The Global Qur'anSearching the suras
A single word, written over a thousand years ago, wound up ending a promising political career in Indonesia in 2017. Basuki Purnama was sentenced to two years in prison. His crime, according to his accusers: insulting Islam.
What Purnama said during his campaign for governor of Jakarta, capital of the most populous Muslim country in the world, sounds harmless on the surface: that the Koran does not forbid Muslims from voting for non-Muslims in elections. Anyone who claimed otherwise would be misinterpreting the Koran, he explained. Purnama is a Christian.
The hardliners reacted to this statement by organising mass demonstrations and filing a suit against Purnama. The judges deemed their plea, which referenced Sura 5, verse 51 of the Koran, to be justified and the verse landed the ex-governor in jail. More precisely, it was the translation into Indonesian of "O believers! Take neither Jews nor Christians as leaders".
For Johanna Pink, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Freiburg, this incident is a prime example of the relevance of her research subject: Muslim translations of the Koran, a field that has to date seen little research.
Examining Koran translations verse by verse
Now the European Research Council is supporting Pink's project with a Consolidator Grant. Offering a total of two million euros over five years, this is one of the most prestigious academic grants awarded in Europe. With the help of her colleagues, Pink is analysing the history and dissemination of Koran translations while examining the role played by nation-states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and also the influence of missionary movements. "The translation of the Koran has become a matter of nation-state interests," Pink says.
Her research project is titled "The Global Qur'an", and her international team includes half a dozen doctoral students and postdocs. Each is responsible for a separate area. Together with Pink, they browse through translations of the Koran into Indonesian, Turkish, Slavic languages, French, English and German. Going through the text verse by verse, they communicate daily via Telegram, sometimes across continents; regularly meet in the Freiburg seminar; and exchange views on tricky passages. In the process, they are discovering how theological debates on interpretation reverberate in the translations: what rights do women have? What status do people of other faiths have in Muslim societies?
The Arabic term "awliya", for example, which was the Indonesian politician's undoing, is ambiguous and can be translated in various ways. "Helper" or "ally" is a common reading, but the Indonesian translators chose the word "leader" instead. That version of the Koran was first published towards the end of the colonial period and is still in circulation today. The interpretation was deliberately directed against the Dutch colonial rulers and was to be understood as a prohibition on cooperating with them, says Johanna Pink.
In addition to translations, the 47-year-old Islamic scholar's research also focuses on Koranic exegesis and the modern history of Egypt. Rather than hiding away in the library, Pink occasionally appears in the media, for example to try to objectify headscarf debates based on Koranic texts or dissect a "certain book" by Thilo Sarrazin with both passion and expertise.
She remembers the first time she read the Koran as being quite trying. It was the standard German translation by the orientalist Rudi Paret. "I had the stupid idea of just reading it from beginning to end. But I soon got stuck."
By now she knows the book well, not by heart like some Muslims, but for that in several languages: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Indonesian, Javanese, Russian, French ... the list goes on. Learning languages simply inspires her, Pink says dryly. Moreover: "If you're primarily concerned with the interpretation of the text rather than literary aspects, you don't have to have a perfect command of every language to recognise the choices a translator made at any given point."
Pink's interest in the Koran was rekindled when a prominent guest came to her seminar: Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the Egyptian literary and Islamic scholar, who has called for the Koran to no longer to be read literally. His philosophical theses were however quickly branded heretical by the orthodoxy. Pink wrote a term paper on exegesis as a result and afterward continued to pursue the subject.
When she later gave seminars on the Koran and exegesis as a research assistant at the Free University of Berlin, she noticed that the literature on the subject was limited to what Western researchers found intriguing, i.e. either radical Salafist currents or extremely progressive interpretations. What was happening in the Islamic world at large attracted little interest. She had the urge to delve deeper, and years later her idea gave birth to The Global Qur'an research project.
If you ask Johanna Pink what the Koran means to her, you get a sober answer: "a scholarly subject". What she finds exciting is what the text means for Muslims today. She has not experienced any hostility as a result of her research.
Only 20 percent of Muslims are native speakers of Arabic
The Qur'an is a powerful book. The liberal theologian Abu Zayd once described it as both the most beautiful and the most dangerous book in the world. Its interpretation can lead to terrorism or to tolerance. Goethe lamented its tautologies, and for the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire it was simply an incomprehensible text.
Not only the content, but also the object itself is sacred. In Christianity, God is embodied in a human being, in Islam in a book. Yet very few of the world's 1.9 billion Muslims can read God's word as passed down over the centuries – because only 20 percent of them today are native Arabic speakers. "And that," Pink says, "is where translation comes in."
The prevailing opinion among scholars has always been that it was forbidden to use translations for ritual purposes. The liturgy should be limited to Arabic, the language in which the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Rite took precedence over understanding.
So-called interlinear translations into Persian or Turkish did exist, explaining the individual words between the lines, but these were primarily paedagogical aids.
Religious scholars also resisted translations for more profane reasons, fearing that the Arabic Koran, which was meant to unite all Muslims, could be replaced by nationalist versions or misinterpreted by translators. More than anything, they feared losing their own influence. The advent of the printing press had already broken their monopoly on the transmission of religious knowledge.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, things began to change. Muslim reformists wanted the Koran to be seen as a guide for the faithful. But in order to fulfil that function, its words had to be understood. The missionary concept also began to play a major role. The result was an ongoing wave of Koran translations.
The impetus for this rethinking was, of all things, the success of a group that was rejected by the majority of Muslims as being un-Islamic: the Ahmadiyya. Adherents of the movement, founded in the late nineteenth century, see themselves as reformers, whereas the majority of Muslims regard them as infidels who venerate their founder as a prophet.
"Anyone who translates the Koran must needs take a stance"
The Ahmadiyya successfully proselytised not only in India, but also in England. Orthodox believers and reformers alike eventually relinquished their opposition. "At that point, the idea that Koran translations could be problematic collapsed," Pink says. As late as 1925, scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo were still burning English translations of the Koran. Ten years later, they were producing them themselves.
The Turkish parliament commissioned a translation of the Koran in the 1930s. In Indonesia, the government had the Koran translated into the new national language Bahasa Indonesia, hoping to enhance the religious-political value of the new state and to spread the new language more quickly. "The Koran translations were intended to popularise the new national languages," Pink says – and to put a national stamp on Islam.
Saudi Arabia, with a few decades' delay, placed itself at the forefront of the translation movement. Initially, the Koran was only printed in Arabic there, but soon translations into dozens of languages began appearing. Worldly interests contributed to these efforts. Johanna Pink calls it "building soft power in foreign policy". King Fahd, who came to power in 1982, wanted to gain influence over the multilingual Muslim public and at the same time enhance the religious prestige of his own country.
Turkey, too, uses translations as a foreign policy tool, Pink tells us. The aim is to demonstrate presence, whether in the Balkans, Africa or Central Asia. In the regions of the former Soviet Union, Iran is attempting to distribute Koran translations with a Shia spin among the populace. And in many European countries, radical Salafist groups are active as translators and proselytise using copies of the Koran in the respective national language.
"Anyone who translates the Koran," says Pink, "must needs take a stance." This has given rise to ongoing disputes between Salafists and traditional scholars, for instance with regard to the attributes of God: are the concepts of God's hand or God's throne to be taken literally or metaphorically? Sura 4 verse 34 is a notorious source of debate: "Men are in charge of women (...). But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; (…) and [finally] strike them."
How is one to approach such a passage? Pink says that if the verse is taken literally, it apparently gives men permission to beat their wives. The fundamental question is: do you soften the verse through the way you translate it? Or do you say: that's how the verse was written, but it can only be understood in the context of its time, asking what meaning it has for us today?
Until the twentieth century, this verse was not considered problematic, according to Pink. But translations into Western languages show evidence of trying to weaken the statement. There are a wide range of translations for the verb "daraba", from "to beat", to "to punish", to "symbolic, non-painful striking" or even "to separate oneself from others". In general, the desire for more egalitarian readings of the Koran is growing, Pink says.
In Germany, Islam has become more visible in recent decades as a result of immigration. This has led to a need for Islamic literature in German, so that a language must be found for discussing Islamic concepts. The German religious vocabulary is Christian in character. Should you, for instance, write Allah or God? Do you say prayer or leave the Arabic term "salāt" to more accurately describe the ritual obligatory prayers? "Koran translations reflect how societies change," says Johanna Pink.
She hopes that her project will help broaden the focus of Islamic Studies. And that countries such as Indonesia and regions – including Europe – that have not been taken seriously in the past in terms of the production of Islamic texts and ideas will attract more attention.
The Middle East is still the main focus of controversy – take, for example, a Hebrew translation of the Koran that was published at the beginning of 2021 by Saudi Arabia. The Islamist Hamas accused the Saudis of "Judaising" the Koran by producing a translation serving Jewish interests and thus placing a normalisation of relations with Israel above Palestinian interests. The accusations made against the translation were groundless, probably spread by Iran, Saudi Arabia's biggest rival in the region, Pink suspects. Once again, the translation of centuries-old lines reverberated through contemporary politics.
© Die Zeit Online / Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor