Translating old texts is termed a divine calling
Brigham Young University and the LDS Church are both benefiting from the school’s efforts to coordinate translation of a series of ancient Middle Eastern religious texts never before accessible to the Western world.
And the director overseeing the project sees God in the details.
“I genuinely believe that a mind wiser than any of ours has nudged us in the right direction, time and time again,” said Daniel Peterson, director of the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART) at BYU.
Such divine intervention “has led us to things and to people that we could not, on our own, have found. . . . When human abilities were needed, they materialized. When financial resources have been required, they have appeared. . . . I do not believe we have come this far by chance.”
During Monday’s opening sessions of BYU’s annual Education Week, Peterson shared the history of how ISPART came to be, and the variety of materials and scholars involved in the translation effort over the past decade. He said the program is not only a premiere academic endeavor, but is building bridges for the school and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among international Muslim scholars, politicians and students.
After the Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies (FARMS) came to prominence for scholarly inquiry into the Book of Mormon in the 1980s, the BYU-affiliated group began taking on non-LDS research projects. Peterson said he had wanted to translate classic Muslim texts since his graduate school days, and he was approached in the early 1990s by Elder Alexander Morrison of the LDS Church’s Quorums of Seventy about how to reach out to Muslims.
They combined with BYU’s efforts to electronically digitize ancient records including the Dead Sea Scrolls and materials from the Vatican Apostolic Library. And now they are operating under ISPART, with Peterson as director.
His focus has been work on the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, which involves English translations of ancient Muslim works that now include three independent series and two sub-series. A long string of crucial academic contacts have come to the fore just at the time ISPART was looking for expertise in various specialties, Peterson said.
One particularly stunning development came about when he began searching for the world’s best Arabic word processing software for the translation effort, only to find “that it was produced and marketed by a Utah Valley company headed up by my neighbor and home teacher, a close friend whom I had first met as a fellow student in Cairo. What were the odds of that?”
The first translation was finished in 1997, titled “The Incoherence of the Philosophers” by 11th Century Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali, considered by many Muslims to be the greatest figure in Islam after Muhammad himself, according to Peterson.
The book is now being used in leading universities as a text, and has become known internationally among Muslim scholars, politicians and even lay Muslims, millions of whom don’t read Arabic but English, he said.
When Abdulrahman Wahid, who became president of Indonesia, visited Salt Lake City several years ago, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley gave him a translated copy of the “The Incoherence of the Philosophers.” He became emotional and said as a university student he had struggled with his faith, but the book had helped him regain his belief.
“He was deeply moved that the Mormons, of all people, were making that book more widely available, and he offered to be of assistance to us in our work in his country,” Peterson said.
Since that time, the project has continued to expand, Peterson said, and now the biggest challenge facing the institute is “the number of manuscripts and opportunities that are coming our way.”
As they do, Peterson said he hopes the same divine hand will continue to guide the effort.