At SSRC.org, three former recipients of the International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) reflect on Ronit Ricci’s Islam Translated. In this new volume, Ricci analyzes translations of the Book of One Thousand Questions from Arabic to Tamil, Java, and Malay to explore the spread of Islam in South and Southeast Asia and to consider the balance of the local and the global in that region’s processes of literary translation, religious conversion, and cultural synthesis.
Courtney Handman, a 2004 International Dissertation Research Fellow, reflects on this new publication:
Ricci’s emphasis throughout the book is on the ways in which Islam “branches out,” spreading and transforming itself through South and Southeast Asia. She argues that translations were judged based not on the strictness or looseness of equivalences but on a performative notion of desire and success: translations were opportunities to produce conversions or a renewed strength of faith and thus had a kind of poetic license. Given that model of translation, relatively little emphasis is placed on the moments when these localized forms of Islam look back in toward a perceived center in Islamic holy places like Mecca and Medina.
But what authorities existed that limited that license? How were these translations received in Arabia? At one point, Ricci argues that because there is no centralized hierarchy to Islam that governs the use of Arabic (as there is for Roman Catholicism’s use of Latin), there was less emphasis on distinguishing Arabic from local languages and, by extension Ricci implies, less emphasis on distinguishing a pure Islam from local variants. As such, local traditions produced highly particular forms of Islamic practice and theology in the three locales Ricci studies.
Ronit Ricci, author and former IDRF and IDRF Book Fellow, responds:
In my view, there is no contradiction between looking back to Islam’s place of origin in Arabia—and even more precisely, remaining strongly connected to it—and the diverse processes of localization, adaptation, renewal, and change that took place in the Muslim communities I discuss in my book. Rather, these processes of looking back and moving forward complement (and sometimes compete or overlap with) one another. In order to convert to Islam and engage with life as Muslims (individually and collectively), people in Java, Sumatra, and Tamil Nadu had to remain attached to those geographically and culturally distant roots. They did so, I argue, by accommodating and embracing a new understanding of the past that was based on Muslim history and by adopting and adapting the Arabic language in ways that made it local and familiar. This appropriation speaks not so much to “problems of localization and translation” or a “distinguishing of a pure Islam from local variants” but rather to the ways in which ideas, beliefs, and stories that arrive on new soil generate debate, creativity, and engagement that can never be identical across place and time.