The Modern Arabic Bible: Translation, Dissemination and Literary Impact – an Interview with Rana Issa
Georges Khalil in conversation with Rana Issa
Rana Issa works at the balancing point between public humanities, activist engagements, and academic curiosity. She writes in a variety of genres and languages and has occupied leadership roles in various aspects of academic and cultural production. She is Artistic director of masahat.no as well as a fulltime writer and translator. She is currently writing a bilingual (norwegian, arabic) queer memoir on motherhood, with support from the Norwegian Union for Non-Fiction Writers and Translators, The Free Word Foundation, and AFAC. She is co-recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts award for her ongoing translation of 19th-century author, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s travelogue to Europe, Tickets to London and Paris by the Remarkable Ahmad Fares. Her book The Modern Arabic Bible: Translation, Dissemination and Literary Impact was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2023.
Georges Khalil: Your book The Modern Arabic Bible: Translation, Dissemination and Literary Impact has recently been published. How did you get interested in the Arabic Bible and what makes an ancient text modern?
Rana Issa: The Bible is an appropriate prism for the study of various issues that emerged in the Nahda that has been bothering me for some time. The Nahda literary enterprise in the nineteenth century anchored itself on paradoxical claims to modernity. On the one hand, the Nahda is an era that pushed for a rupture from tradition, and on the other hand, it had its founding myth rooted in the translation of the Bible. This myth persisted for more than a hundred years in historical studies of the period, and my work presents the only book-length historical account of what this project entailed and how it distinguished itself, or ruptured with earlier translations of the Bible to Arabic.
Questions of canonicity in literature, the transformation of Arabic as a language that persisted with unchanged morphology across many centuries, the issue of modern standard Arabic and its emergence, and the symbolic role the Bible began to play in political changes in the landscape, particularly in the emergence of modern nation-states in the Levant. I was interested in all those issues and was looking for a text that facilitated their study. I was also intrigued by Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1804-1887) as foundational scholars for Arab modernity. I was curious how work on Bible translations enabled these men to begin lasting authorial careers. I began by thinking of the project of translating the Bible as an early articulation of modern methods of knowledge acquisition for these young men.
Like you, I was curious to understand why the master narrative of the Nahda claimed an ancient text to be the cause of linguistic and literary modernization. So I asked, what ideological positions were being served by claiming the Bible to be a catalyst for Arab modernity in the Levant? To make sense of what was meant by modernity in relation to the Bible, I began to question what changed in the new translations of the Bible to Arabic in comparison to earlier Arabic Bibles? I gathered 26 translations of the Bible to Arabic in addition to many older Bible fragments from secondary sources, and I eventually studied at length a Bible from the seventeenth century known as Biblia Sacra Arabica to offer the reader a concrete description of the rupture with the past that the Nahda Bibles enacted. What I discovered was that the main change was the transformation of the Bible into a commodity. By this I mean that it became an object that acquired exchange value, and was exposed to competition between new rival translations, as well as with other Arabic books on the market. This new political economy of Bible translation was unlike how earlier Bibles were acquired by readers. Earlier, the Bible was a gift bestowed on satellite, local churches by more powerful patron churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. When a new patriarch or archbishop was appointed, Rome sent crates filled with gifts that included various books, including Bibles, as well as money, outfits, wine, and many other articles that were of utility to the clergy. The Bible was not meant to be acquired by individual households. It also was not usually apprehended by the laity as a continuous text, and if an individual really wished to acquire it, it could only be purchased at enormous sums from the patron church, which effectively kept it outside the realm of private readers. This all changed in the nineteenth century. Thanks to advances in print technology, the Bible became affordable enough for purchase by most people, and for about a decade, it was a bestseller in the Arab market of books, and was purchased by readers regardless of religious belonging. The new way of apprehending the Bible impacted the religious, political, literary and linguistic imagination of its community of readers. The various strands of this imagination was what made the Bible such a great prism for questioning some assumptions about modernity that constituted the master narrative of the Nahda.
GK: So translating, printing and disseminating the Bible made it accessible and readable for the laity, and the translations in larger scales of circulation not only canonized or formalized the Arabic Bible in a book-form but commodified it. In which ways did the translations of the Bible since the mid- nineteenth century differ?
RI: The Protestant idea of the Bible as a continuous text was perhaps the most obvious difference. The laity, if they owned a Bible at all, possessed either the Psalms or the Gospel of Matthew, since students who went to grammar school with the village priests had to copy portions of these texts. Few other Bible portions circulated with as much regularity. Another obvious change was the production of the modern Bible in standard Arabic, indeed, one of the reasons that standard Arabic or fusha as a language style became dominant in modernity was that this reinvention of Arabic Bibles preferred to use a simple Arabic glossary that was close to spoken registers, arranged to the syntax of rules of grammar and morphology that were codified in the ninth century. These choices constructed a vehicular writing style that eased circulation across the Arabic speaking world while keeping the costs of production low. These linguistic choices had impact beyond the Bible. This can be evidenced in the inclusion of the Bible as a lexical witness in Butrus al-Bustani’s modern dictionary, Muhit al-Muhit, which was intended to be a secular dictionary that was relevant beyond the Christian community that its author belonged to. This was the first time a general Arabic dictionary used the Bible to illustrate the meanings of words. Another major change was political. The new Bible was self-consciously sectarian in its conceptual choices and was deliberately produced to separate its theological worldview from that of the Quran, even though most of these so-called Quranic concepts that were present in older versions and that were now replaced by so-called Christian cognates came from ancient Biblical languages and theological spheres, particularly from Hebrew and Syriac.
GK: What was it that was abandoned, lost or disappeared?
RI: In the past, the Bible was translated in small locales and produced as manuscripts, copied by hand. In the seventeenth century, at the height of Protestant-Catholic rivalry, a few printed Arabic Bibles were produced, but for various political and economic reasons they never reached the mass reading public. In those times, and because of the material conditions that shaped Bible production, Christian Arabs continued to write in an idiom that was closer to their spoken dialects, at both the syntactical and semantic levels. Indeed, those Bibles have been deployed by linguists interested in the historical study of the evolution of local dialects as part of a larger corpus of texts that display the linguistic phenomenon known as Middle Arabic, which is a variety of written Arabic that combines spoken and codified or written Arabic. They are even used in linguistic corpora that attempt to explain linguistic variation from the classical norm in terms of religious difference. The argument is that religious minorities did not master Arabic writing as their Muslim counterparts. I argue otherwise in the book, and interpret the phenomenon not in terms of mastery, but in terms of political location vis-à-vis the ruling Muslim elites. What we also find in the older texts is the absence of any serious interest in an idea of origins. Those Bibles could be translated from a variety of ancient sources that included the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek (and Latin for the Catholics), but also the original witnesses included mainly Syriac and Coptic sources, but also other languages like Armenian. The idea that there is an original Bible that bears the patina of age did not matter, because a historical approach to the Bible was not yet interesting for the ruling Oriental churches.
GK: Since you are especially interested in the works and lives of al-Shidyaq and al-Bustani, in which way did their translations differ to those of others, in terms of language, debate, or impact in the literary field, or in terms of circulation and commodification?
RI: There were more than 26 Arabic versions of the Bible that became available in print in the nineteenth century. The translations were different from the outset. Unlike other translations, al-Bustani and al-Shidyaq were employed to assist on flagship translations that were commissioned by major missionary institutions. Al-Shidyaq worked with the British Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and was stationed for a time in Cambridge and Oxford. His translation failed to pick up circulation, partly due to his publication of his magnus opus al-Saq ala al-Saq, while al-Bustani stayed in Lebanon and worked with the American Syria Mission on an enduring and best-selling translation that became the official translation of the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Greek Orthodox church in the Levant, the two largest Arabic speaking churches. This translation continues to be in use and has achieved an almost sacrosanct status for the churches that canonize it. Another major contending version that I studied was the Jesuit Bible which employed Ibrahim al-Yaziji as a local copy editor. Unlike al-Yaziji whose job was limited to beautifying the Arabic, al-Bustani and al-Shidyaq were employed as translators and worked closely with their superiors. Curiously, neither of them honoured their contracts to the end of their project and breached with the missionaries to start their own literary careers, upon the death of their supervisors. Their contribution to modern Arabic literature is foundational, and the Bible played no small role in their lifelong commitment to a life of letters. In their approaches to literature, al-Bustani and al-Shidyaq are diametrically opposed. Whereas al-Bustani embodies the values of the Nahda, al-Shidyaq was staunchly critical of values that he associated with sanctioning social, economic and political disparity and covering up their enterprise with vague values like civility and progress. This became most obvious in the way these two writers treated the Bible in their later works. For al-Bustani, the Bible became the cornerstone of his definition of literature and history as two key concepts that were undergoing a major transformation in their semantics and function. Al-Shidyaq defined the literary against the Bible. He turned the Bible into literature, and cannibalized it in an uncompromising critical performance of its relevance as a book of moral value in the lives of modern people. Al-Shidyaq questioned the Bible and parodied its narratives and methods, and he did so through claiming for literature the ultimate authority. He also subjected the Quran to such cannibalisms but veiled his gestures and kept them oblique. Also, in terms of the mode of production of modern knowledge these two authors were very different. Whereas al-Bustani claimed that translation would speed up the process of lifting Arabs from their ignorance and accelerate the process of catching up with Europe, al-Shidyaq found translation to be at best marginal for the generation of new ideas and was concerned about its role in the colonization of his people.
GK: I wonder what a rupture with tradition means, if tradition (and its texts) in the modern sense was a choice of the Nahda protagonists? Al-Shidyaq, for example, has been described in Radwa Ashour’s book, The Possible Modernity, as someone who did not experience a rupture, but as someone whose education, knowledge, and writing transcend later conceptualizations of binary temporalities.
RI: Ashour’s characterization of al-Shidyaq’s oeuvre is spot on. He did have a much more nuanced approach to the past than what we encounter with al-Bustani and others from the early Nahda. Al-Shidyaq criticized the rupture with the past that his contemporaries imposed on the reading of the tradition. In the book, I examine his parody of the notion of Nahda and how he redeployed the metaphor by emptying it of its loaded meaning. For him a nahda, an awakening, only occurs when one literally awakens from sleep. He accused other writers of not mastering the canon and demonstrated in a radically original way how the canon remains relevant for modern times. He operated with an understanding of past books as they remain preserved, in the present, as books in a library, to be read and interpreted according to the questions and criteria posed by the present. In that sense, he rejected the teleologies of the Nahda with its notions of rupture and progress and operated with a multitemporal reading methodology that approached past texts on the basis of questions and crises that arise in the present. This stance is radically opposite to what al-Bustani, and many others at the time, were aiming for. Al-Bustani parcelled the immediate past into a period of inhitat and decay, that was consequent upon a past time of Abbasid glory and empire building. This categorization of the past in terms of those periods allowed him to recuperate a place for Christian scholarship in the canon at a time when it was central to the cultivation of literary life in the Abbasid era. Christians often worked as translators for the Abbasids, and then when Arabic literature took another turn that devalued the translation of Greek sciences to Arabic, al-Bustani considered that Arabic culture had decayed. In doing so, he reinvented the tradition to suit Christian political ambitions that supported modern national imaginations. Al-Shidyaq did not gravitate towards these burgeoning national imaginations and indeed criticized nation-state thinking wherever he found it, in his home country and elsewhere in Europe and the Ottoman empire. For these reasons, I view al-Shidyaq’s literary project as a future past, a project that failed to become normative and remained meaningful only to a marginal group of critical thinkers who are still ostracized and rendered precarious by the ruling elites. Like I argue in a forthcoming article in an anthology on al-Shidyaq, edited by Barbara Winckler, al-Shidyaq and his inheritors are precarious cultural workers, and it is in this economic and political precarity that the tragedy of Arabic culture has unfolded since modernity.
GK: The second half of the nineteenth-century has been described by global historians as a period of reformatting the world, backed perhaps by the power and impact of new technologies. So what remains today of the Arabic Bible? And of the heroes of what you call the tragedy of Arab culture that in its modern/nahda sense defined itself over a revival of language and literature?
RI: Well, the second half of the nineteenth century concretizes processes that were already put in motion in the first half of the century. These processes were intimately linked with colonialism. This colonialism depended on boots on the ground as well as other means to exercise domination. What colonialism sought was the implementation of a globalized form of political economy that depended on industrial scale production and widespread consumption facilitated by advances in technologies and modes of knowledge production that were enforced on the world by the West. These dynamics indeed “formatted” the Arabic speaking world in a way that had geopolitical significance. For example, Beirut rose to become an important center for the propagation of those ideas that we associate with this formatting, when at the beginning of the century Beirut occupied no such place in the regional imagination. What made Beirut so significant is best described by what Ussama Makdisi has identified as the spirit of “collaboration” that local actors cultivated with colonizers. This notion of collaboration is an astute observation that revises postcolonial analyses that mostly focus on the ills of the West. Seen through the lens of collaboration, we can begin to ask what these local agents gained from the new world order and the Western metropoles that dominated its imagination and practices of modernity. Also, it forces us to ask about the role played by local agents in the colonization and exploitation of the region.
Let me now try to answer your specific question about what remains of the Bible and of the legacies of those who contributed to its emergence as a foundational text of Arab modernity. This is a dicey question because it is two-fold. On the literary and linguistic levels, the Bible has become normalized as one of the sources for intertextual borrowings and for linguistic histories of Arabic. Let me give an anecdotal example. It is commonplace today to study Hebrew or Syriac and find employment in Qatar to work on the Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic and be part of a team that explores the etymology of Arabic through connecting it to other Semitic languages. This kind of scientific achievement is in profound ways connected to the work that was done on the Bible in the nineteenth century. This kind of scholarly influence remains welcome, and no one challenges the connections it brings forth. The other kind of influence that I looked at is on a different, more ideological plane. When I studied the nineteenth century, I was exploring how it mediates central shifts in the political imagination of Syro-Lebanon. One can argue that today the Bible no longer occupies such a central role in the political imagination of Lebanon, even if it continues to perform a narrow political function in the inter-confessional competitions between the local churches. The narrowness of this role is interesting for the study of the present conditions of Arab Christians and their variegated locations within the republic’s political establishment, but the Bible today does not help me unpack the seismic transformation taking place in the political economy of Lebanon or the region in the wake of the Arab Spring and the counter-revolutionary forces that are violently crushing any hope of change people had when they took to the streets. This is on the level of the Bible as a textual prism of historical importance for us today.
The (tragic, or not so tragic) heroes of the nahda are a different story. Some of what they imagined and expressed remains useful to us today, and some of it, has met a fate like the Bible’s. The heroes I am interested in, worked on various kinds of projects, they worked on the Bible, yes, but their careers were much richer than the lonely work of representing scripture to a new age. From the point of view of “reviving” Arabic language and culture, I think any relevant writer performs a “revival”, regardless of what period they were born in. As a rule of thumb, works of literary merit are works that revive a language. What we are witnessing today is a recollection of a writing style that does not conform to the strictures of modern standard Arabic. This recollection, like the so-called revivalisms of literature that are associated with the nahda, is taking place because of technological transformations, too. The communication economies made possible by social media and the internet require a less standardized grammar for their elaboration, just like the printing press revolutionized access to texts and depended on standard writing registers. Studying the nahda is instructive here because it teaches us to be careful not to congratulate ourselves that these new ways of writing in dialect are inherently radical. They are no more radical than modern standard Arabic was radical in its time, even if we can encounter radical thought in modern standard Arabic like we encounter it today in non-standard forms of writing in Arabic, but the opposite to radical thinking can also be expressed in all kinds of writing register.
GK: Is it not the case that interest in these critical thinkers, the dissidents, people like al-Shidyaq, men and women in the Levant, Egypt and other parts of the Arabic speaking lands whose ideas and critique were silenced, is being revived today? What kind of beginnings might that indicate?
RI: Al-Shidyaq is a great case of a writer that legitimized modern standard Arabic and its anchoring in classical Arabic, particularly in his journalistic endeavours, and is nevertheless considered to be a radical thinker. We read him today because he helps us to think about our moment of crisis. Like him, our sense of precarity is a consequence of the seismic transformations affecting our homeland, the world, and the political economy that regulates our social relations. Al-Shidyaq was acutely aware of these transformations, and by persisting in premising the body as the site through which all these transformations take place, al-Shidyaq offers us a precedent on how to inhabit and think about the crisis we find ourselves in. I call what we are undergoing “crisis” to attend to how it forces us into feelings of anomie and discomfort, how the sense of our possible dissolution as a society and polity is aggravated in the diaspora, and al-Shidyaq is an early example of how to live in the diaspora. Like many of us, al-Shidyaq’s social ties with his family and society were reduced to his economic responsibilities to his family in Lebanon, and like us, he struggled to secure gainful employment that compensated him for his work. We have experienced similar conditions, and like al-Shidyaq, our sense of self, the precepts of our identity have been destabilized. Through reflecting literary function and literary ethics, al-Shidyaq shows us a possible method of inhabiting the world and throwing ourselves in its grind, while ultimately writing because something is rotten in the current order of things and must be resisted and changed.
Al-Shidyaq strove to expand the political imagination, even if like Sisyphus, he did not always find meaning in rolling of boulders. Unlike the abjectness of Camus’ Sisyphus, al-Shidyaq rolled his boulder “from the topmost peaks of [his] thoughts down to the lowest bottom of men’s hearts”, sat on it and enjoyed the speeding breeze, and sometimes even managed to generate new meanings and a new political imagination. For someone like me who finds great inspiration in learning from al-Shidyaq, the inverted Sisyphus performance is one that I identify with, particularly in the face of great calamity. In smiling to the speeding breeze, human dignity surfaces as a force, despite the unsurmountable despair that might sometimes strike. I think this is one of his important lessons for us, to face adversity with the stubbornness of dignity and the untiring commitment to finding and generating meaning against the hubris of small men.
GK: I know that you like entertaining stories. What is your favourite story you have encountered in your work and life with the Arabic Bible?
RI: Perhaps this interview is one such favourite moment in my work on the Bible? In important ways a research of this sort brought many good people into my life and took me to many places for which I am grateful. But let me tell you one story from the archive I found most entertaining. I stumbled upon a scrap of text in the Eli Smith Papers that are kept at the Houghton Library at Harvard. It is a funny scrap of paper that the missionaries secured from the French consul. The French consul acquired it from one of his soldiers who found it in the turban of one of Ibrahim Pasha’s soldiers who fell in al-Hosn battle against Ottoman forces in the 1830s. The scrap of paper is of a few verses of the Sura of Resurrection in the Quran interwoven with an erotic description of a desired act of intimacy with a beloved. In my sober citations of this scrap in the book and elsewhere, I demonstrate how al-Shidyaq parodied this scrap and used it as a writing prompt for his magnum opus, al-Saq ala al-Saq. From its incantation-like style and Smith’s description of how it was folded many times and kept in a leather wrap, it seems to be a hijab or an amulet, carried by the soldier, probably to aid his chances in love. This scrap caused quite the scandal for the missionaries and the French consul, especially after its contents were translated, and they discovered in it both sacred verse and perverse desire twined together into one text. Together with its translation, the scrap was neatly transcribed by Nassif al-Yaziji who also had to correct its non-standard Arabic to fit with normative grammar. When I found this paper, the whole ridiculous scene opened itself in front of my eyes. A bunch of Protestant foreigners exoticizing and using their own value system to unpack what they see. Smith even subjects the scrap to a discursive analysis of its contents which he attaches to the transcription of the scrap. He read it as an example of corrupt Muslim approaches to sacred books. His own Victorian sense of reverence to scripture determined his interpretation of a text that is in excess of what is written on the page. He failed to identify its genre, probably because he had limited knowledge of vernacular religious traditions and ritual practices. The overdetermination of the Protestant approach to scripture does not make room for these vernacular traditions and does not even attempt to distinguish between canonical texts and the low register text types that this scrap of paper belongs to. What I find entertaining is that the scrap was worthy of so much attention that it survives as an archival curiosity for us today. Its survival as an archival curiosity provides us with a glimpse of a tradition of subversive consumption of the Quran that persists until today.
GK: Thank you, Rana, for the book and the conversation, which I look forward to continue on many other occasions.
 Butrus al-Bustani, Kitab Muhit al-Muhit. Two Volumes (Beirut: America Press, 1870).
 published in 1855 in Arabic in Paris, translated by Humphrey Davies in Cairo into English: Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, Leg over Leg, trans. Humphrey Davis (New York: New York University Press, 2014).
 Ashour Radwa, Al-hadatha al-mumkina (The Possible Modernity): ash-Shidyaq wa-‘s-saq ʻala ‘s-saq: ar-riwaya al-ula fi ‘l-adab al-ʻarabi al-hadith (Cairo: Dar ash-Shuruq, 2012).
 Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
 Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, Leg over Leg, vol. 2, 9.
 Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Smith, Eli, 1801-1857. Eli Smith papers, 1819-1869: Guide.
Georges Khalil works at the Forum Transregionale Studien and is part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team.
Further articles on the TRAFO blog by Rana Issa:
Rana Issa, Carnal Feasting and Literary Scandal: How Ahmad al-Shidyaq Theorized the Literary, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.02.2023.
Rana Issa, The Modern Arabic Bible: Translation, Dissemination and Literary Impact – an Interview with Rana Issa, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.04.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/46185.