Qur’an translation of the week #165: The Rowad Translation Center – A Saudi Charity

Over the last few years, the Saudi-based Rowad Translation Center (Markaz Rawwād al-Tarjama) has grown to become one of the biggest private publishers of Qur’an translations. It publishes translations into a number of languages and is the main caretaker of the multilingual website QuranEnc.com, one of the biggest sources of Qur’anic interpretations on the web. The Center was established in 2018 with the help of the well-known website IslamHouse.com, and the efforts of the Saudi religious scholar Ibrāhīm b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-ʿAlī. Backed by donations from the Awqāf Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Rājiḥī Foundation, a charity funded by an endowment from the deceased founder of a large Saudi investment bank, the Rowad Translation Center now provides translations of the Qur’an in over 60 languages through QuranEnc.com. Given that it offers multiple translations in some languages, the overall number of complete translations they have published is even higher, coming to around a hundred in total. However, this number includes many reprints of existing translations as well as ‘corrected’ versions of such translations. For example, their Bosnian translation is largely based on Bessim Korkut’s Kur’an, which was first published in 1978.

The translations published by the Rowad Translation Center often include ‘corrections’, implemented to accord with the Salafi theological stance on contested issues such as the divine attributes. QuranEnc.com also offers an ‘abridged Qur’an commentary’ prepared by the Tafsir Center for Qur’anic Studies in Riyadh, al-Mukhtaṣar fī l-tafsīr, of which the website provides translations in fifteen languages. By the beginning of 2023 this emerging network had managed to produce ten more or less new Qur’an translations in just three years, including translations into Fula, English, Bosnian, Tamil, Serbian and Lithuanian. The format and design of these are very similar to the translations printed by the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina: the volumes begin with a short formal introduction, followed by the translation with parallel Arabic text in adjacent columns in verse-by-verse format. None of the translations published by the Center itself provide the names of any individual translators or editors, they are simply presented as being produced by the Rowad Translation Center.

In 2020, Explanation of the meanings of The Noble Quran in the English Language, produced by the team of the Rowad Translation Center, was published. This appears to be a completely new interpretation rather than an edited version of a previous translation. According to the title page of the downloadable PDF file, the publisher of this work is the Islamic Propagation Association in Rabwah, a suburb of Riyadh, which is part of the Islamic Center, which in turn hosts the supervisory board of Islamhouse.com. Interestingly, it is clear that the translators did not consider their work to be completely finalised upon its first publication, since at the beginning of the text a link points to the up-to-date web version of the translation. While the printed edition of 2020 is labelled as ‘v1.0.0’, the newest version on the website is ‘v1.0.3’, but no information on the changes is provided.

The introductory statement, which is presented in Arabic and English, is brief and formal, mentioning little more than the necessity to promote ‘the meanings of the Qur’an’ in different languages, with no reference to the approach or sources used. It is exactly the same introduction that is included in other translations by Rowad. The translation uses modern English; the style is generally plain and simple, and contains no footnotes or commentary. Given the translators’ predominantly grammatical approach to translation, this combination necessitates the provision of some insertions in brackets, though this does not occur very frequently. A good example of the use of such interpolations can be found in the rendition of Q 2:63:

‘And [remember] when We took your covenant [O Children of Israel] and raised above you the mountain [saying], “Hold firmly to what We have given you and observe its teachings” […].’

Such insertions mainly serve to clarify the speakers and addressees in the text, but in a few cases are related to Islamic theological issues. For example, the Explanation of the meanings renders Q 2:62 as:

‘The believers and those who were Jews, Christians, and the Sabians [before Muhammad] – whoever believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteous deed [sic.], they will have their reward with their Lord […].’

Here, the insertion is designed to prove the supremacy of Islam as the only path to salvation, while other religions were only valid before the advent of the Prophet Muḥammad.

Although the translation seems to be an original work, some of the decisions made by the translators can be traced back to previous translations, especially Saheeh International (1997), which is widely popular in Salafi circles. For example, in Q 112:2, al-ṣamad is translated in the Explanation of the meanings as ‘the Eternal Refuge’: the only other translation to have opted for this wording before is Saheeh International. The same is true for Q 90:2, wa- anta ḥillun bi-hādhā l-balad, which is rendered as ‘and you are free of restriction [for a while] in this city’, which echoes Saheeh International’s phrasing ‘And you, [O Muhammad], are free of restrictions in this city.’ Neither variant, however, is really comprehensible without some kind of interpolation or commentary on what kind of ‘restrictions’ are meant here. When it comes to the names of Biblical prophets, just like the translators of Saheeh International, the Rowad team present them in their Anglicised Christian form rather than their Islamic form (e.g., ‘Mary’ rather than ‘Maryam’).

In general, the Rowad team’s text is characterised by a very low occurrence of Arabic loan words. In contrast to many recent Muslim translations into English, especially Salafi ones such as the later editions of the Hilali-Khan translation, this text retains only a very few, basic Qur’anic words in Arabic, such as zakāt, which makes the translation accessible for a wide readership. Some of the lexical choices seem somewhat erratic. For example, the translators always render ahl al-kitāb as ‘people of the Book,’ but they render al-kitāb in other contexts as ‘Scripture’: ‘O People of the Book, there has come to you Our Messenger, revealing to you much of what you have been concealing of the Scripture’ (Q 5:15).

With regard to contested issues, the translation generally continues the line taken by previous English-language Salafi literature. This can be seen in the translators’ interpretation of ‘doctrinal’ verses such as Q 20:5, ‘The Most Compassionate rose over the Throne’ in which Salafis translate the verb istawā as ‘rising’ or ‘being stationed’ ‘over’ or ‘above’ the Throne whereas more traditional scholars, especially those affiliated with the Ashʿari school, as well as many modernists, avoid translations which suggest that God has a location in space.

Apparently an attempt to provide a reader-friendly translation that nevertheless stays as close to the source text as possible, the work is still under construction, as is evinced by the continuously updated version on the website. It might have some success digitally, given that it is available as a cell phone app, but the book version (which we have only found as a PDF file so far; it is unclear if a printed version exists) is hardly likely to challenge other available texts in the genre given the wide availability of Sunni and, more specifically, Sunni-Salafi translations.

Rowad’s translation into the Fula language – which is a minority language used in at least eighteen countries in Western and Central Africa – is quite a different case. This is also a translation produced by a team from the translation center, and clearly an original production. It is only available on the website, with no downloadable PDF version nor a smartphone app, which raises the question of usability. Since there is no typeset version, the introduction, front matter and production date are missing. The language variant used in this translation seems to be from the Senegambian region, whereas the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex, in their Fula translation, had opted for a variant spoken in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. Like the English version, Rowad’s Fula translation has a low proportion of Arabic loanwords; for example, the sura titles are in Fula (e.g., Q 2, Sūrat al-Baqara, is Simoore nagge rather than the King Fahd Complex’s Soorte Al-Baqara). In contrast to the English translation, the names of prophets are presented in their Arabic forms, but this is simply a feature of the Fula language, which is predominantly spoken by Muslims.

Like Rowad’s English translation, the Fula translation has neither footnotes nor commentary. It uses even fewer exegetical insertions than the English translation but in entirely different cases and for different reasons. There are no insertions that seem to be designed to identify speakers and addressees or to clarify doctrinal points. Rather, the main aim seems to be to provide an alternative word for a given expression that might appeal to a different subset of speakers. The Fula language has so many different varieties, most of which have not been standardized, that this might have seemed advisable. Insertions are also used in cases where Arabic specifies the gender of persons and Fula does not: Thus, al-sāriq wa l-sāriqa (Q 5:38) becomes ‘Ngujjo [gorko] e ngujjo [debbo]’ (‘The thief [male] and the thief [female]’).

The number of complete Qur’an translations into a variety of languages, ranging from the world language English to the minority language Fula, that have been produced by Rowad is impressive. No printed copies of these translations seem to exist, which is also unusual. Most translators of the Qur’an and their publishers strive to produce printed books, and online versions and apps are, at best, an afterthought; with the Rowad Translation Center, this seems to be the other way round. One has to wonder what audiences are reached through Rowad’s purely web-based approach, though, especially when – as is the case with Fula – no downloadable PDF versions or app exist.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych and Johanna Pink

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