It's not the Pope, it's his translator

Pope Benedict XVI's September 12 speech at the University of Regensburg has generated some controversy, and provoked a largely negative response from Muslims around the world. However, the reaction has paled in comparison to that of the cartoon fiasco from several months ago. Why? Well, probably because the Pope is an intellectual, and though his speech did have some political overtones, as George Friedman elucidates, his remarks were very nuanced and not really suitable for media-ready sound-bytes. Honestly, how many of us thoroughly read and completely assimilated the entire content of the speech? There was nothing bluntly stated, as far as I can tell, and certainly nothing assailing Islam.

One colleague of mine, a fellow Arab-American Republican activist and a devout practicing Muslim, took umbrage with the speech, as he stated in the following email to a group of conservatives:
Let me start by saying that the stupid reaction of some Muslims to the ignorance of the Pope is unacceptable.

As for my thoughts about his comments...it is either ignorance on his part or a deliberate act to fuel a conflict between Islam and Christianity...I challenge him or anyone else to show me where in the Quran the words "holy war" are mentioned. IT DOES NOT EXIST.
First of all, he is right in the sense that the words "holy war" are written nowhere in the Koran. However, the word "jihad" is. Somehow, it has become an accepted fact that jihad translates to holy war. Suffice it to say: that is incorrect. I recall a great Star Ledger oped - a strident critique of terrorism - from last year by my friend Anisa Mehdi that addressed this topic.

Jihad is an Arabic word that roughly means "struggle" or "striving". Interestingly, it can also be given as a first name – someone named Jihad means "one who struggles" or "one who strives". There have been long books written about the various permutations of jihad and its historical overtones, but the word jihad is not uniquely Islamic. For example, during my last visit to Damascus, I recall a Syrian friend talking about the jihood (plural of jihad) of getting his factory up and running. In fact, plenty of Christian as well as Muslim Arabs have the first name Jihad.

But getting back to the Pope's speech, my friend was wrong to have characterized the Pope's remarks as ignorant. He cited the speech in English. However, the speech was given in German, and in the original speech, the Pope said, according the German section of the Vatican's website:
In der von Professor Khoury herausgegebenen siebten Gesprächsrunde (διάλεξις – Kontroverse) kommt der Kaiser auf das Thema des Djihād, des heiligen Krieges zu sprechen.
So he used the Arabic term. It was the English version on the Vatican's website (as well as the French and Italian versions), however, which improperly translated jihad as holy war.
In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war.
Notice the explication used by the translator for the greek citation. Why was this not done for the arabic word جهاد‎ (jihad)? So the bottom line is: Cheers to the Pope for taking the high road and engaging the Islamic world in a sophisticated manner. Jeers to his linguistic team for their low-brow translation.

NOTE: I made an error in this post, which I explain in the comments section.


Anonymous said...

Actually George, "des heiligen Krieges" is the exact German translation of "holy war", so I'm afraid your cheers for the pope's engaging the Islamic world in a "sophisticated manner" is misplaced.

It wasn't Benedict's use of the word Jihad (in any sense) that caused the outrage, but rather his quote on what Islam supposedly brought to the world, as I'm sure you're aware. His remark was not just ignorant, but indeed offensive and needlessly confrontational.

Terror-Free said...

New Pope Shows Spine
Islamonazi CAIR Is Not Impressed

http://www.terrorfreeoil.org/videos/MS091506.php - video

Please Call The Vatican Embassy In Washington, DC at (202) 333-7121 to Express Your Support!

George Ajjan said...

I stand corrected, and I share my colleague's disappointment in the Pope's translation of "Jihad" as "holy war" - nevertheless, I still believe the speech was a sophisticated one worthy of debate, and I hope that Pope Benedict will continue to engage the Islamic world.

PaulieWalnuts said...

Pope Benedict I think is too old and grumpy to engage anyone in much of anything.

Anonymous said...


When's the Pope going to start sounding like the Dali Lamai instead of some intellectual bureaucrat..

George Ajjan said...

Well, the papacy is a historically political institution, so we should not be surprised at the tactics that Benedict has been using to disseminate his message.

George Ajjan said...

Today's Christian Science Monitor ran a very interesting piece on the ongoing dialogue between Islamic leaders globally and the Papacy.

The article contrasted the amount of media coverage given to hateful statements by al-Qaeda, compared to peaceful declarations signed by 500 Muslim leaders, such as the one sent to the Pope recently - which you can read on the Christian Science Monitor link above.

The best quote in the article was from a British Islamic scholar named Tim Winter:

"The problem that the Muslim leadership has is that it's basically made up of medieval men that generally have the right views when it comes to terrorism or political violence, but they have no media skills. When asked a question, they look grave, invoke the name of God and then address it in a rather complicated and beautiful way the mass media can't cope with.... This statement seems to be much more on the ball."

AbuHatem said...

I read the entire speech by the Pope. Firstly, let me state that the Pope IS an intellectual and has been on the forefront of the fight against moral relativism which I praise as both a Muslim and a conservative.

Secondly, the Pope's contention was that religion must be based in reason. He quoted the heterodox creedal and theological school of Ibn Hazm of Andalusia as an example of an irrational creed and opposed this. No Muslim today still follows this creed which is dead letter. Tim Winter and the Islamic scholars also responded to the Pope last year in refuting his claim that Islamic creed opposes reason, or that violence is inherent in Islam. It is available here: http://www.islamicamagazine.com/Online-Analysis/Open-Letter-to-His-Holiness-Pope-Benedict-XVI.html

The Pope made a mistake, he is human, and the Muslim clergy corrected him. However, just as the Catholic Church is Nostra Aetate, the beautiful Vatican II document which sought an olive branch with Islam and Judaism called on Christians to "forget the past" with Muslims, so too does the new Muslim document "A Common Word" work at establishing a solid Muslim-Christian peaceful relationship and dialogue. The "Common Word" document was endorsed by over 100 of the top Muslim scholars, and has been taken up by Christians as well and is available here:



Ma' assalama,

Abu Hatem.