When does a translation draw inspiration from its predecessors and when is it plagiarized? The French Qur’an translation published by the private Saudi daʿwa-oriented publisher Daroussalam certainly raises this question. Compare these two translations of Q 100 (Sūrat al-ʿĀdiyāt):
The one on the left was produced by Cheikh Boureïma Abdou Daouda from Niger and published by Daroussalam in 1999 under the title Le sens des versets du Saint Qour’ân, while the one on the right was published earlier, in 1990, by the state-funded King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex (KFQPC) in Medina. The KFQPC translation, in turn, is actually a heavily edited version of the French Qur’an translation by the Indian Muslim Muhammad Hamidullah (1908–2002). As is evident from the pictures, the translation by Daouda is nearly identical to that of the KFQPC.
The translator admits to this in the front matter, albeit not very prominently. A foreword by Mahamadou Danda, Minister of Communication, Culture, Youth and Sports of Niger, contains the statement that ‘this work, by the author’s own admission, was inspired by the works of illustrious predecessors in the field of translation,’ mentioning specifically the King Fahd Complex. However, his main concern is to highlight Daouda’s achievement as proof of the quality of Nigerien Islamic scholarship. Daouda is a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina, which has a long tradition of hosting West African students and scholars, and opened an Islamic translation company after his return to Niger.
The bulk of the author’s own introduction is devoted to a discussion of the excellence of the Qur’an. After this, he complains about the low quality of existing translations. All of these, according to him, have either been produced by good translators with insufficient knowledge of Islam, or by experts in Islam with a bad command of the target language. As a result, he claims, they contain grave errors, and even ‘monstrosities.’ This critique is somewhat ironic, given how closely his work is based on an existing translation. In his introduction, he furthermore emphasizes the ‘originality’ of his own translation which he attributes to the fact that it is based on the Qur’anic commentaries by al-Ṭabarī, al-Qurṭubī and Ibn Kathīr and that it uses hundreds of hadiths to explain the Qur’an. His choice of Qur’anic commentaries paradigmatically combines Salafī (al-Ṭabarī, Ibn Kathīr) with West African (al-Qurṭubī) exegetical authorities.
It is only at the very end of his introduction, in a final section entitled ‘Very Important Remarks’ that Daouda acknowledges his debt to previous translations, saying:
1. As far as the text of the translation itself is concerned, I have much relied on the French translations of the meaning of the verses of the Holy Qur’an already existing, more precisely that by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an in Medina.
2. As far as the [insertions in] brackets and the hadiths are concerned, for the most part I have borrowed them from the English commentary on the meaning of the verses of the Holy Qur’an by Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan.
This is a reference to the famous (or infamous) Hilâlî-Khân translation published by the KFQPC.
Daouada’s somewhat inconsistent stance on the originality of his translation versus his indebtedness to previous publications produced by the King Fahd Complex raises the question of what concept of an ‘original translation’ the author had; how he views the relationship between the ‘translation proper’ and the commentary in brackets and footnotes; and what actual contribution he made to the work in question, beyond recombining two existing sources.
Very often, he simply takes Hamidullah’s translation and supplements it with the footnotes from the Hilâli/Khân translation. Sometimes he integrates the content of the footnotes into the text, putting it in brackets, which makes for awkward reading. He also adopts their habit of using Arabic terms for concepts that he considers untranslatable, such as taqwā or mushrik.
This is visible when we compare, for example, the three works’ take on the first part of Q 98:1:
The infidels among the people of the Book, as well as the Associators, will not cease to disbelieve …
(Les infidèles parmi les gens du Livre, ainsi que les Associateurs, ne cesseront pas de mécroire …)Hamidullah/KFC
The infidels among the people of the Book (the Jews and the Christians), as well as the Mouchrikoûn (the idolaters, the polytheists, the disbelievers with regard to the Oneness of God, the pagans), will not cease to disbelieve …
(Les infidèles parmi les gens du Livre (les juifs et les chrétiens), ainsi que les Mouchrikoûn [les idolâtres, les polytheists, les mécréants vis-à-vis de l’Unicité d’Allah, les païens], ne cesseront pas de mécroire …)Daouda
Those who disbelieve from among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) and Al-Mushrikûn [footnote: polytheists, pagans, idolaters and disbelievers in the Oneness of Allâh], were not going to leave (their disbelief) …Hilâlî/Khân
As a result of his habit of including material from Hilâli/Khân’s footnotes, the translated text is sometimes drowning in commentary in Daouda’s translation. For example, Hamidullah/KFC rendered Q 2:2 clearly and simply as ‘This is the Book on which there is no doubt, it is a guide for the pious’ (‘C’est le Livre au sujet duquel il n’y a aucun doute, c’est un guide pour les pieux’) and provides an explanation of the Arabic term muttaqīn, rendered as ‘pious,’ in a footnote.
Daouda has a translation that is three to four times longer: ‘This is the Book (the Qur’ān) on which there is no doubt; it is a guide for those who are Muttaqūn (the pious and virtuous persons who fear Allah and abstain from committing sins and all bad deeds that He has forbidden; who love Allah with a passion and perform, according to their capacity, all good deeds that He has ordained) …’ (‘Ceci est le Livre (le Qour’ân) au sujet duquel il n’y a aucun doute; c’est un guide pour ceux qui sont Mouttaqoûn [les pieuses et vertueuses personnes qui craignent Allah et s’abstiennent de commettre les péchés et toutes les mauvaises actions qu’Il a interdites; qui aiment Allah d’un amour fort et accomplissent, dans la mesure de leurs capacités, toutes les bonnes actions qu’Il a ordonnées de faire]…’).
Daouda also has adopted the controversial decision by Hilâlî/Khân to equate ‘those who earned God’s anger’ and ‘those who went astray’ in Q 1:7 with the Jews and the Christians, based on a hadith.
There are a few footnotes that seem to be of his own making, especially when it comes to the first sura, the Fātiḥa. There, he delivers, in addition to content taken from Hilâlî/Khân, some explanations about the sura’s name, its merits, the basmala (i.e., the formula bi-smi llāhi l-raḥmāni l-raḥīm), and the reason for translating the Arabic name allāh as ‘Allah,’ and for saying the word āmīn after the recitation of the sura. Interestingly, he also discusses divergences in verse numbering, which is most likely related to the prevalence in West Africa of a verse numbering system that is different from that commonly used in Saudi muṣḥafs.
All in all, though, it is extremely rare that Daouda does anything more than translate and adapt the footnotes of the Hilâlî/Khân translation. In all of the fifth sura, for example, there is only one instance where he expands somewhat on a footnote he has taken from Hilâlî/Khân and adds a hadith as evidence for their argument (in relation to Q 5:69). In a small number of cases he includes footnotes he seems to have written himself. For example, in a note on Q 21:91 he comments on the virgin birth of Jesus, saying that it is proof of God’s omnipotence that He created four types of humans: one who has neither father nor mother (Adam), one who has a father but no mother (Eve), one who has a mother but no father (Jesus), and those who have father and mother (the rest of humankind). But there are just a handful of occurrences of content that is exclusively his own and none of them provide any evidence that he actually used the three works of tafsīr he referred to in the introduction.
Daroussalam likely did not care much about the originality of the translation. Their aim was probably to produce a publishable book quickly at a time at which Qur’an translations were starting to become fashionable. Having Daouda compile a translation that essentially combined two previous works published by the King Fahd Complex was a fast and easy way to accomplish this. It guaranteed compatibility with Salafi doctrine, and the KFQPC does not typically sue for copyright violation.
While Daouda’s translation has never remotely attained the popularity of the KFQPC version of Hamidullah’s translation in the French-speaking field, it is still being reprinted and sold until today; obviously, Daroussalam’s relatively small investment paid off.
The work also exemplifies a tension that is inherent in many contemporary Qur’an translations, especially from the Salafi camp: the dogmatic claim of merely reproducing a preexisting ‘correct’ interpretation clashes with the publisher’s marketing needs, which require them to frame the translation as an original achievement. In reality, many translations available in contemporary Muslim book markets – and even more frequently, in cellphone apps – are second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-hand versions of an existing work.