Thursday, January 04, 2007

Couple Questions

[posted by Callimachus]

Keith Ellison made history in the nation's capitol Thursday, becoming the first Muslim member of Congress and punctuating the occasion by using a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson during his ceremonial swearing-in.

To which I say, great! And take that, Saudi Arabia! Take that bin-Laden! Take that al-Jazeera (which as of right now is mute on the story, a sure sign that the incident will elevate the U.S. in the eyes of the Muslim world, if that world ever learns about it). I hope the world was watching. Ellison just may have done more good for the American image than any single other citizen in the past year.

But I do wonder about something. As a gesture and a PR coup, Ellison used the Quran from Thomas Jefferson's collection. According to the Washington Post, "Jefferson's copy is an English translation by George Sale published in the 1750s ...."

But when I studied Islam I was given to understand that the Arabic language is an essential part of the sanctity of the book, and the divine miracle of its composition prevents there being a translation. Muslims worldwide, no matter their native language, pray and recite in Arabic. Some, I am told, even reject the use of the word "translation" in reference to a Quran not in Arabic.

This academic site, among others, seems to support this conclusion:

Note that any translation of the Qur'an immediately ceases to be the literal word of Allah, and hence cannot be equated with the Qur'an in its original Arabic form.

So, was Ellison really sworn in on the holy book of Islam after all?

Here's another point I haven't seen addressed in the big media coverage. Much has been made of Virgil Goode, the Virginia representative who has volunteered to be the inevitable point man for bigotry in this story. The WaPo (and others) delight in the Jefferson connection the two men now share: "Goode, who represents Jefferson's birthplace of Albemarle County, had no comment yesterday."

But Ellison was an African-American long before he was a Muslim. And Jefferson, as is known to anyone who pays attention to modern historians, is stuck in the PC doghouse as a man who bought and sold African-Americans as slaves and who lived well of their labor. The two-volume Quran translation that passed through Jefferson's hands and into Ellison's was bought with the stolen labor of, perhaps, some of Ellison's ancestors.

Personally, I find all that sort of Monday morning moralizing dreary and distracting. But it's been popular with certain circles that, perhaps, are celebrating Ellison's inauguration into Congress today. Maybe -- just maybe -- the fact that they forgot to bring it up this time means they're willing to get over it.

In that case, there's perhaps more than meets the eye in this swearing-in ceremony.

Ellison's mother, Clida Ellison, said in an interview that she thought the controversy was good, "because many people in America are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about."

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