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I recently had the honour of interviewing Sidi Abdul Aziz Suraqah, an inspiring translator, editor and educator, currently based in Toronto (Canada), who has translated some of the best available Classical Islamic text out there from Arabic to English. Moreover, he is famously known for his fantastic website and blog: Ibriz Media.
(The interview below has been checked and approved by Sidi Abdul Aziz Suraqah, and I am publishing this after his consent)
Sidra: Please could you share a bit about yourself?
Abdul Aziz : My name is Abdul Aziz Suraqah. I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. During the golden age of Hip Hop, when I was 14 years old, I was inspired by groups like Public Enemy and KRS One to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That led to an interest in Islam, and so after reading a translation of the Quran I embraced Islam, al-Hamdulillah. A couple of years later I began to study Arabic and soon thereafter pursued further studies in Yemen, Mauritania, and Morocco. I currently teach at Dar al-Ma’rifah and Risalah Foundation here in Toronto, Canada. And since 2007 I’ve been translating Islamic texts full time. The name of my service is Ibriz Media.
Sidra: What inspired you to become a translator?
Abdul Aziz : It all came about quite accidentally I must admit. Upon returning the US and becoming a teacher at a private Islamic school, I found myself translating things here and there to go along with the class material for the students. There were also certain smaller texts that at the time seemed worthwhile to translate, so in 2002 or so I began working on them (some of them were completed and others were shelved—which is for the best, as the first attempts were all cringe worthy :)).
There’s this expectation among many people that a returning “student of knowledge” will be, or should be, in the community delivering talks, lectures, engaging with the people, etc. That’s perhaps true for many who return to the west after studying Islamic sciences overseas, but as an introvert that’s terrifying. And besides, I never really considered myself a “student of knowledge” so to speak. The question for me early on after returning from my formal studies was: how do I take my passion for the Islamic sciences and contribute and serve in a way that best fits my introverted nature?
Teaching small groups of teenagers and young adults has been very fulfilling, but the answer to that question didn’t become clear till 2006 or so, when I was blessed with the opportunity to translate selections from various classical and contemporary works that deal with Islamic spirituality, theology, etc. Those samples were put up on www.marifah.net and are still available today. A year or so after working with www.marifah.net, the brother running the site, Sidi Hamoudeh, founded Sunni Publications and asked me to co-translate and edit Shaykh Ramadan al-Bouti’s Al-La Madhhabiyya:Abandoning the Madhhabs. After that he asked me translate full-time for Sunni Publications, and so I began working daily—sometimes up to 12 hours a day—on Shaykh Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki’sNotions That Must Be Corrected. After a while I had found a flow and continued working non-stop, five days a week, from home (wearing regular clothes, not pajamas :)).
Al-Hamdulillah, it really is a great blessing to translate traditional Islamic texts—to wake up in the morning and spend hours alone with the words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the Companions (Allah be pleased with them), and the saints and savants of this Umma, and hopefully convey some of those meanings for the benefit of others.
Sidra: Please could you tell us about some of the books you have translated?
Abdul Aziz : They are exclusively in the field of Islamic studies, particularly books on Islamic spirituality, theology, and prophetology. Most of the titles I’ve been blessed to work are found on my portfolio page at Ibriz Media.
Sidra: What books have most influenced your life most?
Abdul Aziz : With regard to books on Islamic subjects, I’d start with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as that was my first exposure to Islam and what led me to become a Muslim. After that, the most influential books for me were Imam al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-dalal (Deliverance from Error), Ibn ‘Ata’illah’s al-Tanwir fi isqat al-tadbir(Illumination in Dropping Self-direction), Shaykh Ahmad b. Mubarak al-Lamati’s al-Ibriz (Pure Gold from the Words of My Master ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Dabbagh), Shaykh Muhammad al-Qandusi’s Sharab Ahl al-Safa (The Drink of the People of Purity), Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani’s Jawahir al-bihar, Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir’s al-Mawaqif, Gai Eaton’s King of the Castle, and virtually everything written by my two favorite authors, Imam ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani (his al-‘Uhud al-Muhammadiyya is my favorite) and Sidi Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba.
As for books that are not explicitly Islamic, some of the most influential for me have been Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Rene Guenon’s Crisis of the Modern World and The Reign of Quantity, Weston A Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Paul Chek’s How to Eat, Move, and Be Healthy, Robert Greene’s Mastery, and Charles Moss’ Power of the Five Elements.
Sidra: What are your current projects?
Abdul Aziz : Right now I’m working on Sidi Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba’s tafsir of Sura Maryam, Shaykh Salih al-Din al-Tijani’s collection of spiritual discourses and aphorisms called al-Tanazzulat al-Ilahiyya (Divine Inspirations), and Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s Takmil al-nu’ut fi luzum al-buyut, whose title will probably by paraphrased in English as The Virtues of Isolation in Times Tribulation, or The Virtues of Seclusion in Times of Confusion—it’s a small work on the virtues of keeping to one’s self in times of fitna.
Besides these three books, there are a number of other projects going on, either in their beginning stages or final editorial stages, so an average day for me consists of translating new material for two, sometimes three books, editing finished works, and researching.
Sidra: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Abdul Aziz : The most challenging thing in translating Islamic literature, for me at least, is maintaining a good intention and upholding adab in the entire process from beginning to end. It’s not always easy to translate these incredibly profound spiritual or theological works day in and day out—it’s hard to be “on” and in the moment with the texts every single day. When I experience constriction (qabd) or a mental block or setback, I’ll work on less intensive projects or even pull back for a day or two and double up when my energy returns.
For example, one of the translations recently published, Sidi Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba’s explanation of the meanings of the Ninety-nine Divine Names, was simply too overwhelming to translate all at once. The sheer majesty (jalal) of the meaning of the Divine Names became very difficult to bear and I had to limit how much of it I worked on each day. Translation of Islamic texts on spirituality are particularly difficult since they shine a light into the darkest corners of the soul and show you how far you are from what they describe.
From a technical perspective, the biggest challenge is striking a balance between fidelity to the source language, i.e., the original words of the author, and readability in the target language. It’s incredibly challenging and there are several possibilities to choose from, so the first rule I try to observe is “Do no harm.”
Sidra: What are the most rewarding elements of translating a book?
Abdul Aziz : By far the most rewarding element of translating is when the book brings you into a spiritual state where you are so engrossed in the content that you lose sight of the ink, the pages, the daily word count, and you feel as if you are in the presence of the author, or better yet spiritually uplifted by his or her words. The best example of this for me was when translating Shaykh Muhammad al-Qandusi’s The Drink of the People of Purity. My family and I were packing our things and moving to a new apartment when it was being translated, but I still put in 12 hours for many days working on it—but it never felt like more than 4 hours. Opening The Drink and translating it entered me into a spiritual time warp of sorts, and the content of the book was so uplifting I wished it never ended.
It’s also very touching to meet someone who says they benefitted from a book I’ve translated. Translation work is lonely and most translators don’t get to hear back from readers, so when we do hear that someone has enjoyed or benefitted from our work it makes all the efforts worthwhile, al-Hamdulillah. The best feedback I’ve received was from a friend who read The Drink of the People of Purity and saw the author Shaykh Muhammad al-Qandusi in a dream. Here is what he said:
I fell asleep reading The Drink of The People of Purity. As soon as I fell asleep, I found myself at Bab al-Futuh [a large cemetery in Fez, Morocco in which lie thousands of saints and scholars] in front of the Maqam of Sayyidna Abdul Aziz al-Dabbagh. At the Maqam, I found an old man sitting with his back resting on the outer left wall of the Maqam. I walked to the man and asked him to make du’a for my affairs. He raised his head and said, “What more is there to give you after my book?” I was puzzled and then I asked him, “Are you Shaykh Muhammad al-Qandusi?” The man replied with a very intense stare, “I am him but he is not I. He knows where I am.” I lowered my gaze and begged for du’a. He said, “Do not wait to drink until you are overcome with thirst. Drink! And always stay hydrated.” He then said “If you don’t know what I mean then ask my Translator.” After he said this, His Jalal [majesty] immediately turned into Jamal [beauty] with a radiant smile. I kissed his forehead and woke up.
Sidra: Can you give us some examples of a word or phrase that just doesn’t translate well?
Abdul Aziz : Let’s see. Taqwa comes up a lot and there doesn’t seem to be good translation of it that is accurate and a single word. You’ll see renderings such as Godfearingness (my preferred choice when it is not used in a different context), mindfulness (a nice sounding translation but still a bit opaque), God-consciousness, and even fear.
When translating Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani’s Wasa’il al-wusul (Muhammad: His Character and Beauty) I had to wrestle with an oft-used word pair, mudarat and mudahana. Mudarat is defined as “the sacrifice of a worldly interest in order to attain either a worldly or a religious benefit, or both together,” so after much mental wrangling I settled on the word sociability. The other word, mudahana, literally means lubricity (yeah, that’s a word). It is defined as “the sacrifice of one’s religion for the sake of attaining a worldly benefit.” (Bajuri) The late translator Muhtar Holland (Allah have mercy upon him) translated it is “fawning flattery.” That’s a sound translation, but after consultation with some teachers I decided to translate it as sycophancy.
In Arabic there are many phrases that are hard to turn around into English. Sometimes the original flow is lost in order to preserve the structure of the target language; but over the years translators develop a repertoire of maneuvers and turns of phrase that get them out of tight spots.
Sidra: Which book past or present, do you imagine was the most difficult to translate?
Abdul Aziz : No need to imagine that one! The most difficult translation by far was Shaykh Sa’id Foudah’s A Refined Explanation on the Sanusi Creed. That project cost me blood, sweat, and tears (the latter two literally!) It’s an intermediate text in classical Sunni-Ash’ari theology detailing the textual and rational proofs for the tenets of faith. What made the project so challenging was the footnotes, as Shaykh Sa’id was quoting from earlier theologians who are known to use a very tightly packed style of speech where detailed meanings are crammed into terse phrases. It’s no exaggeration to say that unpacking those into clear English was at times terrifying. This is theology after all; who wants to mistranslate something about belief in Allah and His Messengers and unknowingly mislead innocent readers? Ya Latif!
Sidra: How long does it take you to translate a book roughly?
Abdul Aziz : It all depends on the nature of the book, the time period in which it was written, the size, etc. For a book in Arabic that is, say, 100 pages with average sized font, it can take anywhere from a month to two months to translate it provided it’s the only thing I’m working on. But that doesn’t factor in all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing a book for publication: self-edits, research, copy editing, typesetting, proofreading, etc. It usually takes 18 months or more for a book to get from A to Z and in bookstores, so when you see a translation made available at a bookstore or online, it was probably finished around two years ago. (Sometimes it can be more; Shaykh ‘Abdallah Siraj al-Din’s book, Sending Prayers Upon the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), was completed in 2008 and came out just this spring.)
Sidra: What does Ibriz mean and what inspired you to come up with that title for your services?
Abdul Aziz: The name was inspired by the work al-Ibriz of Shaykh Ahmad b. Mubarak al-Lamati and the Golden Ratio.
Ibriz is “Pure Gold”
The word Ibriz (pronounced like e-breeze) is Arabic for pure gold. Ibriz is also the title to one of my favorite books: al-Ibriz min kalam Sayyidi ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Dabbagh (Pure Gold from the Words of My Master ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Dabbagh).
Ibriz is Equilibrium and Beauty
The logo for Ibriz is a drawing of the Golden Spiral representing the Golden Section, also called the Golden Ratio and the Divina Proportione (the Divine Proportion), which represents beauty and balance, rigor and equilibrium. The golden ratio and the sacred art that is produced through it are extremely direct expressions of the idea of the Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world. It is through harmony that the Divine is reflected into the world, which is called “unity in multiplicity,” and “multiplicity in unity.”
Sidra: If it were up to you, what would be your dream project?
Abdul Aziz : If I were on a mountain top and had all the time and resources I need, there is no question about it, I would do an annotated re-translation of al-Ibriz (the current translation by two Orientalists has several fatal errors), a complete translation of Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani’s three volume compendium of Prophetic Love Jawahir al-bihar (Jewels of the Seas), Shaykh Muhammad al-Qandusi’s 300 page magnum opus al-Ta’sis fi masawi al-dunya wa mahawi Iblis (a book about combating the traps of Shaytan through love and attachment to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)), and a recent five hundred page work that has collected numerous stories of saints and pious people who saw the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in their dreams and conversed with him.
Sidra: Jazak’llahu khayran for your time, and for sharing and inspiring your journey as a translator so far with us!