Qur’an translation of the week #129: The Poetic Qur’an: H.B. Jassin’s Qur’an Translation into Modern Indonesian

H.B. Jassin, a prominent Indonesian writer born in 1917, began his career during the Dutch colonial period, and continued writing throughout the Japanese occupation and into the era of Indonesian independence. He was a literary critic, journalist, novelist, translator and editor, as well as the author of poetry and short stories. Jassin’s expertise in literature was such that it earned him the nickname of ‘the Pope of Indonesian literature’ and, to use a Christian analogy, only an author who was ‘baptized’ and recognized by Jassin could be considered a true writer.

Jassin was known for his promotion of a generation of nationalist and revolutionary writers known as ‘the Angkatan 45’ (whose number included Chairil Anwar), whose work he saw as a literary breakthrough. He was also known for his defense of Hamka, the former chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) when, in 1962, following the publication of his novel “Tenggelamnya Kapal Van der Wick”, the left-wing magazine Lentera accused him of plagiarizing an Arabic novel entitled “Majdolin” by the Egyptian Mustafa Lutfi El-Manfaluti. Jassin gave support to Hamka by publishing Manfaluti’s original work in another magazine, Sastra.

Jassin was also well known for the publication of ‘Langit Makin Mendung’ (‘The Sky is Getting Cloudy’), a short story written under the pseudonym Ki Panji Kusmin, in a literary magazine he edited. This short story was considered insulting to Islam because it included fictional representations of the Prophet Muhammad, the angel Gabriel and Allah. In the face of intense pressure, Jassin refused to reveal the real name of Ki Panji Kusmin and, as a result, the literary magazine had its license revoked and Jassin was prosecuted and sentenced to one year in prison.

By his own admission, Jassin was moved to study the Qur’an following the death of his wife in 1962. To commemorate her death, the family undertook the tahlilan ritual, in which people were invited to read the Qur’an together for seven days in Jassin’s house. On the eighth day, when people were no longer attending, he wondered why it was not he himself who recited the Qur’an for his wife. From then on he began to read the Qur’an on a daily basis, and his curiosity was increasingly aroused. He began to learn the meaning of what he read, initially by studying the Qur’an in translation. However, he was not satisfied with a verse-by-verse translation and instead began to learn the meaning of the Qur’an word by word. As a writer with a high literary sensitivity, Jassin found the language of the Qur’an very beautiful and poetic. In the introduction to his own Qur’an translation, Jassin acknowledged that he began to translate the scripture in a poetic style, inspired by his reading of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s English translation (which he was given by his fellow writer Haji Kasim Mansur in 1969) which he considers ‘the most beautiful translation’ of Qur’an. His initial interest in the Qur’an was furthered by his reading of the English translations by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, J.M. Rodwell and A.J. Arbery, as well as the dictionary and glossary of the Qur’an by John Penrice. On the basis of these works, he became convinced that the miraculous nature of the Qur’an lay not only in its meaning but also in the beauty of its structure. Despite his use of poetic style in his translation, he never claimed that the Qur’an is poetry, but rather chose to write his translation prioritizing the rhythm and sound of the original Arabic words, so as to reproduce the aesthetic mood of the original.

Jassin began work on his translation in October 1972, when he had the opportunity to undertake a year’s research in the Netherlands. He managed to translate half of the Qur’an during his time there and completed the rest in Indonesia in 1974. The work was published by Djambatan in 1978 in an edition that included a few written responses by notable figures such as Ulama Hamka, the Jakarta Governor Ali Sadikin, and the Minister of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia. This work, however, was not without its critics. A few well-known Islamic scholars from different groups, such as KH Oemar Bakri from the Islamic Da’wah Council and KH Sirojuddin Abbas from the Indonesian Islamic Tarbiyah (Perti), rejected it and criticized Jassin for his lack of academic competence on the grounds that he had not translated the Qur’an from the original Arabic and did not have an background in the Islamic sciences. One of the scholars referred to a hadīth that says ‘If an affair is handed over to a non-expert, then just wait for its destruction.’ As a symbol of protest, some groups even burned Jassin’s translation. Despite such resistance, however, The Qur’an: The Noble Reading “Al-Qur’an Bacaan Mulia” (ABM) was printed four times.

In revising his translation for its later editions, Jassin was open to criticism. He corrected errors, added poetic elements, and also began to arrange the Arabic text so that it fell in line with his translation. He continued to implement such changes until he came up with the idea of publishing the Qur’an in a poetic form. For Jassin, the Qur’an is composed in beautiful poetic language, but why is it always written in prosaic grouped-style layout? Claiming that he had conducted research on the printed form of the Qur’an in a number of countries, he asserted that a verse edition (muṣḥaf) of the Qur’an would be easier to fully absorb, in contrast to the grouped-style editions of the Qur’an that tend to be produced today which he considered to be merely filling space on the page. With this in mind, he started out on a new project to present the Qur’an with a ‘poetic face’, Al-Qur’an Berwajah Puisi (ABP). Together with Sirajuddin AR, a well-known calligrapher from the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), he set out to arrange the Arabic Qur’an in poetic form. This project was completed on 31 July 1993 in conjunction with H.B. Jassin’s seventy-fifth birthday.

As with his Qur’an translation, this second work met with both resistance and support. Supporters included B.J. Habibi, the Minister of Research and Technology of Indonesia who provided funding for its printing, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), who at that time served as the chairman of the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Mukhtar Lutfi Al-Anshori, who said that the objection of many Indonesian Muslims to Jassin’s muṣḥaf was due to the fact that most Indonesian scholars rely solely on Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, whereas there are many other works of tafsīr that can be used as interpretive references. Quraish Shihab, a scholar of tafsīr who had also translated the Qur’an, initially gave his support. However, sometime later, along with Munawir Sadzali, and acting on behalf of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), he supported the decision to ban the circulation of Jassin’s muṣḥaf, the ABP.

The irony is that Jassin’s ABP was rejected before it was even given the chance to be widely seen. This was partly due to the preconception that it was a poetic Qur’an and had not been produced by following the rasm ustmani method, which was used as a reference for writing the Qur’an in Indonesia as well as most other parts of the world. However, this accusation can easily be refuted on the grounds that the Ministry of Religion cannot provide any information about which aspects of the rasm ustmani were actually violated. Another reason given for rejecting ABP was that the poetic style and verse arrangement made it difficult for readers to access, especially when it comes to memorising the Qur’an, because it is not written according to the conventional utsmani standard. Traditional ulamas such as KH Alie Yafie of MUI said the Qur’an was revealed to be tawqifi, i.e. determined in its form, so its form should not be changed in writing the muṣḥaf, an opinion that was echoed by KH Ma’ruf Amin, the Katib Syuriah of NU at the time (who is currently the Vice President of Indonesia). Meanwhile other ulema, such as Fuad Moh. Fachrudin in his speech at a Studium Generale at IAIN Jakarta in 1993, attributed the creation of this ‘poetry-faced’ Qur’an to the influence of the Shia.

Although it had already been printed by the Djambatan publishing house, ABP’s publication permit was rejected by the MUI and the Ministry of Religious Affairs through an edict issued by the Lajnah Pentashihan Mushaf Al-Qur’an at the end of September 1993 on the basis that it would create more damage (mudhorat) than benefit (maslahah). With this rejection, further discourse developed in the community opining that Jassin’s poetic muṣḥaf was a heretical work (sesat).

H.B. Jassin’s translation and muṣḥaf of the Qur’an may not be perfect and has its flaws, however the intervention of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Indonesian Ulema Council made it very clear that the Indonesian umma was not prepared for the level of stylistic innovation Jassin brought to his Qur’anic endeavours. In addition, this intervention illustrates a common feature of the Indonesian New Order era, namely the pursuit of political stability: state intervention (in this case through the MUI and Ministry of Religious Affairs) was required in matters of social controversy, otherwise it risked damaging the prestige and standing of the government.

See the study by: 

Yusuf Rahman, ‘The Controversy Around H.B. Jassin: A Study of His Al-Quranu’l-Karim Bacaan Mulia and Al-Qur’an al-Karim Berwajah Puisi’, in Approaches to the Qur’an in Contemporary Indonesia, ed. by Abdullah Saeed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 85–105

Islah Gusmian, “Kontroversi Mushhaf Al Qur’an Berwajah Puisi Karya HB. Jassin (Studi tentang Tatacara Penulisan dan Layout Mushaf Al Qur’an) Al Itqan Jurnal Studi Al Qur’an. STAI AL Anwar Sarang. Vol.1 No 1(2015)

Yulia Riswan

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