Qur’an translation of the week #111: Javanese Qur’an translation between grammatical instruction and storytelling- Bisri Musthofa’s al-Ibrīz

Bisri Musthofa’s (1915–1977) al-Ibrīz li-maʿrifat al-Qurʾān al-ʿazīz, a Javanese translation-cum-tafsīr of the Qur’an, provides an excellent example of how Qur’an translation practices have developed in Muslim societies in a wide variety of ways that go far beyond the modern European model. It also provokes the question of what a ‘faithful translation’ could (or should)_look like: can it only be achieved if the translators try to erase their own leanings from the text, or might it just as well, or even more aptly, be achieved by a translator whose interpretive intent is transparent and whose voice is clearly heard?

Al-Ibrīz belongs to the genre of kitab kuning (‘yellow books’), inexpensive books produced for use in Islamic schools (pesantren) in Java and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, which is named after the yellowish paper used in early Middle Eastern print publications. The texts are either in Arabic or in a local vernacular written in Arabic script; in the case of Javanese, this means the fully vowelized pegon variant. The kitab kuning genre is usually perceived as traditional, as expressed in its designation by the Arabic loanword kitab (‘book’), and is semantically distinguished from Latin-script books (buku).Some contemporary publishers of kitab kuning actually dye the edges of the books yellow in order to emphasize their continuity with the scholarly and educational traditions of the pesantren environment; this is also true for the pegon edition of al-Ibrīz. The traditional pesantren curriculum mainly focused on Islamic law, religious doctrine, and the teaching of classical Arabic, and the study of tafsīr tended to be restricted to the Arabic Tafsīr al-Jalālayn. The emergence of kitab kuning in the field of tafsīr thus seems to be a twentieth-century innovation, indicating the increased importance of the Qur’an in certain reformist circles.

Al-Ibrīz was first published in Rembang, in the North of Central Java, in 1959, in pegon script. The undated pegon edition that is currently available consists of three volumes. In addition to this edition, a one-volume, large, glossy, Latin-script version with gilded writing on the cover and in color print was published in 2011. Its luxurious presentation is indicative of the prestige that al-Ibrīz has acquired since its first publication. It is probably the most widely-known Javanese Qurʾān translation and tafsīr, due to the renown of its author – or possibly even more to the fame of the author’s son, A. Mustofa Bisri ‘Gus Mus’ (b. 1944), a famous Indonesian scholar who continues to teach al-Ibrīz at the pesantren in Rembang in Central Java which his father headed from the 1930s until his death. Videos of these sessions, which are mainly attended by adults, can be watched on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZ9uhiZz1FzrMo9fHP8c9uA). Both Bisri Musthofa and ‘Gus Mus’ were, and still are, associated with the traditionalist Islamic mass organization Nahdlatul Ulama.

Al-Ibrīz’s methodological apparatus is fairly straightforward. The book has a tripartite structure that is based on a combination of different methods used in pesantren teaching, with the three elements clearly separated from each other.

The first element, set in a box at the inner and upper margin of the page, is devoted to the Arabic text of the Qur’an along with an interlinear word-for-word translation that follows a method called gandul, about which more will be said below. In the second element, which comprises the outer and lower margins, the meaning of the verses is paraphrased verse for verse in the exegete’s own words. The third element contains additional information. Bisri Musthofadelivers this information after the Javanese rendering of an individual verse, introduced by an Arabic header in brackets such as qiṣṣa or ḥikāya (‘story’), fāʾida (‘benefit’; ‘meaning’), or tanbīh (‘remark’). This additional material includes narratives, reports about the Prophet (hadiths), digressions into related topics, explanations by authoritative religious scholars, and details about the content of the verse, such as the number of an unnumbered quantity of items or the name of an unnamed person. Such additions are only provided occasionally, and for only a few verses. While the third element is what most clearly qualifies al-Ibrīz as a Qur’anic commentary, rather than a translation, it is also the most inconsistent and marginal part.

The first two elements are much more prominent and can effectively be understood as two different types of translation: first, a word-for-word translation of the source text, and second, a paraphrase of its meaning. This twofold structure provides an ingenuous solution to the old controversy over the merits and shortcomings of two different methods of translation. For instance, in Roman antiquity, the first method, verbum pro verbo, was applied by grammarians while the second, sensus pro senso, was the domain of rhetoricians. These two methods have different goals. The first aims to enable the reader to understand the source text, precisely and in terms of all its grammatical forms, syntactic constructs and semantic nuances. The second conveys meaning in the target language with fluency, even if this means digressing from the structure of the source text. In short, the first method is concerned with understanding a text, the second with producing a text. The choice between these two methods and their corresponding aims has always posed a particular challenge when a sacred Scripture is concerned, as precision is often privileged over eloquence, and any attempt to reproduce the source text’s rhetoric might be construed as sacrilegious. Al-Ibrīz and other, similar, works of pesantren tafsīr refuse to pursue one goal at the expense of the other. They employ both methods side by side and thereby manage to satisfy both concerns, the grammatical and the rhetorical.

The gandul system as it is employed in Javanese pesantren, like most forms of interlinear translation, does not deliver a coherent and grammatically correct text. Rather, it deals with each Arabic word individually, in a highly idiosyncratic manner. In contrast to most premodern and contemporary interlinear translations, its aim is to provide readers not only with the meaning but also the grammatical form and syntactical function of words. While the application to a specific case differs from teacher to teacher, the method itself is standardized. It is quite complex and is not quickly or easily understood. Indicators point out whether a word is the subject or an object, a participle, a plural form, a verb in the past tense, where a subordinate clause starts and ends, and so forth. If the subject or object is missing or takes the form of a pronoun, it is spelled out in the translation; for example, if the Qur’an says ‘Then they took him away with them,’ the interlinear translation will inform students that it was the brothers of Joseph who took Joseph away with them. The structure of the grammatical explanations reflects the oral nature of the lessons, with question words such as ‘who?’ and ‘what?’ marking subjects and objects; it probably emerged from a Q&A style that became formalized over time (for an example, see the attached table).

The second type of translation, the paraphrase, complements the atomistic gandul system by using a more holistic approach. It explains the meaning of the Qur’an, verse by verse, with some interpretive expansion but without substantial commentary.

For example, Bisri Musthofa renders Q 19:16

وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ مَرْيَمَ إِذِ انتَبَذَتْ مِنْ أَهْلِهَا مَكَانًا شَرْقِيًّا

(‘Mention in the Book the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place east’)


Andharna Muhammad! Ana ing Kitab Alqur’an iki, bab sejarahe Siti Maryam. Ya iku nalikane Siti Maryam sumingkir saking ahline, manggon ana sisih wetane omah.

‘Speak, Muhammad, in this Book, the Qur’an, on the story of Mary! Namely, when Mary withdrew from her family to live to the east of [their] house.’

This type of translation provides the meaning of the verse, but makes no attempt to meticulously follow the Arabic wording or to clearly mark the translator’s additions. Rather, this is the teacher (kyai)telling a story about what the Qur’an says. Names of speakers and addressees and small contextual details are provided, sometimes alongside considerable narrative embellishment.

Two examples from Sūrat Yūsuf (Q 12) illustrate the extent to which Bisri Musthofa turns the Qur’anic narrative into an expressive and emotionally relatable text.

In Q 12:10, one of Joseph’s brothers says (qāla qāʾilun minhum),

لَا تَقْتُلُوا يُوسُفَ وَأَلْقُوهُ فِي غَيَابَتِ الْجُبِّ يَلْتَقِطْهُ بَعْضُ السَّيَّارَةِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ فَاعِلِينَ

‘Do not kill Joseph, but thrown him into the depths of a well where some caravan may pick him up, if you must.’

Bisri Muthofa renders this as follows:

Aja! Aja dipateni! Jegurna bae ana ing sumur gua kang peteng, supaya mengko ditemu dening wong untan-untan. Aja dipateni! Cukup mengkono bae, menawa sira kabeh pancen padha karep misah Yusuf saking bapak.

‘Don’t! Don’t kill him! Just throw him into a deep well, so that he might be found by a caravan. Don’t kill him! This is enough, if you want to separate Joseph from [his] father.’

In Q 12:16, Joseph’s brothers return to their father after having committed their deed:

وَجَاءُوا أَبَاهُمْ عِشَاءً يَبْكُونَ

‘And they came to their father at nightfall, weeping.’

This is Bisri Musthofa’s rendition of the verses:

Sawise rampung, sedulur sepuluh padha bali kanti nggawa klambine Yusuf kang wis diulet-uleti getih kidang. Sedulur sepuluh padha teka sowan ramane ana ing wektu sore, sarana padha nangis pating gelembor. Midhanget suwara pating jelerit pating gelembor iku, Ya’kub kaget, nuli ndangu: Ana apa? Ana apa? Endi Yusuf? Endi Yusuf?

When they were done, the ten brothers returned while carrying Joseph’s shirt on which they had sprinkled the blood of a deer (kidang). The ten brothers came before their father that evening, crying loudly. Hearing the sound of their loud crying and wailing, Jacob was startled, then asked, ‘What is it? What is it? Where is Joseph? Where is Joseph?’

The origin of this type of translation is just as clearly oral as that of the gandul translation. One can just imagine the kyai telling the story of Joseph to his students. His Javanese vocabulary contributes to localizing the story, for example when he refers to the blood of a kidang,which denotes the muntjac, an animal native to Southeast Asia. The structure of Javanese also obliges him to express hierarchies of status and age through the use of linguistic registers and through terms such as adhi (‘younger sibling’; in Javanese vocabulary, age is more clearly marked than gender). Remarkably, he fills in ellipses in the dialogue and uses rhetorical devices that allow for emphasis and the expression of emotions, for example when he has Jacob say ‘What is it? What is it? Where is Joseph? Where is Joseph?,’ or when one of the brothers repeatedly and empathically asks the others not to kill Joseph. The repetition clearly brings across Jacob’s agitation and despair and the brother’s anxiety. This narrative flow distinguishes al-Ibrīz from paraphrastic tafsīrs such as the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn. It is more reminiscent of the very early tafsīr by Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767), which contained many elements of story-telling.

Qur’an translation is always an attempt to make the Arabic source text accessible to a non-Arab audience. While modern translation studies have tended to privilege one (European) model over other practices, there have historically been, and nowadays continue to be, many different ways of translating the Qur’an. In some styles of translation, such as gandul, the audience’s ability to understand the source text with some help is assumed: and if they do not have that ability themselves, they trust the translator to explain the text’s meaning to them. And since they trust the kyai’s explanations, why should his voice be erased from the translation?

Since the early twentieth century, traditional translation practices have been increasingly marginalized by European models of written translation that aim to make the individual translator’s voice invisible, as evidenced by the enormous success of Al-Qur’an dan Terjemahnya, the Qur’an translation published by the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs produced by a committee of scholars (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-01-al-quran-dan-terjemahnya/). According to most modern standards, that translation should be considered far more ‘faithful’ than al-Ibrīz, since it stays close to the source text, marks interpretive additions clearly and no individual scholar’s opinion is discernible in it.

But is it necessarily superior? Al-Ibriz, with its clear distinction between grammatical and rhetorical translation and its oral and narrative mode of paraphrasing the Qur’an’s meaning, is completely transparent about the translator’s intervention and the extent to which he reconstructs the text in the target language, as any translator does. Bisri Musthofa also makes a sincere effort to make the Qur’anic stories resonate with his audience. As such, the genre of translation that al-Ibriz represents could be conceived of as embodying a particular type of faithfulness – one based on a method that does not only strive to do justice to the source text but also to be honest about the translator’s involvement. Even in the printed version, Bisri Musthofa’s voice remains audible.

Johanna Pink

For further sources and details, see Pink, Johanna. ‘The kyai’s Voice and the Arabic Qur’an: Translation, Orality, and Print in Modern Java,’ Wacana 21, no. 3 (2020): 329–359, https://gloqur.de/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/948-2477-1-PB.pdf.

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