Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Path to the Water Hole

Sharia is one of those words that, coupled with “law,” is similar to rice paddy, which translates to “rice rice”; hence Sharia law is “law law.” Unless you insist on understanding the word “sharia” still to mean what it once did, long ago, namely “the path to the water hole,” a now obsolete Arab way of saying “way of life.” When you live in the desert, the supremely important thing to know is the way to the life-sustaining liquid. Certainly since Mohammed’s time, the word has come to mean “law,” “legislation,” “ordinance” or “command.” The word is traced to Koran 45:18. Herewith three different translations:

Then We have made you follow a course in the affair… [M.H. Shakir translation]

Then We put thee on the (right) Way of Religion…. [Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation. The translator adds in a footnote: “Shariah is best translated the ‘right Way of Religion,’ which is wider than the mere formal rites and legal provisions, which mostly came in the Medinah period, long after this Makkan verse had been revealed.” ]

And now We have set you on the right path…. [N. J. Dawood translation]

What seems clear to me is that when the verse was written, the meaning of “path” or “way” was still alive—but that today the meaning of the word is “law,” indeed most commonly rendered as legislation. And more: related words already used in Mohammed’s time were shara’ra meaning “He ordrained,” shara’u meaning “they decreed,” and shir’atun meaning  spiritual law, all used in the Koran with those meanings.

There are those who do—and those who don’t—start sweating and agitating when language is abused. It’s a reflex in me; I plug up my ears, in a symbolic gesture, when I hear Sharia law spoken out loud.

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