ANCIENT ISLAMIC TEXTS FOR THE MASSES
by Jamie L. Huish
Factors that contributed to the Islamic Translation Series add up to far more than just chance in the mind of Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic studies at BYU. Since the earliest conception in 1993, Peterson has felt the hand of providence in his work. “I look at a whole number of things that happened and it’s like a consolidation of really improbable things that allowed this to happen,” said Peterson, who is the former director of the Institute for the Preservation of Ancient Religious texts, which houses the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI), the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), and the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Texts (CPART).
Each section works to achieve positive international recognition for BYU. “All of them are working with international agencies and groups and with individuals situated internationally, so they’re all building bridges in that sense,” he explained.
METI is now home of the Islamic Translation Series, a dual-language translation series that allows English speakers to have access to classical Islamic texts for the first time. How the series came to be involved a sequence of events far too coincidental to have been strictly luck in Peterson’s view.
A Series is Born
As a graduate student in Near Eastern languages at the University of California—Los Angeles (1982-1985)), Peterson first began noticing a gap in Islamic studies, finding that Arabic contributions and traditions were often lost or ignored. He felt the Islamic writers were inaccessible to non-Arabic speakers, largely due to a lack of availability. “If you wanted to read the great writers of Islam, most of them hadn’t been translated. Either you didn’t read them at all, or you spent years mastering a classical language to read them,” said Peterson.
In 1992, after becoming a professor at BYU, Peterson received a telephone call from Elder Alexander Morrison, then a member of the Quorum of the Seventy. Morrison wanted to talk about ways BYU could send a message of respect to the Islamic world from a scholarly perspective. After debating several ideas, they decided to publish a series of works from the Islamic tradition that previously had only been available in Arabic. The series would publish Islamic writers with the English translation on one page and the Arabic text next to it.
“The series was a good idea, because it was needed, and because it didn’t involve any downside risk,” Peterson said. “It was not us talking about them. It was simply having us help them speak.”
Shortly thereafter, a succession of events occurred that Peterson viewed as nothing less than extraordinary. About two weeks after speaking with Elder Morrison, Peterson attended a conference in New York City hosted by Parviz Morewedge, an Iranian affiliated with Binghamton University, Rutgers University, and Cornell University. Morewedge mentioned his unrealized dream of starting a bilingual translation series. Feeling the time could not have been more impeccable, Peterson immediately approached Morewedge and presented the idea of the series that was still in the beginning stages of formation. It led to a collaboration that still continues, what Peterson calls an “amazing miracle.”
Morewedge, who became the series’ editor-in-chief, used his extensive networking and publishing connections to aid the foundation of the translation. Through him, the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University also got involved, which provided a way for more scholars and philosophers to contribute.
Peterson’s next obstacle was finding Arabic word processing software to print the translations opposite the English rendition. To his delight, Peterson found that at that time, the prime Arabic word processing software was being manufactured in Utah Valley by his home teacher [a member of his church congregation]! “The odds of that seem to me microscopic,” Peterson declared.
After spending time in Egypt, the home teacher, Nels Draper, had returned to create El-Kaatib (Arabic for the scribe). “Someone must have really wanted this to happen,” said Peterson, with a smile.
After a lengthy process, the project was ready to select its first manuscript. Peterson chose the Incoherence of the Philosophers translated by Michael E. Marmura, former chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto. This was a famous book in Islamic literary and philosophical tradition and widely recognizable to Arabs. “We started off with a high-profile book, not by design; it was the one we happened to get our hands on first,” said Peterson. He felt the book had a broad spectrum appeal because it was acceptable to a wide-range of Muslims.
Not long after the book was published, BYU hosted Abdurrahman Wahid, an influential Indonesian Muslim. As the leader of 40–50 million Muslims, Wahid was being hailed as an Indonesian presidential possibility. The university presented Wahid with a copy of the first translation at a luncheon in his honor. “I understand he reacted very emotionally,” Peterson said. Wahid cited the book as being pivotal to his decisions, when, as a graduate student, he had struggled with his faith and beliefs. He became president of Indonesia in 1999 and continued a positive relationship with BYU and the Church during his presidency.
Peterson began to see the far-reaching effects of the series and was overwhelmed at how quickly his dream was becoming reality. “Time after time we stand back in awe and say ‘this is truly amazing,’” he said and recalled an especially warm welcome at the University of Indonesia, where his hosts seated him on a throne and showered him with praise about the impact the series has had in their university. “They were glowing in their estimation of how important the series is,” Peterson added.
Doors began to open all over the world because of the translation work. Peterson felt this directly corresponded to timing and crucial elements that were beyond his control. “One of the other miraculous things was that the translation series seemed like such an obvious thing to do, yet we were the first ones to do it,” said Peterson.
As the series developed, it became important to Peterson to provide an overall picture of the whole civilization of the day. While Muslims led society, Christians and Jews participated and contributed as well. “We do not exist in sealed compartments, ever,” explained Peterson. “We’ve always been borrowing from each other.” Peterson found his chance to expand the series in an unusual place.
The University of Cologne in Germany was considering producing translations of the medical works of Moses Maimonides. “He was the greatest rabbi, the greatest legal authority, and the greatest Jewish philosopher in the Middle Ages, and he made his living as a physician,” explained Peterson. Maimonides’ medical treatises presented a glimpse into the medieval medical practices in the Middle East, based on Greek models. The University of Cologne offered the project to Peterson, who felt the opportunity was too tremendous and timely to pass up. He jumped at the chance, and the series eagerly went to work on a new branch of the Islamic Translation Series.
Peterson then remembered another group whose voices are often not heard: Arab Christians. The Christian and Islamic worlds have had interaction for centuries; even Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian philosopher and Catholic saint, was heavily influenced by Islamic thinking. “There’s a vast void because people who study Arabic do it to get at Islam, and people who study Christianity don’t study Arabic, so there’s this large number of Christians in the middle who’ve been writing in Arabic for twelve or thirteen hundred years, and they’re writing is essentially ignored,” said Peterson.
Given that Christianity originated in the Middle East, Peterson felt it was significant to include these lost voices. The Reformation of Morals was added to the series in 2002.
Under ISPART, Peterson served as the chair of the Center for Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CSPART). The center digitized manuscripts and electronically preserved and recovered text from ancient documents that had been damaged. “Its pretty amazing technology that allows you to see things that the eye can’t see,” he said.
Peterson remained proud of the relationships built by the series for both BYU and the Church in the Middle East. By sending a positive message of respect, Peterson hoped the long-term effects would include friendship and appreciation on both sides. In June 2000 and April 2002, those affirmative foreign relations paid off in the depths of Vatican vaults.
Mar Bawai Soro, a Syrian bishop from Iraq, was conducting research with BYU involving Syrian manuscripts kept inside the vaults. To obtain approval to work with them, Soro had to first go through Cardinal Edward Cassidy, head of the Pontifical Counsel for the Promotion of Christian Unity. At the time, Cassidy was the third-highest ranking person in the Vatican.
Cassidy had traveled to Australia in 1995 to organize a visit for Pope John Paul II. During an event for the religious leaders of the area, he came into contact with V. Dallas Merrell, a member of the Area Presidency. Merrell established a solid rapport with Cassidy that led to a friendship between the two leaders, with continuing contact and some unofficial visits between Salt Lake City and Rome.
When Soro presented the project before Cardinal Cassidy, the cardinal immediately asked who the partnering force was behind his research. He related that it was the Latter-day Saints, Cassidy made an immediate association with Merrell and stated that he liked the Latter-day Saints. He granted permission to review the necessary documents, and Soro pursued his research because of this constructive relationship. The lesson, said Peterson, is to “never give up on doing good things and building relationships, because you never know how that’s going to pay off for yourself, or someone else.” Neither Peterson, nor Soro had any idea how their work in the Vatican would ultimately pay off down the road.
About five years ago, Peterson traveled to New Zealand to speak on Mormonism in a graduate seminar on religions at Massey University in New Zealand. After his speech, Peterson met with Professor Brian Collis, who shared that he specialized in Eastern Christianity. Furthermore, Collis said the work was frustrating because he was searching for a dual-language publishing format and had not been able to find anyone who did that.
Peterson exclaimed, “This is a great day, because I’m launching a series that does exactly that!” He related the progress of the Islamic Translation Series and spoke of his desire to expand the Eastern Christianity portion. The coincidences continued on both sides as Collis then relayed that his work had been slowed because he needed manuscripts from the Vatican. As it turned out, those manuscripts happened to be the ones already digitized as a result of Soro’s work with ISPART in Rome. Collis received a digital copy to further his studies and began collaboration with the Islamic Translation Series.
Later while reflecting on the incident, Peterson and Collis both felt the timing was too perfect to have been pure chance. “I see things like that as something much more than coincidence,” said Peterson.
The Broader Scope
Peterson originally perceived this series as being geared toward Westerners but soon realized another audience was extremely receptive. He referred to them as the “Islamic Diaspora,” meaning the second- and third-generation Arabs, who lived outside their native countries and have limited Arabic or Persian language skills. While their abilities may have been narrow, the series has whet their appetites for knowledge about their heritage. Increasingly, these people have contacted Peterson with support for the series that allows them to connect with their ancestry.
Positive feedback soon hailed from these non-academics as well. Peterson recalled an experience that occurred shortly after publishing the Incoherence of the Philosophers. “I received a note from a fellow in Jakarta, and he had purchased the book in a bookstore there. He said, ‘I’m not a scholar. I don’t read Arabic. I’m a Muslim, and I’m a social worker. I’ve always wanted to read this book. My English is pretty good; my Arabic is nonexistent. Now I can read this book.’”
Peterson became accustomed to a somewhat surprised reaction from the Islamic Diaspora that Latter-day Saints chose to publish these books. While the title created some recognition in the Middle East as a group, the general stereotype was that Latter-day Saints were exclusivists. Peterson refuted this idea by stating there was an inclusivist side to Latter-day Saints as well. He cited a statement from the First Presidency in 1978 in which church leaders conveyed that some truth existed in all religious traditions:
The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.1
Peterson feels that reciprocated tolerance of traditions will lead to healthy respect. “If you understand civilizations are mutually interdependent and interconnected, it’s hard to demonize the other guy,” he said.
And he hoped that at some future point, when a decision crosses the desk of a Middle-Eastern diplomat concerning Latter-day Saints, the Islamic Translation Series and the positive relationships it fostered would be remembered. “It never hurts to have friends in those places; I know we have friends in foreign ministries and in cabinets, and you never know how this is going to help,” explained Peterson.
Another of his aims was to build up BYU’s credibility in the Middle East, so that professors would have more access to research opportunities there. “In the Middle East, if they like you, the red tape disappears. If they don’t like you, you could be there for twenty years,” expressed Peterson.
Managing editor of the series, Morgan Davis, feels that Islamic people appreciate the outreach. “The fact that we’re doing this is impressive to them because it’s been lacking in Western texts,” Davis said.
Islamic Translation Series
1) Al-Ghazali. The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Translated by Michael E. Marmura. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1997. [xxvii + 260 pp. (English); iii + 230 pp. (Arabic)]
1a) Al-Ghazali. The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Revised second edition. Translated by Michael E. Marmura. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2000. [xxvii + 258 pp. (English); iii + 227 pp. (Arabic)]
2) Al-Ghazali. The Niche of Lights. Translated by David Buchman. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1998. [xxxv + 80 pp. (English); 53 pp. (Arabic)]
3) Suhrawardi. The Philosophy of Illumination. Translated by John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1999. [xliii + 218 pp. (English); 163 pp. (Arabic)]
4) Averroës [Ibn Rushd]. Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory. Translated by Charles E. Butterworth. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2001. [xlii + 63 pp. (English); 42 pp. (Arabic)]
5) Averroës [Ibn Rushd]. Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. Translated by Alfred L. Ivry. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2002. [xxxi + 281 pp. (English); 137 pp. (Arabic)]
6) Mulla Sadra. The Elixir of the Gnostics. Translated by William C. Chittick. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2003. [xxxlii + 145 pp. (English); 87 pp. (Arabic)]
7) Avicenna [Ibn Sina]. The Metaphysics of The Healing. Translated by Michael E. Marmura. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2005. [xxvii + 441 pp. (English); 378 pp. (Arabic)]
Medical Works of Moses Maimonides
1) Maimonides. On Asthma. Translated by Gerrit Bos. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2002. [l  + 165 pp. (English); 111 pp. (Arabic/Hebrew)]
2) Maimonides. Medical Aphorisms: Treatises 1-5. Translated by Gerrit Bos. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2004. [xxxii + 156 pp. (English); 76 pp. (Arabic/Hebrew)]
Eastern Christian Texts
1) Yahya ibn ‘Adi. The Reformation of Morals. Translated by Sidney H. Griffith. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2002. [xlvi + 133 pp.]
The series is modeled after the Loeb Classical Library published by Harvard, where any book from the ancient Greek or Roman world is available in a dual-language edition. Peterson’s goal is to publish a similarly wide selection among Islamic authors. “We will eventually create a library that is very, very large,” said Peterson, “It’s going to go way beyond my career.”
During a visit by Elder Jeffery R. Holland, he asked Peterson how many books he had planned to publish—giving a range of five–fifteen. Peterson’s response was, no, hundreds. He saw a complete library with all the major texts available from the Islamic tradition. “I’m convinced it would be something to establish BYU’s name in Islamic studies for centuries,” avowed Peterson.
To all those involved, Peterson made it clear that he is looking toward a long-term commitment that will make an impact. “One book will develop friends, but fifty books will make a statement that no one can overlook,” he declared.
And he noted that the series created a positive repertoire that the academic community is excited about. “What amazes me time and time again is people saying ‘you’re getting us in the door where we couldn’t get in, and now we can,’” Peterson said.
There are now ten books in the series, with a goal to add two or three a year. “We need to do more because there’s so much out there,” Peterson lamented. Once a manuscript is accepted, it is thoroughly reviewed by both Peterson and Davis. The manuscript must be a classical Arabic text relevant to the series.
“We’re not interested in anything modern,” said Davis. Next the manuscript is sent to peer review, and then the editing process begins. Because the format is dual-language, editors are needed on both sides, making the process lengthy to ensure accuracy. Davis oversees each step in the process and is concurrently working on six volumes.
The project is receiving funding from BYU as well as the Library of Congress and, most recently, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS). The Library of Congress has a program to promotes texts that are difficult to translate, which fits this series perfectly, according to Davis. KFAS is sponsoring individual volumes of the series. “We are hopeful that will be a long, productive relationship,” Davis said.
In Peterson’s view, this work tells scholars in the Middle East and the Islamic world that there are Americans who respect their culture. “The message we’re trying to send is: we know you have a great civilization and made great contributions, and we know people in the West don’t appreciate it enough, so we want to make it known,” said Peterson. This has greatly increased both BYU’s and the Church’s visibility in the Eastern world.
Peterson wants to deemphasize incorrect stereotypes of the Middle East consisting solely of terrorists and camels. “It’s hard to imagine modern civilizations without them. Try doing long division with only Roman numerals!” challenged Peterson.
Davis enjoys the diversity within the series. “It shows the high variety and depth of Islamic scholars,” he said. “There was a huge spectrum of thinking within the field.” He feels that Islamic culture is often skipped over in formal, world history education. The Islamic contributions that were made to society are now finding a chance to be heard. “Over there, school children know these authors, and the people get really excited about how their writers are being made available,” said Davis.
The series that began as a scholarly outreach program to increase accessibility to unavailable Islamic texts has far exceeded expectations, and Peterson has no plans of slowing down. Through serendipitous, divine coincidences, the series continues to build bridges and open doors to previously unavailable avenues of scholarly exploration and fosters strong ties for future endeavors.
1. Britsch, R. Lanier. “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Jan. 1988, p. 46.