Book Review: Ronit Ricci’s “Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia″ reviewed by Afsar Mohammad

In this deftly argued and neatly written book, Ronit Ricci offers
fresh insights and tools for the study of various locally produced
Islamic texts and their reception in South and Southeast Asia.
Following the well-discussed paradigm of the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis,”
which was introduced by the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock, Ricci
develops the idea of the “Arabic Cosmopolis.” Her valuable
contribution lies in its potential to generate a debate about the
trans-local Islamic literary sphere that is constituted and defined
by language, literature, and religion at a broad level, and in South
Asian Islam in particular. According to Ricci, the paradigm of the
“Arabic cosmopolis” includes a large geographic area through South
and Southeast Asia. Focusing specifically on local translations and
transmissions of an Arabic text, _The Book of One Thousand Questions
_(printed in Arabic in 1920), into local languages, such as Javanese,
Tamil, and Malay, Ricci explores the processes of  translation and
conversion in South and Southeast Asia. Although this study is
restricted to specific local languages, her observations and
analytical paths provide tools to comprehend the contours of this
text beyond the limits of the Arabic language or various languages
that she discusses in the book.

The book begins with an introduction that theorizes the concept of
the “Arabic cosmopolis.” Connecting to various discussions on
literary transmission, translation, and religious conversions, Ricci
situates the local languages in a theoretical framework that
circumscribes diverse historical phases, literary networks, and
Islamization in South and Southeast Asia. The comparative study of
India and Indonesia lifts this work to an extremely advantageous
status. In the next key section of the introduction, Ricci expands
this discussion of the literary networks further in theorizing these
textual dynamics, and explains the concept of the “Arabic cosmopolis”
of South and Southeast Asia. She argues that the comprehension of the
processes of conversion and translation remain incomplete if we fail
to consider seriously the role of Arabic. According to the author,
“Arabic’s incorporation–at many levels–into local vernaculars has
brought about profound and long-lasting transformations” (p. 12).

This book has three parts: part 1 discusses translation focusing on
the idea of untranslatability, part 2 examines the intriguing aspect
of conversions, and part 3 offers concluding remarks. In the first
part, Ricci uses three literary texts: _The_ _Book of Samud_ from
Javanese; _Ayira Macala _(A thousand questions_ _[printed 1984]) from
Tamil; and finally _Seribu Masalah _(A thousand questions), the Malay
version of _The Book of One Thousand Questions_. Her exploration
begins with a basic premise that the word “translation” itself is
untranslatable (p. 32). While this idea is intriguing, Ricci expands
the definition of “translation” by examining various translations of
the Arabic texts in local languages. The author discovers a shift in
the approaches toward translation in locally produced texts that
simultaneously effaced the individual translator but boldy and
creatively reworked the text. Beginning with the wide-ranging
transmission of the Arabic language Ricci discusses how the dynamics
of conversion were reflected in_The Book of One Thousand Questions_
in Javanese, Malay, and Tamil texts. In the third part, the
conclusion, Ricci offers fresh insights on her idea of the Arabic
cosmopolis by looking at the role of local communities in “the
formation of a new literary and religious repository that was richly
interconnected both with a distant past and with a local present” (p.

Current research on the production and transmission of premodern
South Asian literature focuses heavily on Sanskrit texts or
Sanskrit-related materials. Although we have a few studies concerned
with non-Sanskrit languages and literature, they too mostly focus on
non-Islamic writing. Studies on Islamic literary materials remain
unexplored. Undoubtedly, Ricci’s book fills this void while
successfully analyzing an Islamic narrative that blends local and
global Islamic cultural and social aspects. In this case, this work
is more about the literary networks of South and Southeast Muslim
communities than South and Southeast Asia as such. Ricci uses the
term “literary networks” in a specific way as it represents “shared
texts, including stories, poems, genealogies, histories, and
treatises on a broad range of topics, as well as the readers,
listeners, authors, patrons, translators, and scribes  who created,
translated, supported, and transmitted them” (p. 2). For a student of
literary and cultural studies, this idea of literary networks opens
up a wide array of research options and provides a wealth of
materials and their uses in the literary cultures of South Indian
Islam. This entire discussion on literary networks takes on a
fascinating turn when Ricci uses the concept of “prior texts” as
proposed by A. L. Becker about the uses of old texts and their
reformulations in modern times. This observation parallels neatly the
debate on various Muslim texts now being circulated in South Asia in
general, and South India in particular.

Ricci’s work prioritizes the uses of diverse genres of literary texts
both in manuscript and printed  books, mainly shaped by the influx of
Arabic. The examples she presents clearly demonstrate that they were
shaped by an Arabic model, which fits comfortably into her
proposition about the Arabic cosmopolis. However, the use of Arabic
as a religious language and its vocabulary has a certain hierarchy,
which in some contexts equals a “normative” Islam. Although many
textual materials within the religious sphere of Islam remain fixed
to an Arabic paradigm, it is imperative to recognize the popularity
of Sufi materials that borrow heavily from Persian-language sources.
In the realm of popular Islam and Sufi devotional materials, either
oral or written, we find an equally significant network that is
equivalent to the Arabic cosmopolis. Although Ricci refers to a few
aspects of the Persian narrative in her book, she does so in relation
to the Arabic cosmopolis. How could we make use of her valuable tools
in the context of Persianate Islamic literary networks? Even in the
case of the conversions that occupied a significant place in Ricci’s
analysis, the networks of Persian literary texts have a crucial role
as many Sufi schools in South Asia adapted and appropriated Persian
Sufi texts to “convert” non-Muslims into Muslims. Ricci’s work opens
up the possibility for developing a different study using Persian

Citation: Afsar Mohammad. Review of Ricci, Ronit, _Islam Translated:
Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and
Southeast Asia_. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. November, 2012.

Ronit Ricci.  Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the
Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia.  Chicago  University
of Chicago Press, 2011.  336 pp.  $45.00 (cloth), ISBN

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