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News on BYU's Islamic Translation Series
- "Making Sense of the Incoherence" by Giles H. Florence Jr.
-" BYU Leads Translation of Great Muslim Works into English" by Michael Smart
-"Daniel C. Peterson named BYU CPART director" by Hilary Ross
Making Sense of the Incoherence
Brigham Young Magazine, Spring 1998
By Giles H. Florence Jr. [Photo by John Snyder]
At times, the Islamic world seems worlds away, obscured by clouds of culture,
language, and religion. Even more distant is the Islamic world of nine centuries
ago, yet a BYU scholar has engineered a team to span the abyss and bring the
bright minds of ancient Islam--heretofore incoherent to the Western world--to
the forum of modern Western scholarship. The Incoherence of the Philosophers, an
11th-century text, has recently rolled off the presses as the first volume of
the Islamic Translation Series. The second follows close behind.
Most of us don't have much trouble with Arabic numerals. We use them every
day to count, tell time, or make purchases. Centuries ago they were adopted as
the numeric symbols for the English language. Yet for most of us, any knowledge
of the exotic Arabic script stops right at the point of recognizing it, the way
we can recognize, say, the symbols for Chinese without any idea what they mean.
Likewise our knowledge of Arab thought or literature is limited to perhaps the
1,001 tales told by beautiful Scheherezade to save her life in the Arabian
Nights or to linking Muhammed with the Qur'an. But beyond Ali Baba or Sinbad or
Muhammed, our knowledge of the stories and thought of the Islamic world remains
largely obscure. Few writings have been translated. Even fewer were translated
Western school children know the names of the Greek thinkers Socrates, Plato,
and Aristotle. They've learned to link the first with asking questions and
drinking hemlock, the second with an ideal form, and the third with a golden
mean. Some children even know the names of Confucius or Buddha. But what
connection does the average Westerner make with the names al-Ghazali, Averroes,
Even for those of us with a university education, these three eminent Arab
thinkers may only be a tabula rasa in the card files of our brains. To the
Islamic world, however, these thinkers were among the greatest to ever wrestle
with an idea or to question the pur-pose of our existence. When Daniel C.
Peterson encountered these names as a graduate student, first at American
University in Cairo, in 1978, then at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, he
was impressed enough that when he began his doctoral work at UCLA in 1982,
Islamic philosophy and philosophical theology became his focus.
"The problem is that too few translations of Arab or Persian thinkers have
been published in English," says Dr. Peterson, now an associate professor of
Asian and Near Eastern languages at BYU. Many of the classical thinkers and
writers in Arabic or Farsi (Persian) got translated into medieval Latin, but
they were hard texts and rarely made it as far as an English rendering. As a
result, much of Middle Eastern civilization has remained out of reach of most
educators and students in the West.
If Professor Peterson has his way, this void is about to be filled. For
nearly 10 years he has been piecing together a scaffold on which to erect an
extensive publishing edifice. What he envisioned--a series of Islamic works
translated into English--is finally becoming a reality. Its official name is the
Islamic Translation Series: Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism--ITS for short.
The first volume of the series, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, rolled off
the press in October and has met with favorable reviews from scholars at even
the most critical levels and at the most respected universities.
"What an ambitious project," said Dr.Robert Coote, of the San Francisco
Theological Institute and author of numerous books on the Old Testament. "It is
a welcome addition to the literature and is an impressive feather in BYU's cap."
Harvard professor William Graham, in the Department of Near Eastern Studies,
an expert on the Qur'an and Muslim religious philosophy, commented: "I think
it's wonderful they're doing this. Al-Ghazali and the others to be included in
the series have not enjoyed good translations into English. This could be a very
influential work because it will allow so many more readers access to these
great classical thinkers, whom Western students only rarely encounter.
"It's a commendable project that is being produced by sound scholars with
major reputations. I look forward to seeing the entire series."
Unlike most projects produced at BYU, this series has no LDS subject, author,
nor translator, at least for the initial volumes. The model for Peterson's
vision of the series was the Loeb Classical Library, published at Harvard
University Press. With translations of all the major literary works of classical
civilizations, the Loeb works are printed with the original language and the
English translation side-by-side on facing pages, enabling scholars and students
access to texts that would be otherwise out of reach. The BYU Islamic
Translation Series uses this same format and will be priced well within the
range students can afford.
"We're pleased to have Parviz Morewedge, of Binghamton University (of the
State University of New York) as editor in chief of the series," Peterson
explains. "As a scholar and philosopher, Professor Morewedge has not only
published extensively, but he is equally well acquainted. He knows all the right
people. His networking capabilities are ideal for introducing the series to the
academic communities both in the West and the Middle East." As the originator of
the project, Peterson serves as the managing editor. His role, in partnership
with Morewedge, has been to add to his scaffolding the physical architecture by
bringing together two forces--the scholars, editors, and publisher on the one
hand and the financial supporters on the other. BYU, the Institute of Global
Cultural Studies at Binghamton University, and other scholars and philosophers
have formed the academic mortar for cementing in place the fiscal bricks and
timber provided generously by Salt Lake philanthropist James L. Sorenson, the
BYU capital campaign, and others.
The significance of this collection of Arabic and Persian works by Islamic
philosophers has been recognized by some of the most prestigious publishers in
academia. Edited and produced at BYU, the series will bear the imprimatur of the
Brigham Young University Press but will be distributed and marketed by the
University of Chicago Press and will appear in its catalog. "For this series to
be promoted and marketed by a publisher as respected as Chicago is a high
compliment," explains Peterson, "and being in their catalog alone will turn
A national promotion of the first volume began with a reception and gala
dinner at the Marriott in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 3, 1998, followed by a West
Coast event in Los Angeles, on Feb. 11 at the Beverly Wilshire. Specially
selected guests were invited to both locations, and limited-edition volumes were
presented to ambassadors and community leaders. In Los Angeles, members of a
Muslim group known for its good relations with the LDS Church attended.
"This kind of thing is the most important work an LDS scholar can do in this
field," says Arthur Henry King, a professor emeritus of English at BYU and a
renowned Shakespeare scholar. King and Hugh Nibley, two of BYU's most respected
thinkers and writers, have both spoken often of the importance of LDS scholars
establishing a universe of discourse or common vocabulary between BYU and the
greatest institutions of the world. Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the First
Quorum of the Seventy was an early supporter of the project. Elder Morrison
hopes that the series, and other projects like it, will help to better relations
between the Muslim world and the West. Not only will the series deepen Western
knowledge and understanding of the rich civilization of Islam, it will send a
message of respect from the Latter-day Saints to the worldwide Islamic
The translator of The Incoherence of the Philosophers is Michael E. Marmura,
who chaired the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University
of Toronto, where he taught for 36 years. The Incoherence ranks as one of
Islam's most important works by one of its most fascinating thinkers. Abu Hamid
Muhammad al-Ghazali was a brilliant scholar of the 11th and 12th centuries, a
prodigy who studied the law from youth, earnestly seeking to understand "what is
right." Al-Ghazali was so scrupulous a man that he sought certainty, felt he
needed to know the truth about life, but was disappointed in the answers offered
by the best scientists and philosophers he had read. He felt that anyone who
intended to criticize another's position should diligently seek to understand it
first--ideally, the critic would understand the position even better than the
proponent. Only then would the critic be in a position to criticize solidly and
Al-Ghazali's attack on the limits or weaknesses of the arguments of the best
Islamic philosophers resulted in this volume. By his title, The Incoherence of
the Philosophers, al-Ghazali refers to their collapse or destruction, because he
dismantles their arguments about God, creation, and existence, particularly in
their variance with Muslim teachings. He methodically poses 20 problems in their
teachings with which he takes issue. A few which might interest LDS readers are:
"refuting their doctrine of the world's pre-eternity"; "refuting their statement
on the post-eternity of the world"; "their inability to prove the existence of
the maker of the world"; or their inability to prove that God does not have a
"Al-Ghazali is a master of Arabic prose," writes his translator, Professor
Marmura. "His style, however, is very personal and highly idiomatic." He adds
that al-Ghazali's quarrel with the philosophers is not over their logic, their
mathematics, their science or thinking, but with "those of their theories that
contravene the principles of religion." Al-Ghazali writes to refute false
teachings, not to defend any particular theological doctrine. The affirming of
true doctrine was something he would do in a later work, The Principles of
Belief, which could become a part of the BYU Islamic Translation Series.
Thirteen more volumes of the Islamic Translation Series are in various stages
of completion around the world. The second to be published, a collection of
essays by Nasr al-Din Tusi, is nearing its publication date in the first quarter
It's too early to say what place this series may have among the published
works of the world's greatest thinkers. What Daniel Peterson hopes is that like
other voices from the dust that have come forth in modern times, these works can
attest to the truth that "the glory of God is intelligence" and that by sharing
genuine expressions of our search for truth, we may each come closer to an
understanding of all things and all people.
BYU Leads Translation of Great Muslim Works into English
Contact: Michael Smart, (801) 378-7320
PROVO, Utah (March 23, 1998) -- Brigham Young University is spearheading the
first systematic effort to translate the writings of great Islamic thinkers into
English, making works comparable to the Plato's "The Republic" and Aristotle's
"Metaphysics" widely accessible for the first time.
"We want more people to be able to take advantage of this reservoir of
knowledge and expose them to a cultural perspective that was previously
unavailable," says Daniel C. Peterson, associate professor of Arabic and
managing editor of the "Islamic Translation Series: Philosophy, Theology and
"Studies of philosophy omit Islamic contributions because their authors and
editors can't read Arabic. To understand Islamic writings you have to invest 10
to 15 years of serious study in the language, but you can go to any bookstore
and pick up a paperback copy of Plato."
Each book in the series contains the original Arabic or Persian (Farsi) with
the English translation on the facing page. Peterson patterned the series after
the Harvard University Press's Loeb Classical Library, a collection of
dual-language translations of the great Greek and Latin works.
"The series will share the tradition of the Loeb books: accurate, solid
translations that are widely available," he says. "We hope it will be found on
library shelves from Harvard to the Sorbonne to Oxford."
It will be well received, says William Graham, chair of Harvard's Department
of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He calls BYU's translation series
"a very welcome addition to resources for teaching Islamic civilization, and for
other disciplines that can use Islamic works as resources. There is a wide
market for it."
"It is a commendable thing when a university associated with one religious
tradition branches out into a translation effort involving another religious
tradition," Graham says.
Muslim scholars agree. "This is an incredible contribution from BYU to bring
out the Muslim heritage," says Shabbir Mansuri, director of the Council on
Islamic Education. His Fountain Valley, Calif.-based organization serves as a
resource on Muslim history and civilization for American educators. "Dr.
Peterson's work is something that benefits us all. This is our [Muslims']
contribution to the larger body of knowledge out there. It will be appreciated
by both a Muslim audience and a non-Muslim audience alike. "
The curious combination of a university sponsored by The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints and a major effort to translate Muslim writings
demonstrates BYU's commitment to seeking after all truth, Peterson says..
"This is a gesture of friendship from the university--and the Church--to the
Islamic community," he says. "We're saying, 'We respect your culture--there is a
lot we can learn, and have learned, from you.' It's a message that has been well
In February, the university held gatherings in Washington, D.C., and Los
Angeles where copies of the first volume, "The Incoherence of the Philosophers,"
were presented to ambassadors and consuls from predominantly Muslim countries
such as Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the LDS Church's
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles accompanied Peterson to Washington, and Elder
Jeffrey R. Holland, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, joined him in Los Angeles.
In both cities, the Muslim dignitaries expressed appreciation for the
translation effort, Peterson says, because "we're not filtering Muslim ideas
through a Christian glass. We're taking some of Islam's biggest names and
letting them speak for themselves."
"Incoherence of the Philosophers" is a criticism of Muslim philosophies by
Abu Hamid Muhammed al-Ghazali, who is known as the "second greatest Muslim after
Muhammed." While a famous law professor in the 11th and 12th centuries, he began
to doubt that he could know anything for certain. His work concludes that
relying on feelings and conscience is the only way to discern real truth.
The next editions of the series, a collection of essays by ancient
philosopher Nasr al-Din Tusi and another work by al- Ghazali, are due this
The books are translated by Arabic scholars from around the world, then
produced and printed at BYU. They bear the university's name on their spines and
are distributed through the University of Chicago Press.
Now that BYU has figured out the intricacies of printing Arabic--the language
uses cursive-like script and is read from right to left--Peterson sees the
series going on indefinitely and plans to widen its scope.
"Algebra is an Arabic word," he says, pointing out the heavy influence of
ancient Islamic mathematicians and scientists on today's disciplines. Expanding
the series to include their works "will broaden out the history of science and
In addition to its involvement in the translation series, BYU is home to the
American Association of Teachers of Arabic, something Peterson credits to a
strong Arabic faculty and BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Daniel C. Peterson named BYU CPART Director
Contact: Cecelia Fielding, (801) 378-4377
Writer: Hilary Ross, (801) 378-5856
PROVO, Utah (September 21, 1998) -- An associate professor of Islamic studies
and Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham
Young University has been appointed as director of the Center for the
Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART). Daniel C. Peterson replaces
Noel G. Reynolds, who was recently named an associate academic vice president of
BYU. Peterson has been a full-time faculty member at BYU since 1986. "I am
impressed with the work that CPART has accomplished so far," says Peterson. "I
hope that I can help continue that work.
CPART is a subsidiary of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon
Studies (FARMS), which became affiliated with BYU earlier this year. FARMS
created CPART in 1996 to better manage its projects in the area of electronic
texts. Since 1991, Peterson has been the managing editor of the Islamic
Translation Series published by Brigham Young University Press and distributed
by the University of Chicago Press. The recently published first volume in the
series has received rave reviews from scholars who study Middle Eastern
civilization and from Muslims throughout the world. Peterson will now administer
the project under the umbrella of CPART. "I am particularly pleased that the
Islamic Translation Series on which I have enjoyed working will now become one
of the Center's projects and receive support from the Center's fine staff,"
Peterson said. Another CPART project is creating digital images of Greek papyri
from the sixth-century site of Petra. Until now, suitable images could not be
produced because the papyri was burned by fire making some portions difficult to
read. CPART's experts read the papyri using sophisticated multispectral scanning
The center's primary purpose is to make ancient religious texts more readily
available to scholars for study. CPART focuses on preserving and improving
access to documents that are important for understanding the world's religious
heritage. Interpretation of these texts is left to other scholars.
Those efforts began in 1993 with a project jointly sponsored by FARMS and BYU
to create an electronic database of texts and images from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This database has been hailed by scholars working on translating the scrolls as
a major tool for improving their work.
FARMS was later asked to direct or participate in similar projects involving
other ancient texts. FARMS has assisted in the digital imaging and storing of
ancient Maya murals from the site of Bonampak and has been given custodianship
of ancient Syriac documents.