We have all felt the frustration at some point in our lives of not being able to find the answers to those crucial questions that assault every inquiring mind. We somehow innately believe that the Qur’an holds the answers to many of these questions, but when we turn to even the best translations at our disposal, we find them inadequate, either because the translation is obtuse or because there is no authoritative explanation to address the very question in whose quest we began our search.
We intrinsically believe that the traditions of the Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them) contain the panacea for all ills of body and soul, yet the language divide between us and them proves too vast: Few collections of their sayings are translated into English, and arguably none convey the inimitable power of their teachings.
It was to fill this abyssal void that the Islamic Texts Institute (ITI) was founded. ITI is a non-profit organization that aims to make Islamic primary sources available to Muslims in the West by providing accurate, scholarly translations of major Shia collections of traditions accompanied by sufficient commentary to facilitate the reader’s comprehension and assimilation of these teachings.
The team at ITI currently consists of three highly trained scholars of the howzah, or Islamic seminary, of Qum with expertise in various fields vital to the study of the traditions. Shaikh Hameed Ha’iri, a pupil of the late Mudarris Afghani, is a renowned expert of Arabic grammar and literature and a tireless researcher. No more than twenty seconds pass from the time he enters the Institute before he delves into the substantial pile of books on his desk and begins laboriously taking notes on every aspect of the tradition he is studying. In the five years I have known him, no grammatical structure, no matter how convoluted, has proved too difficult for him to tackle. It is not uncommon for him to stay long after hours to pursue an evasive tradition.
Shaikh Muhsin Ahmadi, an outstanding student of the late Ayatollah Jawad Tabrizi, is an accomplished mujtahid, or jurist of Islamic law. His passion lies squarely in understanding, living and teaching the Qur’an and the Sunnah, or way of life, of the Prophet and his Household. During his long career in the howzah, he has had the opportunity to work alongside the greatest scholars and researchers of this generation like Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli, Ayatollah Safi Gulpaygani, Ayatollah Reza Ustadi, and Ali Akbar Ghaffari. It has often crossed my mind that his analysis of primary texts is tantamount to skilled detective work. Beginning with an unbiased mindset, he builds his case for or against a particular interpretation with uncanny attention to contextual clues, thus carrying on the tradition of his teacher and his teacher’s teacher, Sayyid Al-Khu’i.
The newest member of the ITI team is Sayyid Muhammad Najafi. Like Shaykh Ahmadi, he is an outstanding student of the late Ayatollah Tabrizi, and he is also an accomplished mujtahid. For the last five years, he has taught Dars al-Kharij, the highest level of classes offered in the Islamic seminary to those who wish to become mujtahids. He is renowned for his depth of understanding, his breadth of experience studying and teaching the traditions of the Prophet and his Household, for his honed debating skills and his charming wit.
Ever since the vision of ITI began developing in my mind nearly a year and a half ago, there have been some who wonder what need exists for such a high-caliber team, much less an institute, to produce “just a translation.” They are even more baffled at the need to budget upward of $40,000 a year for the said “just a translation”. Such objectors fail to comprehend the nature of translation and the very mission of ITI.
Even if ITI’s work were “just a translation,” an accurate, defensible translation of texts so vital to the salvation or damnation of man needs more than a linguist skilled in the source and receptor languages. It needs a grammarian, a theologian, an exegete, a historian, a jurist, and so much more to ensure that the message being conveyed is the same as the message that was spoken. Groups like the American Bible Society realized this fact nearly 200 years ago.
That said, the quest of ITI is so much more translation work. ITI is founded on the philosophy that the Qur’an and traditions are veritable treasuries of wisdom and guidance. However, just as divine sagacity deemed it necessary to install a Prophet to explain the Qur’an to people, and a series of Imams to explain the Quran and the Prophet’s traditions, so too divine wisdom—and sheer human need—demand that those scholars who have devoted their lives to learning and living Islam carry on the mission of explaining the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet and the Imams to all people. Anyone who has tried to understand Islam through translations of these texts knows exactly what I am saying. The reality is that it is rare, if not unheard of, for any one person to embody all the requisite skills. Thus, the best alternative is to empower the translator with the support of various experts so that each one brings to the table what the others lack.
Naturally, group work requires a coordination of efforts, discipline, office space, a library and other logistical necessities. All this costs money. To support a staff of this caliber costs money. Bible societies that work on a scale similar to ITI’s spend upward of $250,000 per year. ITI, on the other hand, has been able to keep costs to a minimum, in large part due to the staff’s selfless commitment to the cause. One researcher returns one third of his wages each month to support ITI. All put in many more hours than they clock in, and it is not uncommon for them to carry work home to refer to books in their own libraries.
As its first endeavor, ITI has decided to take on the first two volumes of Kitab Al-Kafi, known as Usul Al-Kafi because of the pivotal role this collection has played in the development of Islamic scholarship and because of its vast reservoir of teachings from the Prophet and Imams. In parallel with Usul Al-Kafi, ITI has begun a short-term project on “Dua An Nudbah”.
It is natural to ask: “Why Al-Kafi? Has it not been translated already?” The simplest way to understand the answer is to compare the work of ITI (available for viewing at www.islamictexts.org) to the two existing translations of Al-Kafi. Aside from the clarity of ITI’s translation, the real value added by ITI’s work is the extensive commentary.
More than critics and naysayers, ITI needs the support of the community that stands to benefit most from its success. ITI needs the financial backing of those who share in the lofty vision of an Islamically literate Ummah (community) ready to answer the call of the 12th Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance) when he rises up. ITI needs the prayers and good wishes of all Muslims.
May God make us among those for whom Imam ar-Rida (peace be upon him) offered a prayer when he said, “May God have mercy on him who revives our cause … [by] learning from our teachings and teaching them to others, for if people only knew the beauty of our words, they would undoubtedly follow us.”
For more information on ITI and its mission, visit www.islamictexts.org
Shaikh Rizwan Arastu is the director of the Islamic Texts Institute.