Sunday, April 06, 2008

COMMENT: Did Daniel Pipes learn to read Arabic at madressah?

It’s something I always resented about coming from a South Asian background. This insistence on kids learning how to read and make the noises of the Arabic text of the Qur’an. But not being able to understand what the Qur’an is actually saying.

My old teacher at Jamia al-Falah in Karachi used to say to me: “read the Qur’an with attention and respect, as if it is a letter from someone you love”. That’s all good and fine, but no one who has loved me has ever sent letters in a language I don’t understand.

So many critics of the madressah system rightly point out that it produces graduates who can read and memorise the Qur’an, but don’t know how to implement it in their lives. OK, so you know how to read it out aloud. Yes, that in itself is a source of blessing. But what happens after that?

However, I’m pleased to now learn that one chronic anti-Muslim bigot from the United States shares something in common with millions of kiddies of South Asian Muslim background. According to a profile published by the organisers of the Intelligence Squared Australia debate on the alleged incompatibility of Islam and democracy

Mr Pipes speaks French and reads Arabic and German.

Fantastic. That should be enough to make him an expert on political Islam. The fact that he can read Arabic is enough. Whether he understands it or not is a different thing altogether.

Pipes makes much of his ability to read Arabic. The problem is that so many influential texts on 20th century political Islam were not written in Arabic. Syed Maududi wrote most of his work in Urdu. Ali Shariati, regarded as one of the ideologues of the Iranian revolution, wrote in Farsi. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the closest thing Turkey has to a political Islamist, wrote in modern Turkish.

The extent to which Pipes has any understanding of political Islam is open to question.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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