Qur’an translation of the week #125: Qur’an translation and ‘Tafsīr Azan.ru’: Imperial language in the digital age

The geography of the former Russian Empire and the power of its language have had lasting effects, not only on geopolitics but also on the grassroots level activities of various actors. Our thread today is about how Muslims have used the Russian language and the geography of the Empire to create a Qur’an translation and tafsīr project that has gone beyond national borders and created its own virtual spaces of authority. The tafsīr we are introducing today does not exist in print, it is an entirely digital project that was made available in 2017 and is known by the name of the website on which it is located: Azan.ru. Azan.ru is dedicated to providing Islamic knowledge in accordance with the hadīth of Gabriel, which focuses on three main dimensions of the Islamic faith: imān, islām and ihsān. This, in turn, has resulted in a large amount of content relating to a variety of subjects such as ʿaqīda, fiqh, adab, the sīra nabawiyya and other topics. However, its Russian Qur’an translation with tafsīr is the most popular content on the website.

The project was created by an ethnically diverse team of like-minded Muslims, some of whom were located in Kazakhstan at the time the project began. Three of the team were originally from Russia, and the fourth was from Kazakhstan: one was a conservative preacher with training in Dar al-Ifta al-Mahmudiyya (Durban) called Abu Ali al-Ashari (Rashid Isaev); another, Ahmad Abu Yahya (Kirill Ivanyugo), is currently chief specialist of the Sharia Department of the DUMRT (Spiritual Administration of Tatarstan Republic, a state organization of the Russian Federation); the third was the DUMRT mufti Kamil Samigullin; and the fourth, Ersin Amire Abu Yusuf (Ersin Bekaidaruly), was a Kazakh preacher who studied in Lebanon. Some of these figures, later on, would be behind another Qur’an translation into Russian, Kalam Sharif, which was produced in 2019 under the aegis of DUMRT (See our post about Kalam Sharif here). Since the Azan.ru translation with tafsīr exists only in a digital format (website and phone app) it is oriented primarily towards the younger generations of Russian-speaking Muslims. While there was an initial idea to publish the work as a book, this was later abandoned as various team members also became involved in the Kalam Sharif project. Many of the linguistic, stylistic and conceptual conventions in the Azan.ru translation were transported almost unchanged into Kalam Sharif, and it is easy spot that the same people were behind both works.

The website Azan.ru is entirely in Russian, although there is another parallel website under the same title but with a stronger priority given to the Kazakh language, which has the national web domain Azan.kz. Originally, the two websites comprised one project, but split into two due to internal issues, after which Azan.kz became more oriented towards a domestic Kazakh audience while Azan.ru aimed to go beyond national boundaries and use the Russian language to influence a wider Muslim public. On closer examination, however, there is still a noticeable local geographical focus because the Azan.ru website provides prayer times for specific cities and thus prioritizes certain localities, namely the three Turkic republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tatarstan. While Tatarstan is part of a Russian Federation that includes other republics with a large Muslim population and Russian cities with many Muslims of various ethnicities, Azan.ru focuses only on Tatarstan, demonstrating a particular strategic interest in targeting the Turkic republics on the part of the Azan.ru team. Thus, it can be said that the website has its own virtual geography of intended influence that encompasses the three territorial entities, and that Russian is used as a powerful tool for disseminating the Islamic vision of the Azan.ru team in these regions.

Their particular Islamic vision can be analyzed by looking the sources on which the Azan.ru content is based. Its reference points are diverse and multicultural and go beyond the Muslim authorities who have a presence in the post-Soviet space. As well as the above-mentioned figures from Russia and Kazakhstan, whose materials are present on the website, the works of many other contemporary scholars are also represented. For example, materials by the UK theologian Abdur Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera, the highly controversial US-based preacher Daniel Haqiqatjou, the UK Deobandi Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam Al-Kawthari, the American Sufi Shaykh Nuh Keller and many others can be identified, and this demonstrates the cosmopolitan outlook of the Azan.ru team, which selects materials from a varied Muslim globality. The Qur’an translation itself is mostly based on al-Jalālayn and the short tafsīr by the late Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAlī al-Ṣābūnī (d. 2021), al-Wāḍiḥ al-muyassar. When it comes to tafsīr however, the sources are much more limited and include the most popularized “classics” from the tafsīr tradition. In total thirteen sources such as al-Ṭabarī, al-Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr and al-Māturīdī are mentioned. The influence of the tafsīr authors’ background can be seen in some unusual additions to this list of sources. For example, Abu Ali al-Ashari and Ahmad Abu Yahya both have a reverence for the Deobandi tradition, and thus it is possible to find ‘Tafsīr Maʿārif al-Qurʾān’ by Mufti Muhammad Shafi Deobandi (d. 1976) among the sources used in Azan.ru. Maʿārif al-Qurʾān was initially written in Urdu and later translated into English, and most probably the English version was used for Azan.ru. Another example can be seen in the influence of Kamil Samigullin who, before taking a position within the Russian state institution of muftiyat DUMRT, was involved in the ultra-conservative Turkish Sufi ṭarīqa İsmail Ağa, under the guidance of the late Shaykh Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu (d. 2022), the author of the Turkish tafsīr Kuranı Mecid ve Tefsirli Meali Alisi, which is also used widely in the Azan.ru tafsīr. Thus, Azan.ru makes use of not only classical and modern Arabic, but also English and Turkish, sources.

Although Azan.ru in general tries to retain a sort of a-temporal approach and rarely speaks about contemporary issues, sometimes issues that relate specifically to modernity are mentioned in the web pages of the tafsīr. Overall, the scope of the tafsīr is quite diverse and does not fall into one specific category such as a scientific (ʿilmī) or politically-ideological Qur’an commentary. The modern issues mentioned in the Azan.ru tafsīr likewise have a wide focus and vary from critique of obesity and the spread of insincere religious convictions projected by the comfort of modern life, to criticism of Western support for homosexuality.

The tafsīr takes a clear apologetic stance against Orientalists and Salafi hermeneutics, and the latter can be traced through extensive commentaries dedicated to “proper” explanations of Allah’s names and attributes, the topic of heated debates between Salafis and their opponents. Thus, passages criticizing the anthropomorphic interpretation of verses that deal with issues such as God’s istawā ʿalā al-ʿarsh appear to be among the longest of the sections that try to eradicate the possibilities of “wrong” beliefs influenced by “incorrect translations”. The Azan.ru team projects themselves as defenders of the ahl al-sunna wa l-jamāʿa, holding that the orthodoxy corresponds exclusively to the creed of ʿAsharism and Māturīdism. Some specific fiqh rulings have clearly influenced the form of the translation. For example, since priority is given to Hanafi fiqh, there is a particular approach to the numeration of verses in Sūrat al-Fātiḥa. In Hanafi fiqh the basmala is not considered to be a part of the sūra, thus it is not enumerated and the numeration begins with the following verse. This, and other examples, aim to inculcate the readership with not only a specific creedal approach but also a certain legal framing.

Azan.ru was a timely project, as it provided extensive explanations for the meanings of the Qur’an, and made these widely available to an intellectually-oriented Muslim youth. However, Azan.ru also shows the limits of the contemporary traditionalists’ framework: their contextualization of Muslim scripture prioritizes propagandizing a specific theological outlook rather than addressing universal issues in a way that might reconcile sectarian differences and unite ethical individuals under a Qur’anic ethos.

Elvira Kulieva

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