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Translating Orientalism into the Arabic Nahda.

During the Arabic nahda, translation served as the primary conduit for bringing post-enlightenment forms of European knowledge into Arab society. Curiously, many nahdawi translators chose to translate European texts about Arab culture that contained overtly Orientalist themes. By comparing three such translations: Khalil Baydas's 1898 translation of a geographical text, Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti's 1915 translation of a Chateaubriand short story, and Salim Qub'ayn's 1915 translation of a collection of hadith compiled by Leo Tolstoy, this article considers how translators manipulate their source texts to bring new fields of European learning into Arabic in surprisingly subversive and assertive ways.


The recent focus in translation studies on the agency and creative power of the translator as a mediator opens up new possibilities for understanding the role that translators play, not only in conveying knowledge from one linguistic sphere into another, but also in acting as a creative force within any given society. (1) The power of translation to create knowledge is amplified by the partnership, or dialogic nature, of composition involved in any act of translation. A translation inherently trades on the reputation and position of the text that it draws on, however tenuous the relationship between the two texts may be. Translation is consequently a powerful tool for introducing innovation into a cultural context. Such was clearly the case during the period known as the modern Arabic literary renaissance, or nahda, which stretched from the nineteenth into the early twentieth century. As authors and editors experimented with new literary forms and genres, translation from European literatures formed an unusually large part of all literary production, both fiction and non-fiction. Curiously, among the works selected for translation during this period, we find a large number of translated texts from European languages that are explicitly about the Arab world: geographical surveys, ethnographic descriptions, even fiction that is set in the region. These textual products of European colonialism produce and reproduce all the familiar Orientalist tropes and images of an exotic Oriental Other, forever backward and uncivil ized-seemingly the last body of texts we would expect to appeal to an Arab reader eager to enter the modern world.

In what follows, I attempt to explain and interpret the selection of these texts for translation in two ways: first, by closely examining the decisions that the translators made, from the selection of particular texts for translation to the changes that they made to each text as they translated it; and, second, by considering the types of knowledge produced by translating Orientalist discourse into Arabic at the very time that colonialism was taking root in the region. The focus will be on examining how three different nahdawi translators adapted and appropriated material from overtly Orientalist texts as they translated them into Arabic, simultaneously creating new types of knowledge and discourse in Arabic and writing themselves into the Orientalist paradigm that would come to drive European colonial activity in the region.

Self-Orientalizing and Translation

At first glance, the tendency to select Orientalist texts about Arab society for translation into Arabic may be interpreted as a self-Orientalizing phenomenon in which the Arab translator reproduces and reaffirms the philosophy and claims of the Orientalist works. Self-Orientalizing is discussed in a variety of post-colonial contexts. In Orientalism, Edward Said acknowledges the phenomenon, noting that "the modern Orient, in short, participates in its own Orientalizing" (324). His notion of this participation is, however, limited to the economic sphere, focusing on the ways in which the Orientalized subject participates in the economic structures that perpetuate the colonialist paradigm. Partha Chatterjee takes this concept of self-Orientalizing further in his work on Indian nationalist thought, in which he posits that nationalist discourse in India was built upon the same basic philosophical assumptions and teleology as post-Enlightenment European Orientalism, or what he terms the Orientalist thematic. Chatterjee defines the thematic as "an epistemological as well as ethical system which provides a framework of elements and rules for establishing relations between elements" (38). In this way, the colonized subject is trapped in a double-bind in which there seems to be no way to resist the colonizer without falling into, and adopting, the very philosophical stance that belittles and threatens them. The knowledge produced in the Western world becomes universal; in other words, the colonized peoples are persuaded to accept and adopt "the same 'objectifying' procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age of Western science" (Chatterjee 38). The translations considered here certainly fit into this pattern; each of the translators involved was anxious to bring modern scientific, epistemological, and literary conventions into the Arab(ic) cultural sphere. The impulse to create through translation a text that could fill a perceived gap in one's culture is certainly a modernizing force, but what also motivated these translators was a need to engage with European modernity on their own terms, in their own language. Their work marks an epistemological shift made possible by the incorporation of new types of discourse into the Arabic intellectual and cultural landscape. Shaden Tageldin describes the translation of Orientalist texts into Arabic as a seductive possibility of reciprocity and partnership, pointing out that "Orientalist discourse attracted Egyptian intellectuals because it appeared to validate the Arab-Islamic even as it denigrated it, putting European and Egyptian on an illusory footing of 'equal' exchange" (9). The promise of engaging in rational dialogue with European modernity obscured the complications brought on by adopting a set of rules established by one's oppressor. In the early translations of Orientalist literature that I consider here, talk of resistance to colonial power is premature--the voice of these translators is not one of open resistance as much as it is a voice of hopeful participation and co-creation.

Nahdawi intellectuals sought just such a change in the epistemological and ethical systems in which they lived and functioned. In these translations, we can see three different individuals striving to create new modes of expression and knowing in Arabic. When they looked at the body of modern scientific knowledge and literary production available in European languages and found texts describing their own history, homeland, and society, they must have felt a certain sense of pride and excitement. They might have seen in their presence in this new body of literature an open invitation to participate in the creation and dissemination of knowledge through the established institutions of modern knowledge production--newspapers, literary journals, scholarly texts, textbooks. They could not have perceived their translations as acts of resistance, I would argue, because the European colonization of their region was not yet a foregone conclusion. Translation provided an important arena for linguistic and literary experimentation that allowed them to bring not only innovative content across into Arabic, but also new discourses and types of knowledge.

Literary historians tend to focus on the impulse to alter the Arabic language so prevalent among nahdawi authors--a desire to simplify it and alter it in order to accommodate the type of modern prose that they associated with modernity. Every literary history of the period describes the concern on the part of authors and intellectuals to create an Arabic idiom that could participate in the conversations taking place in the modern scientific world, as they perceived it in the context of Western Europe. Translation played a central role in creating this new arena of knowledge. On the one hand, it was the space in which individuals could articulate an Arabic idiom closer to the rhythm and style that they found in the European languages they encountered. One could "get away" with introducing literary, social, and linguistic devices in a translation that would have been unimaginable in an original Arabic literary text at the time. (2) On the other hand, in very practical terms, translation brought the content of these scientifically advanced cultural worlds to a new Arab readership. The texts considered in this article illustrate the importance of both dynamics in bringing modern Europe to the Arab reader, in addition to inserting the Arab subject into the European texts selected for translation.

The three translations I analyze here reproduce and reconfigure three types of Orientalist texts from European sources: one work of fiction, a narrative by French author Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, translated by Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti (1876-1924) in 1915; one geographical description of Palestine, written by Russian Orientalist Nikolai Aleksandrovich Eleonskii and translated by Khalil Baydas (1874-1949) in 1898; and one collection of hadith curated by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and translated by Salim Qub'ayn (1870-1951) in 1915. In analyzing each of these translations, I wish to focus on the ways in which working with clearly Orientalist texts allows the translators to consider their own images in the mirror of modern European scientific and literary discourse. In doing so, however, they did not simply reproduce the picture that was presented in these texts, but introduced changes that revealed their agency as mediators. In each case, putting the European source texts next to the Arabic translations brings into sharp relief some of the ways in which these translators were working to write their culture into the discourse of modernity on their own terms, at the same time that they were ostensibly working to make an existing discourse available to an Arabic-reading audience for the first time. From a translation studies point of view, these three texts exemplify the wide variety of translation practices common in Arabic literature during the nahda. Baydas's 1898 translation of Eleonskii's Ocherki iz Bibleiskoi Geografii (Essays on Biblical Geography) is a straightforward reproduction of his source text, funded by a foreign religious organization (the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society). It is representative of the wide variety of scientific texts translated and published in the Arabic-language periodicals of the day. Al-Manfaluti, in turn, "translates" a story (Chateaubriand's Les aventures du dernier Abencerage) from a language he does not know (based on plot summaries rendered by his friends), and publishes his translation in 1915 without mentioning the original author or title, all common practices among literary translators of this period. Moreover, his work exemplifies the ways in which Arab authors sought to use fiction to educate their readers in moral, ethical, and civic matters. Finally, Qub'ayn's 1915 "translation" is closer to a curatorial project than a translation: He publishes in Arabic a collection of hadith originally selected and published by Leo Tolstoy in a Russian translation, thus bringing the texts back to their source language.

The variety presented by these works does not reside only in the nature of the translation process involved in the production of each Arabic text, but in the resultant type of knowledge and discourse that each translation seeks to create. Where Baydas's translation reclaims and repopulates a Palestinian landscape with contemporary Palestinian citizens (both within the text and in the text's life as a textbook used to educate Palestinian citizens in Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society schools), al-Manfaluti and Qub'ayn strive to reclaim different parts of Arab history and heritage, reaching back to the recognized golden ages of Andalusia and the life of Prophet Muhammad, respectively. Because these translations are based on works created by avid lovers of European culture, it is difficult to classify them as voices of resistance. At the same time, the bold ways in which the translators impose and insert themselves into their source texts illustrate the fact that the translation of Orientalist texts during this period does not simply constitute passive acceptance of European knowledge, but involves the active creation of a body of knowledge that incorporates the modern Arab subject into the discourse of European modernity. All three translators further trade on the cultural capital of their European co-authors, proving to themselves and to their audiences that Arabic can participate in the discourse of modernity--that modern knowledge can be created and transmitted via Arabic to an Arab audience.

Describing Palestine to Palestinians

The first text to consider represents exactly the type of literature that Said labeled Orientalist: an ethnographic geography of biblical Palestine composed in the libraries of Moscow. In 1896, Nikolai Aleksandr Eleonskii, an archpriest and professor of theology at Moscow University, published a geographical work entitled Ocherki iz Bibleiskoi Geographii. Drawing on existing geographical surveys of the area, he sought to offer a complete description of the Holy Land in one book (ultimately two volumes), describing the physical setting and the lives of the peoples who lived there in biblical times, and providing background to the student of the Bible who would like to better understand the part of the world in which the key events of Christianity took place. Although over the course of his career Eleonskii devoted most of his efforts to exegetical writing, this geographical work remains the most widely known in his oeuvre, having been reprinted several times. When it was first published in St. Petersburg, Khalil Baydas was still a student in the Russian seminary at Nazareth, where he first encountered Elenoskii's work. Shortly after he graduated in 1898, Baydas published the first volume of his Arabic translation of the work, entitled Kitab al-rawda al-mu 'nisa fi wasf al-ard al-muqaddasa [The Book of Pleasant Gardens in Describing the Holy Land]. The fact that this translation appeared so soon after the original speaks to the close connections between the Orthodox Christian community in Palestine and the Russian Orthodox Church at that point in time. Baydas acknowledges the key role played by the primary Russian missionary organization operating in the region, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, in supporting him to make the translation possible, opening his translator's preface with the following words:
   [phrase omitted]

   [When Palestine's sons needed an in-depth geography
   of their country and the existing Arab geographies did
   not meet their needs or satisfy their longing, the Imperial
   Orthodox Palestine Society decided to fill that gap
   and satisfy that longing, suggesting to this humble individual
   that he translate a book with a lengthy description
   of Palestine's localities, rivers, lakes, mountains,
   plains, etc.; together with detailed historical information
   about them.] (3)

The question remains, however: What geographical information could be contained in the work of a Russian clergyman who had not spent a significant amount of time in the region? Baydas does not translate the book because the Palestinians were lacking knowledge of their land, but because they lacked a book that contained all of this knowledge in one place; the form and format of the knowledge were the issue, not the information itself. As a translator, Baydas was able to draw on the modern scientific knowledge produced by Europe to create in Arabic a corresponding repository of scientific knowledge that would be recognizable to a modern reader.

Baydas had a strong interest in education, even at this early age, and most likely envisioned his translation being useful as a textbook for students in schools throughout the region. A strong advocate of modern approaches to education and pedagogy, he produced a textbook suitable for such a setting. His translation eschews saj', traditional rhymed prose, and other literary devices except in its rhymed title, which followed the established conventions of the period. Regarding the language used in the translation, Baydas writes:
   [phrase omitted]

   [I began translating this valuable book, seeking in
   my translation a straightforward idiom, easily understood
   without strain, and paid close attention to
   the Russian original without introducing the slightest
   change or alteration to its expressions, remaining
   true to the rules of translation.]

It would seem, from this comment, that Baydas was much more concerned with moving content into a new linguistic situation than with creating something new within the target culture. It is this very concern with content, however, that marks the most distinctive break from the translation practices of his time. In all of his other translations from Russian, Baydas states explicitly that he adapted the text as he translated, a process commonly referred to as al-tarjama bi-tasarruf, (4) This translation practice allowed Baydas and many of his contemporaries freedom to adapt as they translated, creating texts that fit both their perceived audience and their own political and social goals. To turn away from this practice in this translation hints at the different nature of the project. Rather than translating a foreign text about a foreign culture, in which unfamiliar morals and situations could upset the reader (both at home and in the censor's office), here Baydas is working with a text full of the most familiar content--a physical description of the land on which his intended audience has lived for millennia. Baydas understood that this description could somehow "fill a gap" in the knowledge base of the Palestinian people. As pointed out earlier, the knowledge of the land was not what was lacking; it was the format in which that knowledge was available that was inadequate. For Baydas, the would-be modern educator and intellectual, the relevant information, the existing experiential knowledge of generations of Palestinian farmers and laborers, needed to be translated and published in a book so that it could be recognized, consumed, and transmitted in a modern society.

The universal, scientific tone of the book also made this knowledge available to a very different public that could not have been reached by the locally limited experiential knowledge. A work like this served to expand the "imagined community" of Palestine, giving individuals up and down the country detailed information (and a comprehensive vision) of the length and breadth of their national boundaries. In each different region described in the book, from the coasts to the mountains, from the plains to the desert, Eleonskii describes the habits and behavioral patterns of the Palestinians. In the Arabic translation, the countryside is populated by Palestinians, planting and harvesting, adapting to the various climates present in the region, and living their lives. What reads in the Russian original as a very basic ethnographic description of a distant land is suddenly imbued with life and vitality when the Palestinians (Filistiniyyun) who populate the pages of the book--engaging in these routine, everyday activities--are held up like images in a mirror. For its new Arabic-speaking audience, the original book (by a Russian clergyman writing about an exotic people in a distant land) becomes something entirely different--a European scientist interested in the comings and goings of our people, the physical geography of our land. Eleonskii's description validates the presence of the Palestinian people and their activities. His interest in their affairs gives them new meaning, creating the possibility of equivalence--the possibility of interaction and participation.

Thus, by translating a European text that describes the physical features of the land and the habits of its inhabitants without differentiating between the two, Baydas creates a new type of self-knowledge for his Arab audience. The pseudoscientific nature of Eleonskii's description maps Palestine in a new way--in a format that can be transmitted through modern institutions of education, bureaucracy, and government. Baydas and his audience are able to recognize themselves in the faceless Palestinian people populating the pages of Eleonskii's original work; they supply the details that were unavailable to him as he wrote in the libraries of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Baydas's translation further created an Arabic geography of Palestine able to stand next to the European texts that had previously monopolized that (shelf) space.

Al-Manfaluti Remembers al-Andalus

The second text under examination also opens a door to the Orientalist thematic, though from a very different direction. One of the stories in Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti's 1915 publication al-'Abarat, entitled "al-Dhikra" (Memory), provides a fictional counterpoint to Baydas's translation of Eleonskii's geographical essays. Where Baydas draws directly on the scientific tone of the Orientalist thematic, al-Manfaluti takes a piece of fiction imbued with the tropes, stereotypes, and assumptions of Orientalist discourse, and reappropriates pieces of this discourse while creating an entry point into the Orientalist thematic for his Arab audience. The mirror that Baydas held up to the Palestinian people in his translation becomes more complex for al-Manfaluti, who, instead of producing a textbook for use in a modern school, produces a piece of fiction with strong didactic overtones that would itself teach his readers and bring them to understand their own memories, both individual and collective, in a new, modern way.

Best known for his collections of essays and sentimental short stories, Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti was among the pioneers of prose fiction in Egypt during the nahda. His collections al-Nazarat (Opinions, 1910) and al-'Abarat (Tears, 1915) struck a balance between modernization and conservativism, appealing to a broad audience of readers (Brugman 85). Al-Manfaluti was one of the most important Egyptian authors of the period, writing melodramatic stories with strong moral and didactic tendencies. At the same time, his unorthodox translation practices have caused literary critics and historians no small amount of discomfort. He translated dozens of stories from French and English into Arabic while openly admitting that he did not know either language. He would ask friends who knew French and/or English to produce basic outlines of the stories he wanted to translate, and would then work from their outline to write a story of his own. Summarizing the various treatments of al-Manfaluti's work, Matti Moosa writes: "Some positively classify him merely as a translator, others make him merely a hack adapter of Western fiction. Still others regard him as a sensitive translator with a special gift of translating a work so that the new version becomes his very own creation" (111). Focusing on the texts rather than the categorization, it is abundantly clear that al-Manfaluti's translations are equal parts original composition and translation. The result is a unique type of dialogic authorship, involving various "informants" as well as the author and translator, with some of the intermediaries going unrecognized.

Al-Manfaluti was certainly not the first to engage in a translation practice that disrupts the assumed relationship between source and translated texts. The flexibility afforded by firmly maintaining one's own agency as a creator gives the translator extra leverage in controlling how he or she introduces the new worldview (thematic) to the target audience and culture. Writing about similar translation practices in Meiji Japan, Thomas Beebee and Ikuho Amano connect such practices with particular periods in a given literary tradition in which "translation and the importation of foreign material has become crucial to the creation, extension or maintenance of cultural repertoire" (20). The extra freedom afforded by an expanded vision of what they could do in adapting a source text gave translators the ability to create texts that could cater for their own readership, goals, and cultural climate more easily than a traditionally "faithful" translation. Because al-Manfaluti and so many members of his generation were wary of and ambivalent towards Chatterjee's "Orientalist thematic," they worked especially carefully with the Western texts that they selected for translation. As Moosa notes, al-Manfaluti was "greatly influenced by Western ideas, which he both admired and warned against" (111), corresponding to Tageldin's discussion of the relationship between translation and seduction in the colonial context. In what follows, I will focus on the alterations that al-Manfaluti made to Chateaubriand's story to explore the ways in which his practice opened up a space for creating the kind of modern discourse that would allow his readers to enter into a meaningful dialogue with the modern West without abandoning their own heritage.

Chateaubriand's narrative was originally published in 1826, and recounts the experiences of a young Arab named Aben-Hamet, the last member of the royal line who ruled in Andalusia. Twenty-four years after the fall of Granada, Aben-Hamet returns to Granada to visit the land of his forefathers for the first time. While there, he falls in love with a Spanish noblewoman, Blanca. Their love seems doomed to sadness from the beginning, because of their different religious backgrounds. After an extended but difficult romance, Aben-Hamet returns to Tunis, where he dies broken-hearted, leaving Blanca to mourn in Granada. The final scene describes his lonely tombstone outside the city of Tunis. Al-Manfaluti's translation retains the basic structure of Chateaubriand's story, but not without significant changes to the characters, plot, and message of the story. In al-Manfaluti's version, Aben-Hamet becomes Sa'id ibn Yusuf ibn Abi 'Abdallah. Where Aben-Hamet returns to the deserts of Africa of his own free will and lives out his days before dying alone, Sa'id is brought before the Spanish Inquisition and condemned to death for seducing a Christian woman. Al-Manfaluti condenses the story considerably, eliminating a competing suitor and the resultant drama. In sum, these alterations do not prevent the original story from being recognizable in al-Manfaluti's version, but they manipulate very carefully the more blatantly Orientalist stereotypes present in Chateaubriand's work to empower the Arab protagonist and deliver a strong didactic message to the audience--a message that is not present in the original. A closer reading of important scenes illustrates how al-Manfaluti's alterations work together to create his desired effect.

We first meet our protagonist as he embarks on a journey to visit Granada, the city that his family once ruled, for the first time. In Chateaubriand's story, Aben-Hamet is completely unfamiliar with the history of his forefathers. When he catches his first glimpse of the Alhambra palace in the distance, he turns to his guide and asks what the building is. The man explains that it is the palace of the Moorish kings. Aben-Hamet weeps, and the narrator comments:
   Qu'il est cruel d'avoir recours a des etrangers pour apprendre a
   connaitre les monuments de ses peres et de se faire raconter par
   des indifferents l'histoire de sa famille et de ses amis! (23)

   [How cruel it was to be forced to rely on strangers to learn to
   recognize the monuments of buildings of his ancestors and to be
   told the history of his family and friends by one indifferent to
   their stories!]

Aben-Hamet's connection with his Iberian history is so distant that it is forgotten, becoming the sole possession of the European. It is only through the European's willingness to share the information he has that the heir to the throne becomes acquainted with his lost kingdom. In Chateaubriand's telling, the noble, melancholy Arab experiences the trauma of defeat again upon viewing his ancestors' homeland and is reduced to tears. His reaction mimics that of his ancestor, who, when abdicating his throne in Granada, also wept at the sight of his homeland. Chateaubriand makes clear his opinion of the Arabs through the voice of Aben-Hamet's mother, who rebukes him by saying:
   Pleure maintenant comme une femme un royaume que tu n'as pas su
   defendre comme un homme! (2-3)

   [Now cry like a woman over the kingdom you could not defend like a

Chateaubriand's Oriental subject is everywhere emasculated, defeated by the inexorable forward march of time that has left him and his way of life behind.

When al-Manfaluti's protagonist, Sa'id, comes over the hill and sees the Alhambra, he knows what he is looking at. Al-Manfaluti describes how Sa'id acted:
   [phrase omitted]

   [He stood before this great, awe-inspiring sight humbly
   and reverently, clasping his hands together and
   placing them over his heart, as if he were standing
   before the mihrab (5) in prayer.]

At that moment, Sa'id
   [phrase omitted]

   [called out in a loud voice that echoed through the
   forests and vales, 'This is the inheritance of my fathers
   and grandfathers. All that remains of it for me is
   to stand nearby like a weeping mourner looking out
   over forgotten ruins and effaced monuments."]

The history of Granada is immediate for al-Manfaluti's protagonist--indeed, he has brought this heritage with him as part of his own memories, coming as a pilgrim to the site of his forefathers' kingdom. He arrives at the overlook prepared to give a speech in which he boldly asserts his birthright to the glory of what he sees. The title of the story, "Memory," clearly signals the power behind this moment--because Sa'id has kept the memory of his family and their heritage alive, he is able to have a very different experience from Chateaubriand's Aben-Hamet when first setting eyes on the city of his fathers.

Al-Manfaluti steps in at this point in the narrative to guide his readers. As Sa'id moves from palace to palace and from room to room, he is clearly familiar with the space and recalls scenes from his family's history in each room.

Al-Manfaluti, ever aware of his readers, provides extensive historical notes on each building and room in lengthy footnotes appended to the story. The displacement of the historical background to footnotes replicates the move into Chatterjee's "thematic" of Western (and, by extension, Orientalist) knowledge production. Al-Manfaluti's reader is spared the need to turn to European sources for information about the history of Granada, but the footnotes simultaneously demonstrate that al-Manfaluti assumes his readers are more like Aben-Hamet than Sa'id, and hence need a guide to take them through the ruins of Andalusia. In effect, al-Manfaluti assumes the role of Chateaubriand's guide, who possesses, and is able to provide, knowledge of the past. Much like Baydas's translation of Eleonskii's geographical description of Palestine, al-Manfaluti dispenses knowledge that he feels may not have been previously available to his audience, despite the fact that it is their own heritage that they are seeking to recover through these European sources. While this move may have softened the blow that Aben-Hamet experienced in his exchange with the guide in Granada, al-Manfaluti has in fact done little to change the nature of the experience; in both cases the Arab recipient relies upon foreign repositories of knowledge to regain an understanding of his or her own heritage.

The final resting place of the two ill-fated protagonists, Sa'id and Aben-Hamet, also reflects these dynamics. Chateaubriand buries his dead hero in a corner of a small cemetery outside Tunis, by the gate that leads to the ruins of Carthage (177). Sa'id, on the other hand, finds his final resting place in the cemetery of the Bani al-Ahmar family, just outside Granada (al-Manfaluti 84). Where Chateaubriand's Arab protagonist is ultimately denied entry to Europe, al-Manfaluti makes his hero a martyr at the hands of the Spanish, planting his memory firmly in the European soil that serves as both past and future. Al-Manfaluti not only makes the historical information available to his audience through translation, but also creates new knowledge by pairing it with the past through the remarkable examples of his progenitors, projecting it into the future by embedding it in the memory of his Arab readers.

Tolstoy as Muhaddith, or a Modern Isnad for Traveling Hadith

In 1915, Salim Qub'ayn published an Arabic "translation" of Leo Tolstoy's writings about Islam and its founder, Prophet Muhammad. More accurately, Qub'ayn printed the original Arabic versions of a collection of prophetic sayings, or hadith, that Tolstoy had chosen from an English collection of hadith compiled by the Indian intellectual Abdullah al-Suhrawardy (1870-1935) and published in India in 1905. Qub'ayn's project presents another instance of an Arab translator manipulating an Orientalist text as he mediates it to present a radically different message to a new audience. The decision to "translate" or "recover" a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad from English via Russian into Arabic casts interesting light on the power of translation to shape and claim discourses of tradition and modernity from a variety of foreign and domestic sources. Qub'ayn succeeds in reaching out in two directions, forging a hybrid authority that simultaneously draws on both the authority of the Islamic religious tradition as well as the most prominent of his European intellectual contemporaries. In analyzing Qub'ayn's attempt to claim both of these disparate authorities, I will trace the differing lines of transmission, or isnad, (6) that he crafts; one reaching backward into Islamic tradition, the other reaching forward into intellectual currents of European modernity. Holding these two lines clearly in view as he translated, Qub'ayn displays the unique power of (re)translation to resituate a text in a new intellectual and philosophical milieu. He is able to recast the traditional documents of Islamic thought within a message that is irrefutably modern in its universalizing ambitions and tone.

Qub'ayn was born in Nazareth, where he attended the primary schools run by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. While a student there, he learned Russian and came to love Russian literature and culture. He was active in the local resistance to Ottoman rule, and consequently was forced to flee to Cairo in 1897. It was there that he found success as an editor, author, and translator. Qub'ayn published several different journals over the course of his career, the best known being al-Ikha' (Brotherhood, 1924-1933), a literary periodical that published a number of important translations and original pieces of fiction and poetry.

In his introduction to the translation, Qub'ayn remarks on the circumstances of the writing thus:
   [phrase omitted]

   [The Philosopher (meaning Tolstoy) saw the attacks of the
   missionary societies in Kazan--located in Russia--against the
   religion of Islam in which they attributed to the founder of the
   Islamic religion concepts that directly oppose the truth. They
   painted this religion and the deeds of its founder falsely, and
   Tolstoy was moved by his zeal for the truth to compose a short
   essay and include in it several sayings of the Prophet Muhammad,
   peace be upon him. After a clear, praisefilled introduction, he
   said that these are the teachings of the founder of Islamic Sharia,
   and that they contain great wisdom and inspired sermons that will
   lead a person on the right path, and are not inferior to the
   teachings of Christian religions in any way.]

Naturally, Qub'ayn did not retranslate the hadith, but recovered the original Arabic versions and printed them in his collection. Thus, he created a source text for a translation, even though he published it as a translation of Tolstoy's original work. In this section, I will examine the three versions of this text that we have, and consider the choices that each curator/translator made in putting the collections together.

Tolstoy worked from Abdullah al-Suhrawardy's 1905 collection of prophetic sayings, entitled The Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which was apparently a favorite book of his later in life. Al-Suhrawardy's collection contained 451 sayings of Muhammad. The book was well received, and in 1941 al-Suhrawardy's brother Hassan published a revised second edition. Hassan wrote an introduction giving some information about the book's reception and success, noting in particular the connection to Tolstoy:

An interesting testimony to its success was the correspondence initiated after its publication between my late brother and Leo Tolstoy, which continued till the Count's death. He had come to appraise the real personality of the Prophet through this volume, and I am told by a nephew of mine on the authority of one of his [Tolstoy's] daughters whom he had met in Russia that a copy of this book was found in the large overcoat in which he had wrapped himself before setting out on that last walk of his to die in the fields he used to till. (al-Suhrawardy, The Sayings [1941], 14-15)

The universal appeal of the sayings chosen by al-Suhrawardy resonated with Tolstoy's own unorthodox spirituality. What began as a Pan-Islamist impulse in al-Suhrawardy's initial selection of hadiths was easily assimilated into Tolstoy's universal spirituality. In turn, it was easy for Salim Qub'ayn, as an Orthodox Christian living in exile in Cairo, to recognize the power of a collection such as this to contribute to building an Arab identity able to reach beyond sectarian divisions to unite Arabs of different religious backgrounds within a single community.

Al-Suhrawardy's book is itself a translation of the original hadiths, with the selected sayings taken from a variety of sources. He chose the sayings to be included in the collection very carefully, emphasizing those aspects of Islam he deemed most universally applicable and palatable, in tune with his own Pan-Islamist political leanings. As his brother Hassan explains,

In February 1905, when his Sayings of Muhammad was first published, Abdullah was a young man burning with zeal for Pan-Islamism and dedicating his extraordinary energy and talent to a vision he had of uniting into one cultural and economic, if not political, whole lands which were under Muslim rule, or had a large Muslim population. (The Sayings [1941], 14)

This sentiment is clear at the end of al-Suhrawardy's collection. The final saying he chose reads: "Verily God will send to this people, at the beginning of each age, him who shall renew its religion" (The Sayings [1941], 131). Al-Suhrawardy follows this saying with his only interjection in the entire collection: "A new century has begun. Where is the expected Restorer?" (The Sayings [1941], 131). Here, at the end of his work, we can see that al-Suhrawardy was working to create a modern political movement, and that his collection of hadiths was one step in this direction. Similarly, Qub'ayn was not concerned with producing a collection of hadiths that was worthy of publication in and of itself. His primary concern was to connect a collection of hadiths with Tolstoy's name and reputation. For Qub'ayn, the rational, universalist rhetoric of a modern intellectual like Tolstoy held particular power. Tolstoy's authority was a stepping stone out of the realm of sectarian strife and into a modern utopia that could transcend doctrinal differences without completely jettisoning the core spiritual principles that underlie these different religious traditions.

In the introduction to the 1910 edition of Tolstoy's collection, we read:
   [phrase omitted]. (3)

   [The sayings printed in this Russian translation were chosen by L.
   N. Tolstoy, as those that contain the most universal truths for all
   religious teachings.]

Tolstoy's selections reflect his commitment to a universal view of faith and morality. The hadiths that Tolstoy chose fall into a small number of categories, primarily emphasizing the following principles of belief and worship. The first is the value of the spiritual over the material. Many of the sayings included in Tolstoy's collection focus on moderation, at least in relation to material things, and some even praise the value of asceticism. The second principle concerns the proper relationships between individuals. Many of the hadiths that Tolstoy chose to include focus on proper behavior toward other people, with a special emphasis on treating all people with respect and fairness/justice. Several of them repeat this "golden rule" in one form or another; for instance, a number of them emphasize the importance of caring for those less fortunate than one's self as a sign of true worship and faith. Third is the nature of the relationship between God and man. The sayings in this group focus on the most acceptable forms of worship, with special emphasis being placed on the most practical types of worship--service to others and righteous living. The final group focus on questions of morality and adultery, along with the proper relationship between husbands and wives.

Taken as a whole, the sayings that Tolstoy chose for inclusion in his collection reflect his own idiosyncratic approach to interfaith relations and ecumenicalism. In making his selections, he was not concerned with representing Islam as a religion so much as he was interested in displaying those aspects of Islamic religious practices and beliefs that fell in line with his own philosophy. Indeed, the Russian document he produced (together with Nikolaev) is, first, a declaration of the tenets of Tolstoyism and, second, an introduction to Islam. Tolstoy's wish to distance himself from the unique truth-claims of Islam is evident from the very beginning of the introduction. He writes:
   [phrase omitted]. (4)

   [Muhammad himself believed so strongly in this (the false nature of
   the religions practiced in Arabia in his time) that the thought
   came to him that he was God's messenger, and that he was entrusted
   by God with the task of destroying the incorrect religions and
   preaching the truth. He began preaching this new faith that had
   taken shape in his head.]

Tolstoy's attitude toward Muhammad is neither that of a skeptic nor a true believer--he allows Muhammad to be inspired and inspirational without being a prophet of God in the traditional sense. Tolstoy, rather, writes in his own unmistakable voice, taking only those pieces of Muhammad's teachings that fall in line with his own belief system. The universalizing impulse in Tolstoy's thought appealed to a wide variety of world intellectuals in the late nineteenth century. His unique way of combining the universalizing impulse of modernity with many of the more traditional elements of Christianity provided a particularly potent tool for Arab intellectuals (particularly Christians) as they struggled to reconcile their own traditions with the emerging ideologies of modernity.

The omission of the isnad, or chain of transmission, is the primary change apparent in al-Suhrawardy's text. As a qualified scholar and sincere believer in Islam, al-Suhrawardy was undoubtedly very aware of the importance of isnad, but nevertheless chose to omit the chain of transmission from his collection. This omission makes the text read less like a specialized religious book and more like a collection of philosophical fragments, less tied to one particular religious tradition. It is precisely this orientation which made the collection so accessible to a reader like Tolstoy, interested as he was in the universally spiritual, that which could transcend the dogma of any specific organized religion. The neglect of isnad, however, caused consternation among some of al-Suhrawardy's readers, including his own brother, who edited the second edition of the collection. Hassan al-Suhrawardy writes, "Out of the 451 'Sayings' in the original publication, we have re-translated 150 and deleted 35 of which we failed to find the original Arabic" (The Sayings [1941], 15). Hassan's respect for the standards of hadith scholarship required him to make this change. Tolstoy and Qub'ayn, in their respective works, were much less concerned with the traditional standards of scholarly practice, and more earnestly engaged in their own processes of knowledge production.

The significance of Qub'ayn's decision to reproduce the collection of hadiths in Arabic without the isnad for each saying cannot be underestimated; it is jarring to read a collection of hadiths without the chain of transmission. This therefore cannot be an oversight, or a minor decision. Qub'ayn substitutes the traditional isnad with a modem one--in place of the muhaddithun (transmitters) who were responsible for gathering, judging, and disseminating the classical collection of hadith literature, Qub'ayn relates to his readers the truncated, modem isnad of two names: Tolstoy and al-Suhrawardy. Throughout his introduction, he lavishes praise on Tolstoy, building him up as one of the most trusted and trustworthy scholars of modem times. He is particularly interested in Tolstoy's approval of the teachings contained in the Islamic tradition. For him, the sayings contained in the collection draw their authority from having been chosen by Tolstoy, irrespective of their relative merit as judged by traditional authorities. The foreign isnad created by Qub'ayn is another example of Chatterjee's colonized, in this case Arab authors, buying into the thematic of Orientalism. Even though the content itself is Arab in origin, and is a fundamental part of the Islamic tradition within the Arab world, Qub'ayn is content with citing the authority of Tolstoy, banking on his cultural capital and notoriety to make such a scattershot collection of hadith interesting to an Arabic-reading audience.

In what ways, though, does this idiosyncratic selection of hadith produce new knowledge for Qub'ayn's readership? He does not render the sayings into his own Arabic, but gives the original Arabic version of each saying included in Tolstoy's collection. In a move worthy of Pierre Menard himself, Qub'ayn reproduces the exact words of the original text, while simultaneously transforming them into something new by virtue of the textual and cultural frame in which he embeds the sayings. Qub'ayn's (re)translation of this collection of hadith responds to the same impulse that motivates Baydas's and al-Manfaluti's decisions to translate European texts about Arab lands and history. On the one hand, one can find in this tendency a narcissistic impulse to see oneself in the mirror of European modernity. These translators are less concerned with the content of the writing and more excited by the fact that European scholars are interested in their culture, heritage, and life. In the case of Qub'ayn's retranslation of prophetic hadith, however, this act of translation is first and foremost an attempt to ascribe modern legitimacy to a fundamental piece of tradition by showing where it fits into the thought and worldview of a recognized European philosopher. Much like Baydas's translation of Eleonskii's geography, Qub'ayn's reinscription of traditional Islamic beliefs into the mouth and pen of Lev Tolstoy breathes new life and possibilities into that tradition. It proves to his audience that the modern world (which he and so many of his contemporaries are so anxious to enter) values central pieces of Arab/Islamic tradition and belief. These traditions thereby gain new legitimacy by virtue of having been approved by Tolstoy. On the other hand, engaging in these varied acts of mediation allows the Arab translators to assume the role of co-authors alongside recognized authorities from western culture, trading on the cultural capital accumulated by these foreign authors.


Historians of the Arabic nahda have long highlighted the importance of translation in the emergence of modem Arabic literature, focusing on the linguistic and stylistic innovations it introduced. In this article, I presented evidence that in many cases the particular stylistic novelties that accompanied translation were often secondary to the larger thematic structures translators were able to introduce. Arabic translations of European Orientalist texts provided two arenas for introducing these structures. On the one hand, they brought the structures and methods of European post-Enlightenment scientific discourse into Arabic. These translations, from the works of Muhammad 'Ali's early translation missions in Paris to Baydas's translation of Eleonskii discussed above, created an idiom in Arabic that could convey and engage with the knowledge produced and disseminated in the modem world. Baydas worked carefully to bring not just the content of Eleonskii's geography into Arabic, but also the language, structure, and style. Al-Manfaluti did the same with his translation of Chateaubriand's narrative, introducing the conventions of modem European Romanticism into Arabic. At the same time, both Baydas and al-Manfaluti fashioned themselves as partners of the authors of the works they translated, collaborating with them in the creation of modem Arab subjects and settings that were missing in the target culture. In Baydas's case, this was achieved by creating a new readership without introducing changes to the content of the source text. Al-Manfaluti, on the other hand, introduced new thematic structures by making considerable changes to Chateaubriand's narrative. In Qub'ayn's retranslation of the hadiths selected by Tolstoy, the new thematic structures were created by using the authority of Tolstoy and his philosophical system to reorient the discussion of religion in Arab society. Like Baydas and al-Manfaluti, Qub'ayn positioned himself as Tolstoy's equal and co-creator, though his project was more concerned with importing an epistemological and ethical system which can provide a framework for establishing morality and spirituality outside confessional and sectarian identities in a diverse society like Egypt. This desire would have been amplified by Qub'ayn's identity as a progressive Orthodox Christian exiled to Cairo.

In terms of the Orientalist nature of the texts selected for translation, this study suggests that what seems at first to be a self-Orientalizing attraction toward certain texts--even an adoption and internalization of Orientalism--is in fact a more complex phenomenon. The translators examined here saw areas of their experience expressed in novel types of modern discourse: a relationship with history in the case of al-Manfaluti, a relationship with land in the case of Baydas, and a secular philosophy that transcends and incorporates sectarian identity in the case of Qub'ayn. As they worked to introduce these discourses into an Arabic-speaking milieu, they simultaneously introduced Arab subjects into the texts that they translated, populating the European source texts with an active Arab presence that does not feature in them. This interweaving of European Orientalist discourse and emergent Arab literary voices captures some of what makes the nahdawi moment a unique one in the history of the Arabic literary tradition--the potential for collaboration, exchange, and reciprocity seemed unlimited. The process of translating European texts into Arabic may then be conceptualized as one of collaboration between European authors and Arab translators rather than one of unequivocal resistance. At the same time, these and other nahdawi translations provided the modern Arab subject with a new body of knowledge and a sense of self-awareness, making the Arab a visible participant in the modern world.


(1) See, for example, the proceedings of a recent conference hosted by the CETRA summer school on the topic of agency and translation studies printed in Khalifa.

(2) The exceptions to this rule are so important as to make the rule seem like a misstatement. Consider, for example, the sprawling genius of Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq's work, al-Saq 'ala-l-Saq. While Shidyaq borrows heavily from established literary conventions of his time, he pushes them so far that they become something entirely different. What I am proposing here is not that such creative feats should be ignored or smoothed over in (re)writing the history of Arabic literature during this period, but rather that the vast majority of the Arabic literary texts that were produced and consumed during this period owed some part of their genesis to translation. Part of this dynamic is certainly commercial; translated texts could trade on the cultural capital and cachet of their source languages and cultures. An equally important part of the process is cultural--it was more palatable to imagine Europeans engaging in activities that were unacceptable in Arab culture at the time than Arabs.

(3) Unless otherwise noted, all translations into English are my own.

(4) For discussions of this practice in Baydas's career, see Scoville.

(5) A niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction of prayer.

(6) The list of authorities transmitting a report of a statement or action of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith). Familiarity with the individuals involved in the transmission of a particular hadith allowed an individual to judge its soundness by judging the relative merit of the transmitters to whom the report could be attributed.

Works Cited

Baydas, Khalil, trans. Kitab al-rawda al-mu'nisa fi wasf al-ard al-muqaddasa [The Book of Pleasant Gardens in Describing the Holy Land], Baabda: al-Matba'a al-'Uthmaniyya, 1898.

Beebee, Thomas and Ikuho Amano. "Pseudotranslation in the Fiction of Akutagawa Ryunosuke." Translation Studies 3.1 (2010): 17-32.

Brugman, J. An Introduction to the History of Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt. Leiden: Brill, 1984.

Chateaubriand, Francois-Rene de. Les aventures du dernier Abencerage [The Adventures of the Last of the Abencerage]. London: Treuttel et

Wiirtz, 1826.

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Eleonskii, Nikolai Aleksandrovich. Ocherki iz Bibleiskoi Geografii [Notes on Biblical Geography]. St. Petersburg: Kirshbaum, 1896-1897.

Khalifa,' Abd al-Wahab, ed. Translators Have Their Say?: Translation and the Power of Agency. Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2014.

Al-Manfaluti, Mustafa Lutfi. Al--Abarat. Cairo: Matba'at al-Ma'arif, 1915.

Moosa, Matti. The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1997.

Qub'ayn, Salim, trans. Hikam al-nabi Muhammad li-l-faylasuf Tulstui washay' 'an al-islam [Wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad by the Philosopher Tolstoy, and Notes on Islam]. Cairo: Al-Taqaddum, 1915.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. NY: Random House, 1994.

Scoville, Spencer. "The Agency of the Translator: Khalil Baydas' Literary Translations." Diss. University of Michigan, 2012.

--. "Reconsidering Nahdawi Translation: Bringing Pushkin to Palestine." The Translator 21.2 (2015): 223-36.

Al-Suhrawardy, Abdullah al-Mamun. The Sayings of Muhammad. London: Archibald Constable and Co., 1905.

--. The Sayings of Muhammad. London: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1941.

Tageldin, Shaden M. Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt. Berkeley: U of California P, 2011.

Tolstoy, Lev Nikolaevich. Izrecheniia Magometa ne Voshedshchiia v Koran [Sayings of Muhammad not Included in the Qur'an]. Moscow: Posrednik, 1910.

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article.]
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Author:Scoville, Spencer
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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