Bayt al-Hikma 2.0: Knowledge and the limitations of language

Once upon a time, the story goes, everyone on Earth spoke the same language. One day, a bunch of people got together and said, “Let’s build a tower up to the heavens so we can be equal with God.” And God looked down upon their arrogance and made them all speak different languages.

So goes the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and it seems like there might be evidence such a tower actually existed, as a temple in Babylon.

Aside: Contrary to popular belief, this is not where we get the word babble.

Once people start speaking different languages, it gets very difficult to communicate. It’s one thing when you and your neighbor can’t communicate through the sophisticated means with which you communicate with some other members of your community. It’s another thing altogether when there’s one person who says they can bridge the gap between you and your neighbor, being able to translate.

It takes a fair bit of trust in a stranger to allow him (or her, but give me the grace of just picking one the rest of the way?) to broker communication between you and someone else. And it invests a lot of power in that stranger.

As we know from our adages, power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Throughout the Middle Ages, that absolute power was centered in The Church. Only priests had a direct line to God. They were the only translators. Priests told everyone — commoners and royalty alike — who was good and who was a sinner. If you paid a priest enough, you would be absolved of your sins.

And then Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, translated the Bible into German and distributed a few copies, and set the groundwork for the Reformation.

Once more people could read the Bible for themselves, they could see the corruption in the Church.

In about 1570, the Church took back its power by standardizing a Mass in Latin, a language that had disappeared a thousand years before. It took just about 400 years before the Vatican allowed vernacular services.


With the rise in wealth and power of the U.S. over the past century, especially in the wake of anti-German sentiment following World War I, English has become nearly a global lingua franca — that is, basically any more-or-less cosmopolitan area you can visit in the world, you’re likely to be able to conduct at least some business in English.

A regional lingua franca becomes important in some parts of the world where there are still many different groups speaking many different languages. In some parts of Africa, French is the lingua franca — some people might speak Wolof or Xhosa but also French and perhaps English.

Technically, English is the lingua franca of the U.S., too — we don’t have a federally dictated official language.

I lay this out because, as a native English speaker, I have never, in my 43 years, and may very well never, find myself in a place where I must use a different language. I used to be able to get by in Spanish, and I could perhaps understand better than I could speak; even in Israel, I didn’t really need to know anything beyond “yes,” “no,” and “English, please.”

There are very few websites I can’t read or have translated on demand, and very few books that aren’t written in or translated into English.

Basically, I can consume any information I want. Even growing up going to synagogue (and the associated religious education), we were encouraged to read English translations and ask all the questions we wanted — and to form some of our own opinions.

How different is that from the Roman Catholic Church of most of the past two thousand years?

But it turns out there are still plenty of people controlled by language.

Arabic, for instance, is one of the most common languages spoken by internet users, but less than one percent of the web is available in Arabic, according to Ideas Beyond Borders, a group launching a project called Bayt al-Hikma 2.0, a project to translate books and articles into Arabic.

This isn’t just about any books and articles. It’s about getting ideas that gatekeepers don’t want getting into closed societies translated into Arabic.

The original Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was a library to house works possibly translated from Greek or perhaps Sassanian history. After being bbuilt in the eighth century, it was destroyed in 1258 when the Mongols invaded Baghdad.

Yes, that Baghdad. Most of the world is a lot older than the U.S. A lot older.

I learned about this from listening to Melissa Chen on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Apparently there’s no word in Arabic for feminism. They had to create a special project to translate a Wikipedia article on Marie Curie into Arabic to show that there were female scientists.

No one had brought in secular or atheistic works like Enlightenment Now or Waking Up.

That’s controlling a population, much like the Church used to do.

When you get to finally learn about new concepts such as humanism and advanced education of women, now you’re opening up your society to abundance — and it’s abundance for the masses, not for the region’s elites.

Remember, there is not a finite amount of awesome in the world. As Thomas Jefferson famously pointed out, if I use my candle to light yours, you don’t take half my flame. We are now both fully illuminated.

We need more of this in the world.

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