God, By Any Other Name

I’m doing a large boxful of bite-sized translations. It’s reminding me a great deal of a great many things, most of which shall doubtless find their way here soon. But for now, I’m stuck with a particular sentence. It is this quote from the Quran

…Allah will not change the condition of a people, unless they change that which is within themselves

[Surat Ar Ra’d (13:11)]

It is rather an excellent paradigm for self-regulation, you must admit. Reassuring and threatening, depending on whether you’ve been nice or naughty. The well-behaved, law-abiding folks can rest assured that their state of blessedness will continue, and the ones who are aware of their transgressions can be equally certain that their lot will not change for the better unless they themselves do. What better way to encourage peace and the rule of law amongst the faithful, eh?

Of course, the gaping hole in the fence is how people — or their spiritual guides — choose to define goodness or moral behaviour, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What’s tripping me right now is the word ‘Allah’. Should I leave it as I found it, changing merely the Bengali script for the Roman, or should I translate the entire text precisely, and replace ‘Allah’ with ‘God’? One the one hand, there is accuracy: ‘Allah’ does in fact translate exactly as ‘god’. On the other, however, there could be possible charges of identity-suppression. A too-literal translation could veil the line’s Islamic roots and this, I have been advised, might be a less-than-desirable — even a potentially offensive — end.

Personally, I like the sound of ‘Allah’ being pronounced more than I like ‘god’ (although this could be the numbing effect of familiarity, since I say ‘god’ several times a day, but very seldom do I say ‘allah’), but the ‘offence’ angle I find rather hard to entertain. If people reject a sensible edict merely because it is Islamic in origin, or conversely, accept it only because the Quran advises it, and not on its own merit, then I find I don’t particularly care about the affront my (otherwise harmless) word-choice inflicts on their shallow communalism.

Then again, holding snap offence-taking in contempt does not automatically make their tools superfluous. Word choices and contexts of origin — when not used for inflamatory ends — are enormously significant. Especially in a plural society like ours, where religious and linguistic affiliations do not map neatly onto ethnic or regional boundaries. The text I am translating, for example, is written by a Bengali Muslim gentleman. Another text from the same box is written in Hindi by a Buddhist woman living in North Bengal, who refers to her creator as ‘bhagwan’. On the other hand, an upper-caste Bengali Hindu woman working in an impoverished village near the Sunderban writes, “Thakur eder bhalo korun” (approximately, “May ‘thakur’ do well by these people”).

It’s true that literally, each of the words used can be translated as ‘god’. But ‘god’ is not a tabula rasa upon which we can project our own constructs of divinity minus cultural interference. Thanks to the colonial Christian association of the English language, ‘god’ has come to denote — for most of us, at least — the divine entity worshipped (by white people) in churches. Which is why ‘god willing’ has the same feel, but a distinctly different flavour from ‘inshallah’, and ‘ma Kaalir dibbi!’ has no effective English equivalent. On the other hand, ‘bNeche thaak/jeete raho (literally, ‘carry on being alive’) has no similarities with ‘the lord bless and keep you’ at all, but eventually, both phrases can be deconstructed into the same hope.

So I suppose, in deference to our diversity, I will romanise ‘Allah’, and not translate it. But I will be bothered by the fact that in India, as in all mosaic multiethnic cultures, the acknowledgement of pluralism is also simultaneously a reductive sign-post for identity-politics.

But I suppose that is one of the prices you pay for living in a rich, heterogeneous democracy. Oh well.



  1. Not translating is correct I think. Context is important. One time right after 9-11, we named our pub trivia team Allahu Akbar just to mess up with Liam, the Irish Catholic quizmaster. He steadfastly refused to announce our team name and instead renamed our team “God is Great”. Believers and their sensitivities 🙂

  2. I have a suggestion which digresses from your main point. The transliteration of ar Ra’d should actually be al Ra’d. Basically the Bengali Muslim gentleman rendered the spoken Arabic into Bengali. The prefix al changes form in spoken Arabic depending on what follows it (hence al salam becomes assalam and so on). In English in general, the written Arabic convention is preserved.

    • Swati, you come through, as usual 🙂 Thanks. Although, there’s this website — The Noble Qu’ran — which spells it the way it has been spelt here. Then again, I don’t know who put up that site.

  3. You did well. Translation should not mean beating out the individual identity out of the substrate. In the case of Abrahamics and specially in the case of Muslims, religion is a big part of identity. We Hindus are the only people who would put the picture of Ganesh on a tiffin box and Durga on a packet of Muri.

  4. Allah rekhe de. Kara eta niye identity politics korbe sheta bhoga-i janen. Tar jonnye why would you tamp down on the rich cultural and linguistic swad of Allah? Besh tok jhaal mishti laage shunle 🙂

  5. Re. Poushali’s comment, completely agree, Rimini, keep Allah..I have rarely heard an exclamation as sweet as Mashallah or Hai Allah…being whispered over something one may have said! Dear God just don’t cut it! Bhoga Re! is splendid too!

  6. Exactly for the same reason I somehow have great discomfort in calling (Robindronath) Thakur as (Rabindranath) Tagore. No need to strive for conformity at the cost of originality – otherwise everything starts looking like matchsticks in a matchbox.

  7. I understand your dilemma about the specific bit you are translating. But how can acknowledging pluralism be a ‘reductive sign post’ for identity politics. A democracy necessarily means a constant ebb and flow between various interest groups and hopefully working out a happy medium. In a country like ours, religion will play a part in defining the identity of large swathes of our population. One cannot wish it away. The challenge is to develop other identities so that religion is not the only identity that defines people. I work mainly in Howrah, the other side of the river from Calcutta. It has a huge muslim population. Initially I would be very surprised to find someone called say Tasnima Khatoon arrive wearing a bright red vermellion ‘teep’. This would be a classic case of regional identity trumping the religious one.

  8. Dr. Guha Thakurta, first, that is an excellent anecdote :-). And second, I think you misunderstood my point. I do not want to translate Allah/thakur/bhogobaan etc. as God/god because I want to represent the diversity of the original utterences to indicate our rich plural society. However, despite the multiplicity of identities we have (gender, ethnicity, language group, religion, region etc.), we’ve all met people who prefer to react to other people/things based primarily on their religious affiliation. So for these people, recognisable religious signs are not a symbol of centuries of co-existence, but a way of deciding how to react to a certain person, phenomenon or thing — aeta amader, na oder? This is what I mean by ‘signpost for identity politics’.

  9. Agreed. Another translation issue to consider, though, is whether the ‘Muslim God’ and the ‘Christian God’ are really the same entity. Sure, Arabic speaking Christians refer to their deity as ‘Allah,’ but you can easily argue they’re distinct: they’re supposed to have written different books, one of them has a kid etc. So although the Arabic word can be mapped onto the English, we should also question the theological assumptions (typically some version of the Philosophia Perennis, often via Vivekananda) that makes it seem credible to translate one into the other at all. Same goes for your Buddhist lady and ‘Bhagavan’. Does she mean the Buddha? That’s a common enough epithet. But does she view the Buddha as a creator god? It’s possible, of course, but most Buddhists would presumably disagree…all of which is to day that there are a variety of compelling reasons to resist collapsing those distinctions.

    • Quite, quite so.

      Perhaps in the instance of the Abrahamic faiths one could argue, textually at least, that the separate books form an internally consistent timeline. The OT comes first; the NT then carries the torch till god has his son back, and the Quran collates all star-billed OT/NT (and beyond) men in its list of prophets — going as far back as Adam — and rounds it off with Hazrat Muhammad. But in the case of the subcontinent, the Hindu/Buddhist bhagvan/thakur is much more difficult to separate. My Bengali Christian classmates at school often exclaimed “Bhogobaan!” too — what ‘god’ was conjured in their mind when they took his/her/its name thus?

      I can see how tempting the simplicity of the aektara is, as Robithakur once said, but I think I much prefer the complexity of the veena, difficult though it is to play.


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