Qur’an translation of the week #117: ‘The teaching of Islam in verses from the Koran’ by Jakub Szynkiewicz

While the issue of Qur’anic translatability was still a subject of debate during the 1930s in the Middle East, some European Muslims did not regard this as a problem to be discussed at all (even for the English language). Jakub Szynkiewicz (1884–1966), a Muslim and Orientalist scholar who served as mufti of Poland is a good example of a contribution to the translation movement made by an outstanding personality. After graduating from Berlin University in 1926, having completed a thesis in Turkic philology, Jakub Szynkiewicz continued his educational activities during many trips abroad. He also established close ties with communities of Muslim activists, both in the East and West: Szynkiewicz was a representative of Polish Muslims at both the Jerusalem and Geneva Islamic congresses in 1931 and, respectively, 1935. Alongside this extensive academic and travel experience, Szynkiewicz had a much more global project in mind than merely the revival of the Islamic tradition in his homeland. As early in his career as the 1930s, he had already become interested in missionary activities and the active promotion of Islam to a Western audience. In contrast to many other conservative scholars of his time, Szynkiewicz’s perspective on the idea of Qur’anic translatability was generally positive. Commenting on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s initiative to publish Turkish translations of the Qur’an in republican Turkey, Szynkiewicz noted that translations of the Qur’an have been not widely accepted in religious practice as substitutes for the original Arabic text simply because they were not good enough and contained many outdated Arabic and Persian words. ‘The Qur’an cannot be translated by a bureaucrat who is ordered to do that … it must be [done by] a poet, inspired by faith, [with] knowledge of the basics of Islam and competence both Arabic and Turkish‘, writes Szynkiewicz in his memoirs. A protagonist of translational discourses, Szynkiewicz himself produced a translation of selected verses from 74 suras of the Qur’an into Polish, which was printed by a Sarajevo publishing house in 1936. This was not his only translation project involving the Qur’an: later, Szynkiewicz printed a further translation of selected Qur’anic material into English under the title ‘The teaching of Islam in verses from the Koran.’ Though the date of publication is not stated on the title page, some bibliographical records cite 1937 as its year of publication and Cairo as the place. However, Muhammad Hamidullah in his ‘History of the Qur’an’ suggests that the book was actually published much later, just after the Second World War. Perhaps the real date of publication lies between 1952, the year when Szynkiewicz finally settled in the USA and became interested in English-language translation, and 1956, when this work was mentioned in a Turkish journal. The cover also bears the logo of an ‘Islamic Congress’ unit, which seems not to denote a publisher’s name, but rather the gathering of Islamic scholars attended by Szynkiewicz that took place in September 1935 in Geneva, mentioned above in this post. Some of the printing features, as well as the availability of the book in US libraries, can be taken as evidence that the book was published in the USA, not in Egypt, and this would accord with the fact that his later English-language ‘Practical manual for the reading of the Koran’ was published in Waterbury, Connecticut in the 1960s. The translator’s introduction provided in ‘The teaching of Islam in verses from the Koran’ is quite informative: first of all, Szynkiewicz notes that ‘[the] complete Koran is too difficult … for the readers lacking special preparation’, and thus a selection of verses is much more appropriate for both ‘Moslems and Non-Moslems’.

Szynkiewicz also mentions previous attempts to provide translations of selected chapters from the Qur’an, referring to the English translation ‘The Wisdom of the Qur’ān’ by the Turkish scholar Mahmud Muhtar Katırcıoğlu (1867–1935). For Szynkiewicz ‘this book, like similar ones written by European Orientalists, does not give a comprehensive general conception of the teachings of the Koran’. Finally, Szynkiewicz mentions his grounds for selecting the specific verses he chooses to translate, which is led by a focus on ‘man’s duties towards his Creator, his neighbor and himself’, issues relating to family life, and prayer. When comparing to the Polish edition of 1936, it is clear that Szynkiewicz used the same division of topics, with just a few minor changes and additions. The edition presents the material in both the original Arabic text and English translation (in verse-by-verse form), with thematic headings in both languages. The logic behind ‘The teaching of Islam’ was to provide the reader with a practical manual on the teachings of the Qur’an. It has eight parts, starting with Q. 1 and then covering a number of basic theological questions: ‘Concerning God’, ‘Believers duties towards God’, ‘The five fundamental principles of Islam’, ‘Believers duties towards their fellow creatures’, ‘Believers duties towards themselves’ and ‘Family life.’ Following these, there is a chapter on ‘Future reward is the same for men and women,’ before the book ends with prayers from the Qur’an. Most of the chapters are built on the pattern ‘God enjoins ….; God forbids …’, with a list of obligations and prohibitions, mostly on moral issues. There seems to be a certain degree of interest in controversial modern challenges, hence there is a subchapter on religious tolerance, and also a paragraph entitled ‘Do any Christians or Jews enter Paradise?’, which includes verses that describe how there will be a reward for every community (for example, Q. 2:62, ‘Surely those who believe, those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians … shall have their reward with their Lord’).

It should be noted that Szynkiewicz had a special interest in this topic, and published a pamphlet in Polish on the subject of tolerance in Islam in 1934, which he presented during the 1935 Islamic Congress. Since Szynkiewicz’s 1936 Polish translation of the Qur’an was entirely based on the Arabic text, supplemented by information drawn from the tafsīrs of al-Ṭabarī and al-Bayḍāwī (as the introduction to the English edition states), what about the English text? In reality, it seems that entire edition originated from only two textual sources: the pre-existing English translations by John Rodwell (1861) and Muhammad Ali (1917). The fact that the latter was authored by a member of the Ahmadiyya movement did not prevent Szynkiewicz from using it: moreover, he had close ties with the Ahmadiyya community in Berlin during his studies there, and also criticized the presidency of the Islamic Congress of 1935 for not inviting the imam of their mosque to attend, ‘since this group also undertakes work for the Islamic cause’. While Szynkiewicz used Rodwell’s translation for some verses, and Ali’s for others, it is not clear why he selects them on particular occasions, and he does not clarify which translation he is using: for example, for Q. 3:8-9 he uses Muhammad Ali, and just after that Rodwells’ interpretation for Q. 3:26-27. Sometimes this also leads to confusion over verse numbering, because Rodwell used Flügel’s numeration. In a few cases Szynkiewicz also cites Rodwell’s footnotes, for example in explaining the phrase ‘sound heart’ from Q. 26:89 as meaning ‘free from evil.’ The last part of the book, selected prayers (duʿā) from the Qur’an, mostly contains Muhammad Ali’s translations with very few alterations: perhaps for such, more poetic texts he felt it sounded more appropriate than the already outdated interpretation by Rodwell. According to the Turkish magazine ‘Sebîlürreşâd’ (vol. 1, 1956), Szynkiewicz also planned to publish a French translation of the Qur’an, sharing his draft with scholars from Al-Azhar in Egypt. Though nothing is known about the outcome of this project, it seems that this could be the French version of his earliest Polish and English translations of selected verses.

The case of ‘The teaching of Islam in verses from the Koran’ thus demonstrates a kind of a new translational discourse, one which promotes ‘reader-friendly’ and easily accessible passages from the Qur’an for both Muslims and non-Muslim readers, in contrast to the big, much more comprehensive volumes produced by Orientalist and early Muslim translators. In some ways, this approach to translating the Qur’an has common ground with both earlier popular works produced in republican Turkey (in Turkish) and the old Polish Tatar tradition of composing religious books according to selected topics (called ‘ketabs’). What is also significant here is the fact that Szynkiewicz was not merely a Muslim apologist, but an Islamic leader with an Orientalist educational background who was exceptionally well acquainted with the nuances of discussions and debates on Islam and the Qur’an in general.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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