Photo Credit International Institute of Islamic Thought

contributed by Isaiah Curtis

This January, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) invited about two dozen students and scholars across the US and Canada to Herndon, VA, to attend a ten-day educational program providing intensive study of major topics in Islamic studies.

My fellowship at LUNA has greatly enhanced my interests in Arabic translation. When I read there would be a day designated to discussing the challenges of translating the religious text of Islam, the Qur’an, from Arabic to English, I believed the program would develop my skills both professionally, as someone interested in translation, and academically, as someone interested in religious studies.

Upon applying, being accepted, and embarking on the program, I took time to reflect on and determine my goals for the ten-day experience. I arrived at three main goals: revive my scholarly interests, expand upon my understanding of the complexities of the academic field of Islamic studies, and lastly and more lightly, make friends.

The students and scholars, coming from a variety of education levels, were housed together at a hotel within walking distance to the Institute. The majority of the program attendees were Muslim, lending opportunity for continued education outside of the classroom. We lived among each other, went to class together, ate all meals together, and spent time together after class. Discussion over class material, therefore, never stopped. It continued until the late hours of the night. The diversity of the program’s attendees led to discussions which drew from each one’s own personal, academic, and religious perspectives.

The most interesting section of the program to me, and one of my primary motives for attending, was the lecture on the complexities Islamic scholars face when translating the Qur’an. In our discussion, we viewed the same passage of the Qur’an in its original Arabic, and compared it to its accompanying varied English translations done by multiple scholars. We discussed the three methods various Islamic scholars have chosen when translating the Qur’an.

The first route some scholars have taken when translating the Qur’an is their preference of making the English translation sound comparable to some versions of the Bible, in respect to the Bible’s usage of older variants of the English language. These scholars would include older sounding words like “Ye” and “Thee” into their translations. The second route of translating the Qur’an is the exact opposite; these scholars abandoned words which sounded older, and opted for newer, more modern, words and phrases. The third and last route revolved around some scholars’ preference of maintaining a rhyming pattern to reflect the phonetics involved in Qur’anic recitation. At the end of the lecture, we did not arrive to which translation route was the most correct, as it wasn’t the point of the lecture, but rather we debated among ourselves the pros and cons to each route.

One highlight of my trip was my first visit to a mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, which is one of the largest Muslim communities in the Washington, D.C. area. I stayed throughout the Jum’a (Friday Prayer) and had the opportunity to eat lunch with and ask the prayer-leader (Imam) questions and listen to the history of the mosque. I’m very grateful for this visit to a new place of worship and their hospitality toward visitors like me.

Aside from the intellectual growth, I spent my free time in several ways; I ate shawarma (a Middle Eastern dish containing meat, vegetables, and pickles in a bread wrap) nearly every day at the several halal restaurants ran by a Syrian woman and her Iraqi husband, bought Persian books about Afghanistan from a convenience store ran by an Afghan woman, and visited historic sites in Washington D.C. with the friends I made in the program.

It has been several weeks since I’ve been back to Indianapolis, and after some reflection, there are so many good things that have come as a result of this experience. For brevity’s sake, my trip to the mosque, studying under professional and respected professors, making great friends, and using Arabic and Persian throughout the trip are among the most notable memories. I am very pleased to be able to have participated in this unique program, and would urge everyone to step out of their comfort zone and embrace differences, be it religious, cultural, or linguistic.