Qur’an translation of the week #113: Tengku Mahjiddin Jusuf and Acehnese Qur’an Translation

by Lenni Lestari (IAIN Langsa, Aceh)

A number of studies on the various works of Qur’an exegesis and translation produced in Aceh have been published, but so far researchers do not seem to have paid much attention to Tengku Mahjiddin Jusuf’s translation of the Qur’an. Produced in 1955, this work is significant because it constitutes the first translation of the Qur’an into Acehnese. Although the lines between translation and exegesis can often be blurred, I here treat Jusuf’s work as a translation, rather than an interpretation, of the Qur’an, primarily on the basis that Tengku Mahjiddin Jusuf tends to provide a literal translation of the source text, written in short sentences, without appearing to add much explanation or interpretation. Nevertheless, when analyzed more deeply, Tengku Mahjiddin Jusuf does take on the interpretive role of an Aceh alim in his translation, which aims to bring the Acehnese people closer to the Qur’an. For example (as will be discussed below), in his translation and commentary on Q 36:35, he adds a reference to bulukat, a traditional Acehnese dish.

Tengku Haji Mahjiddin Jusuf was born in Peusangan, North Aceh, on 16 September 1918. After completing his basic education in various dayahs (or Islamic schools) in North Aceh, he continued his education at Madrasah Al-Muslim Matang Geulumpang Dua, one of a number of colleges founded by reformist ulama in Aceh, from which he graduated in 1937. Then, when Aceh Province was first incorporated into the province of North Sumatra by the Central Government in 1950, he was appointed Head of Religious Education. However, he only served in this position for a short time, between 1951 and 1952, after which he resigned due to his opposition to the amalgamation of Aceh and Sumatra, and returned to Banda Aceh to serve as the Head of Religious Education in Aceh.

Jusuf was imprisoned for 4 years for his rejection of the government’s decision to merge the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. This rejection caused the All-Aceh Association of Ulama (PUSA), including Jusuf, to unite with the DI/TII movement (Darul Islam/Tentara Islam Indonesia, Darul Islam/Islamic Army of Indonesia) led by Tengku Muhammad Daud Beureueh, an armed movement that was active in various regions of Indonesia, West Java, Southern Sulawesi, and Aceh, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, and sought the establishment of an Islamic State. The Darul Islam movement was born out of the fusion of anti-colonial militias that entered into conflict with the new Indonesian Republic as the revolutionary struggle against the Dutch colonial military came to an end in late 1949.

While in prison, Jusuf actively engaged in da’wa activities, guiding his Muslim fellow prisoners in the practice of Islamic teachings such as prayer and fasting, and expounding the greatness of Allah to his non-Muslim inmates. It was during this time in prison that he initially began translating the Qur’an, on 25 November 1955. At this time Jusuf translated three suras of the Qur’an, namely al-Inshirāḥ, Yā Sīn, and al-Kahf, which were published serially in the daily DutaPantjatjitain Banda Aceh in January and February 1965.

After his release, Jusuf returned to work in the field of religious education, and seems not to have produced any more translations of any of the other suras during that time. In fact, he did not revisit translating the Qur’an for about 20 years, until 1977, when he returned to the project with the intention of translating the scripture in its entirety, a goal he achieved in 1988. The dialect used by Jusuf in his translation is the North Aceh dialect used by the majority of Acehnese people, from Ulee Gle to Aceh Tamiang. Originally, Jusuf’s translation was written in the Arabic-Malay pegon script. However, in 1994 the editorial team at the Center for Research and Study of Islamic Culture (P3KI) converted the script to Latin text.

Jusuf identifies the exegetical sources he used in his introduction to the translation, namely the tafsīrs of Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH), al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538 AH), and al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH). As for comparative references, he used the Indonesian Qur’an Translation by A. Hassan, Mahmud Yunus and H.B. Jassin, and Al-Qur’an dan Terjemahnya, the official Indonesian state Qur’an translation produced by the Ministry of Religion Affairs.

Jusuf’s translation uses an Acehnese poetic form (nalam) which includes two elements: pakhôk (rhyme) and buhu (syllables). Pakhôk isused to harmonize the tone between one line and another, in which the words are chosen for their beauty and sound, while buhu refers to the syllables or the number of syllables in a line. Jusuf applied the concept of pakhôk and buhu consistently throughout his translation, although he had to be quite flexible in his use of pakhôk because he had to adapt the translation to the Qur’anic text. However, his application of the concept of buhu is very consistent: each line in his translation comprises 10 buhu (syllables).

Jusuf introduced a degree of cultural compensation in his translation of a number of verses. For example, see his translation of the first verse of Surat al-Tīn, which reads ‘wa l-tīni wa l-zaytūni, or ‘By the fig and the olive.’ This is an example of a verse that uses words or refers to things that are specific to the Arabian peninsula, such as camels, dates, or the thirst of people in the desert. When it comes to verses such as this, Jusuf applied a sociolinguistic approach and tried to translate the verse to accord with the context and people of Aceh, rather than the Arabian Peninsula. Accordingly, Jusuf’s translation of Q 95:1 reads as follows: ‘Demi Boh Ara dengon boh Zaiton’(‘By the ara and the olive’). Here, he replaces the original ‘fig’ with ara, the fruit of a tropical tree that grows in Indonesia. When asked about his translation choices in this verse, Jusuf said that olives are familiar fruit in Aceh, not least due to the availability of olive oil, whereas his readers may not be familiar with the fig. Hence, he decided to substitute ‘fig’ with another, recognizable and similar fruit, and chose to translate tīn as ara. In addition, he said, a two-syllable word was needed to complete the ten syllable buhu scheme.

Another, similar example can be seen in Jusuf’s translation of Sūrat Yā-Sīn, at Q 36:35, ‘li-yaʾkulū min thamarihī wa-mā ʿamilathu aydīhim a-fa-lā yashkurūna,’ which literally means ‘That they may eat its fruits, which they had no hand in making. Will they not then give thanks.’ Jusuf translated the first phrase of this as ‘Pajoh boh kayee peugot Bulukat’ (‘Eat fruits [and] make bulukat’). Bulukat is a dish made of yellow glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk (either with or without turmeric), and is a traditional Acehnese food that is usually served during special occasions and celebrations. Jusuf’s addition of the word bulukat is a completely innovative insertion into the source text, and is a strong indication that he is not only adapting the rhyme to Aceh culture but also implementing his da’wa strategy of domesticizing the Qur’an so that it is more relatable for his target audience.

It is safe to assume, based on examples such as those given here, that Jusuf’s translation was motivated by his overall da’wa strategy of making the Qur’an and Islam more accessible to his readers, and his desire to bolster Aceh’s political identity in the face of the Indonesian government’s plans to incorporate Aceh into the province of North Sumatra. Secondly, Jusuf’s choice to opt for a ‘free’ poetic translation reflects a conscious decision to present the content of the Qur’an in a form that was based on pre-existing Acehnese literary culture.

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