Qur’an translation of the week #141: Global publishers of Qur’an translations 4: the Saudi Arabian Tafsīr al-ʿUshr al-Akhīr project

            In contrast to other Saudi publishers, Tafsīr al-ʿ‘Ushr al-Akhīr project is dedicated solely to publishing Qur’an interpretations in a variety of languages, using a rather more ‘centralized’ exegetical approach than is the norm. Established by the Communities Awareness Society (al-Jamaʿaiyyah li-Taʾwiyyah al-Jāliyyāt)  in the Old Industrial City of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the idea behind the project was to provide the Arabic text and an accompanying translation of the last tenth of the Qur’an (i.e. juzʾ 28–30, or from Surah 58 to the final surah). First published in 1419/1998 as a part of local scholarly efforts to work with the fast-growing diaspora communities (both Muslim and non-Muslim) living in the Saudi capital, this was one of a few dozen such ‘awareness societies’ around the Kingdom to participate in active publishing campaigns aimed at the promotion of Islam. Relying on both state and private funding (and coordinated by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs), a network of these offices pursued a number of different projects, both local and global, which included producing and books for missionary purposes.

Translations, especially when it comes to basic Muslim literature, are the first kind of product one might expect from such offices: for example, the biggest Salafi-run multilingual website, Islamhouse.com, emerged as a project from a similar society based in Rabwah, another area of the Saudi capital. Other usual activities for these offices include the collection and distribution of donations, the organization of educational camps (especially during the month of Ramadan), and various types of training in the basics of Islam, book printing, and other such activities; their websites usually abound with ‘success stories’ of people who have publicly converted to Islam.

 In 2002, the Society started to distribute its own book, named Tafsīr al-ʿushr al-akhīr min al-Qurʾān al-karīm wa ilayhi aḥkām tuhimmu l-muslim (‘An Explanation of the Last Tenth of the Noble Qur’an: Also Addressing Critical Matters in the Life of a Muslim’). This contains a few statements on the virtues of the Qur’an and Islam, followed by the Arabic text of the tafsīr, and concludes with a collection of ḥadīth on various topics of importance in Muslim life, such as the pillars of Islam, basic rules for women, and other such subjects. Specifically Salafi doctrinal ideas can be found in the book in the imaginary ‘dialogue’ it includes between two persons, one named Abdullah, and the other named Abdunnabi (lit. ‘Slave of the Prophet’). This promotes primary aspects of Wahhabi/Salafi theological doctrine concerning ‘Oneness (tawḥīd) of God in divinity, attributes and dominion’ and demonstrates evident anti-Sufi and anti-Shia bias, although neither of these groups is mentioned by name. The project’s main website includes letters of support for this work from top-ranking Saudi scholars such as Shaykh ʿAbdullāh ibn Jibrīn, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, as well as a few others.

When it comes to the core text of the book, the actual tafsīr of surahs 1 and 58–114, the project has changed the source text used for the translation a few times. Initially, they used a work called Zubdat al-tafsīr by ʿUmar bin Sulaymān al-Ashqar (1920–2012), but by the end of the 2000s the project started to promote instead the KFQPC-produced al-Tafsīr al-muyassar. Interestingly, just ten years later, the newest (already nineenth edition!) of the Arabic text has been changed once more, and now consists of al-Mukhtaṣar fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm, which is produced by the ‘Center for Tafsir Studies’. So, when the cover of the book and the relevant website says that the tafsīr has been translated into 60 languages, an undeniably impressive number, it is not completely clear which version is being referred to: a quick look at the content shows that most of the translations were carried out during the years when the Arabic tafsīr was al-Tafsīr al-muyassar, which means that the project remains the biggest promoter of the KFQPC’s ‘standard’ exegesis. Perhaps, however, different editions were used for the various translations: for example, the French version of Tafsīr al-‘ushr al-akhīr includes a reference to Jews and Christians in Q 1:7 (as is found in the first edition of al-Muyassar), while the English one does not include this. Similarly, when it comes to providing translations of the actual verses of the Qur’an (which are included before the tafsīr text), the French translators used quite a rare recent work published by Zeino Editorial House (Paris, 2012), while the English translation is based on the ‘Saheeh International’ Qur’an translation. When it comes to the Russian variant, the Russian Qur’an translation by Abu Adel has been used; while the Bosnian version uses a translation by Mehanovic. In contrast, in the Spanish and German editions, only the tafsīr is translated, and no verses from the Qur’an are included.

Comparison of examples drawn from a huge number of translations shows that the translators were oriented towards using pre-existing Salafi interpretations in their respective languages, in addition to which it is clear that the various versions of the book contextualize the basic text of the Qur’an with an especially one-dimensional interpretation ‘which is usually conveyed through additions to the text’. Thus, the Tafsīr al-ʿushr al-akhīr is a good example of the final evolution of the Saudi translation movement, and illustrates how the vision of Qur’anic interpretation as a kind of multi-faceted tafsīr has been subjugated to the promotion of Salafi Muslim doctrine. As a result, a kind of authoritative but still very short tafsīr (be it Muyassar or al-Mukhtaṣar) has become an inherent part of multi-language daʿwah strategy.

With fifty-million copies printed in such a wide variety of languages, this book has made its way to both East and West (and is available in least 70 countries, according to the website tafseer.info) and is still to be found in mosques and Islamic centers in Europe, the UK and the USA. Though the texts of any of the three aforementioned commentaries used in the different editions are not particularly original, the project has made this work so widely available globally that no other Qur’an commentary can compete with its availability. Even though the different versions may demonstrate variation in translation strategies and approaches (and it does seem that some of the translations have not passed through any kind of review process), this project has created a kind of ‘standardized’ text which is essentially the same in every language, and which can be seen as one more attempt to achieve a kind of ‘authorized’ translation that is ‘correct’ from the Salafi theological perspective.

It is also hard to find any systematic critique of this book, especially after the individually-authored tafsīr upon which its text was based was changed to the more widely accepted collectively-authored tafsīrs, particularly when it comes to that produced by the KFQPC. Thus, in some ways we can see a continuation of the established religious authority line in this project, and one more example of a case where Qur’an translation is primarily conceived of as a vehicle for Salafi daʿwah, even if it comes to the of tafsīr. This case also shows a kind of simplification of translation and its positionality: the idea was to make an easy-to-read exegetical text available to a broad audience in many languages.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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