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Translating Disability in a Muslim Community: A Case of Modular Translation


This study examines how Muslim religious leaders (imams) introduce the liberal notion of disability to their communities in Israel. The project described, initiated and supported by an American NGO, provides a case for exploring how the secular notion of disability rights is cast and recast in a Muslim world of meaning. It focuses on the mediation strategy that I call modular translation, employed by imams in sermons delivered for the purpose of altering or improving the status and conditions of people with disabilities. This strategy, as it emerged from the analysis, entails decoupling norms of conduct from their underlying justifications. It thus suggests that norms of conduct are open to change so long as the believers’ cosmology remains intact. As such, this turn may offer new avenues of thinking and acting about globalizing human rights within the arena of health and disability.

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  1. When quoting a published sermon, the full name of the author is cited; otherwise, pseudonyms have been assigned.

  2. From: Hayosh Tali, Haj-Yahia Jihad and Yitzhak-Monsonego Einat. October 2010. Research Report—Masira ("Journey") Program for the Advancement of the Status of People with Disabilities in the Arab Society in Israel. Commissioned by The Division for Disabilities and Rehabilitation, JDC-Israel, p. iii. Accessed 8 July 2012, available at:

  3. Ibid.

  4. It is worth noting that despite the model's clarity and position in the growing disability movement, scholars of disability have directed our attention to the model's empirical, analytical and clinical limitations. For a succinct review of these critiques see Shakespeare (2006).

  5. My notion of liberal isomorphism was inspired by the work of DiMaggio and Powell (1991), which alludes to the link between a group's mirroring of forms and practices and its acquisition of social legitimacy. The attempt to acquire legitimacy in liberal social circles thus drives the disability discourse. Paradoxically, newcomers' efforts aimed at gaining internal legitimacy and recognition within the liberal isomorphic family often nurtures isomorphic practices and ideas that distance them from the target population they wish to liberate, a group whose members do not share its liberal world of meanings.

  6. Information on the Masira project is available at the project’s website: The site includes a video in which leading figures in the project express what they see as Masira’s mission:

  7. Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor, Office of the Chief Scientist (2010), Arabs with Disabilities in Israel, Portrait of a Population and its Occupational Characteristics (p. 1), Jerusalem. Accessed 8 July 2012 (Hebrew), available at: For purposes of the survey underlying the report, the incidence of disability was constructed from respondents’ self-reported health and functional limitations. Disability was initially defined as a health-related or physical condition lasting at least 6 months, which significantly or very significantly interfered with the respondent's performance of daily activities, rated on a 4-point scale ranging from "not at all" to "very significantly". The identical survey was conducted among Jews (results reported separately) as well as Arabs. Respondents who replied that they had no health issues or that these issues did not interfere with daily functioning were excluded from the statistical analysis. Level of performance was assessed by means of a separate set of questions that related to acts such as the ability to eat independently. For more details on the categories' construction and their analysis see the report, p. 41, Appendix 2b.

  8. It is worth noting that the JDC was founded in 1914, decades before passage of the Declaration of Human Rights and establishment of the State of Israel. As a Jewish organization, the JDC seeks to put into practice the idea that "all Jews are responsible for one another and for improving the well-being of vulnerable people around the world." The organization established its international development program in 1986 to further its agenda, and is now active in "more than 70 countries and…Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship … and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters" throughout the world (JDC, The JDC is committed to strengthening Israel as an independent state by promoting social equality for all its disadvantaged groups, including Palestinian citizens of Israel.

  9. For a discussion of the Masira project's debt to the social model of disability see: Hayosh, Tali, Haj-Yahia, Jihad and Yitzhak-Monsonego, Einat. October 2010. Research Report—Masira ("Journey") Program for the Advancement of the Status of People with Disabilities in the Arab Society in Israel. Commissioned by The Division for Disabilities and Rehabilitation, JDC-Israel. Accessed 08 July 2012, available at: On page 3, the report makes direct reference to Barnes et al. (1999).

  10. James Charlton used this phrase (Latin: Nihil de nobis, sine nobis) for the title of his 2000 book on disability rights (Charlton 2000). It has since become a banner for the disability rights movement in its emphasis on the full and active participation of affected groups in policymaking. Charlton attributes the phrase to South African disability activists Michael Masutha and William Rowland, who had in turn heard it used by an unnamed East European activist at an earlier international disability rights conference.

  11. The concept of attitudes has been challenged in the anthropological literature; see Ingstad (1995).

  12. The term imam in Arabic means, literally, “leader.” However, within the Islamic community, the title has been elaborated to mean the person who leads the prayer rituals in a mosque but also fulfills communal functions such as officiating over marriages and funerals, disputes, divorces, reconciliations and so forth.

  13. For other studies focusing on the mismatch between Western notions of health and disability and those held by the Muslim community, see for example: Ajrouch (2005), Al-Heeti (2007), Al-Abdulwahab and Al-Gain (2003).

  14. Hayosh, Haj-Yahia, and Yitzhak-Monsonego, October 2010. Research Report—Masira ("Journey") Program for the Advancement of the Status of People with Disabilities in the Arab Society in Israel. Commissioned by The Division for Disabilities and Rehabilitation, JDC-Israel, pp. vii, 87–88.

  15. In Israel, two major Islamic movements are active politically, the Northern Islamic Movement and the Southern Islamic Movement. The latter, known to be more pragmatic, has three representatives sitting in the Israeli parliament (the Knesset). We did not have access to reliable information regarding the imams' political affiliations due to the formal restrictions mentioned above. However, during informal conversations, our informants hinted that many of the imams participating in our research tended to support the Southern Movement. Political stance was thus excluded from the research.

  16. We should note that the imams and Arab society in general pay less heed to mental illness (see for example Turmusani 1999, p. 105).

  17. Having said that, I do not claim to fully exploit the sophisticated and diversified forms of homiletic stories found in all religions. However, in the sermon's context, the lesson clearly resonates with this community of believers' collective sentiments.

  18. In a previous case of modular translation, I described "modular translators" as actors sharing both worlds of meaning and moving between the two (Mizrachi 2012).


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I would like to thank the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Israel for their kind support of this research. I would also like to express my appreciation to Masira’s leadership, the imams, Israeli Government officials, and NGO activists who graciously participated in the research. I would also like to thank my colleagues who so helpfully commented on the previous draft, as well as to the CMP editors and referees for their insights. In the interest of anonymity, I have refrained from listing any names outside of those indicated within the article.

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Correspondence to Nissim Mizrachi.

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Mizrachi, N. Translating Disability in a Muslim Community: A Case of Modular Translation. Cult Med Psychiatry 38, 133–159 (2014).

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  • Disability rights
  • Cultural mediation
  • Modular translation
  • Liberalism
  • Islam