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

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Part III: Translation Philosophy 

The controversy over the translation of familial words in the Bible by Wycliffe and others has given rise to a global discussion on the advisability of the Functional Equivalence philosophy that insists on a meaning-based philosophy in place of a word-for-word literal approach. This discussion is likely to cause everyone to rethink their position in hopes that the public debate will help in the development of healthier theories of Bible translation.

 

The Complexity of language:

Language is as old as mankind. It is the tool by which human beings communicate in their interpersonal and social interactions. We use a complex system of symbols to export and import, or code and decode mental images of concrete objects and abstract thoughts. In other words, language is the embodiment of intangible meaning communicated by means of tangible symbols. Until communication takes place, meaning itself resides in the mind of both communicator and receiver. Translation is the avenue by which meaning is transferred or exchanged among people who speak different languages. Without translation, communication is not possible and therefore meaning remains concealed.

Symbol systems can be visual, verbal, audio, or sensory. According to communications experts, the nonverbal systems of communication may carry with them even stronger emotive value than the verbal or written mediums. These unconsciously influence the communication in manners which may strengthen or weaken the verbal communication we are more consciously aware of.

If communication seems complicated and far from being simplistic within any particular language, what about language as used in a cross-cultural context?!!

This is the challenge of Bible translation, especially in a Muslim context. Christians and Muslims in the Middle East are two “peoples” who share a common cultural heritage and who employ the same linguistic system, yet they are separated by a thick wall of misunderstanding due to linguistic differences stemming from their religious distinctiveness. These two groups have co-existed in the same cultural setting for fourteen centuries. Yet the gap between them remains wide. Meanings attached to linguistic symbols among Christians, differ greatly from the meanings attached to Muslim linguistic symbols despite the fact that these same symbols are similar and sometimes even identical in form. This is the reason Bible translators need to be careful not to cause confusion by mixing terminology from the Bible and the Qur’an.

 

Form and Meaning:

Every Bible translator is familiar with these two words. Bible translation theory in the last four decades under the influence of Eugene Nida and others, has concentrated on the relationship between the forms and meanings of words. The form is the packaging, the meaning is the content. This linguistic dualism gave rise to the commonly known theory of the Dynamic Equivalent or Functional Equivalent translations.

This theory proposes that form is changeable but the meaning is constant. Therefore the meaning can be extracted from its form and preserved within another form. One example is the translation of the word Allah. Allah is an Arabic form for the Hebrew Jehovah, Spanish Dios, Greek Theos or Persian Khoda. So Allah, according to proponents of Functional Equivalence theory, is a good translation for God in languages of Muslim people because it is a Muslim word for God.

But this is a very simplistic approach to Bible translation. There is no question that the Dynamic Equivalent or Functional Equivalent philosophy is a great improvement over the literal word-for-word translation approach. However, it is short sighted and can be easily misused. It has in fact been responsible for serious mistranslations in the last half century.

 

Words and their Meanings:

“In the beginning was the word.”

God spoke and he used words. He also used many other ways of communication. Words, uttered or written, are vehicles that channel meaning from communicator to receiver. Both communicator and receiver must perceive each item of communication from the exact same perspective for communication to be 100% accurate. This may seem impossible. However, people do communicate. Jobs get done, merchandise is ordered and received, documents are signed, agreements are made, and so on. What makes this communication possible is that symbols of communication can be learned. The brain has an amazing capacity for coding and decoding messages sent and received. Linguists agree that there is a universal grammar that helps people understand each other, sometimes even in the absence of words.

 

Dynamics between Word and Meaning:

From the start when I was exposed to the dualism of form and meaning, I felt that there was something missing. I endeavored to discover the limitations of this approach, which has become popular for half a century and is responsible for many mistranslations of the Bible.

The following explanation of the dynamics between words and their meanings is aimed at sensitizing us to the complexity of the issue under examination.

The “form” of words usually refers to their physical characteristics of shape, spelling, sound, intonation etc. The meaning, however, is more complex. Here are some of the many factors affecting meaning in words, phrases, stories, parables, poetry and other literary forms. Words may have any one or more of these 20 types of meaning:

  1. Etymological: original root meaning or historical use
  2. Denotative: literal or dictionary definition
  3. Connotative: suggestive or associated with other meanings
  4. Classical or historic: word or idiom as understood at a certain time in history of its linguistic or cultural development
  5. Contextual: meaning relative to its surrounding words or situation
  6. Cultural: meaning according to a specific cultural group
  7. Relative: different meaning to different people sending or receiving
  8. Attributional: ascribed or imputed meaning
  9. Idiomatic: expressions which diverge from usual use to commonly agreed upon meaning
  10. Implicit: hidden, unexpressed or concealed meaning
  11. Explicit: obvious, plainly expressed meaning
  12. Emotive: meaning that triggers affective reaction
  13. Intentional: Meaning as purposed by communicator
  14. Perceptual: Meaning as understood by receiver
  15. Metaphorical: figurative (non-literal) use of words or phrases
  16. Parabolic: meaning of words as they relate to a parable or proverb.
  17. Artistic: poetic or rhetorical sense of words
  18. Specialized: meaning exclusively used by distinct group of people
  19. Technical: science, medical, engineering religious etc.
  20. Theological: specialized meaning derived from a systematic study of the Bible or the Quran.

Many words are impacted by one or a combination of these factors, especially when used in a cross-cultural setting. This will become clear as we study the way Muslim/Christian terms are interpreted from within and without each group.

 

Muslim/Christian Religious Terminology:

The problem of terminology differences between Muslims and Christians is immense and deserves serious attention by Bible translators. These differences are not limited to the surface meaning. Rather these differences have to do with fourteen centuries of disparity in theology, philosophy and lifestyle. They are different because they belong to two separate communities each with its own worldview. My research has shown that common words between Christians and Muslims based on the Bible and the Qur’an are vastly different in meaning. So using a Qur’anic word to express Christian concepts can lead to misunderstanding.

One prime example of this misunderstanding is the work of Dr. Accad who wrote the book “Seven Muslim/Christian Principles”.  He takes verses from the Bible and puts them side by side with verses from the Qur’an. These verses contain terms that are commonly used by both scriptures. Dr. Accad naively claims that the two books are addressing the same concepts. He uses this method to convince Muslims and Christians that they are not as different as they think.

In my original research I dealt with over a hundred words. However, for the limited purpose of this study, I shall treat only two words, Islam and Allah. I will give an example of how “Islam” can be perceived from the various aspects of meaning. I will apply some of the above mentioned 20 factors to help us understand the complexity and yet simplicity of meaning. The basic structure of my analysis follows these four categories:

  1.  The etymological and lexical meanings as originally/historically used.
  2.  The concept as perceived by Muslims (claimed or intended)
  3.  The meaning as perceived by the Christian outsiders (attributional).
  4.  The Christian equivalent or alternative term with comments on its meaning and etymology.
“Islam”:

(Numbers correspond to the list of twenty points above.)

Etymology (1): Islam is a root word in the infinitive composed of three consonants S-L-M from which a family of words is derived. It is pronounced as SALAMA. Each of its derivatives has its own distinct meaning that may or may not have a related meaning to the root. For instance, iSLaM, SaLaaM, and SaLeeM mean surrender, peace, and health, respectively. These meanings are associated only with the forms to which they correspond.

Muslim: is the active participle from the verb Aslama.

Denotative meaning (2): In the dictionary Islam is a noun which simply means surrender or resignation. All Islamic literature, most English translations of Islamic literature, and many Western writers (including Webster’s Dictionary) define “Islam” as “submission to Allah.” Others go further and define it as “submission to the will of Allah”.

Connotative Meaning (3):  Islam is a word with many connotations to many audiences. Some associate Islam with terrorism, veiled women, crowds of angry men, or rows of prostrated worshipers

in robes and caps. To others, Islam connotes exotic architecture, desert scenes, calligraphy, or even music and belly-dancing. Many Muslims associate Islam with their identity, family, and entire society, and to many, Islam connotes an oppressive and backward religion that keeps them from progressing in the modern world.

Historical (4): Islamic conquests gave people two choices: “Aslim Taslam.” Literally these two words mean “surrender you’ll be safe.” Aslim is the imperative form of Islam. Islam is the nominative form denoting that the one who surrenders becomes a Muslim, one who belongs to Islam.

Cultural (6): Non-practicing Muslims perceive Islam as a cultural identity. Many of them do not pray, but they observe certain holidays much like nominal Christians observe Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving with their families. Some who may observe the fast of Ramadan, do not pray or observe other pillars of Islam except socially in the presence of practicing friends and family members.

Relative meaning (7): (Same as self-perception. 15)

Muslim scholars often expand the meaning of the word Islam to include various other senses which may be derived from the Arabic three-letter root (SLM). These meanings include, submission, peace, safety, and health (wholeness). Therefore, they claim by deduction that Islam means all these things and therefore Islam offers all of these good qualities.

Many associate Islam with peace.  Technically the word Islam does not contain the sense of peace (salam). But by implication those who surrender to Islam are offered peace, meaning protection by Muslim conquerors. Taslam means you “will be safe.”

Relative to Christians in the Arab World, Islam is the religion of their oppressors and persecutors. Most Christians do not think positively about the word Islam because it triggers an emotive (12) reaction due to the centuries of strained Muslim-Christian relations.

Attributional (8): Islam is many things to many people. Some attribute to Islam global terrorism. Others see Islam as the invaders of their liberties who are plotting political take over of many western nations. Some see Islam as victims of prejudice by non Muslims and that stereotypes associated with Islam and Muslims are unfair. Minorities of Christians in Muslim lands tend to see Islam as the religion of their oppressors.

Specialized (18): To Muslims, Islam is the name of their religion. In it they have their identity that unites them together with all Muslims in the Umma or global community of those who take Allah as their God, Muhammad as their prophet, and the Qur’an as their book. Everyone else is “other”, an outsider. In their worldview, non Muslims are infidels, blasphemers and kafirs.

“Muslim” is the active participle from the verb “Aslama” which means one who surrenders or submitter.

Aslama is in the causative which means to cause to submit or to subjugate.

Christians use Sallama in the reflexive form: Causing self to submit. For instance Aslama nafsahu, in the reflexive (caused by self or self-imposed.)

Christian Specialized Use of the word Islam:

The Bible in Arabic uses the word Aslama at least 60 times but always in the causative form followed by a direct object e.g. “Judas surrenders Jesus to the Jews.” (Mark 3:19) Arab Christians almost always use various forms of the word Islam but they give these words completely different meanings. To distinguish themselves they use forms of the word that are not peculiar to Muslims. For instance in reference to submission to God’s will Christians use the form, “taSLeeM” stemming from the same root as “iSLaM”. Tasleem is used by Christians in reference to “willful submission or surrender to the will of God”. This claimed meaning is based on biblical teaching in this regard, unlike the Muslim term. Etymologically, the two terms have the same root and similar meanings.

 

“Allah” (God):

Etymology (1): The Arabic word for Allah is a combination of  “al” which is the definite article the and Ilah meaning god. The two words Al-Ilah are contracted in the word Allah.ftn1″>[1]

Denotative (2): Allah is an Arabic word for the supreme deity. It is the translation of the word God.

Connotative (3): To most non-Arabic speakers Allah is associated with the God of Islam.

Relative/Specialized meaning (7, 18): Allah carries with it different connotations to different people. In some Islamic countries, its use is one of the most explosive issues socially and politically. For instance, in November 1989, the Malaysian government issued a constitutional law banning the use of the word by Malaysian Christians. In non-Arabic Muslim contexts in places such as Afghanistan, India, Iran, Pakistan, Berber regions of North Africa, and Kurdish parts of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, Christians and Muslims have debated among themselves, sometimes fiercely, regarding the use of this term. One of the main issues of the debate is whether the Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christianity. In the majority of cases in the countries cited above, Christians shy away from the term. Persian speaking Christians have chosen to use the word Khoda, which is the name for an ancient Persian deity. Muslim Kurds have perhaps had the hardest time with this word. In my work in the Kurdish New Testament, I encountered a serious problem in translating the word for God into the Sorani Dialect. Khwa is the authentic and historical Kurdish term for God. However, its use was politically incorrect. With the changing political situation in Northern Iraq, many feared for their lives.

Classical/Historical (4): It is assumed by most researchers that the word Allah predates Islam. They claim that Christians in Arab lands have called God Allah for centuries before the advent of Islam. After Islam the word became associated with Islam but not exclusively. In the Arab World both Christians and Muslims have always used the same term Allah.

Theological (20): Muslims think of God (Allah) as monolithic as opposed to being triune. He is far removed from man. Yet he demands absolute obedience. He is “all-mighty” and is to be feared. Allah’s characteristics are known more by what he is not than by what he is. He is not anything that man is. The Muslim Allah is transcendent, aloof and unapproachable.

Christians have a drastically differing view of God who is not only transcendent but also immanent. He is far but also near, he is approachable through Jesus as the mediator between God and man.

A note on translating the word Allah:

Bible translators into languages of Muslim people do not have any problem translating God into Allah. Their strongest argument is the above mentioned fact that Allah is commonly used by both Christians and Muslims in the Arab world. Proponents of this idea do not seem to understand that although Arab Christians use the word, they are cautious in the way they pronounce it. Christians would stress the A sound, Allaaaah while Muslims use the vowel o and pronounce it as Allowwwh. Of course this is only an oral distinction. In writing however, Arab Christians avoid using the Muslim phrases that use Allah such as “inshallah”. Christian evangelicals prefer to say: “Iza Allah raad” (If God wills).

Persians Christians shy away from the use of the word Allah, contending that this is an Arabic word associated with Islam. They prefer “Khoda” just like Turks prefer “Tanrı”.

As a rule of thumb therefore I recommend that Allah would not be used in any other language than Arabic. I approach the issue from a language perspective. Allah is an Arabic used by both Christian and Muslim Arabs. But when it is used by non-Arabic speakers, Allah becomes associated with Islam. This confusion can be avoided by using the indigenous word for God whenever it is possible.

 

Conclusion:

The vast differences in meaning between Muslims and Christians using the same terminology is a cause of the huge gap in communication between them. Many of the prejudices and misunderstandings between them are related to misinterpretations of common terminology. Mixing Muslim and Christian terminology cannot bridge the gap that has existed for fourteen centuries. Expressing Christian concepts using Muslim terms is counter productive.  Muslims and Christians need to understand the truth about each other and not pretend that they are all the same. Then they can accept life together despite their differences rather than lie to themselves and to others by pretending that they are the same.

Words of the Qur’an can only be appropriately understood in context of the entire Qur’an, Islamic theology, and world view. Similarly Christian terminology is best understood in context of the entire Bible and Christian theology of worldview. To borrow Qur’anic terms and use them in translating the Bible is to cause unnecessary linguistic confusion and theological interference.

 


[1] Muslim scholars do not agree with this analysis. They consider the word Allah as the primary name of God.


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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.