Qur’an translation of the week #123: The tolerant Qur’an- Dalil Boubakeur’s version of a ‘detheologized’ Qur’an

In 2008, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, published a small inexpensive booklet titled Le Coran tolérant (‘The Tolerant Qur’an’). It essentially contained a collection of verses from the Qur’an, translated into French and thematically arranged in four chapters and numerous subsections.

Boubakeur is one of the most prominent figures of French Islam, but due to his proximity to state-funded Islamic institutions and the French concept of laicité, also a controversial one. Born in 1940 in Philippeville in Algeria (today Skikda), he was the son of Hamza Boubakeur, a descendant of the sixteenth-century Sufi master known as Sidi Cheikh. Hamza Boubakeur worked at the time as an Arabic teacher for various French schools in Algeria. In 1957, the Boubakeur family moved to Paris, where Hamza became rector of the Grand Mosque, a position he held for the next 25 years, during which time he authored a Qur’an translation into French. His son Dalil became a doctor and started assuming functions in organized Islam in France from the 1980s onwards, backed up by a degree he obtained from al-Azhar in Egypt. He was rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, an institution established and funded by the French state, from 1992 to 2020 (which means that the mosque was run by members of the Boubakeur family for more than half of its one-hundred-year history!). Dalil Boubakeur was also responsible for founding the Al-Ghazali Institute, which trains imams and is affiliated with the Grand Mosque. He is considered a proponent of a secular Islam that is in accordance with European laws and customs. Some of his statements, for example concerning the rejection of the face veil and the suggestion that Muslims might be well-advised to abstain from building high minarets and practicing the call for prayer, were met with disapproval on the part of those French Muslims who were in favour of claiming higher autonomy and visibility vis-à-vis the secular French state. On the other hand, his criticism of Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, his participation in a lawsuit against the writer Michel Houellebecq for insulting Islam, and his opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as his plans to convert churches into mosques, have rendered him suspect to many French non-Muslims.

His Le Coran tolérant was published in the collection à savoir, a series of small and inexpensive pocket books that mostly cover various legal topics, although some cover history, politics and religion. Given its miniature format (6x12cm and around 150 pages) and low price (€3), it was probably meant to be ideally suited to being read during a commute in a crowded métro train.

In the foreword, Boubakeur characterizes Islam as ‘a spiritual humanism that speaks to humankind in its diversity and that carries a message of peace and liberty.’ According to Boubakeur, Islam is by its very nature tolerant, accepting of earlier religions, and based on reason and the appreciation of science. However, he argues, Islam today has to come to terms with secular states, modernity and the opposing force of fundamentalism. Muslims have to find a way to unite past and present, to live in accordance with their times and to accept scientific progress, and in order to achieve this, they have to be critical of some aspects of Islamic religious thought. ‘A religion as beautiful and as great as Islam has to be an active witness of its times.’

Therefore, as he says in a statement that is also cited on the back cover, Islam ‘must be able to reposition its message by adapting it to its times. What is necessary in order to do so is not so much a rereading of the Qur’an as a rereading of its interpretations – its exegesis, one could say – as well as< proceeding towards a reasoned contextualisation of the Text. Submitting the Text to reason may be achieved through the revival of the social sciences and the “detheologizaion” of Qur’anic interpretation.’

In the short history of the Qur’anic text that Boubakeur presents after his introduction, he implicitly, without mentioning him by name, situates himself in the tradition of the Sudanese reformer Maḥmūd Muḥammad Ṭāhā (d. 1985) who had called for a kind of reverse abrogation. Rather than accepting that later Qur’anic rulings abrogated earlier ones, as the classical theory of naskh demands, Ṭāhā argued that the earlier, universal message of the Meccan Qur’an should abrogate the time-bound rules revealed to the Medinan community. According to Boubakeur, even if verses pertaining to specific situations and their requirements were revealed later than the fundamental, normative tenets of Islam, these specific requirements should never supersede the fundamental norms. The focus of his book, he argues, is on the fundamental norms as well as the continuity of Abrahamic religions, rather than on situational rulings.

The book is divided into four parts: God and man; the pillars of Islam; biblical and Islamic prophets (as well as Mary); and ‘Muslims in society.’ Sometimes, Boubakeur presents longer excerpts from the Qur’an, and sometimes individual verses or even only parts thereof such as ‘… and do good, for Allah loves those who do good’ (Q 2:195, second half).

The translation of the verses is not original. Boubakeur does not use his father’s translation but instead the one by Muhammad Hamidullah, first published in 1959, in the revised version edited by the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, which is probably the French Qur’an translation most commonly used by Muslims today. He does not seem to make any changes to this translation. The focus of his selection of verses is on generally acceptable, inoffensive statements, some of which are even repeated in different sections (e.g., Q 4:1). Somewhat surprisingly, the last section of the book consists of several verses on jihad, without any accompanying commentary or explanation, that contain specific allusions to warfare and might raise questions among the – presumably non-Muslim – target audience.

This booklet is discussed here because it is far from the only one of its kind. Selections of translated Qur’anic verses are frequently published, for a variety of purposes. They may be used to familiarize Muslims with religious teachings, either in a general fashion or with regard to specific topics, but they may also serve to introduce Islam to a non-Muslim readership in an accessible manner. The level of care and work that authors invest in this type of literature varies widely. The lazier attempts in particular always run a risk of reducing the Qur’an to a collection of Hallmark card sentiments or, in more contemporary parlance, inspirational memes.

In this context, it is instructive to compare Boubakeur’s book to the much earlier La Sagesse Coranique (‘The Wisdom of the Qur’an’) by the Ottoman politician, officer and diplomat Mahmut Muhtar Katırcıoğlu, which was published in 1935. Mahmut Muhtar, too, had expressed the view that the Qur’an contains eternally valid as well as ephemeral teachings and that a translation should focus on the eternally valid parts, rather than on specific, time-bound rulings. Based on this notion, he selected and carefully translated about a fifth of the Qur’anic text, without drawing on existing translations. By comparison, the effort Boubakeur invested in his ‘tolerant Qur’an’ was relatively small. As a critical reviewer mentions, due to the lack of commentary and contextualization, the appeal to reason that Boubakeur makes in his introduction is hardly backed up by the actual text of his book.

Johanna Pink

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