How to do things with translation: Translation as archives of mobility

By Iza Hussin

The opening pages of KPG7514.M35 1837,[1] the text that forms the subject of the first blog entry, and texts like it, have given scholars a better sense of how law was understood in the Malay world in its moment: Bahawa Ini Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor, “this is the book of Islamic laws in use in the state of Johor.” They locate the text within a map of concepts embedded within institutions and histories of their use, a map that indicates a multiplicity of legal sources and codes, layered on top of and alongside each other, of which undang-undang qanun was one. The text records law in use, and the history of its copying, its preservation, and its archival traces, locates this particular text at the border between British colonial and Malay-Islamic institutions, at a moment in flux. These register the traces of translative dynamics in at least three registers: at the level of words and their meanings, of their comparison across borders and languages, of their conflation across systems and within power imbalances, particularly those of imperial law-making, each of which have been discussed in earlier entries. This last post considers how scholars locate themselves within the translative enterprise, and the possible problems and benefits of treating translation more explicitly across these multiple registers.

Translative dynamics permeate the field of Islamic legal studies, both in our readings of the circulation of law and jurisprudence, as well as of the work of Islamic legal scholarship. A great deal of foundational work has been done on the translation of legal concepts and their application between Arabic and any number of languages and contexts.[2] Recently, scholars have drawn our attention to the need to pay close attention to transformations in law’s textual and institutional forms and the translative work done by these dynamics. Perhaps because of this, and the notably polyglot character of much Islamic legal scholarship, translatability and mutual legibility seem easy to take for granted. Yet these three registers of translation suggest further lines of productive exploration, and particularly for collaboration across imperial archives and language groups, between regional networks, and across a range of disciplines. Specifically, thinking about translation makes visible how global categories become so, and how historically contingent their universalisation has been. For those of us concerned pedagogically and analytically with a critique of colonial legacies, these trajectories of translation present a series of problems, and exciting possibilities, in histories of political thought.

In my work on the making of the category of ‘Islamic law’ in Malaya, India, and Egypt, I used the institutional and semantic entanglement of concepts in English to highlight colonial and imperial dynamics in the transformation of Islamic law, which then resulted in a series of challenges when considering an Arabic translation.[3] A challenge for comparative political thought continues to be to decenter the Anglophone and European historical experience from the core conceptual glossaries of the field, and in doing so to critically reconsider their associations. For example, the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for “jurisdiction” tracks its usage through British colonial India, citing texts in the domains of administration, revenue and law.[4] Jurisdiction evokes multiple shades of meaning: as a term in law that refers to physical territory, to state sovereignty, to adjudicative responsibility, as well as to rights to rule, but does so through a colonial history as well. In Arabic translation, how might we discuss juris- and –diction to make explicit the analytic move between the staking out of territory and the pronouncement of law? The English term ‘authority’ relates both to origins and to writing, encapsulating a key dynamic in The Politics of Islamic Law, the powerful role played by texts and language, codification and textualization, in the making of the modern state. Recognizing the risk of reducing history to etymology, just as the roots of the term ‘siyasa’ run back to s-w-s, in the sense of tending and managing people and cities, so does the base sense of ‘authority’ in English run back to meanings associated with creation, fathering, founding and the making of text. Similarly, the English terms ‘law’ and ‘legislation’ are associated with processes of writing, reading, and rendering things read-able, and also connected closely with the concept of legitimacy.

Returning to the Malay text with which we began, these links of association and institutional history do not map onto the Malay sense of undang-undang, which connect legality not to texts and reading, but to public ceremonials, to order, and to gathering. What is lost when we translate both undang-undang and qanun to ‘law,’ and what impact does this have on our ability to work with texts such as Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor? At the very least, we risk minimizing the major, and multiple, translative genres already at work here, recognizing the semantic labor of Munshi Abdullah while missing the comparative and conflational work done by actors within and between institutions. The previous posts indicate that ‘religion’ and ‘personal,’ too, would benefit from a similar destabilization of their tight associations to the semantic maps of European political and imperial thought, in favor of a critical appraisal of the comparative and conflational work that was done to equate Islam and Hinduism with Anglicanism, or personal law with family law. Genealogies of legal scholarship run through these meanings, in teaching texts, pedagogies of legal training, mental maps and disciplinary networks in the field, as well as their geopolitical stakes.[5]

The work of Munshi Abdullah might point us in other analytic directions as well, if we consider translation in the context of a global and mobile arena of labor. An Islamic and Malay scholar and author in his own right, he was embedded in a complex economic, political, and patronage web, and was keenly aware of the broader context of his work within colonial and missionary projects. Abdullah’s story makes clear that translation often occurs in the midst of, and because of, political, economic, and religious struggle, and raises questions not just for how we work with and do translation ourselves, but also how we recognize and reconsider translation work in the present moment. How is contemporary Islamic legal studies shaped by the national contexts within which its scholars teach, seek funding, speak and publish? How do regimes of state approval and censorship matter for what gets translated and what does not, and in what direction and networks books and texts travel? What do threats to key centers of learning, research, archive and critique mean for the future of the field? And, as in past generations of Islamic legal scholarship, will waves of translation follow waves of displacement and exile?


[1] Joshua Kueh, “Malay and Bugis Manuscripts and Early Printed Books at the Library of Congress: An Update,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 93, no. 2 (2020): 45-63.

[2] See, for example, Ronit Ricci, Islam translated: Literature, Conversion and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[3]  سياسات تقنين الشريعة: النخب المحلية والسلطة الكولونيالية وتشكل الدولة المسلمة  Introduction (Madarat Press, 2018).

[4] “Jurisdiction,” in Oxford English Dictionary Online, February 18, 2012,

[5] They also run through the production history of canonical and foundational works: as an example, see recent debates about the history and politics of dictionaries at and

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Iza Hussin, How to do things with translation: Translation as archives of mobility, Islamic Law Blog (Dec. 29, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Iza Hussin, “How to do things with translation: Translation as archives of mobility,” Islamic Law Blog, December 29, 2022,

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