Qur’an translation of the week #161: From Certainty to Experimentation: A New Salafi Qur’an Translation into Russian – Salsabil by Aslan Arkhestov et al.

In 2022, a new Qur’an translation into Russian entitled Salsabil: Perevod Smyslov Velikogo Korana Tom I (‘Salsabil: A Translation of the Meanings of the Great Qur’an. Part I’) was published with a curious addendum on the cover page, to the effect that the translation is an ‘experimental edition.’ Aslan Arkhestov, also known as Shaykh Abu Islam al-Sharkasi, is the popular Salafi preacher who produced this work and is cited as its main editor. The inclusion of the unusual phrase ‘experimental edition’ can be seen as, on the one hand indicating the acceptance of Qur’an translation as a practice, and on the other as a continuation of Muslim discomfort with the concept. The titles of Qur’an translations often represent modern attempts to reconcile the longstanding controversy related to the notion of Qur’anic iʿjāz, or inimitability. This is, in turn, connected to the fact that many still perceive translation in terms of outdated and old-fashioned ideas that translation involves a search for ‘equivalence.’ This has led many Muslim translators to be hesitant in designating their translations of the Qur’an as ‘translations’ in the conventional sense. Instead, they often adopt titles such as ‘a translation of the meanings of the Qur’an,’ attempting to avoid theological controversy. However, even ‘a translation of the meanings’ is not a guaranteed safe space for Muslim translators, as Qur’an translations are inevitably the terrain of polemics and theological differences, and are often subject to tough critique from different theological groups. The decision by Arkhestov and his co-authors to designate the translation as ‘experimental’ can be seen as a strategic attempt to avert possible criticism of ‘mistakes.’ Muslim translators have historically used various strategies to circumvent anticipated criticism when it comes to issues of Qur’anic iʿjāz and translation, including (as mentioned above) avoiding titles that include the description ‘Qur’an translation,’ dispersing responsibility for the target text among a group of translators/authors, and producing editions that are perpetually revised and tweaked, and which are framed as stages in a life-long journey in search of the ‘correct’ interpretation. Salsabil incorporates all of these strategies: it is a translation of meanings; it is produced by a team rather than an individual (the cover page lists Aslan Arkhestov as the editor-in-chief and project director, while the following page mentions five assistant editors, four of whom are women); and in 2023 a new edition of Part I appeared, only a year on from its initial release in 2022. The ‘experimental edition’ statement expands on these strategies, suggesting that the ‘experiments may continue in future editions.

Aslan Arkhestov was born in 1979 in Nalchik, the capital of the city republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, which is located in modern Russia’s Northern Caucasus. In common with many other Russian Salafis, in the first decade of the 2000s he travelled to Saudi Arabiа to pursue a religious education. After completing his bachelor’s degree, Arkhestov decided to stay on to continue his postgraduate studies. According to information on the official website of the Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, Aslan Arkhestov (misspelled as Arhitov) is listed as a member of the Department of Faith (ʿaqīdah) and Contemporary Doctrines. Arkhestov has become well-known to the Russian-speaking Salafi public due to his involvement in the online Rayhan Institute, an initiative that provides web-based courses in Arabic and Qur’an and is also involved in publishing electronic books on Islamic subjects. He is also the editor of islamhouse, a multilingual website for daʿwah. Salsabil is published under the aegis of the former, the Rayhan online institute. Among the Russian-speaking public the use of Telegram channels as a medium for preaching and teaching is a widespread practice. It is especially popular in the Salafi communities that are among the most active users of this medium. Salafi preachers often have large groups of subscribers following them on Telegram, through which they engage in proselytising activities. Although the name ‘Rayhan Institute’ creates an impression of recognised educational establishment, it is, in fact, a virtual organization that is simply comprised of a number of Telegram groups. However, it is referred to as an ‘institute,’ aligning with a current trend in Salafi communities to name their online Telegram educational operations in a manner similar to modern secular education, such as online academies or institutes. Al-Sharkasi’s Telegram channel is very popular and has almost 17,000 subscribers, while his YouTube channel, through which he offers various recorded religious lectures, is even more popular and currently lists 32,600 subscribers.  The Rayhan website, created using the free website builder WordPress, lists twenty books as available online, and also advertises Telegram channels through which people can enroll on paid courses in Arabic language and tajwīd. In addition, there is an educational module that can be accessed only by passing exams, which is called a ‘facultative.’ This facultative covers Qur’an memorisation, the translation of tafsīr, and the study of legal verses (āyāt al-aḥkām), and successful students are promised editorial opportunities working on various translations of Muslim literature with the guidance of Shaykh Abu Islam al-Sharkasi. When one looks at the book titles and editorial boards publicised on the website, it is clear that students are indeed very actively engaged in the overall project as editors and translators. What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that women play a productive role in this Salafi community, and are actively engaged on al-Sharkasi’s projects, as can be seen from the frequent occurence of women’s names in the book titles advertised on the Rayhan website. These books are disseminated in digital format for free, and are also available to individuals who want to publish them as print books, mostly for non-commercial purposes.

A brief glimpse at the titles of the books available on the Rayhan website gives a clear picture of the ideological orientation of the group behind it. It has an ‘old-school’ Saudi Salafi orientation, and the translations include works by such names as ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Nāṣir al-Saʿdī, Ibn Taymiyya, and Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. When it comes to the works by Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Rayhan has adopted a strategy popular in some Salafi circles that involves hiding the well-known name of the founder of Wahhābism (or Saudi brand of Salafism) by dropping ‘ʿAbd al-Wahhāb,’ and instead using the rest of his name, by which he is not known to the wider Russian speaking public. Hence, the translations of his books are presented as authored by Muḥammad Sulaymān al-Tamīmī. This can be understood as a deliberate strategy adopted by various Salafi groups in order to avoid being perceived as ‘Wahhabi,’ a label that is equated in Russian public discourse with extremism. However, the Wahhabi-Salafi orientation can take a variety of forms, and should not be seen as a monolithic movement. In terms of this spectrum, Arkhestov’s approach should be viewed as concerned mainly with proselytisation (daʿwah), emphasising the correctness of faith (ʿaqīdah) and purification from deviancy (bidʿah), with no political or jihadi aspirations.

Salsabil, the title of which is a reference to an Arabic term denoting a spring or fountain in Paradise mentioned in the Qur’an, was sponsored by a Saudi called Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Muḥsin al-Khalāf, whose name appears on the translation cover page. The translation is incomplete: in the first edition it starts with Sūrat al-Fātiḥa and ends quite unexpectedly at verse 93 of Sūrat al-Tawba, which seems very odd given that this is the first verse of juzʾ 11,  making it an abrupt cutoff of the juzʾ. The second edition, in contrast, provides a translation of Sūrat al-Tawba in its entirety. The decision to cut off the text at v. 93 in the first edition may have been due to difficulties in adjusting the layout of the Arabic text that accompanies the Russian translation. In the first edition, the Arabic text was presented on the page in muṣḥaf-format, which did not allow for adjustment of the text on the page, and this may have meant it was challenging to ensure that the Russian translation fitted alongside the corresponding Arabic text exactly. This possibility seems likely, because the second edition moves away from using a colorful muṣḥaf-style Arabic text and replaces it with plain Arabic. While both versions are easy to read and could be used for devotional recitation as well as for active source-target text comparison, the second edition has observably prioritised simplicity over aesthetics.

A logical question to ask of any new translation is what makes it different from others already available on the market. Arkhestov does not seem to be concerned with clarifying this for his readership. After a very general foreword by the sponsor, the translation begins without any preface or introduction from the main editor. There is also a notable lack of any commentary, footnotes or endnotes. It remains unclear what authoritative tafsīr references, other translations, or hadīth collections and dictionaries the translators consulted. The translation does not take a polemical stance against previous Russian Qur’an translations (which now number over thirty). However, it would be very useful if the translators were to explain to their readership how Arkhestov’s project differs from these other translations, and in what sense it is better than, for example, the translations by Elmir Quliyev or Abu Adel which have historically been favoured by Salafi communities within the Russian-speaking world. Subscribers’ discussions and the forums in Rayhan’s Telegram dedicated to this particular translation do shed some light on this issue, as one of the translators involved in the project made the somewhat scathing comment that they ‘tried to undertake the translation in such a way that our “great state Russia” would not ban this work …’ This perhaps explains why the translation includes almost no paratextual information, as these additions can personalise and politicise the target text, making it an easy target for linguistic examination for signs of extremism, a state censorship practice that has been used to target a variety of classical and modern Islamic books of various strains of thought. Nevertheless, some small additions and clarifications are observable in Salsabil, but these are usually limited to a word, or a few words. For example, the controversial verse Q. 4:34 is translated in similar vein to its rendition in many other Salafi and non-Salafi works, however the word pobivaĭte (‘beating’) here is accompanied by an annotation in short round brackets, which restricts the Qur’anic iḍribūhunna by adding that the beating should be carried out ‘without crossing boundaries.’ This example shows that the translators did feel that it was pertinent to add some interpretive comments, which, in this case, might perhaps be seen reflecting the influence of female translators, who, as mentioned above, made up the majority of the translation team, and may well have felt discomfort with the idea of the ‘beating’ not being limited.

Another important thing to note in the Russian speaking context is the fact that Salsabil breaks with the Salafi usage of the word utverdilsi͡a (which is often used to translate the Qur’anic term istawā). The translation of istawā has become a polemical flashpoint, which various opinions about how the word should be translated, and whether or not it has anthropomorphic implications. In this work, the translators have used voznessi͡a (‘ascended’), with could be seen as problematic from the Ashʿarī theological viewpoint as it evidently includes a nuance of direction, and thus of physicality. In some places, such as in Q. 2:29, the usage of voznessi͡a is clearly out of place, as in the context of this verse it has a meaning of ‘turning’ based on tafsīr commentaries that are respected, by most, if not all, including the Salafis. However, it may well be that the usage in this instance is just a typo resulting from the use of automatic replace that has gone unnoticed and might be replaced in upcoming editions. Overall, it is too soon to undertake a comprehensive review of this translation, since only the first part has been published (although this is already in its second edition). In his presentation of the translation Aslan Arkhestov has stated that this work is ‘something radically (kardinalʹno) new’ presumably in comparison to existing Qur’an translations or the other books published by Rayhan. However, if he has aspirations that the work will reach out beyond his own followers, it would be pertinent to explain what this ‘radical novelty’ means, and by this to make his ‘experiments’ actually attractive to a wider Russian speaking readership.

Elvira Kulieva

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