‘The Sorrowful Muslim’s Guide’: On Translating Hussein Amin

Hussein Ahmad Amin’s The Sorrowful Muslim’s Guide, first published in 1983, was translated to English by Yasmin Amin and Nesrin Amin and released at the end of 2018 by Edinburgh University Press. A Spanish translation by Dr. Nieves Paradela is forthcoming this fall: 

Yasmin Amin, half of the family translation team that brought the book into English, talked about how she came to the book, why she wanted to bring it into English, and the particular challenges it presented and Nesrin Amin, the other half, adds context.

When did you first read the book that became The Sorrowful Muslim? Do you remember your first thoughts about it? Have your thoughts changed at all, through the translation process?

Yasmin Amin: I first read the book in 1984, one year after it was first written. I was only 22 then, and I thought that Hussein was very courageous and also slightly reckless to actually publish this. We used to have family discussions and I was familiar with his views, but to actually put them on paper and out in print was dangerous and maybe even suicidal, I thought at the time.

My thoughts have changed now that I am much older and also a student of Islamic Studies myself, and I admire his courage and integrity and his plea for reform. Through the translation process, I admired him even more — the amount of knowledge he amassed, the literary style of his language and the ease with which he presents his arguments.

The book was published soon after Sadat’s assassination, although before the major attacks on intellectuals in the early 1990s: Farag Foda’s assassination, the attempt on Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the attacks on Nasr Abu-Zayd. Hussein Amin managed to avoid those sorts of attacks?

YA:Yes, thankfully he was not attacked, but he had his fair share of badmouthing and was called a heretic and the usual. In one Friday khutba he was mentioned, with the worst descriptions, and the imam even advised the congregation to not marry any of his daughters! If I remember correctly he was also almost called back to Egypt before the end of his term in Algeria, where he was Egypt’s Ambassador, when the Islamists won the elections there and the Foreign Ministry restored diplomatic relations, but he continued till the end of his term.

Why did you want to include Dr. Galal Amin’s tribute to his brother as a foreword? When did he write it? Why did you choose Dr. Paolo Branca to write an introduction to contextualize the book?

YA: The series (In Translation: Modern Muslim Thinkers) has a tribute to the author by a family member. In the previous book, Islam and the Foundations of Political Power, by Ali Abdel Razek, his son wrote the tribute. We thought that the best person to write it would be Dr. Galal, being his only brother left at the time, and we also wanted him to be a part of the project, since it was a labor of love and a family collaboration. He wrote it  Christmas 2017 and was happy to write it. When we asked him, he did not hesitate for a second.

Galal wrote anecdotes from their childhood and loving memories, one of which relates to this book and how it came about. Initially the chapters were published as columns in the Qatari Al-Doha magazine. The Egyptian editor-in-chief, Ragaa Al-Naqqash, was courageous enough to publish them, hoping to turn the magazine into a platform for enlightened thought, and was ultimately fired from the magazine because of the controversy the articles created. Later, Hussein expanded on the articles and provided more depth and collected them into what became the book.

As for Dr. Branca, he was very qualified to write the introduction. His dissertation was on “Aspects of Muslim Modernism of the Fifties” and in 1984 he obtained a scholarship from the Egyptian government to research contemporary Arab thought in Cairo. So he was there when the book was published and won the Cairo Book Fair prize in 1984. He was familiar with Hussein’s work as well as with Ahmad Amin’s work, as he worked on Islam and the modern world, especially with regard to fundamentalism and Muslim reformism.

What do you think a non-specialist reader needs to know before reading this book?

Nesrin Amin: I think the book is attractive for both a specialist and non-specialist reader alike. A non-specialist reader might want to look at the context in terms of what was happening at the time. In the late 1970s, Egypt saw the emergence of fundamentalist groups like al-Takfir wa-l-Hijra (excommunication and exile) and Tanzim al-Jihad, who were spreading extremist ideology and who were eventually responsible for the assassination of President Sadat. At that time, these movements were regarded as a fringe phenomenon that could be dealt with through security crackdowns and the like. Hussein felt that there was a need for awareness that the rise of political Islam and extremism had roots in how Islam developed over centuries, and that unless the problems were tackled at the root, we would not succeed in confronting the danger these groups pose.

Has what it means to tackle these problems changed since 1983, do you think? 

YA: I do not believe that much has changed in the strategies to tackle these problems and the root causes have remained. Security clampdowns do not work because the ideology that ends up producing these fundamentalists is not addressed at all. For example, instead of overhauling the Azhar curriculum and addressing fundamentalism and Salafist thought and Wahhabi leanings, the curriculum remains the same. Not just that, but most voices calling for reform and change are not just not heard, but they are being silenced, not necessarily by the government though. Take for example Islam Beheiry, who was slapped with a court case being accused of blasphemy, or showing contempt for religion, and was jailed for about a year. He was pardoned by the President just a month before his sentence ended and was released. The case was filed against him by Azhar. And also another Azhari preacher (for lack of a better term), Muhammad Abdallah Nasr was also jailed and fired from Azhar on the same charge. Regardless what one may think of these two examples, they are moving the stagnant waters and Azhar will not allow any counter narrative. Another example is Dr. Saad Eddin al-Hilali who supported the recent Tunisian interpretation of the inheritance verse to allow women to inherit an equal amount to men and who was disowned by Azhar a month ago. They actually issued an official statement that he does not represent Azhar but represents his own opinion.

You write here about your wonderful collaborative discussions in translating the title. How would the translation process have been different if you’d translated it on your own?

YA: I would have never translated the book on my own. Nesrin studied translation and is a professional translator. I am the Islamic Studies student and we thought that together we could embark on this translation. I knew all the technical terms used in the book and Nesrin polished the translation so it does not sound too “exotic,” for a lack of a better word.

And…you didn’t think of rhyming the title, to match Dalil almuslim alhazin ila muqtada alsuluk fi’l qarn alishrin? 🙂

YA: We made a conscious decision to omit the second half of the title because we were already in the twenty-first century. But we made a real effort in translating the poetry Hussein quoted in rhymes, and believe me that was not easy!

You mention, in your earlier piece, looking up poetic references. Which poets did you find were particular favorites? Did you look for existing English translations, or translate the poems afresh?

YA: He did not quote a particular poet throughout, but quoted many, like for example al-Nabighah al-Dhubiyani, al-Mutanabbi, Imraʾul-Qays, Abu Nuwas and a few unnamed poets. We looked at existing English translations when we found them, but when we did not like them, we translated them afresh. I think we only used one or two translations and mentioned in a footnote that this translation is by so-and-so to give him credit for it.

And he deployed these poetic samplings, like many a polymath, to support and embellish his points? Is there any one poem or fragment that either gave you trouble — or you thought was particularly well deployed — that you could share?

YA: Yes he did, he sprinkled them liberally across the chapters. The one I really thought hit the nail on the head was one of the verses of Abu Nuwas. He quoted it in the chapter about hadith (Prophetic reports) to illustrate how the isnad (chain of narrators) was forged and how people were on to this and the courageous ones made fun of it. So Abu Nuwas’s verse is a perfect illustration, because it follows a section in the poem about a lover who broke his promise and the verse says:

Al-Azraq narrated to me from ʿAmr . . . Ibn Shammar, who narrated from Ibn Masʿūd
Whoever breaks a promise is ungrateful . . . an infidel chained in Hell for good

It was not easy to translate it to rhyme, and we discussed many options. That was what we came up with at the end.

In addition to ma3lish, what other words did you leave transliterated (and explain in the footnotes)?

YA: We left the word awliya in transliteration, because usually the word is translated as saints or holy men, and we were not comfortable with borrowing these words from the Christian tradition, as sainthood does not really exist in Islam and some of these Sufis, as entertaining as they were, could not be called holy by any stretch of imagination. We also left the word ʿaṣabiyya in transliteration and explained it in a lengthy footnote rather than to reduce its more complex meaning to mere tribalism or clanism. Also mawali, baraka barakat, fiqqi, kuttab, and a few more.

What sort of readership would you like to have for the translation? How is that readership different (in your estimation) from what Dr. Amin expected for the original?

YA: I am not sure that Hussein had a particular readership in mind. I think he wanted most Muslims to read it, which is why he addressed the issues with such force, to shake them awake and make them realise that the decline of the Muslim civilisation, which in almost every aspect is lagging behind the non-Islamic developed world, needs to change rapidly. Also that the two apparently opposing and seemingly irreconcilable directions that pull the Muslims are not really that opposing and can be reconciled. The two forces being: the demands of religion as they understand it and the demands of modern life. I would like the book to be read particularly by young people because there is a current trend to dismiss religion and spirituality, which is not necessarily a good thing. And I believe this book will make many things more clear to the youth that the choice is not between two things, but that a compromise is possible.

Can you talk a bit more about what you mean by “compromise is possible”?

YA: A compromise between modernity and Islam is possible. Many have worked on the same idea before Hussein. For example, Muhammad Abdu, Grand Mufti of Egypt. Instead of rigidly sticking to one school of law all the time in all his decisions and fatwas, he mixed and matched rulings from the four Sunni schools, taking the benefit of the person to heart. So for example in certain rulings the Hanafi School is better for women, and in others the Maliki School is, so he would choose the best one for the case at hand, also putting ethical concerns at the forefront. He also openly contested several prophetic reports in his articles published in al-Manar and based his fatwas mainly on the Quran, arguing that the Quran is valid to all people in all times. He also had a different interpretation of the quranic verse speaking about polygamy, interpreting it to mean more or less that the default was one wife and that the multiple wives were only a permission at certain times, like when there was a gender imbalance after battles and wars, where women outnumbered men and therefore a solution to the care of widows and orphans was to allow the men to marry multiple wives. But that this permission was not to be used willy-nilly at all times without good reason.

Books such as The Sorrowful Muslim’s Guide, that tackle such issues, are important because they provide a counter narrative to the traditional and very conservative readings.