Tag Archives: Monarchy

Massively Corrupt Translation

Obverse Arabic; reverse sporting Sanskrit.

When two powerful but rather mutually exclusive cultures come into contact (and here I’m not talking about West/East in the present day), strange things happen between their languages.  In one of my courses this semester I am studying the power dynamics of such linguistic interplay.  But this particular example comes from an Islamic history lesson on the Mughal rulers of northern India given by Professor Michael Cook.  In those particular days amazing levels of not only corruption but also of creation, of mistranslated openness, accidental syncretism, can be found between the Muslim rulers and their Hindu population.  I deal here with a few words written in the Śārada script (a version of Sanskrit) on a coin struck in Lahore during the reign Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998 – 1030 CE).

The words are: 

avyaktam-eka muhammada avatāra npati mahamūda

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This phrase, roughly decoded, is meant to replicate the Islamic shadada, or Profession of Faith, which occupies the central space on the front of the coin:

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله (lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh)

In English:  There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.

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However, things go very badly for the translation, at least if read from a Muslim theological viewpoint (rather than from the perspective of the Sultanate’s colonized Hindi subjects).

First, for fans of James Cameron, the word avatāra surely jumps out from the Sanskrit.  What has this to do with Muhammad?  Are Mahmud’s medieval translators depicting the Prophet of Islam as a giant blue-spackled centaur from a planet far, far away?  No.  This is the word chosen in the inscription to represent the Arabic rasūlu:  Messenger, or Prophet.  Except, in the Sanskrit, the term carries with it connotations less relevant to an earthly messenger and much more indicative of an incarnation, a reincarnation.  Definitely not an Islamic concept.

Next, the opening phrase avyaktam-eka stands in for the Arabic lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh — ‘There is no god but God.’  Again, the translation takes great liberties.  What we have is something much closer to “Invisible and One” or “Unmanifested and One.”  Furthermore, the Sanskrit employs a neutered case ending rather than a masculine ending, definitely changing the anthropomorphic, masculine Islamic deity into an ungendered metaphysical concept patterned strongly on the Vedas or Upanishads.

It is also worth noting that Sanskrit possessed a perfectly well-established and well-understood word for God:  deva Surprising, very surprising, not to see that word used in this inscription.  My professor hypothesized that the decision not to use deva in the inscription might be linked to Sultan Mahmud’s other courtly language, Persian.  There, the word deva sounds suspiciously like the Farsi div, which means demon.  Should Sultan Mahmud have chosen a translation that included the word deva as a stand in for God instead of avyaktam, his Persian courtiers would have been very offended indeed to hear a Śārada-Sanskrit version of the Profession of Faith that sounded, to them, like ‘There is no demon but demon . . .’

Finally, the word npati means something roughly equivalent to king, lord of men, prince, or sovereign, none of which are titles the Prophet Muhammad claimed, though subsequent Caliphs called themselves Leaders of the Faithful, Amir al-Mumineen.  At the expense of an authentic translation of the shahada, it seems Sultan Mahmud opted to use the very small, very precious space of this coin to remind his subjects of his place in their earthly dominion.

In the end, the coins issued by the Islamic Sultan Mahmud of Lahore, to the great edification of his Hindi subjects, portrayed the Profession of Faith in terms not so different from the way they already thought about the world, blending the language of Islam into a new and entirely different, entirely strange conception of the central tenet of the new religion:

The Unmanifested and One incarnate King Muhammad.

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It’s not quite Hinduism.  It’s certainly not Islam.  And, doubtlessly, such a translation qualifies for mention on NQR.

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*Credit for the Śārada translations to E.A. Davidovich and A.H. Dani, “Coinage and the Monetary System” in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 4., UNESCO Publishing, 1988, page 414.

 

 

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A Building for Posterity

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the man who founded and largely molded the United Arb Emirates, built what must be one of the most beautiful and vainglorious buildings of modern times.  No, this isn’t the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  It’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which sticks out against the modern cityscape like a scimitar of light, like a reborn Taj Mahal.

View from inside the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (gold-tipped minaret gratis)

Technically this building is a mosque, although it is open to tours and serves (in my opinion) more as a vast decoration to the adjacent tomb of the Sheikh himself.  Loaded with the best of old and new worlds — including escalators to bring worshippers and visitors up from the underground parking lots as well as inlays of precious and semi-precious stones on all of its forest of marble columns — the mosque is truly a ‘must see’ for a tourist but also an awe inspiring reminder to Emiratis and other Arabs of the incredible wealth of this oil principality.

The contrast, and perhaps stretching it a bit the NQR moment, comes when thinking of my own country, the US.  What have we built (other than the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium) with anything like the panache and truly lasting beauty of this edifice?


Equal Opportunity Slaughter

Male pharoah at Merowe, Sudan, slaying his prisoners.

While the record is certainly not blank with regard to a history of powerful and influential women — Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra — nowhere does a graphical depiction of absolute equality between the sexes exist with such profudity as that which still stands at the Temple Complex of Merowe in Northern Sudan.

Here, on the left hand wall of a massive, 20-ft high bas relief, a male pharoah raises his sceptre to smite the knot of enemy heads he grasps by the hair.  In traditional Egyptian iconography, the pharoah stands three or four times the size of those he is about to kill, a statement of his superiority and a nice artistic touch to allow the masses in their domination to be better portrayed, often literally, under foot.  The pharoah’s dog waits, teeth bared, between his legs to feast on the carcasses of the slain.

Female pharaoh, partaking in the slaughter with apparent gusto.

This bas relief itself really doesn’t depart too widely from many of the other Egyptian retellings of war conquest.  What sets it apart is the matching right-hand panel of this same wall.  Here, the queen partakes in a very equal-opportunity sort of slaughter, with an equal number of enemy prisoners gathered by their locks in her hand while her other arm — this time with sword rather than with sceptre — hovers menacingly above them.

The best part of all of this, the part that stands in such stark contrast (an almost ‘Not Quite Right‘ sort of contrast) when compared to the lithe images of other female Egyptian rulers like Nefertiti, is this woman’s stylized yet very full, very womanly figure.  It is nice to see power displayed in such a way:  equal, unsparing, and devoid of the expectation that a woman in power rules through guile or charm rather than through the sort of brute physicality this long-gone pair of pharoahs demonstrated.


Megalomania

This might be a peculiarity of the Middle Eastern monarch. Or it might relate to any monarch in any country the world over.   But, coming from a democracy one of the oddities we noticed, one of the things that certainly strikes us as Not Quite Right, is the ubiquitous presence of photography featuring the face of each country’s ruler — on signposts, in barbershops, in supermarkets, malls, promotional materials for national festivals, airport warning signs, greeting signs, instructional signs, etc, etc, etc.

These photographs might be smiling.  They might be stern.  They might feature the ruler in military gear or in traditional clothing or in a western suit.  The photos sometimes include the monarch’s family, especially if he is actively grooming his son, or sons, to succeed him.

One thing interesting about our perception of this blatant self-promotion:  our children notice it more than we do.

My son Jack standing under Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan's nose

Is this because they’re more in-tune to media, more saturated by it, more a part of a new generation that really thrives on media messages?  In Oman, when we first arrived, they actively sought out and compared various pictures of the Sultan:  he’s smiling here, he looks grumpy here, his beard hasn’t turned white yet in this one.  In Jordan they laughed and laughed at the multitude of different photos of the King, asking us if the King did anything other than take pictures of himself.  In Morocco they commented that the king was a good looking guy and they wanted to see a photo of him on a jet-ski, which is apparently one of the Moroccan king’s favorite pasttimes.  And, in the United Arab Emirates we caught this photo of my youngest son obviously very interested in former ruler Sheik Zayed’s huge portrait.

The question this brings to mind is whether — like the similarly ever-present advertising images of scantily clad women in America (largely absent here!) — does the image of a country’s ruler eventually fade into the subconciousness of his people?  Is the ruler’s presence in advertising eventually taken for granted?  Does the forced consumption, the endless repetition, reinforce the ruler’s prominence or reduce it to a gimmick?