I followed the entire debacle that lasted slightly above five hours with the attendant result from the moderator, Professor Salisu Shehu. It was thorough and the laid down procedural regulations were apt and full. I don’t intend to review what happened there; I intend to explain a phenomenon I viewed to have made Abduljabbar slipped. The entire dispute revolves around the concept of translation, which is seen as a primary machine that allows us to decipher messages encoded in another language. The whole concept of understanding religious principles is encapsulated in its translation into the language we fully understand. For any text to be wholly deciphered, there has to be suitable communicative translation and faithful in some instances—failure of translation results in catastrophe. As we often tell our students, a slight mistake in translation could trigger unrest. The case of Abduljabbar is one pointer.
Sacred texts should be translated with uttermost caution to avoid pitfalls and possible uproar. Therefore, aspects of semantic addition and omission are not so much at the liberty of the translator. Of course, the translation author can be – and is – allowed to make additions or omissions, where necessary, to press meaning to the audience; however, in the case of sacred texts (mostly religious documents), such liberties are highly restricted.
Overall, the whole saga was about Abduljabbar making unsubstantiated claims about certain prophetic traditions, which he claimed were mistakes by some of the finest scholars that history can never forget. He attributed certain heavy libellous statements to these scholars. Abduljabbar often reads the Arabic rendition with subsequent translation and exegesis of the tradition. This is a usual trend by all Ulamas intending to communicate across people of diverse linguistic backgrounds. What is worthy of noting here is how the original message is rendered and transmitted into the receptor language, in this case, Hausa.
Almost throughout the debate, there was a conspicuous absence of direct utterances of Abduljabbar in the original Hadith. This narrows down the accusing finger to Abduljabbar. No amount of denial or persistent argument would absolve him from the shackles of law and accusations. The exegesis cum translations here are, therefore, the root cause. Cultural nuances are essential to issues worthy of consideration when translating, as diverse cultures have varying ways of apportioning meaning to certain utterances. Abduljabbar was, quite evidently, never considerate of such slippery edges. Instead, he translated, explained and attributed conclusions to statements entirely out of context in the bid to attain heroism, demonstrate a more profound or better understanding of the scriptures.
Adding so much into translation in most instances has the tendency of making meaning obscure and or vague. Sacred texts are not only carefully knitted but are sometimes seen as dogmatic. In other words, religious texts express what they appear to have said. Making unnecessary addition may result in meaning change. Abduljabbar was attacked based on his utterances throughout, and in all the challenges posed to him, the central question is, where did you see this or that. Wrong translation understandably played a key role. In one such case, the moderator drew his attention to the contextual meaning and differences between “Haajaa and Shahawaa“. He explained that the former could not be given the contextual meaning of the latter. Each has its way of being expressed to denote what is intended.
Thus, between Hausa and Arabic, some cultural differences arise in how they attach meanings to ideas, subjects and so on; nonetheless, Abduljabbar was not so keen on that. Instead, he occupies the Arabic messages with haphazard translations that devour our cultural and religious context and, often, sensibilities. Both in our religion and culture, the place of the Prophet (SAW) is sacred, secured and untouchable. Therefore, making and creating controversial statements to his person is not only wrong but blasphemous. All the traditions cited by Abduljabbar and the other clerics, there was no one place, and I mean one place, that equates the heavy words of Abduljabbar in his Hausa explanation.
The central point here is, wrong and mismanaged translation played a significant role in this saga. It suffices to say, “Translation is a serious business and is not haphazardly done.” Understand, and master its art before engaging in it. Be vast in the cultural nuances of both languages, and understand that pragmatics is key to assigning meaning to words in certain situations. Also, know that sacred texts do not go with our whimsical preferences. Additions or omissions are made with caution to avoid slippery edges.
May Allah guide us always. May peace and blessings be on our most revered Prophet.
Prof. Yakubu Magaji Azare wrote from Bayero University, Kano. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.