Qur’an translation of the week #112: Qur’an translation of the week- Muslim converts and the first Shii Qur’an translation into Polish

Usually Qur’an translations into the Polish language are associated with the legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Tatars, but in recent years significant new developments have taken place in other communities. For example, in 2021, ‘Koran’ (‘The Qur’an’) was published by ‘the Society of Muslim Unity’ (‘Stowarzyszenie jedności muzułmańskiej’, henceforth SJM). The translator was Rafał Berger (b. 1963), a Polish writer and journalist who is currently the chairman and leading imam of the SJM. His translation project was clearly not completely individual, since he credits a number of people for helping revise and edit his text, including his two fellow SJM board members: Arkadisuz Miernik (b. 1981), a UK-based imam with a Polish background, and Mahmud Taha Żuk (b. 1939), a Polish scholar and activist who is one of the leading figures in the movement to restore Islamic identity in Poland in post-socialist times. (It is worth noting that Mahmud Taha Żuk, credited as the main editor of ‘Koran,’ had already authored his own Polish translation in 1990, which was completely based on the English Qur’an translation by Sher Ali published by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in London). Berger’s translation project was funded by the UK based World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities (The World Federation of KSIMC), a Shii society that operates mostly in the West and represents a ‘Khoja Shii’ group within the Twelver Shii community. The group consists of ethnoreligious minority members from Gujarat (India), whose ancestors originally converted to Nizari Ismaili Islam in the fifteenth century, and then later switched to Twelver Shiism in the nineteenth century. On the theological level, the Khoja Shia have close tie to Iraqi Shii leaders such as Grand Ayatollah al-Sistānī, through which they are incorporated into the global network of Shii communities. The World Federation of KSIMC is remarkable for its publishing activity: for example, in 2015 this organization printed and distributed a shortened English translation of the tafsir by Iranian Ayatollah Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī under the title ‘Message of the Qur’an: a thematic exegesis of the Noble Qur’an.’ However, apart from Berger’s Polish Qur’an translation, no other translation of the Qur’an into any Slavic (or, generally, Central and Eastern European) languages, has yet been published by the World Federation of KSIMC, thus it is not clear how deeply the community is interested in promoting any new Qur’an translations.

This translation is distinguished from other Polish Qur’an translations by two main factors: first, the fact that the author and all those who assisted him on the project are Muslim converts, and second, the fact they all adhere to the Shii tradition. While most Muslims in Poland belong to the Polish-Lithuanian Tatar community or are immigrants from the Middle East or Turkey, the Khoja Shii community represents a kind of minority challenge to the Sunni majority, one with enough courage to produce an alternative reading of the Qur’an. Thus, by adding to pre-existing translations authored by non-Muslims (such as that by J. Bielawski, published in 1986) or Sunni translations (such as that published in 2018 by M. Czachorowski), this Shii work opens up new interpretive horizons for its readers.

When it comes to the text of the translation itself, the introductory matters, written by the translator and his colleagues, are quite informative. After discussing the importance of the Qur’an to Muslims, they provide a short history of Qur’an translation into Polish, mentioning the pros and cons of other translations. It looks as if the final goal was to produce a translation that reads smoothly in modern Polish with no archaisms, which is readable for all kinds of readers, and which provides plenty of short explanatory footnotes. This goal is generally successfully realized, although some of the comments could be questioned by the attentive reader. For example, the comment on the opening verse of Sūrat al-Baqara (Q 2) which discusses the ‘ḥurūf muqaṭṭaʿāt’ (‘disconnected letters’) ‘Alif, Lam, Mim’ that preface the sura, gives the following explanation: ‘Many suras of the Qur’an begin with the revelation of these three Arabic letters. There are many interpretations of their meanings, but all of them are simply speculation‘. This kind of commentary could be a bit confusing for those who never read anything on the Qur’an before. Generally, other comments are more substantial in nature, and are almost completely based on Shii sources such as the Twelver hadith collection ‘Al-Kāfī’ (‘The Sufficient’) by al-Kulayni (d. 941), ‘Nahj al-Balāghah’ (‘The Peak of Eloquence’), composed by al-Sharīf al-Raḍī (d. 1015), al-ʿAyyāshī’s (d. 932) tafsir, and other sources. Many verses are appended with notes that give an entirely Shii reading, such as a reference to the al-Ghadīr sermon given by the Prophet during which he designated ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib as head of the Muslim community. The actual text of the translation, however, betrays barely any sign of a confessional approach (apart from a particularly Shii reading for Q 5:6). This may be at least partly due to the fact that ‘Koran’ is entirely based on other interpretations, including Russian, German, Czech and English translations, almost all of which are Sunni readings (excluding Talal Itani’s ‘Clear Qur’an’, which is declared by the author to be a ‘neither Sunni nor Shii work’). Berger says that he also used the Arabic original, though it is not entirely clear where it has been the primary source for his translation and where the target text is a paraphrase of other translations. Berger’s use of various other translations could explain some of the discontinuities that occur in his renderings of some theologically important verses, even from a mainstream Shii viewpoint: for example, in Q 67:1, ‘fī yadihi l-mulku’ (‘power in His Hand’) is translated metaphorically as ‘który posiada całą władzę’ (‘the One Who Has all the Power’), while Q 20:5 gives a more literal reading of ‘który osiadł na Najwyższym Tronie’ (‘the One Who Settled over the Highest Throne’) for ‘istawā ʿalā l-ʿarshi.’

Although ‘Koran’ was only published as recently as 2021, it has already been posted online on a relatively user-friendly website (e-koran.pl), and some suras are available as audio files. Overall, this translation corresponds to the demands of contemporary readers in a number of ways: it uses modern language, has plenty of short and readable footnotes, and could attract the interest of converts who are not associated with any of the traditional Islamic ethnic groups that call Poland home (such as Tatars, Middle Eastern migrants, etc.). It is hardly realistic to expect that it will be popular in predominantly Sunni communities, however it seems to be one of the most comprehensive sources for the Shii interpretation of the Qur’an that has been produced not only in Poland, but in Central and Eastern Europe in general.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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