Qur’an translation of the week #150: An ‘anti-capitalist’ translation: Yaşayan Kur’an (‘The Living Qur’an’) by Recep İhsan Eliaçık

In February 2023, a court in Istanbul ruled that the distribution and sale of the Turkish translation of the Qur’an authored by Recep İhsan Eliaçık (b. 1961) would no longer be permitted. The case was brought by Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, on the basis of legal powers it acquired in 2019 to regulate religious printed materials. Yaşayan Kur’an Türkçe Meal-Tefsir is a combined translation (‘meal’) and interpretation (‘tefsir’) which was first published over fifteen years ago, in 2007, and which has never been particularly popular in Turkey in comparison to other translations of the Qur’an. However, the ban has led to much discussion among Turkish intellectuals who are skeptical of the official religious establishment: Edip Yüksel (b. 1957) and Mustafa Öztürk (b. 1965) in particular, also translators of the Qur’an, have criticized the court’s decision and warned against new cases that might lead to further bans on other translations. This precedent, which is quite significant in terms of the recent political and religious developments in Turkey, raises the question: what happens when something appears to be ‘wrong’ with a translation or the persona of a translator?

Recep İhsan Eliaçık began his career in much the same way as many other Turkish scholars of the Qur’an before him: he studied theology at Erciyes University in Kayseri, Turkey, for a few years, but later decided to leave academia and continue to study and undertake research into Islam on his own. A columnist for many newspapers, a TV presenter and a prolific writer (who has authored more than 20 books), Recep İhsan Eliaçık has tended to view Islam and the Qur’an primarily as sources for present-day social change, rather than merely religious doctrine. Inspired by his modernist views on Qur’anic and Islamic concepts that he relates to issues such as the promotion of a decentralized democratic state, or the interpretation of the concept of worship (ibadet) as active social participation, Recep İhsan Eliaçık came up with the idea of producing his own translation of the Qur’an. Published by his own press, İnşa Yayınları, in Istanbul in 2007, the translation generally resembles many other ‘Kur’an meali’ (‘meanings of the Qur’an’) type translations recently printed in Turkey. It contains quite a long introduction, followed by the source and target text on parallel pages, and includes many footnotes, which play the role of commentary. In 2011, the same publishing house printed a new revised edition in which the Qur’anic suras were arranged not in the standard muṣḥaf order of suras 1 to 114, but rather a chronological one which presents the suras in order of their revelation (nuzül Sırasına göre): the translation thus begins with Q 96 (Alak), followed by Kalem (Q 68), Müzemmil (Q 73), and so on, finishing with Surat Nasr (Q 110). This approach was not particularly unique in the Turkish context: some other interpretations of the Qur’an based on the chronologic order of surahs have also been published, the most recent being Mehmet Zeki Duman’s (1952–2013) Beyanu’l-Hak (‘Explanation of the Truth’), which was published in three volumes in 2010.

This second edition of Yaşayan Kur’an contains no Arabic text, which is only to be expected given that this would entail changing the form of the Arabic muṣḥaf. It again contains quite a long introduction, most of which is drawn from the previous, first edition, and is especially helpful in terms of the discussion it includes of the translator’s approach. According to Recep İhsan Eliaçık, his translation is intended to differ from other translations in the following way:

I gave it the title “Living Qur’an” to convey a message to those who turn the Qur’an into a funeral procession for the dead and [reduce it to ] a “temple language” … I developed this title, which also means “O living human being!” (Ya Sin) with inspiration from the verses in Surat Yasin that convey this meaning.

As a result of this aspiration, Recep İhsan Eliaçık opts to completely domesticize the text, using Turkish words almost everywhere, even translating the very basic Arabic terminology that is still used regularly in Turkish religious texts. The list of Qur’anic concepts he discusses in the introduction not only addresses basic words like ‘ihlas’ (which, for him, is ‘saf bir yürek temizliği içinde olmak’, meaning ‘being in a state of pure heart cleanliness’) or ‘hanif’ (which he describes as ‘sağduyudan şaşmayan’, ‘someone with common sense’), but also some theological concepts. The Divine name ‘Kayyum’ (an Arabic loan word) is explained as ‘The One who cares for what has been created’, and ‘Hayy’ (from the Qur’anic ḥayy) as ‘dipdiri yaşam kaynağı’ (‘the living source of life’). Even the Qur’anic bismillah formula is translated in an unusual way: ‘Sevgi ve Merhameti Sonsuz Allah’in Adıyla’ (‘In the Name of Allah, Whose Love and Mercy are Infinite’). He also gives up to ten meanings for the Arabic word raḥma (which usually appears in English translations as ‘mercy’) in his commentary on this word, and has no hesitation in making comparison between raḥma and similar concepts in other religions. ‘In Hinduism, this concept is associated with the god of kindness (Brahma). We may see the terms of love and mercy as the father (Eb-Raham) of all Semitic languages, even in Hindi’, writes Recep İhsan Eliaçık. All this is intended to emphasize ‘the living nature’ of the Qur’an, its relation to the contemporary world and its ethical imperative, and its closeness to the human as a sign of infinite divine mercy.

Overall, the translation is very innovative, not only when it comes to ethical considerations, but also in its approach to political considerations. For example, Recep İhsan Eliaçık devotes extensive commentary to Q 53:19–20 and 23: ‘So have you considered al-Lāt and al-‘Uzza, and Manāt, the third – the other one? … they are nothing but the names you have named them, you and your forefathers, for which Allāh has sent down no authority. They follow nothing except assumption and what their souls desire’. The names of the pre-Islamic Arabic deities mentioned in this passage are interpreted in ‘The Living Qur’an’ in the following way:

The pronunciation of the name ‘Aziz’ used in the Quran has changed over time … this means that the current equivalent of the name ‘’Uzza’ is also ‘power’ or ‘strength.’ Another one of the three mentioned, ‘Menat,’ is also familiar … it means ‘money.’ The currency of the former Soviet Union was the ‘Manat’ [perhaps he means that the word means ‘money’, ‘coins’ in Russian – M.Y.]. Today, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan still use ‘Manat’ as their currency. In Latin, ‘Otorite’ means authority, while ‘‘Uzza’ means power, and ‘Menat’ means money.

In the light of these comments on the ‘living interpretation’ of the passage, Recep İhsan Eliaçık proposes to re-read the relevant verses of the Qur’an as follows:

Authority, power, and the third, money … These are nothing more than names you and your forefathers have made up … They follow nothing but assumptions and their own desires.’

(Otorite, güç ve üçüncüleri diğer para… Bunlar sizin ve atalarınızın takdığı bir takım isimlerden başka bir şey değildir… Onlar gerçekte zanna ve nefislerinin isteklerine/arzularına tabi oluyorlar…).

He then comes to the following conclusion: ‘Capitalism emerged from greed for money. These three things, namely Lat (authority), Uzza (power/strength), and Menat (money) are the eternal problems of humanity.’

In many other places, Recep İhsan Eliaçık also presents Qur’anic verses as ‘antidote[s] to capitalism’: for him, the very beginning of capitalism is described in Q 102:1 (al-hakumu l-takāthur, ‘Striving for more distracts you’), and he outlines a short history of scholars who have ‘exposed this,’ from Adam Smith to Carl Marx. This fits with the overall direction of the translator’s intellectual agenda and thinking: Recep İhsan Eliaçık was a founder of the leftist political organization Antikapitalist Müslümanlar (‘Anti-Capitalist Muslims’, or ‘Association for Struggle Against Capitalism’). Established in 2012, it promotes a kind of so-called ‘Islamic Socialism’ and is heavily critical of contemporary political regimes in the Islamic world, as well as of their religious and ethnic politics. The Association obviously appears to be more an intellectual project than an actual political movement, but the recent ban on the work of its leader, and discussions of this in the media have obviously given them more visibility in Turkey and beyond.

Coming back to the question of the reasons for the ban on this translation, it generally fits in with the pattern of the Turkish government’s attempts to combat any forms of non-loyal political Islam, be it the well-organized Gülen movement or less influential groups. The approach taken in Yaşayan Kur’an also has affinities with the Qur’anist approach (see review of ‘Quran: a reformist translation’), with its critical stance towards classical Islamic exegetics. It appears that he has more interest in the philological aspects of the Qur’an, as he uses his commentary to expose the broad meanings of concepts than provide or discuss historical narrations and interpretations. As with many other ideological projects that aim to address the Qur’an through some kind of specific, intellectual framework, Yaşayan Kur’an can hardly compete in popularity with the dozens of other available Turkish translations of the Qur’an that are written in a more traditional manner.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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