Winning the Modern World for Islam

Martin Jenni

October 29, 2012

From the book “Winning the Modern World for Islam” by Imam Abdessalam Yassine
Translated from the French by Martin Jenni

Translator’s Foreword of the Book

Imam Abdessalam Yassine’s Islamiser la modernité, published discreetly in Morocco in March of 1998, proclaimed to the Francophone world at large the heart of the message the inspired Qur’ānic scholar and beloved teacher has been enunciating, chiefly in his native Arabic, for nearly thirty years. Its theme is this: what it would mean for the modern world to be radically transformed by total submission to God.

Such “total submission” is the literal meaning of islam, and this fact is essential in order to understand the Imam’s message—so as to distinguish clearly between this deep and transformative sense of the word and the broader, cultural meaning of “Muslim peoples and their civilization.” The distinction is critical even among speakers of Arabic, such as the participants, in nominally Islamic countries like the Imam’s own Morocco, in the dialog between Islamists (1) and secularists. It is a distinction in defense of which Imam Yassine has paid dearly, deprived of his liberty under house arrest for a decade (since December of 1989).

The present translation now extends this profoundly powerful message to readers of English. The French title has a degree of shock value— as the singular inversion of the secularist phrase moderniser l’islam (“modernizing Islam”)—that cannot be reproduced in English. “Islamicizing” is no more at home in English than “Christianizing” or “Hinduizing,” and “modernity” is similarly fuzzy. Translating a serious and important argument is not an appropriate occasion for coining novel and ambiguous phrases. The operative sense of islamiser is “to convert to, to transform by means of, Islam,” “to make something or someone Islamic.” The expression “winning x for y” has, especially for American speakers, precisely this range of meaning and is, moreover, associated with conversion to a better state of existence. It expresses moral persuasion. “Win” is moreover an extremely positive verb. Modernité is also problematic: “modernity” merely replicates its form, without bearing its semantic resonance. What Imam Yassine means by the French is a quality of current secular values—and the societies that espouse them and operate by them. In the gospels of the Prophet Jesus, such a secular and essentially benighted society is known as “the world.” Modernism—as a secular philosophy— was condemned by both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as a moral danger already a hundred years ago. Thus, “modern world.”

Even as Yassine’s title conveys the essence of his vision and message, my translation of it is based on my fundamental understanding of his argument. In a sense, it is a second translation of that argument, since the language of North African colonialism and urbane sophistication, in which the Imam is compelled to write, is already at one remove from his innermost thoughts: these find their source in the deep pools of the language of the Qur’an. It is, as Yassine readily notes in his Foreword, a discipline not without risks: how much of the original will survive in another tongue—how much of the sacred can resonate at all in a langue profane? The shift in social, cultural, political, and philosophical contexts affects not only the light in which issues are viewed, but the nature of formulating and resolving problems as well. Translating Yassine’s Arabic-born French understandably entails having to deal with both languages in order to arrive at a suitable English equivalent.

A very special case of such twofold translation is that of the Imam’s interpretations in French of passages from the Qur’an. Here the sanctity of the original gives the interpreter especial pause. (It is for this reason that no actual translation of the Holy Text is possible; it can merely be interpreted in pale reflection.) Yet the Imam’s interpretations represent the very core, not only of his teaching, but of his life: the most intimate and intense encounter with Divine Revelation. (2)

The book’s argument proceeds systematically, having been carefully prepared by introductory reflections on communication. Eight major topics follow, each one divided into contributory themes. The first of these topics examines the terms of the relationship—islam and the modern world— particularly as these are inextricably yoked in current global affairs. The second takes up the narrower focus of islam(and Islam (3) ) and the post-colonial environment, with the secularism it inherited from the French Revolution. The third and fourth topics are the crisis cases of Algeria and Palestine, explored and discussed with courageous candor. Algeria’s recent political history, and the incumbent horrors for its civilian population, are put in historical perspective and offer a valuable corrective to misperceptions and deliberate falsification; the sham election this summer in Algeria, which all the candidates boycotted except the candidate of the prevailing party, makes the Imam’s case all the more urgent. In characterizing the fortunes of the Palestinians as a festering wound, Yassine pleads a cause too rarely championed in the West.

Five multifaceted and closely reasoned essays follow on topics represented in the original by the French infinitives for knowing, being, having, and being able (savoir, être, avoir, pouvoir). Knowing, for Imam Yassine, embraces matters beyond the merely intellectual; it is wisdom enlightened by the certainty of faith. The broad topic of Being allows the Imam to consider its multiple modes; to be is also to be defined—as woman, mother, child, sharer in a covenant—and to define one’s purpose in a Great Plan. Having introduces questions not only of possession but of patrimony, of birthright. The last topic is the longed-for community of islam, freed of the secular nation-state, and enabled to participate in the world at large.

Yassine’s reflections on the dignity of woman overturns assumptions about the relative status of Western and Muslim women.

The Imam’s assessment of the world of global capitalism is equally trenchant. There is a better way, the way of organized mutual solicitude, the zakah (alms tax) as the foundation for the equitable distribution of wealth among members of a prospering society. Even as the Qur’ānic path of economic justice differs markedly from the corporate-driven engines of the West, so too the so-called democratic processes, in evident current disarray both in the West and in the post-colonial Third World, stand in stark contrast to the Qur’ānic principle of consultative self–government (shurah).

In his epilog Imam Yassine invokes the Divine benediction on all those with whom he has entered into dialog—those whom the Great Truths have touched. Here especially Yassine interprets passages at length from the Qur’an, “reading” them to us in the language of the modern world, which for the purposes he is able to transform into a powerful reflection of the original.

The title imam connotes a leader: of prayer, of studies—of islam (this last is singularly restrictive, especially to some Muslim communities); it is often as well a term of fervent endearment. In this sense particularly Imam Abdessalam Yassine is regarded by his wide network of disciples; may this translation further the circle of his hearers. Yet the title of imam is not one he would have bestowed on himself. Yassine prefers to be thought of as al-morshid, “teacher, guide, counselor.” (4)

Bringing his message to the English-speaking world has been the charge of a pupil of Yassine’s, Imad Benjelloun, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa. The project was facilitated by the university’s Translation Laboratory, whose director, Dr Gertrud Champe, deftly edited the draft.


1“Islamist” here (and throughout the book) names an observant Muslim, someone whose life source is islam in the sense of submission to God. Such persons may well strive for the creation of a society guided by this principle, but it is a grievous (and often intentionally vicious) misuse of the term to represent a religious fanatic or, worse still, terrorist.
2My translations of Yassine’s interpretations should be contrasted to those of a Qur’anic scholar such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali, cf. his The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’ân (London: Nadim & Co., 1975)
3See Chapter I:1, note 1.
4“Guide, pilot, director” from the verb rashada “be on the right path, follow the way, be well guided.”

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