Thinking in Translation: Community vs. Ummah

In some cases, when I happen upon a Facebook friend’s share of one of my posts, I wish I hadn’t found it. In other cases, I end up wishing that people still commented on actual posts rather than limited their criticisms to comments on their friends’ shares of links. For the record, I do read all the comments and am a fan of feedback.

The latter happened recently, when Simon Frankel Pratt responded to this particular sentence in my criticism of Reza Aslan:

Aslan seems so dedicated to fighting anti-Muslim bigotry that he underplays the effects of Muslim bigotry and presents the Muslim community as a whole as far more progressive than it actually is.

He took issue with my use of the word “community”, and he is right to do so. However, there is an issue that I only realized was at play when I considered why I had said “community” in the first place: I was thinking in translation.

The delicate balance I had to strike was foremost in my mind as I wrote the post. On the one hand, Muslims are, due to Othering, falsely perceived to be monolithic, and I do my best to combat that notion. On the other, there are certain patterns on beliefs and views that can be discerned among Muslims globally, ones that they themselves are proud to declare to be the views of all (true) Muslims.

These general trends are misrepresented by Reza Aslan and other apologists just as much as by Sam Harris and other wannabe arbiters of what makes Muslims serious or unserious about their faith.  I wanted to address the former as I had the latter. For the most part, I believe I used the right language, but for that stray “community”, which Simon addressed with the following:

I know, from seeing this and other pieces of writing by you, that you recognise how multiplicitous Islam is — how essentially every categorical claim about Muslims of any substance is likely to have important counter-examples. But, as unfortunate as it may be, making any categorical claims without qualifications plays into the hands of those who do think that Islam is a single coherent thing. I understood you to be talking about dominant trends that feature in the majority of Muslim communities, but this is one of those issues where I am particularly sensitive to any linguistic imprecision, simply because of all the people waiting to pounce.

Though I agreed with his assessment as soon as I read it, I privately wondered why, when I tend to be so careful to avoid monolith-promoting language, I used a word like “community.” The realization hit me about ten minutes after I’d stopped actively pondering the matter: I had been thinking “Ummah” but had said “community” instead. In my years of Islamic upbringing and education, “Ummah” had always been translated as “community”, with the extended definition being “global community of Muslims.”

Ummah is a highly important concept within the diasporic Muslim community in which I was raised. There is some bickering over whether or not Shia or other non-Sunni Muslims counted as truly part of the Ummah, but for a besieged minority group, the idea of being part of a global community knit together by faith is one we embraced rather than resisted or nitpicked overmuch.

Simon continued:

‘Ummah’ implies something I like better here, which is not just the ‘objectively existing’ community of people who claim to be Muslim, but the constructed community of Muslims who recognise one-another as such and feel as though they share some common religious destiny. When Muslims talk about the state of the Ummah, I see this as having theological content, in a sense; this is a critique from within.

Of course, my critique doesn’t quite come from within. As the Goleta imam my parents dragged me to see back in 2006 said, I had “left the house” by publicly renouncing Islam and leaving my practice of it. Furthermore, I primarily write for a never-Muslim audience rather than a Muslim one; if I had linked to a definition of “Ummah”, a majority of my readers would have likely landed at “community” as the one-word translation. The best solution would have been for me to have done what I did in the rest of the post. Though they are far from perfect, “Muslims as a whole”, “enough Muslims”, and “many (if not most) Muslims” represent better phrasings of what I was trying to convey with “the Muslim community.”

I couldn’t have recognized my mistake without an informed outsider’s eye, so I very much appreciate it being brought to my attention. Although I’m very clearly not practicing any part of Islam anymore, old habits die hard, and I’d rather root them out than be unclear or promote the simplistic thinking that I’m trying to complicate with my writing.

Thinking in Translation: Community vs. Ummah

6 thoughts on “Thinking in Translation: Community vs. Ummah

  1. 1

    So if you extend Ummah beyond Muslims do we get Hummahn? 😉 Yeah bilinguality and lingering exreligiosity can be nasty, I still think of “The Church” as both the RCC and the “Ummah” of all Christians.

    1. 1.1

      I’m not technically bilingual; English is the only language in which I am fluent. Due to upbringing, I think of certain concepts in other languages. It’s really weird to have fragmented thoughts in different languages that way without the benefits of actually knowing those languages.

  2. 2

    As a non-native speaker I find the English “community” a difficult word. It’s probably because the general concept is so heavily culture specific that each and every translation must have its weaknesses. When English native speakers talk about their “community” I need to think very hard on which concept that would be in German, if it would fit at all or is in this “English only” category that I have: words and concepts that have no direct translation because they come with so much baggage and connotations that they need a lengthy explenation.

  3. 3

    It’s interesting to me that renouncing Islam and its practice is tantamount to leaving the Ummah / Muslim community. It is not that way for Jews. Non-religious Jews, while not approved of in many quarters, are generally still considered Jews; most participate in at least the family aspects of religious holidays, and if they criticize, defend, or comment on Jewish concerns, their ideas will usually at least get a hearing. If Muslims in diaspora become more securely established and the number of apostates increases, do you think your “community” might eventually come to that sort of internal accomodation?

  4. 4

    Pratt’s criticism may be a bit off target, if he focused on:

    Aslan … presents the Muslim community as a whole as far more progressive than it actually is.

    I neither know nor care enough to go look about Aslan’s opinions, but if he describes “the Muslim community as a whole” as a monolith, picking on Dadabhoy for responding to the “progressive” misrepresentation, rather than the “community” misrepresentation, at least partially misses the point.

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