Tonight I attended a fundraising dinner hosted by Global Deaf Muslim (GDM) which was part of their campaign to the translate the Quran into American Sign Language (ASL). The event was held at the Muslim Community Association (MCA) in the South bay and featured GDM President, Nashiru Abdulai and keynote speaker, Wisam Sharieff.
Global Deaf Muslim (GDM) is the only organization in the US that focuses on providing deaf Muslims with access to Islamic knowledge. Despite what is commonly assumed, ASL is not English. Sign language is it's own unique language with it's own grammar and syntax unique from the English language. It also contains regional dialects distinct from English dialects, evidenced by the fact that the opening address of the event resulted in some confusion over which sign to use for key Islamic terms.
Many mistakenly believe that reading the Quran in their native language is sufficient for deaf Muslims to understand Islam. But the lack of access to sign language interpreters often leads to poor literacy. The average eighteen-year-old deaf high school graduate only reads at a fourth-grade level. For most deaf Americans English is really their second language and ASL is their first. So, deaf Muslims are in the double quandary of not having Islamic texts they can thoroughly understand, and not having teachers who can adequately answer their questions.
Considering how central a role audible recitation plays in the life of a practicing Muslim, imagine how difficult it would be not be able to hear. The call to prayer is audible, the sermons are audible, the reading of the Quran is audible. If you turn the sound off it's hard to even imagine practicing Islam without assistance from a competent translator.
Global Deaf Muslim has made it their mission to ensure access to that assistance is available, facilitating ASL interpreters at Islamic events, working with scholars to create learning materials for deaf Muslims, and working to raise awareness about the needs of deaf Muslims in the larger community.
The event began with a brief presentation on common Islamic vocabulary in sign language, followed by personal anecdotes from deaf Muslims about growing up cut off from most community activities.
The campaign to translate the Quran into sign language is by far their most ambitious project, requiring the assistance of linguists, Islamic scholars, and professional videographers. ASL is a visual language incorporating not only gestures but motion, posture and facial expressions. They are currently requesting donations of $1,350 to sponsor the production a chapter in the 114 chapter book. The goal is to produce and distribute a DVD of the entire Quran performed in sign language free of charge for deaf people all over the world. The videos will also be available over the internet through the GDM website.
A sample of the finished product is already available to the left.When you watch the video, I recommend turning the sound all the way down to get the full effect. The video contains English subtitles, but the Arabic recitation doesn't quite sync with the sign language, and it's really more of a distraction. When you watch the performers signing each verse you can see that there is a wonderful kind of intuitive logic to the language. You might even say that it rhymes, to stretch the meaning.
As a convert to Islam myself, in a community that often delivers sermons in a language foreign to my own I can understand the unsatisfied thirst for Islamic resources. But for English speakers there are easily a half dozen different translations readily available. For the 28.8 million Americans who are deaf this would be their first access to the message of the Holy Quran in their first language.