In the first lecture of the In Translation series for Fall 2010, Professor Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, discussed the difficulties in analyzing the meanings of Islam. He asks: "Does the word name for a religion, a concept, a technical term, a sign, a taxonomy, a geographic denotation or a communal identity?" Massad argues that the lack of clarity on whether Islam could be all these things is due to the way the word Islam has been referred to in different contexts that were never present before.
In his lecture, "Translating Islam," held in Oriental Hall, AUC Downtown, Massad argued that European Orientalists and Muslim and Arab thinkers began to use Islam in a number of ways convinced that it possesses an immediate intelligibility that requires no specification or definition. According to Massad, Islam for these thinkers is not only the name that the Qur'an attributes to the din that entails faith (iman) in God, but can also refer to the history of Muslim states and empires, the different bodies of philosophical, theological, jurisprudential, medical, literary, and scientific works, as well as to culinary, sexual, social, economic, religious, ritualistic, scholarly, agricultural, and urban practices that Muslims engaged in from the seventh century to the nineteenth and beyond.
"Some scholars argue in the modern era, Islam like the orient is another antonym for the West, while others have argued that European 'secularism' is its proper opposite," said Massad. "Yet others speak of democracy, civilization, freedom, etc… as the opposites of Islam," he explained. Massad went on to recite a situation where a Washington Post journalist went as far as positing the English language itself as the antonym of Islam when she described the outcome of a Qatari school curricular reform as "less Islam, more English." "It seems therefore, that as the reference of Islam has multiplied so have its antonyms, the question then becomes whether the production of Islam's many new referents was part of the same translational process of producing its many new antonyms," he noted.
According to Massad, some of the new meanings of Islam will have a significant impact on political and social thought as well as on national and international politics in much of the nineteenth, twentieth and even more so in the twenty-first century. Massad added that even the most profound and path-breaking studies have not been self-conscious about how the term has become a repository of meanings. "Without a history [of how these meanings were produced] many will continue to fall into traps set by the ongoing wars of words and of worlds over who gets to control and translate what Islam means or what it should mean," he explained.
Massad, who received his PhD from Columbia University in 1998, teaches and writes about modern Arab politics and intellectual history with a particular interest in theories of identity and culture – including theories of nationalism, sexuality, race and religion. He is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (Columbia University Press, 2001), The Persistence of the Palestinian Question (Routledge, 2006) translated to Arabic and published by Dar al-Adab in 2009, Desiring Arabs (University of Chicago Press, 2007), and La persistance de la question palestinienne (La Fabrique, 2009). He is currently working on two books tentatively titled, Islam in Liberalism and Geneaologies of Islam. Massad is the recipient most recently of the Lionel Trilling Book Award (2008) for his book Desiring Arabs and of the Scott Nearing Award for Courageous Scholarship (2008). He writes a column for the Egyptian Al Ahram Weekly and the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar.