Qur’an translation of the week #108: Al-Muntakhab in Russian- Egyptian daʿwa in the post-Soviet space

The turn of the millennium gifted Russian-speaking Muslim communities with a new Qur’an interpretation: al-Muntakhab: Tolkovanie Svi͡ashchennogo Korana na Arabskom i Russkom I͡azykakh (2000) [al-Muntakhab: Interpretation of the Holy Qur’an in Arabic and Russian languages]. This publication not only received official approval from Egypt’s al-Azhar University (which has a widespread policy of providing official sanction for translations it endorses), but was directly published through the Egyptian Ministry of Awqāf (‘endowments’). In fact, this new Russian translation was a part of a larger international project initiated and lead by al-Azhar. Positioning itself as a leading center of Islamic and Arabic learning in the Muslim world, in 1990 al-Azhar had produced a short tafsīr in Arabic, named al-Muntakhab. The intention was to use al-Muntakhab as the standard text on which to base concise interpretations of the Qur’an into various different languages (Stefan Wild, 2015). The original Arabic version of Al-Muntakhab is significant as it was an initiative that influenced other Islamic institutions that were also competing for international influence, who followed suit and produced their own short Qur’an interpretations. In this regard, the Saudi-produced (the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex) simplified al-Tafsīr al-Muyassar (1998) is another example of a tafsīr that was designed with the ambition that it would be an internationally used source for Qur’an translations (see my previous post about another Russian Qur’an translation based on al-Tafsīr al-Muyassar here). Al-Muntakhab ‘explains’ the Qur’anic verses by rewording the original Qur’anic text in simplified Arabic language and adding succinct clarifications intertwined with the actual text. (Online Arabic version is available here). Apparently, the project was inspired by the desire to eradicate the textual ambiguities that would be inherent in a direct translation, and to export al-Azhar’s specific vision of Islam into various languages and cultures.

The Russian version of al-Muntakhab was undertaken by two Egyptian philologists and literary scholars who specialized in the Russian language: Dr Sumayya al-Afifi and Dr Abdel Salam al-Mansi. Both of them studied at Moscow State University and later worked in the Faculty of Languages at Ain Shams University in Cairo. As al-Afifi translated the largest part of al-Muntakhab, I would like to give a bit of the historical context behind her acquaintance with the Russian language.

In the aftermath of the 1956 Suez crisis, known in Arab historiography as al-ʿUdwān al-Thulāthiyy (‘The Tripartite aggression’), Egypt turned to the USSR, seeing it as a promising strategic ally against Israel, the UK and France. At the very beginning of this political venture, in 1959, Sumayya al-Afifi, an Egyptian Muslim woman, who had only a few years earlier graduated from university with a degree in English, made a life-changing decision to study Russian in the USSR. At the time, the USSR had just started accepting international students from the global south as part of its international aid and soft power policies. The challenge of living in a communist state may have been eased somewhat by the fact that al-Afifi was not there alone, but with her husband and two children. Five years later, after successfully obtaining her degree, she and her family returned to Egypt. According to Arabic sources, in addition to pursuing an academic career and undertaking various book translations, al-Afifi also worked closely with the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, translating material produced by the Russian media for him. Only decades later, in 1995, when the USSR no longer existed and when the Egyptian political milieu had significantly changed, did she become involved in al-Azhar’s al-Muntakhab translation project, but this project can still somehow be seen as the fruit of these political maneuvers.

The preface to al-Muntakhab: Tolkovanie Svi͡ashchennogo Korana was written by Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, who was the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar at the time of its publication, and Shaykh Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq, the head of the Ministry of Awqāf. Tantawi did not focus on the specificities of the post-Soviet audience for which it was intended, or its particular historical experiences. Instead, his preface was written in general terms and appeared in identical form in other al-Muntakhab translations. The project was envisioned as ultimately providing laymen Muslims with a work that authoritatively put an end to ‘unqualified’ alternative readings in circulation, although Zaqzuq’s piece, which was written with a more philosophical outlook, makes a point about the ‘continuously changing and renewing nature’ of the tafsīr genre. It is important to note that Al-Muntakhab’s preface makes much of the superiority of this kind of tafsīr translation over interlineal or direct Qur’an translations. While a contemporary audience may take this argument for granted, as it has become a conventional and widespread practice among Muslim translators nowadays, it is important to contextualize al-Azhar’s al-Muntakhab international project as one of the pioneers of this approach, namely creatively simplifying tafsīr so that it becomes useful for translation.

The preface describes the aim of this tafsīr as being to demonstrate the beauty of the Qur’anic message and makes much of its potential for use in daʿwa outreach activities. It also gives space to apologetic statements directed towards Qur’an translations (without mentioning them by name) and stresses the importance of protecting Islam from its purported enemies. However, it is quite curious that although previous Qur’an translations are viewed in this preface in a critical and even negative light, al-Azhar itself actually recognized and approved the earlier Russian translation of the Qur’an that caused controversy and disapproval in some conservative circles, that is the poetic translation by Valerija Porokhova (1940–2019) published in 1993 (Read our post about it here). Perhaps, this inconsistency may be understood as reflecting the lack of a solid al-Azhari vision back in the 1990s about the exact criteria for a proper translation of the Qur’an, as well as about what should be the criteria for selecting the translators. While al-Muntakhab might (from the Azhari viewpoint) be the project that largely resolves these issues on the international level, unfortunately, it is not free from shortcomings. For example, a certain tendency is apparent in the selection of the translators for al-Muntakhab’svarious versionsin different languages in that most of the translators were Egyptian native speakers who specialized in the respective target languages. This is true for the English (See our post about al-Muntakhab in English here), French, German and Russian translations of al-Muntakhab (which were respectively translated by Muhammad Ghaly, Rokaya Gabr, Moustafa Maher and Sumayya al-Afifi). The Indonesian al-Muntakhab is an exception as it was translated by Indonesian graduates of al-Azhar who were native speakers of the target language (Mukhlason Hanafi, Quraish Shihab and Mukhlason Jalaludin). This strategy might be probably understood as stemming from a desire that the translations are closely supervised and collaborative, so as to be assured in the translation outcome. This is in direct contrast to the practice of the Saudi Arabian King Fahd Complex, which largely relies on its expert networks to locate translators who are native speakers of their intended target languages.

Even though the Russian translation of al-Muntakhab also had two editors in addition to the two translators that worked on it, the language flows awkwardly in many places and it is easy to guess that the translator was not a Russian native speaker. Occasionally, a particular word choice does not seem to be suitable for the context, for example in the preface the adjective sharīf (‘noble’ or ‘honorable’) that is often used in conjunction with the name al-Azhar was rendered as svi͡ashchennyĭ (‘holy’). In the text of the tafsīr itself these issues are also apparent: for example, in Q 2:282, the word dayn [‘debt’] is translated as kredit [‘credit’], which in modern Russian is always associated with lending money at interest. There are also syntax issues, which seem to arise from the aspiration to follow the source text closely, and make for heavy reading. The strong polarization of some members of Russian-speaking Muslim communities, especially those of Salafis and Ashʿarī /Māturīdīs in some respect also negatively affected the reputation of the work in its respective circles. This was particularly the case when it comes to the theme of Allah’s attributes. Many of those with Salafi tendencies considered the translation to be Ashʿarī in terms of various theologically significant translation choices made for specific words. For example, yadayy (lit. ‘[two] hands’) in Q 88:75 was translated as sila, moshchʹ (‘power/might’), sāq (lit. ‘shin’) in Q 68:42 as ti͡agostʹ, trudnostʹ (‘burden and difficulty’), and bi-aʿyuninā (lit. ‘with our eyes’) in Q 54:14 as po nasheĭ milosti (‘by Our Grace’). However, from the point of view of some Ashʿarīs, al-Muntakhab was not theologically consistent enough, since the translation of some words, such as istawā (in Q 57:4) which was rendered verbatim as utverdilsi͡a (‘established’), may imply anthropomorphic associations. Al-Azhar’s desire to adopt a moderate stance and to avoid doctrinal nuances was close to impossible to achieve in the Russian-speaking Muslim milieu, as various internet debates about al-Muntakhab demonstrate. Nevertheless, for lack of an alternative, al-Muntakhab: Tolkovanie Svi͡ashchennogo Korana was still adopted by many state-related religious institutions and has undeniably found a readership, both in Russia and other post-Soviet Russian-speaking countries. For instance, in Russia, it has been republished and distributed in various Muslim-majority regional centers, such as Kazan (2001, 2009, 2012), and Nalchik (2017), and there are also various mobile applications and websites that have included al-Muntakhab in their list of accessible Qur’an translations due to the useful short format of this tafsīr. The supplementary introduction to each sūra providing the overview of the main themes, clarificatory footnotes with ‘scientific’ leanings, and basic historical information, have also served to attract an audience for the work.

Elvira Kulieva

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