یسوع as long as we are explaining and teaching who the real “Isa” is – eternal Son of God who became flesh, and how that leads us to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. (John 1:1-5; 14; Hebrews 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 1; etc.)

    Iranians and Turks have no other word for Jesus than “Isa” in their Bible translations. The reason why the Arabic speaking world retained “Yasou’a” is because of the Syriac and Byzantine culture. (Greek language and Syriac/ Aramaic) Those areas that were not part of the old Byzantine/Greek Empire don’t have the background of the word closer to Joshua / Ya-shoua – Greek – Hebrew.

    I agree that taking out “Father” and “Son” is wrong and crossed the line.

    I left a mission agency in 2009 because they were promoting the “Common Ground” and “Insider’s Movement” and C-5 level of contextualization too much. They would argue that it was not required by all, only allowed if a team wanted to experiment with it. Some of the leaders said 40 % of the teams experiment with different levels / aspects of C-5/Insider’s / common ground methods. Other leaders said only 15% experimented with aspects of it. Some disagree with each other on how widespread those methods are. The problem was the IM/C-5/ common ground methods was getting all the attention, promotion, and attention, and those that disagreed had to be quiet, because that is considered not “grace oriented” toward other Christians.

    Don’t you think there is a legitimate level of “contextualization” (translation, communication, understanding – like a C-3 or C-4 level – assuming the Travis spectrum/paradigm as a general template) and there is a point at which is crosses the line into syncretism and confusion and compromise?

    You mentioned above that the Christians viewed the Arab conquerers as oppressors.

    Is there hard evidence for the often repeated statement in the history of the Arab invasions of 636-732 AD and beyond, “The Christians (Monophysites – Copts, Jacobite-Syrians, non-Chalcedonians; and the Nestorians in Mesopotamia vs. the Zoroastrian Persian government) welcomed the Arab invaders as liberators from their Byzantine (Greek soldiers, Chalcedonians – those that held to the Chalcedonian Creed.) oppressors/persecutors.” ? Even you made a similar statement in an old article that I have from your “Reach Out” magazine years ago. St. Sophronius of Jerusalem does not appear to have “welcomed” them, but he was Chalcedonian/Byzantine in his theology. He was not Monophysite or Nestorian.

    Sincerely,
    Ken Temple

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