Qur’an translation of the week #149: ‘God’s command’: A milestone in early Turkish Republican Qur’an translation

In 1934, the Islamic scholar, writer and journalist Ömer Rıza published a pioneering Turkish Qur’an translation-cum-commentary entitled Tanrı Buyruğu (‘God’s Command’) in Istanbul. Appearing five years after the Turkish Republic’s script reform, which abolished the use of the Arabic script, Tanrı Buyruğu was probably the first Turkish Qur’an translation to be printed in Latin script from the outset (as opposed to reprints of works that had originally been published in Arabic script). It was also notable for its author’s attempt to use idiomatic Turkish, in contrast to the Arabized style of writing that was common among Ottoman ulama. However, these achievements were overshadowed by criticism relating to Ömer Rıza’s use of English sources, above all the Qur’an translation by Muhammad Ali, the head of the Lahore Ahmadiyya. Ömer Rıza’s work was even accused of being a mere copy of Muhammad Ali’s work.

Ömer Rıza, who adopted the surname Doğrul after the Turkish surname law was passed in 1934, was born to a Turkish family living in Cairo in 1893. After studying at al-Azhar he started working as a journalist. In 1915, he moved to Istanbul, probably because Egypt had just been forced by the British to declare its independence from the Ottoman Empire in reaction to the Empire’s entry into the First World War on the German side. In Istanbul, Ömer Rıza pursued a successful writing career until his death in 1952. He married the daughter of the famous poet Mehmet Akif who, like Ömer, was religiously minded but who, unlike Ömer, moved to Cairo a few years after the foundation of the Turkish Republic. They shared an ideal of an Islam that was compatible with scientific rationality and could be expressed in the language of the people. Ömer Rıza also had a certain affinity with notions of pan-Islamic solidarity and published some articles in this vein that led to his arrest in the early days of the Republic. This did not significantly damage his career, however. In the late 1940s, during the transition to a multi-party system when Turkish society became somewhat more liberal and some space opened up for expressions of Islam, Ömer published Islamic magazines that contained articles from Turkish and international authors – including Egyptians, Pakistanis and Americans – and promoted the necessity of Islamic education and an intellectual religious revival. He was elected as a member of parliament for Konya for the Democratic Party in 1950. He republished Tanrı Buyruğu in 1947 with an expanded introduction, and a third edition was printed posthumously in 1955 (he had passed away in 1952).

Qur’an translation had been a hotly debated topic in the late Ottoman Empire, both in Istanbul and in Cairo, and it was only after the Empire was replaced with the Turkish Republic that translations – as opposed to abridged Qur’anic commentaries – could be published. The first attempts to publish such translations in the mid 1920s were met with widespread criticism, leading the Turkish parliament to commission the production of an official translation and Qur’anic commentary. For some decision-makers, this was probably the logical conclusion to the long-standing debates of the late Ottoman era whereas for others, it was a step that was demanded by their nationalist agenda. The Qur’anic commentary commissioned by the National Assembly was written by Elmalı’lı Muhammad Hamdi Yazır and eventually published in installments between 1935 and 1938, while the translation was entrusted to none other than Mehmet Akif, Ömer Rıza’s father-in-law. It seems as if both figures – alongside İsmail Hakkı İzmirli, the author of a Qur’an translation first published in 1927 and later a collaborator of Ömer Rıza – were part of an intellectual milieu that merged piety with a certain degree of nationalism but also had a distinctive cosmopolitan orientation which clashed with the agenda of the Turkish Republic, to a lesser or greater extent. In Mehmet Akif’s case, this led him to withdraw from his contract in response to Atatürk’s authoritarian project of nationalization and secularization (which even included the substitution of the Arabic call to prayer with a Turkish one in 1932) out of fear that his translation would be used to replace the Arabic Qur’an.

Ömer Rıza was apparently more optimistic given that he went ahead and published his own Qur’an translation. Labelled as a ‘Translation and commentary’ (Tercüme ve tefsiri), this followed a format Rıza had undoubtedly adopted from British India, to be more precise, from the 1917 English Qur’an translation by the Lahore Ahmadi Muhammad Ali: It contained a Turkish translation that worked as a stand-alone text and followed the meaning of the source text closely. Occasional explanatory insertions were marked by italicization; and the commentary was set in footnotes and thereby distinguished from the translation. Generally, these footnotes took up significantly less space than the translation, but at times the commentary was extensive. The original Arabic text of the Qur’an was also included but, unlike in the translation of Muhammad Ali, this was of a purely symbolic nature. Whereas Muhammad Ali had opted for a tabular layout with two columns that permitted users to directly compare the English translation of a verse with the Arabic original, Ömer Rıza included minimized images of full pages from an Arabic muṣḥaf in his translation. These were too small to be easily read, and included verse breaks across pages, and the system of verse numbering was different from the idiosyncratic one that Ömer Rıza used in his translation. Clearly, the inclusion of the Arabic muṣḥaf had been an afterthought.

Ömer Rıza put much thought and effort into producing an idiomatic Turkish target text that did not slavishly follow Arabic syntax (which is quite different from Turkish syntax) and used a higher proportion of Turkic words than was customary for ulama trained in the Ottoman Empire – although, by the standards of contemporary Turkish, the proportion of Arabic words is, of course, still rather large. He nonetheless owed much to the explanatory style of earlier exegetes, as can be seen when we compare the translations of Elmalı’lı, who was an Ottoman-trained member of the ulama, Ömer Rıza, and Mehmet Akif, who was a poet and aimed for conciseness and rhythm, rather than explanation (Mehmet Akif’s supposedly lost translation having been found and published recently).

See, for example, their translations of Q 1:5 – iyyāka naʿbudu wa-iyyāka nastaʿīn (‘It is You we workship and You we ask for help’):

Sade sana ederiz kulluğu, ibadeti ve sade senden dileriz avni, inayeti yarab!


İlâhi! biz yalnız Sana kulluk eder, yalnız Senden yardım dileriz.

Ömer Rıza

İlâhî! Kulluğu Sana ederiz, yardımı Senden isteriz.

Mehmet Akif

Even without knowledge of Turkish one can see the decrease in the physical length of the verse on the page, and in the use of Arabic vocabulary. Elmalı’lı has ibadet (ʿibāda = ‘worship’), avn (ʿawn = ‘help’), inayet (ʿināya = ‘protection’) and yarab (Yā rabb = ‘O Lord’). Ömer Rıza and Mehmet Akif only have the invocation İlâhî (‘My God’) and otherwise use Turkish vocabulary. Ömer Rıza and Mehmat Akif also move the verb to the end of the sentence, as Turkish syntax requires. Ömer Rıza includes an explanatory insertion that Mehmet Akif does not have, though: he translates ‘You alone (yalnız) we worship, you alone (yalnız) we ask for help.’ By dispensing with such exegetical additions, Mehmet Akif achieves a power and rhythm that is not present in Ömer Rıza’s translation.

Ömer Rıza, while interested in producing an intelligible translation (something that Elmalı’lı had only limited success with), was clearly focusing on bringing across the Qur’an’s message, or his own idea of it. Fluent in Arabic, English and Turkish, he drew on a variety of sources, including the works of Orientalists such as George Sale, John Rodwell and William Muir, of classical exegetes, of Muslim reformers such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Sayyid Aḥmad Khān and Mūsā Jār Allāh Bigiyev – and of the Lahore Ahmadi Muhammad Ali, the author of an English Qur’an translation that was hugely influential globally in the first half of the twentieth century and well into the second half (see, for example, Soedewo And The Dutch Qur’an In Indonesia, An Imam In Western Cape And His Afrikaans Qur’an Translation and A French Qur’an Translation From Colonial Mauritius). This led many to vehemently attack his translation. Ömer Rıza was also accused of other things, such as being a Freemason and drinking alcohol, but his indebtedness to Muhammad Ali was always at the core of the attacks on him, and the latest edition of his translation, produced in 1980, was accordingly ‘purged’ of Ahmadiyya influences that the editors considered heretical, leading others to accuse them of falsifying Ömer Rıza’s work. Ömer Rıza himself said that Muhammad Ali’s translation and commentary was only one work among many from which he benefited and that Muhammad Ali, in his opinion, had left ‘Qadianism’ and become a Sunni.

If we compare Tanrı Buyruğu with Muhammad Ali’s work, it is clear that Ömer Rıza owed much to this source, but it is equally clear that he neither copied it blindly nor was it his only source. He copied large parts of the introduction from the abridged 1928 edition of Muhammad Ali’s translation but added a biography of the prophet Muḥammad in tabular form. He adopted not only Muḥammad Ali’s idea of dividing the suras into thematic sections but also the actual division as well as the section headers. And he built on many of Muhammad Ali’s decisions – without, however, slavishly following him.

Ömer Rıza’s critics accused him of having replicated Muhammad Ali’s highly controversial statement that Jesus was not born fatherless but was instead the son of Joseph the carpenter and had several biological siblings. Indeed, there is a high degree of similarity between Muhammad Ali’s and Ömer Rıza’s notes on Q 3:46. But while Muhammad Ali writes that ‘there is not the least doubt’ about the above-mentioned claims, Ömer Rıza states that Jesus was Joseph’s son and had siblings according to the Gospels (a term he uses in the plural, which shows his familiarity with Christianity). This strategy of introducing novel and potentially controversial ideas without fully committing to them is one he employs frequently. For example, Muhammad Ali consistently assigns meanings to the disjointed letters at the beginning of suras, sometimes through the translation, sometimes in a footnote. He translates alif – lām – mīm at the beginning of the second sura as ‘I am Allah, the best Knower’ and yā sīn at the beginning of Q 36 as ‘O man!’ Ömer Rıza often follows him in this, but not in the most conspicuous occurence, Q 2:1, right at the beginning of the translation, where one might logically expect him to do so. And when it comes to the death of Jesus, which became the most controversial and oft-attacked feature of Ahmadiyya translations, he opted for an ambiguous translation. In his rendition of Q 3:55, God says, ‘O Jesus! I will withdraw you from worldly life’, as opposed to Muhammad Ali’s ‘O Jesus! I will cause you to die’. Muhammad Ali’s translation was intended as a refutation of the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, but it offended many Muslims who believed that Jesus was raised to heaven while still alive. While Ömer Rıza’s translation does not commit to the controversial Ahmadiyya doctrine that Jesus died on Earth, his footnote clarifies that Jesus will ‘pass away in a natural manner’ (tabii bir surette).

In some cases, Ömer Rıza unambiguously adopted Muhammad Ali’s choices because he whole-heartedly agreed with them, particularly on issues that were entirely in line with the zeitgeist of the early twentieth century and attracted many non-Ahmadiyya Muslims to Muhammad Ali’s translation. Above all, this was true for scientific rationalism and the rejection of abrogation. Ömer Rıza shared Muhammad Ali’s desire to find rational explanations for miraculous events, such as the dead coming back to life (Q 2:56) or Solomon talking to ants (Q 27:18–19), as well as the conviction that every ruling in the Qur’an is eternally valid and that seemingly conflicting rulings can be harmonized with each other (see, e.g., their notes on Q 2:180). Both Ömer Rıza and Muhammad Ali translate the Qur’anic statement that God created the heavens and the earth fī sittat ayyām (‘in six days’, Q 7:54) as ‘in six periods of time’ (zamanın altı devrinde).

However, there are many interpretations in Muhammad Ali’s translation that Ömer Rıza does not share. For instance, Muhammad Ali consistently translated anthropomorphic descriptions of God in a metaphorical manner, and he includes long notes on the subject of ‘God’s station above the throne’, an issue that Ömer Rıza largely avoids. Moreover, his translation and commentary contain many interpretations that are not derived from Muhammad Ali. Some are taken from other sources, such as the Tatar Muslim reformer Mūsā Jār Allāh Bigiyev, whose ideas on Gog and Magog in Q 21 are presented in long footnotes. Others are Ömer Rıza’s own, such as his interpretation of Sūrat al-Fīl (Q 105) in which stone-throwing birds attack an army of invaders. Many modernist-rationalist exegetes were uncomfortable with this mythological narrative. But unlike Muhammad Ali, who had birds of prey cast the soldiers against hard stones (at least in the 1917 version of his translation), or Muḥammad ʿAbduh, who understood the birds to be ‘flying things’, i.e., germs carrying infectious diseases or insects spreading such germs, Ömer Rıza had the soldiers die from a disease, after which birds – he presumably thought of vultures – rolled stones on their corpses to better be able to devour them.

Ömer Rıza’s translation demonstrates that the religious discourse in early Republican Turkey was not only receptive to Western ideas but also embedded in transregional Muslim discourses, with networks spanning from Egypt to British India, and later Pakistan. It saw several editions (including the heavily edited version of 1980) and was also taken as the basis of an early translation into Bosnian. However, it did not earn great fame or enjoy lasting success, probably partly because the accusations against Ömer Rıza ultimately stuck and partly because what was modern Turkish in the 1930s became old-fashioned and hard to understand relatively soon in a country that underwent rapid social and linguistic transformation. Nonetheless, it remains an important and early contribution to the creation of the field of Turkish Qur’an translation – a field that is flourishing today, not least because of the efforts of pioneers such as Ömer Rıza.

Johanna Pink

Share this post