Qur’an translation of the week #160: The Turkish Diyanet’s Foreign-language Publishing Projects

The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, usually known simply as the Diyanet) was established in 1924 by the nationalist government of the newly emerged Turkish Republic. Initially a secular institution of, it has undergone a continual process of transformation throughout the almost one hundred years of its operation as it adapts to new realities. Although during the first 50 years it was in operation Diyanet promoted a rather isolationistic model, in which religion and state were separated, in the late 1970s, after the global rise of Islam, and the accompanying rise of Islamism in Turkish politics, its function changed. In 1975, the Diyanet created a special hub (the Türkiye Diyanet Foundation, TDV) which was designed to support missionary and charitable activities, and by the 1980s, it had begun training imams to for work in other countries with a Turkish diaspora (initially Germany and the Netherlands). Soon afterwards, projects such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Türk-İslam Birliği, DİTİB) were established to create an international religious network based in Turkey under the global leadership of the Diyanet. This wave of religious activity also resulted in the launch of various new publishing projects as part of which, in 1990, the Diyanet published, via the TDV in Ankara, a special edition of the popular Qur’an translation into German by Max Henning, edited by a German convert named Hulusi Achmed Schmiede and a special committee established by the DİTİB, which was intended for distribution in German mosques. Previously to this the Diyanet had played a leading role in the promotion of three Qur’an translations into Turkish, by Elmalılı (1935–1938), Hüseyin Atay and Yaşar Kutluay (1961), and Halil Altuntaş and Muzaffer Şahin (2001), as well as numerous works on Qur’anic studies and commentaries (tafsīrs). This raises the question of when and why the Diyanet became interested in Qur’an translation into other languages.

The first Turkish translations of the Qur’an into other languages were mostly published by private initiatives. In the late 1970s, Hilal Yayınları published English and French translation, and since the end of 1990s another publisher, Çağrı Yayınları, has been publishing small-sized cheap editions of pre-existing translations into quite a number of languages (the first to be published were Marmaduke Pickthall’s English translation and Dmitrii Boguslavskii’s Russian translation). With a growing number of foreign tourists coming to Turkey, these books were initially sold within Turkey as a kind of souvenir; in the 2000s, they also became available abroad. Despite this, it was only after 2010 that the Diyanet finally became interested in promoting the use of Qur’an translations into foreign languages as a tool of Islamic missionary activism, after a new law (known as Kanun 6002) was issued regulating its activities and giving it more power, money and influence. This law also, for the first time, included the promotion of translations of religious literature into other languages among the specified functions of the Department of Religious Publishing. In general, under the leadership of Erdogan and his AK Party, the Diyanet was rapidly converted into a powerful tool of soft Islamization and endowed with a high level of religious authority, becoming the largest religious agency in the country (in terms of its employee numbers).

The new strategy of state promotion of Islam began to be implemented during the office of Mehmet Görmez (b. 1959), the head of the Diyanet between 2010 and 2017. It was put into action swiftly, and by 2013 the Diyanet had published Qur’an translations into thirteen languages; after just ten years the number had gone up significantly, and a total of 35 languages had been covered by the beginning of 2023. This does not mean, however, that all the translations published were produced especially for the Diyanet – it usually publishes existing translations with an established track record.

Accordingly, the Diyanet promotes Abdallah Yusuf Ali’s English translation (in the form of the very popular Amana Publications edition of 1989) and Hamza Roberto Picardo’s Italian translation. It has likewise opted to publish pre-existing Qur’an translations into French (by Muhammad Hamidullah), Bulgarian (by Tsvetan Teofanov), Crimean Tatar (by Zakir Kurtnezir and Said Dizen), Uzbek (by Muhammad Sodik Yusuf), and Ukrainian (by Mykhaylo Yakubovych), as well as various other languages. Some of their translations are based on other translations rather than the original Arabic: for example, its Armenian translations (into both the “Eastern” and “Western” dialects) are based on Elmalılı’s Turkish translation, and same is true of its Russian translation (by Fazil Karaoglu), the recent Azerbaijanian translation (by Kovser Tagiyev) and, finally, its Polish translation by Musa Czachorowsi (which is based on Karaoglu’s Russian translation). A couple of original works (i.e., direct translations from the Arabic) have been recently published into Kyrgyz and Kazakh, as part of a cooperative project with local religious authorities in those countries. Targeting Turkic-speaking countries was not the only priority for the Diyanet: for example, in 2017 it published the first-ever Qur’an translation into Samoan (a Polynesian language spoken by around half a million inhabitants of the Samoan Islands). The story behind this particular translation has been covered extensively by Turkish media commenting on the global impact of Turkish attempts to promote Islamic culture around the globe.

Relying on existing translations usually simplifies the work for the publisher. However the Diyanet does usually seek approval for their chosen translations from a local Muslim authority from the country where the translation will be distributed prior to publication. Sometimes it also hires experts to revise the original translations, with language proficiency being the main requirement for revisors. In the majority of cases, though, the texts are published as the translator or previous publisher originally presented them, without any significant revisions.

When it comes to the formal features of Dinayet Qur’an translations, the target text is published alongside the Arabic text, which is placed in text boxes on each page. This sometimes makes the size of both the source and target texts too small to be easily legible for many readers, even without the inclusion of many footnotes. Aesthetically the volumes could be compared, for example, to KFQPC translations: they usually feature an oriental style of binding and use special paper, and sometimes present sura headings stylized as inscriptions in gold ink. Formally, the translation usually (but not always) opens with an introduction, followed by the main text (with commentary in footnotes) and, finally, a special invocation on the occasion of the complete Qur’an recitation (known as duʿā khatm al-Qurʾān in Arabic). The Dinayet translations also provide a certificate of proofreading from the Diyanet itself, attesting to the correctness of the Arabic text and indicating the number of copies published, as well as the printer. The translations are usually distributed freely via the TDV: for example, its project ‘My Present is Qur’an’ (Hediyem Kur’an Olsun) had sent Qur’an translations to 85 countries in the years up to 2022. Some copies are also sent to bookstores within Turkey, where they are sold at affordable prices. Despite starting this activity very recently, the TDRA has already established an international presence for itself, and is now the second-largest official publisher of Qur’an translations after the KFQPC. It is projected to publish between five and ten new translations over the next two years.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

Share this post