Qur’an translation of the week #119: Rachid Maach’s “Le Coran” and its two versions

Rachid Maach’s Le Coran is the most recent French Qur’an translation to appear in print. It is pioneering because it is probably the very first Qur’an translation to be published in two different versions which conform to two different reading traditions (qirāʾāt), those of Ḥafṣ ʿan ʿĀṣim and Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ.

Maach, a former journalist from France, studied for nearly ten years in Medina with the Saudi sheikh Ṣāliḥ al-Fawzān (b. 1933) and has written and translated numerous Islamic books. His Qur’an translation was self-published in 2021 and then discovered by the owner of Al Bayyinah, a publisher, bookstore and wholesale dealer of Islamic books based in the suburbs of Paris. Al-Bayyinah published the translation in spring 2022, just before Ramadan, in a bilingual Arabic-French edition, with gilded pages and luxurious leather binding, in five different colours, and in two different versions.

In a video, Thomas Sibille, the owner of Al Bayyinah, explains his reasons for publishing this translation despite the fact that many popular and good French Qur’an translations are already available; he mentions specifically those by Nabil Aliouane (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-43-a-french-salafi-quran-translation-based-on-ibn-kathirs-tafsir/), Mohammed Chiadmi (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-62-the-quest-for-a-western-european-language-of-islam-mohammed-chiadmis-le-noble-coran-nouvelle-traduction-francaise-du-sens-de-ses-versets/) and Muhammad Hamidullah (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-07-le-saint-coran-and-its-convoluted-publication-history/). Sibille’s main motive for publishing Maach’s translation, he says, was his impression that it is accessible and pleasant to read even for non-Muslims and beginners, who would be deterred by a clunky style or excessive annotation. Maach’s translation, he felt, is neither overly literal nor overly explanatory and is written in excellent French. This might have seemed worth mentioning to him given the backdrop of West European Islamic publishing markets where the majority of authors of Qur’an translations are not professional translators, and sometimes not even native speakers of the target language.

In line with the idea of accessibility to non-Muslims that attracted Sibille, and in common with the fairly recent translations by Aliouane and Chiadmi, Maach has a tendency to soften the impact of controversial verses such as Q 4:34 by incorporating into his translation the least harsh interpretation possible within the boundaries of traditional Islamic scholarship without resorting to outright liberal or feminist approaches. For example, regarding the issue of whether a husband is permitted to beat his wife, as could be understood from Q 4:34, instead of translating fa ’ḍribūhunna as ‘battez-les’ (‘beat them’), as Hamidullah had done in 1959, Maach opts for ‘vous devrez […], en dernier recours, les corriger’ (‘you should […], as a last resort, correct them’).

When compared to the self-published version, the Al Bayyinah edition replaces Maach’s translation of allāh as ‘Allah’ with ‘Dieu’ (‘God’), clearly with the aim of making the translation more appealing to non-Muslim readers. It also uses a standardized transliteration system and Arabic sura titles alongside the French ones chosen by Maach. Moreover, the editors have significantly reduced the number of notes. For example, Maach had originally explained terms such as ‘prière’ (‘prayer’) by briefly summarizing the concept of ṣalāt. He had also referred repeatedly to the ‘scientific exegesis’ proposed by Maurice Bucaille (1920–1998) who tried to demonstrate that the Qur’an contained modern scientific knowledge that had not been available to seventh-century Arabs. The editors have shortened or deleted these references to give more weight to the text of the translation itself, although they left Maach’s notes intact when they pertained to common interpretations or exegetical opinions on the meaning of verses and expressions. For example, with regard to Q 2:62, a verse that seems to promise Jews, Christians and ‘Sabians’ a divine reward, Maach clarifies in a note that after the emergence of Islam, adherents of other religions will only be saved if they believe in Muḥammad’s mission.

Maach’s translation was originally exclusively based on the reading (qirāʾa) of Ḥafṣ (for more information on reading traditions, see https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-50-a-spanish-quran-translation-based-on-the-reading-of-wars/). That reading is by far the most common globally, but it is not authoritative in the sense of being the only theologically acceptable reading, nor is it ubiquitous. In the Maghreb and West Africa, in particular, the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ continues to be widespread. Interestingly, though, despite the high number of Muslims of Maghrebi and West African descent in France, no French Qur’an translation had ever been based on the reading of Warsh, and none of the Arabic-French bilingual editions available in France had used the reading of Warsh for the Arabic muṣḥaf either. Sibille mentions in his video that, while mosques and Qur’an schools in France usually teach the Qur’an according to Ḥafṣ, there is currently an increasing interest in the reading of Warsh, maybe in the context of a rediscovery of regional North-West African Islamic traditions. Therefore, Al Bayyinah decided to publish the translation in two versions, one according to Ḥafṣ and one according to Warsh. This does not only pertain to the Arabic text included in the edition but also to the French translation, which was adapted in places to match the Arabic wording and also uses a different system of verse numbering.

For example, Q 1:4/3 speaks of God as māliki yawm al-dīn according to Ḥafṣ, which Maach renders as ‘sovereign Master of the Day of judgment’ (‘Maître souverain du Jour de la rétribution’). Warsh speaks of God as maliki yawm al-dīn, which the Al Bayyinah editors translate as ‘King of the Day of judgement’ (‘Roi du Jour de la rétribution’).

Or consider Q 43:19/18, which calls the angels ʿibādu l-Raḥmān (‘servants of the Merciful One’) according to Ḥafṣ whereas according to Warsh, they are ʿinda l-Raḥmān (‘with God’). Maach translated Ḥafṣ’s version as ‘simples serviteurs du Tout Miséricordieux’ (‘simple servants of the All-Merciful One’); the Al Bayyinah editors rephrased it in their Warsh version to say ‘auprès du Tout Miséricordieux’ (‘with God’). All in all, they seem to have carefully gone through the translation, adapting it in all places where the reading of Warsh results in a different meaning, but without marking these interventions.

The reading of Ḥafṣ has nearly exclusively dominated the field of Qur’an translation for many decades and many translators have not even treated using it as an explicit choice but have simply taken it for granted. This seems to be slowly starting to change; there is an increased awareness of the existence of multiple canonical reading traditions and alternative readings are much more easily available than they used to be a few decades ago. The publication of Rachid Maach’s Qur’an translation in two different versions is an interesting indicator of this development that might also signify a professionalization of the field.

Johanna Pink

Share this post