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On the Polysemy of 'Islam' and its Cultural Logic

A talk by Dr Navid Naderi

Tuesday 11 June 2024, 16 - 18 (BST)

FAB 5.03, The University of Warwick, Coventry (hybrid);

This event is hosted by Warwick Research Collective, the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies.

The event is hybrid and open to all. Please register below. 

The Persian word eslām is always translated, with no exception, to the English “Islam,” but the two have rather different modes of signification in the two languages. “Eslām” primarily refers to a “religion” and a “way of life” in Persian: a set of doctrines, rules, practices, and ways of conducting oneself in the world that some people believe in and act according to, and some don’t, unless they are forced to. But “Islam,” in English (but also in other European languages), is the name of a “religion” that primarily signifies racially, and marks the person, people, idea, lifestyle, or really anything to which it might attach as originally external to “Europe” (but also to “America”) as a cultural and geopolitical entity—in other words “Islam,” as Gil Anidjar has argued, is the name of a “religion” that signifies a “race” understood as “Europe’s,” “Christian Europe’s,” or maybe “Judeo-Christian Civilization’s” (geo)political enemy. That is why one’s beliefs, practices, way of life, and mode of conduct, which are essential to the meaning of “eslām” in Persian, do not really matter when it comes, for example, to the “Muslim ban,” or really any other form of Islamophobic legislation, in English. One is presupposed, in English, to be a “Muslim” when coming from a country or a region, geo-politically associated with “Islam” (and “coming from” may go way back). The Persian “eslām-e siyāsi,” on the hand, comes from English. It is a literal translation of the English “political Islam” (itself translating an older “Islamism,” “islamisme,” or “islamismus”) and, semantically speaking, has much more in common with its European equivalents compared to the case of “eslām” and “Islam.” But, at the same time, “eslām-e siyāsi,” in Persian, has certain military-cultural and politico-economical significations that seem to be lost in the essentially tele-visual and heavily mediatized discussions of “political Islam” in English, so saturated as they are with spectacles of terrorism, war, destruction, and devastation, and also with the racial significations of “Islam.” This talk is a reflection on a field of translations, mistranslations, and mystranslations of “Islam,” and tries to give an account of the cultural logic of the catastrophic, or explosive, polysemy that rises from this history of translation.                       

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