Qur’an translation of the week #134: The First Muslim-Authored Qur’an Translation into German

This week we look at the first Muslim-authored translation into German, which was published during World War II by Maulana Sadr-ud-Din (d. 1981), a missionary of the Lahore branch of the Ahmadiyya movement, and caused much controversy within his community. Sadr-ud-Din, who had previously worked as a missionary in Woking in the United Kingdom, arrived in Berlin in 1923 to promote the spread of Islam there. Just two years later, he succeeded in acquiring a plot of land for a mosque, following which the Wilmersdorfer Moschee, the oldest mosque still standing in Germany, was built. In the same year, Sadr-ud-Din expanded his contacts with the various Muslim communities in Berlin, whose representatives he invited to his home. This led to an interesting encounter between Tatar intellectuals and Sadr-ud-Din, during which the subject of the translation of the Qur’an was discussed. The meeting was also attended by such personages as the Finnish merchant and publisher Zinettullah Ahsen Böre (1886–1945), who went on to publish his Finnish translation of the Qur’an in 1942, and the Polish linguist and later Mufti of Poland Jakub Szynkiewicz (1884–1966), who published his Polish Qur’an translation in 1936. A third translation to emerged from this meeting was the German translation by Maulana Sadr-ud-Din. 

Conversations that took place during this meeting revealed an underlying conviction that there was a great need for Muslims to produce their own Qur’an translations, and to convey the message of Islam to the European population. The Tatar scholars had particularly sought out Sadr-ud-Din because the Ahmadiyya was very active in publishing Qur’an translations: in 1917 they had published Muhammad Ali’s (d. 1951) English translation, which was primarily designed as a text to be used as part of the Ahmadiyya’s missionary outreach program, but also enjoyed recognition in Muslim circles. When the final manuscript of this was sent from India to England, Sadr-ud-Din had been on site in the UK to oversee the final revisions.

Maulana Sadr-ud-Din
Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadr_ud-Din

After establishing an Ahmadiyya community in Berlin, Sadr-ud-Din returned to India in 1925. In 1928, the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore, the headquarters of the Lahore branch, had announced the publication of a German translation of the Qur’an, which was to be authored by Sadr-ud-Din. For this, Sadr-ud-din first prepared a manuscript in English, since he had to admit that his German skills would not suffice to undertake this enterprise in German. He then handed over the manuscript to a person named Dr Mansur, who translated it into German. The preparation of the manuscript for the German translation was completed in 1934, but it took three more years for Sadr-ud-Din to make his way back to Germany with the manuscript in his pocket. Just like Muhammad Ali, Sadr-ud-Din did not aim to publish a plain translation, but to supplement it with footnotes to make it easier for German readers to engage with the text. For this, he engaged the help of Hugo Marcus, a convert from Judaism. Hugo, a philosopher and great admirer of Goethe and Nietzsche, had been an active participant in the activities and celebrations of the community since 1924, and often gave speeches on these occasions. However, after 1935 he no longer appeared in public, as the pressure of the Nazi regime on the Mosque grew: because of his ‘Jewish descent’ he only worked discreetly for the community in Berlin. 

With his help, the first edition of the translation was published in 1939. There seems to have been a great demand for it: certainly, part of the reason it aroused interest was because it was the first German translation to be produced from a Muslim pen. Many copies were sent to the Eastern Front – the Second World War had already begun.

However, at the Ahmaddiya headquarters in Lahore, the translation caused anything but enthusiasm. This had to do with the fact that Hugo Marcus had projected his philosophical thinking into the text, which mean that the Nietzschean image of elite maleness, prevalent at the time and supported by the Nazi regime, as well as ideas from Goethe, found their way into the translation.

Wilmersdorfer Moschee
Source:  https://d-4.de/projekt/wilmersdorfer-moschee/

The first edition of the translation is not available to me, but an idea of Hugo’s understanding of and engagement with the Qur’anic text can be gleaned from the sermons he delivered in Wilmersdorfer Mosque. Q 6:50 presents a good example of how Hugo brought the Qur’anic text and the philosophical ideas prevalent in Germany at the time into accord. The verse contains the following wording:

‘Say: I do not say to you, I have with me the treasures of Allah, nor do I know the unseen, nor do I say to you that I am an angel; I follow only what is revealed to me.’

Hugo points out that the values mentioned in the verse are consistent with Goethe’s message. He notes: ‘For just as Muhammad was the greatest Islamic universalist, so was Goethe the greatest German. And just as Germans are most German when universalistic, Muslims are most universalistic when they are Muslims, because to be Muslim means to be universal in religious terms. That is the genius of Islam.’

Another example can be found in the case of Q 28:56, which contains the following wording:

‘Surely you cannot guide whom you love, but Allah guides whom He pleases.’

Commenting on this verse, Hugo says: ‘Nietzsche says: “Make wings out of your pain. Because that is Nietzsche’s famous doctrine of Superman: that Man is destined to go towards unknown heights.”’

Presumably, by including such philosophical views, Hugo Marcus wanted to lend the translation appeal, by making the text chime with ideas that were circulating in Berlin at the time. Some aspects of this mentality were also reflected in the translation and its preface. When the translation was presented to the Lahore headquarters, members of the community there were also upset by Hugo’s statement, made in the preface, that he could trace some verses back to the Bible and Egyptian and Zoroastrian sources.

Hugo Marcus
Source:  https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/hugo-marcus-wie-ein-homosexueller-jude-den-islam-entdeckte-ld.1565702

This view represented nothing but disaster in the eyes of the Lahore Ahmadiyya, as they assumed the opposite principle: that the Qur’an owed nothing to foreign sources, but was sent with God’s message to correct all other scriptures, which had become corrupted. For this reason, the Lahore branch ordered that the distributed copies be collected and the questionable pages cut out, and new ones inserted. The process of revising the text continued for two years, until a bomb destroyed the building containing all the stored copies and put an end to the project.

Hugo Marcus survived the Nazi regime, as he was able to escape Germany shortly before the war started. After World War II, the Lahore branch decided to bring out a second edition, which was published in 1964 and is still used by the community today. In the preface to this edition, Sadr-ud-Din thanks everyone who supported the project, as well as a German friend who actively supported him, but does not mention anyone by name.

Kamran Ahmad Khan

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