Turkmenistan, a landlocked country located in Central Asia with a population of around six million people, is one of the world’s most closed off and authoritarian states. With many limitations on religious freedom in place, the country imposes a kind of secular personality on its domestic politics, in contrast to its neighboring Central Asian states, which prefer some instrumentalization of political Islam. A good example of this secular ideology can be seen in Ruhnama (‘The Book of the Soul’), a work written by Saparmyrat Nyazow, President of Turkmenistan from 1990 to 2006, which was intended to serve as a tool of state propaganda, emphasizing the ‘fundamental beliefs and tenets of the Turkmen nation’. Until very recent times, it was mandatory to read Ruhnama in schools and state institutions of further education, and special chairs in ‘Ruhnama Studies’ were even established at local universities. In some ways, this secular cult was intended to substitute for public religion, and even after a change of leadership and the election of a new president, Islamic religious activities remain extremely limited. For example, the pursuance of religious education abroad is still not officially permitted, and a couple of exchange programs with Turkish universities that did exist were closed years ago. Likewise, Islamic education within Turkmenistan is only available from the state-controlled program of Theology Studies in the Faculty of History of the Turkmen State University Named for Magtymguly, which is located in the capital, Ashgabat. As many sources confirm, even the purchase of religious books (including the Qur’an in both Arabic and translation) has historically not been welcomed by the government, and they are usually bought and sold illegally.
As with Islamic education, Islamic publishing has also been strictly controlled by the government. One of the first Qur’an translations into Turkmen was published by a local press in Ashgabat in 1995, using the Cyrillic alphabet, as Turkmenistan only switched to the Latin alphabet in 2000. Translated by two local authors, Atamyrat Atabayev and Devletmyrat Kerimov, it was approved by the Turkmen religious authorities, but was never widely popular, mainly because it was based on other translations (Uzbek, Russian, etc.) rather than the original text. In the end of the 1990s, the government sponsored another translation, this time mostly from the Arabic, which was authored by a local religious scholar called Hojja-Ahmed Orazgilidhzev. Both the translator and his work have, however, met with a shocking fate: after Orazgilidhzev commented during a public broadcast that the celebration of the Christian New Year has nothing to do with the Qur’an or the Islamic tradition, the government perceived this as a challenge to secular politics and banned the translation. According to local reports, in March 2000, all 40,000 copies of the two-volume translation that were being held in storage at the state publishers were burned. Orazgilidhzev was obliged to publish an apology and to affirm his respect for the government and its policies, and was sent into exile to a small village in the district of Tejen in the south-central part of the country.
In the middle of the 2000s, in order to have an ‘official’ Turkemn translation of the Qur’an, the Directorate of the Mufti of Turkmenistan (Türkmenistanyň Müftüsiniň Müdiriýeti) published its own translation. The number of copies printed seems to be very limited and it is available only from larger mosques and the central libraries but it has made its way to the reader through Turkmen-language online Islamic resources like Yslamnury.com. It is also cited in literature in the Turkmen language published abroad, such as, for example, various Salafi booklets that are available on the Saudi portal IslamHouse.com. The translation includes the Arabic text in columns running parallel to the Turkmen translation, and the overall format is generally similar to that of Qur’an translations published in Turkey: each sura is prefaced by a short introduction which gives the sura name in Arabic, but according to the local Turkic pronunciation (‘Fatyha’, ‘Bakara’ etc.). Some of the translations of sura names are really specific to local usage: for example, the translation provided for the title of Q. 112 («Yhlas») is ‘Kulhuwalla,’ a name derived from the first verse of the sura itself (‘Qul huwa llāhu aḥad’, ‘Say: He, Allah, is One’). This surah is frequently recited in ritual prayer, and is hence usually known by some variation of this name throughout the Turkic world.
The introduction to the translation is not really informative, it just outlines the major features of the Qur’an: interestingly, it states the number of verses as being 6,666 (‘6666 aýatdan ybaratdyr’), while the edition itself contains only the ‘standard’ 6236 verses, as do most of the present-day muṣḥafs published in Turkey and other Turkic countries. It is also made very clear in the introduction that this project falls in line with state ideology: ‘This book, which is a translation of the Holy Qur’an into the Turkmen language, was prepared by the Directorate of the Mufti of Turkmenistan, based on the initiative of the Honorable President to promote the cultural, spiritual and moral principles of humanity’ (‘Kurany Kerimiň türkmen diline terjimesi bolan bu kitap Hormatly Prezidentimiziň umumadamzat medeni, ruhy we ahlaky ýörelgelerini rowaçlandyrmak başlangyçlaryndan ugur alyp, Türkmenistanyň Müftüsiniň müdiriýeti tarapyndan taýýarlanyldy’). No names of any translators or editors are given.
The actual text of the translation looks to be quite a straightforward interpretation, based on the original Arabic, with the addition of plenty of interpretative insertions and some explanations (‘düşündiriş’). The explanations (or commentary) are written in a simple and accessible manner, although no details are provided about the exegetical sources used. The commentary does seem to mainly correspond to mainstream Sunni readings of the Qur’an, and refers to historical facts, theological matters, and other such material. Some of the interpolations (provided in brackets) obviously cite a particular exegetical opinion: for example, for Q 108:1 (innā ‘a’ṭaynāka l-kawthar) one reads ‘(Eý, Muhammet!) Takyk, Biz saňa Köwser (howzuny) berdik!,’ which can be translated as follows: (‘O Muhammad!) Verily, We have given the Kowsar (pool) to you!’, using the Turkmen word howzuny (‘pool’) which is obviously derived from the Arabic ‘ḥawḍ’, on the bais that al-kawthar is explained in some commentaries as referring to ‘al-nahr fī l-jannah’, i.e., ‘the river in Paradise’. As with many other Turkic languages, Turkmen contains a lot of loanwords from Arabic, and this generally helps when it comes to conveying some of the basic religious vocabulary in translation. Given this, Kurany Kerim, first published in 2006, generally holds a monopoly among readers of Turkmen not only in Turkmenistan, but also beyond its borders. Produced in one of the most closed off countries in the world, it generally fulfills its remit of conveying the meaning of the Qur’an in modern Turkmen.