Translation is an intimate, daily, and often frustrating experience in my life and work. While English has begun to colonize my dreams, I still am not at home in it. I do research in a place I call home—Beirut. I write about my research mostly in English, but I conduct most of it in my mother tongue, Arabic. I also translate the historical practices, legal knowledge, and lived worlds I research to Beirutis and Lebanese unfamiliar with them. Yet I write about Islamic law and practice as an anthropologist, not as an authorized scholar in and of the tradition. And I write about peoples and practices, some of whom I would not have necessarily engaged in my bourgeois Beiruti world. To many interlocutors in Beirut, I used to translate anthropology as sociology, a much more legible discipline there, until one—Ahmad, who turned out to be a social scientist—exclaimed upon seeing my business card, “ʿilm al-ināsa!” I had not heard this translation of anthropology in Arabic; the more common one is ʿilm al-insān. As an anthropologist, then, I was not really at home in Beirut, both because of my in-between-ness and because my newly acquired discipline seemed illegible. But I could also discuss my research questions and the best translation of anthropology into Arabic with Ahmad. Could my research and writings, in English, be at home in Beirut? What role does historical translation play in this question?1 What about concepts and things that resist translation?

For the past fifteen years, I have been researching how the revival of the centuries-old practice of Islamic waqf (endowment) in Beirut today has refigured what that practice was in the nineteenth century, and how that same word and its associated concepts have come to produce very different practices. Most of the time when writing up my “fieldnotes,” I translated Arabic conversations into English unthinkingly. Sometimes, I stumbled into words (like riḍā) whose English translation (contentment or satisfaction) rang false to my ears, so I left them in Arabic. Other times, I would realize later, I simply mistranslated words I thought I understood in Arabic.

But sometimes, translation was more intentional and strategic. Starting with my dissertation, I had to think about whether I wanted to include “waqf” in my title, and whether to keep all these Arabic words in the text. This was a decision about legibility, about the extent to which I wanted to invite nonspecialist readers—who might be uninterested in the region (the Middle East) or the tradition (Islam) but engaged instead in broader theoretical questions or common concerns (like charitable giving or property)—to read the book without overwhelming them with foreign words and detail. These questions do not arise equally for scholars of the United States and other prestige zones, whose research relevance is much more obvious to readers. Such is the hierarchy of knowledge, a hierarchy that also exists in prestige zones themselves, with some subjects deemed more worthy than others.

At the same time, I was reminded that anthropology as a discipline could make space for foreign concepts. “Think of the kula ring or the hau,” a mentor once told me. Anthropology was hospitable to difference, even if, as critics have pointed out, these terms have often had afterlives disjointed from their original languages and communities, erasing their origins, original meanings, and current uses, reflecting anthropologists’ own concerns and (mis)interpretations.

But as an anthropologist, my concern is not merely semantic—focusing on how best to capture a given Arabic word’s meaning in English. Rather, I am concerned with translating and representing a different lifeworld and its many taken-for-granted ways of doing and thinking, which appear through nineteenth-century waqf practices: charity centered on the family, property relations in which God is a player, and true intent left to the Hereafter. Translating “waqf” as “endowment” obscures an essential element of the practice: its purpose of drawing the founder closer to God. Given my concern with highlighting different understandings of charity and property, and their orientation toward God and the hereafter, I wanted to draw attention to the difference that waqf could embody. Leaving “waqf untranslated was a strategy aimed at keeping non-Arabic readers aware of that difference, at retaining that discomfort. At the same time, I felt that a not-so-exact translation was sufficient for other terms: the English translation of wasiyya as will did not capture all the nuances of the practice in the Ottoman context, but that nuance was not as essential to the argument. Translation and nontranslation are thus strategic tools, balanced against each other so as to better represent a context and an argument about it.

At the heart of these decisions is the foundational anthropological tension between commensurability and alterity. On the one hand, anthropologists render the unfamiliar familiar, emphasizing that they (others in time and space) are like us, that we are all human. On the other hand, they highlight different ways of being and doing in the world (they show that things can be otherwise, that people value different things), unsettling what the anthropologist and her presumed audience take for granted.

In both moves, the assumption is that the anthropologist does not belong to the group she researches. One might argue that such an assumption no longer stands. With the presence of “native” anthropologists who might share both their interlocutors’ language and their lifeworlds (however mediated by class, gender, race, sexuality, religion), and with the rise of different models for doing ethnography (such as those based on collaborative research), one might assume that such gaps between the anthropologist and her subjects might be closing. In addition, many texts written by non-native anthropologists have been translated (literally or figuratively) and received in the communities being studied.2 The dominance of English and the opening up of various platforms for public scholarship that bring authors and the knowledge they produce in Euro-America into conversation with their sites, also help shorten this distance.

Thus, more important than whether the anthropologist is at home in her research site is the question of audience: for whom is the anthropologist writing? And what work does translation and representation do for their audience(s), both in Euro-America and in their research sites?

Contrary to earlier approaches to “the native’s form of life simply as information to be translated for a purpose entirely foreign to it,” an anthropologist with a more humble disposition approaches these other lifeworlds “with the possibility of learning something important for her own form of life that might help to transform how that life is understood,” as Talal Asad puts it. Translation, Asad reminds us (building on Walter Benjamin), can be a way to “expand the receiving language and way of life.” This disposition is brought forth starkly by a remark in Lila Abu-Lughod’s afterword to Veiled Sentiments, discussing the Bedouin Awlad Ali:

Here was a society that feminists might label patriarchal by pointing to the way that women and girls were ensconced within families, though I always point out that men and boys were equally so. Over the years I have come to envy this family closeness, despite the limits it puts on individual freedoms.

To me, Abu-Lughod’s observation does more than question liberalism’s assumptions; it also expresses a desire to inhabit the world differently. In Katherine Ewing’s words, it exemplifies a surrender to the temptation to believe, acknowledging that “the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist.”

But the main beneficiaries of this anthropological openness seem to be those within the lifeworlds of the anthropologist (writing in English): those who participate in academic and broader public debates in Euro-America. In a more generous reading, these anthropologists might be understood as doing their part from their position of relative power. Questioning certainties about “others” and dominant paradigms is not without political effects for the communities studied: doing so humanizes them, working against the tendency to cast them as others who can be disposed of or saved.

Yet the anthropologist writing in English for an academic audience is speaking to the concerns of a discipline that may have little interest in the urgent questions of her research site.3 The discipline’s questions, stakes, modes of criticism, and practices of engagement are a function of what Fadi Bardawil calls the “metropolitan unconscious,” which reflects the location of the centers of academic disciplines in the metropoles of Euro-America. In research on the Islamic tradition, like mine, the concerns and questions of anthropologists writing in the West about Muslims are addressed to an audience and context in which Islamophobia is rampant and in which governments use anthropological knowledge to justify bombing, surveilling, and incarcerating Muslims. The concerns and questions of anthropologists would be very different if their main audience were one for whom Islam was dominant and sometimes politicized to repress dissent. Even if, as “native anthropologists,” our lives and hopes are attached to our fieldsites, and even if we have “practical and personal stakes in the lives and futures, presents and pasts of the people and places of fieldwork beyond the quest for knowledge” (as Samar Kanafani and Zina Sawaf so well capture), what is the purpose of writing in English in Euro-American anthropological journals? Here, writing, and speaking (as I do here) in the language of the research site (in places outside the Anglophone world, of course) can itself be a strategic decision to keep a certain discussion that may be weaponized at bay, outside the Euro-West. One can think for example of Lara Deeb’s decision not to write about temporary marriage; another strategy would have been to write about it in Arabic in a local outlet.4

Furthermore, there can also be a difference in commitments between a researcher and her site (and/or interlocutors). Methods of collaborative research often assume that one wants to collaborate with one’s interlocutors, who often embody “the suffering subject.” The anthropologist is often on the side of the good, championing the oppressed. But what about those dealing with less palatable subjects? Part of my research consisted in studying up, dealing with the Directorate General of Islamic Waqfs, which had been the subject of accusations of nepotism and corruption. These are not right-wing extremists. But still, the anthropologist’s commitments here might remain separate from her subjects’, even while aiming to understand their practices, their logic, and the conditions that allow them. I was exposing, playing the investigative journalist, but I was also unsettling current models of thinking about the waqf, bringing up different potentialities from the historical record. How can a text talk to different audiences, be at home in different places, and navigate their different stakes?

For both audiences—Euro-American academic readers and Lebanese readers—my work of historical translation brings out the meanings and practices (charitable, familial, religious, economic) that are lost when modern reconfigurations and translations narrow imaginative horizons. For Arabic speakers (and for speakers of languages that have incorporated the term “waqf”), the vocabulary might be familiar, and terms may not require translation into a different language. Yet what has changed is the grammar structuring this vocabulary—that is, the terms’ meaning in context (along with the grammar of associated concepts like intent, family, and public benefit in my case). By highlighting nineteenth-century practices, I uncover the changing grammar of this vocabulary to alert readers familiar with the concept to other meanings and practices, and to break open problematic and narrow translations. In this process, I do not aim to show that Muslims have become unwittingly modern or liberal, that the process of modern translation vacates difference. Rather, I highlight how these modern refigurations of tradition open some possibilities and foreclose others. At the same time, changes in the dominant grammar do not mean that previous grammars disappear. As I show in my work, they continue to exist, embodied in practitioners, objects, and discourses that are often relegated to outdated “Islamic law in theory,” but that still resonate and have real effects. Thus, my investigation reminds us of the multiple temporalities that exist in a tradition, which resist rendering it either as an Other or as a version of the Self.

For instance, I show how the notion of benefit (maṣlaḥa) has come to be split between the religious benefit of the Muslim community and the nation’s benefit (defined very much in terms of the nation’s progress). The existence of a religious benefit that is acknowledged constitutionally is often portrayed as contributing to the formation of “sectarian identities,” which stand in the way of national belonging. However, I show how Sunni Muslims contesting the expropriation of waqfs (under the banner of religious and waqf interest) in fact mobilized that interest against the unholy alliance between the “sectarian” Sunni elites at the time.

These reformulations of the tradition and of the meanings of its terms, sparked by its intersections with different traditions, are part and parcel of a living tradition. This is a modern translation. It is neither a tradition that stands as a monument of radical alterity nor one that has become liberal. While some of its concepts may be inflected with modern assumptions, the goals of the tradition remain oriented toward a different telos—worshipping God (in the various forms it takes)—and are different from those of a liberal tradition or the modern state (despite their points of intersection and convergence). Similarly, I do not take the older grammar as an uninflected essence, but one representing a dominant grammar that was the result of particular historical conditions, and one that coexists with minor traditions and grammars. I show the possibilities this change in grammar opens and forecloses in a particular historical context, like the rise of the use of waqfs around the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to protect Muslim organizations from the oversight of a Ministry that might fall into enemy hands. Concurrently, I also historicize the current iteration of waqf practices, showing that the present association of waqf with sects is the result of the secular configuration of Lebanon, and that the waqf can be made to play a very different political role. Thus, for readers in Lebanon, who have grown up with the idea that waqfs are the religious property of a sect, the different understanding and practice that arises in my translation from the archive opens possibilities for mobilizing the waqf beyond its current role as the object of denunciations on the grounds that it reproduces sectarianism.

My writing involves multiple practices and meanings of translation. There is first both a linguistic and conceptual translation addressed to a Euro-American audience, making concepts like “waqf” legible or expanding the receiving language (English) and its assumptions about economy, religion, and charity. But it also involves a historical and ethnographic translation for a Lebanese audience that can read the book in English (and hopefully in Arabic too): a historical translation that excavates the meanings pushed aside in the modern translation of the term and an ethnographic translation of lived worlds that exceed common and legal understandings. For this audience, familiar with the modern understanding and grammar of waqf, it is the translation from history that unsettles the ground of the present, while leaving space between the practice of research and that of politics and activism.

I would like to thank Sadaf Ahmed, Fadi Bardawil, Katherine Lemons, and Mona Oraby, for their engagement, feedback, and support; Philip Sayers for editorial magic; and Amira Mittermaier for thinking with me so generously and giving me the language to articulate some of my thoughts.


  1. Strategic mistranslation, like my mistranslation of anthropology as sociology, is also an important tool in this project of making my work at home in different locations, but I do not have the space to elaborate on it in this short entry.

  2. In another much more problematic context, states, courts, and even communities in the US, Canada, and Australia have used the works of early anthropologists as the measure of indigeneity, as Vine Deloria noted long ago.

  3. This suggestion echoes Marilyn Strathern’s attention to the context that produces the disciplines while also highlighting that the social sciences have become part of the world of many of our interlocutors. It also addresses Kirin Narayan’s astute observation that researchers are not in fact so different from “locally available” forms of story-telling.

  4. Compare this strategy with the DAM controversy.