Saturday, May 13, 2006

History Lesson: "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda"

Ahmadinejad Writes to Bush
(Borrowed from Website of Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Copyright: May 9, 2006)

I don't know much about the New York Sun, but somebody on the editorial staff knows a bit of history, for a recent editorial, "Iran Declares War" (May 11, 2006), reveals:
President Ahmadinejad's letter [html, pdf] to President Bush, widely interpreted as a peaceful overture, is in fact a declaration of war. The key sentence in the letter is the closing salutation. In an eight-page text of the letter being circulated by the Council on Foreign Relations, it is left untranslated and rendered as "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda." What this means is "Peace only unto those who follow the true path."

It is a phrase with historical significance in Islam, for, according to Islamic tradition, in year six of the Hejira -- the late 620s -- the prophet Mohammad sent letters to the Byzantine emperor and the Sassanid emperor telling them to convert to the true faith of Islam or be conquered. The letters included the same phrase that President Ahmadinejad used to conclude his letter to Mr. Bush. For Mohammad, the letters were a prelude to a Muslim offensive, a war launched for the purpose of imposing Islamic rule over infidels.
I'm familiar with this Muslim tradition but can't find it at the moment. I have found one of the hadith on which the tradition is based. The Muslim Students Association of the University of Southern California has helpfully provided an English translation of Sahih Bukhari, Book 60: "Prophetic Commentary on the Qur'an" (Tafseer of the Prophet):

Volume 6, Book 60, Number 75: Narrated Ibn Abbas:

"In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. This letter is) from Muhammad, Apostle of Allah, to Heraclius, the sovereign of Byzantine........ Peace be upon him who follows the Right Path. Now then, I call you to embrace Islam. Embrace Islam and you will be saved (from Allah's Punishment); embrace Islam, and Allah will give you a double reward, but if you reject this, you will be responsible for the sins of all the people of your kingdom (Allah's Statement):--"O the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)! Come to a word common to you and us that we worship None but Allah....bear witness that we are Muslims.' (3.64)"

Let me make a couple of points about this hadith. First, it is considered by Western scholars to be an invented tradition, though Muslims accept it as historical. Second, it is ambiguous as to whether the threat for rejecting Islam is a military attack by Muhammad or punishment in hell by Allah.

However, in keeping with other Islamic traditions, interpreting the threat as one of military attack makes sense. The Muslim Students Association of the University of Southern California has again helpfully provided an English translation of a foundational Islamic collection of hadith, this time from Sahih Muslim, Book 19, "The Book of Jihad and Expedition (Kitab Al-Jihad wa'l-Siyar)," in which we find Hadith 4294:

It has been reported from Sulaiman b. Buraid through his father that when the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him to fear Allah and to be good to the Muslims who were with him. He would say: Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war.... When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them.... If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them.

Given this tradition, then the putative letter to Heraclius and Ahmadinejad's actual letter to Bush take on ominous overtones:

Will you not accept this invitation? That is, a genuine return to the teachings of prophets, to monotheism and justice, to preserve human dignity and obedience to the Almighty and His prophets?

A "genuine return" to these things would mean a return to Islam. One might object that Bush never was a Muslim and thus can't be expected to 'return' to Islam. From an Islamic perspective, however, this call makes sense. Muslims believe that Christians have corrupted the true revelation brought by Jesus, who was a Muslim. The call most likely refers to this. Also possible is an allusion is to the Muslim belief that everyone is born Muslim but that most are corrupted away from it by the false religious systems in which they are raised.

At any rate, Amadinejad is not merely suggesting that Bush become a better Christian, for a return to the teaching of the prophets would include the greatest of them, Muhammad.

Obviously, Bush is not about to convert to Islam, and the New York Sun's editor has provided an astute reading of Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda: "Peace only unto those who follow the true path."

Only to those...

UPDATE: Better translation: "Peace be to the one who follows the right/true path." Thanks to an "Anonymous" reader who noted this and to Nathan Bauman for help in correcting the translation. The lack of "only" lessens the implicit threat, in my opinion.

24 Comments:

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Gawain said...

Obviously, you say, G Bush is not going to convert to Islam, and perhaps given who George is, that is obvious. But I did wonder for a while: what if the west underwent a token conversion to islam? would that solve the problem? (lets pretend for a moment that nations could do what people do all the time, convert for practical reasons).

my feeling is it would not, because the west would then be suspected of not being true to this conversion -- like the new christians in Spain back in the days of the Inquisition. this seems to hold in every religion: no matter how holy you are, there is someone out there who will find you insufficiently committed to your faith.

br

 
At 4:34 PM, Blogger Wonderdog said...

Jeffery, you're entering fatwa territory. Please be more careful next time.

 
At 8:56 PM, Anonymous James said...

Interesting. I read the letter and it had a very syrupy and ominous kind of let's-be-reasonable-or-I'll-kill you tone. Your post explains why. Of course, after it's been bullet-pointed and translated into a three-slide powerpoint presentation for Bush all that will be lost I suspect.

 
At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

It's little sentences like that last one that really require the attention of thoughtful people. I'm glad you posted on it, and I've linked to it.

 
At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

Oops, Jeffery, I forgot to specify I was talking about your post.

 
At 8:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gawain, in Islam, merely reciting the proper expression, "There is no God but God, etc.," if done in the presence of two witnesses, is sufficient to render one a Muslim regardless of whether one was sincere. If one is suspected of rejecting Islam, then one can be killed for apostasy.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 8:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wonderdog, I'm hoping that there will be so many who comment on these things that I'll be overlooked.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 8:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, I think that Bush will probably be told what this letter means. But he nevertheless will -- I think -- avoid stating that Ahmadinejad was simply following what the hadith show Muhammad doing.

To say that openly would only serve to raise unpleasant issues about our relations to Islam generally, which we don't want to do because Islam is (of course) a religion of peace.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 8:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, you mean "Only to those..."?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 9:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffery wrote:

"In Islam, merely reciting the proper expression, "There is no God but God, etc.," if done in the presence of two witnesses, is sufficient to render one a Muslim regardless of whether one was sincere. If one is suspected of rejecting Islam, then one can be killed for apostasy."


I guess that makes you a Muslim, Jeffery! Watch out!

 
At 10:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, that's why I stopped short of finishing the entire recitation.

(Actually, if I recall, the recitation is only valid in Arabic.)

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

I guess I forgot to specify two things. Yes, the "only to those" sentence, which was the concluding sentence of the letter from the Iranian President, was what I appreciated your post picking up on. ;-)

 
At 8:49 PM, Blogger mal said...

how many times over the last 50 years have we missed the cues that subsequently led to armed conflict? This is worrisome.

 
At 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffrey wrote:

"Anonymous, that's why I stopped short of finishing the entire recitation."

Wait. You mean to say that if you recite these words you become a Muslim? Surely only if there is no God but Allah?

Geoffrey, do you think there is no God but Allah? Or are you just terribly superstitious?

At any rate, you should certainly find out about the Arabic. That way you wouldn't have to stop short all the time.

That way too, you wouldn't have to feel quite so self-conscious when writing about incompetent teachers.

 
At 8:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, you're that Anonymous.

The Troll.

I was hoping that you'd never come back, and if I'd realized that it was you, I wouldn't have bothered to reply.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your quote "Peace be upon him who follows the Right Path" has been misquoted all over the blogs as "Peace ONLY unto those who follow the true path." (my caps)

The added only makes a huge difference. Thank you for being accurate.

 
At 2:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I'm just as guilty as the others, it seems. I have both translations for "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda" and hadn't even noticed the difference (which perhaps makes me more at fault):

"Peace be upon him who follows the Right Path"

"Peace only unto those who follow the true path."

I don't know Arabic and can only use Hebrew as a model, which makes this Arabic expression look like:

"And peace to whoever follows the path."

This is rather different from what appeared in the newspaper. I wonder what the exact translation should be. Perhaps Nathan could decipher this more correctly since he studied Near Eastern Languages.

Anyway, Anonymous, thanks for calling my attention to this.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

Well, Jeffery, it's been a long time since I studied Semitic languages, and I only had a year with Arabic.

It seems to me, though, that the correct translation would be "Peace be to the one who follows the right/true path."

Although the phrase (with a general singular pronoun) is often found in English without the word "only," it is functionally speaking, implied to some extent. Wisdom literature in ancient Near East, as you know, differentiates between the "wise man," and the "fool." The "fool" (who is often a dangerous, evil person, rather than a merely stupid one) follows the delights of his eyes and the machinations of his wicked heart, while the wise man follows the true path of (divine) knowledge.

What's most thought-provoking here is the usage of the phrase in question. When does it get used? In a military context? I have a funny feeling it gets used in didactic contexts most often. However, the historical uses of the phrase that you mentioned definitely should be considered as background for this letter.

I would say that "only" is almost certainly an overemphasis, but it's not out of the ballpark completely.

 
At 8:41 AM, Blogger bandicoot said...

Interesting that in two pieces you blogged about Islam inaccurate translation is a real issue. The other topic I refer to here is the Wafa Sultan debate, where it seems the retranslation you used from her Al Jazeera interview (the one done by MEMRI) suffered from severe inaccuracies. It was the subject of a heated debate on the Aqoul blog; check them out on this page. I also referred them to your page, hope you don't mind.

 
At 1:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Bandicoot, thanks for the shout-out (both directions). I probably don't have much to offer the experts at Aqoul ... unless they enjoy reading a madly meandering blog.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 7:59 PM, Blogger bandicoot said...

Gypsyscholar,

I'd like to bring to your attention an interesting post on women activists like Wafa Sultan, again from the pages of the 'Aqoul blog. It is the third part of a series of articles("Anger as Analysis"). I think it's very well-argued and informative. You may want to check the previous two parts on the same blog (assuming you like this one).

 
At 3:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Bandicoot, do you have the specific cyberaddress? I went to the old link, but I didn't see anything new there.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 11:04 PM, Blogger suf said...

Peace is one who follows the right path / true.

Iranians speak Urdu and Parsi and use religious language.

They do not speak Arabic.

 
At 5:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Suf translated:

"Peace is one who follows the right path / true."

This translation doesn't quite make sense in English. Try this instead:

"Peace to one who follows the right path / true path."

Suf then added, somewhat obliquely:

"Iranians speak Urdu and Parsi and use religious language. They do not speak Arabic."

Yes, I'm aware that most Iranians speak Farsi (Parsi), and that they don't speak Arabic (except for the Arab minority in the southeast). I didn't know that they speak Urdu -- are you sure of that? I don't find it on a list of languages spoken in Iran.

At any rate, the quote "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda" is in Arabic. Is that what you mean by "religious language"?

I'm not clear on what your point was.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 

Post a Comment

<< Home