Qur’an translation of the week #168: The Turkish afterlife of a global scholar: Muhammad Hamidullah’s French Qur’an translation in Turkish

Aziz Kur’an is a Turkish Qur’an translation based on Le Saint Coran by Muhammad Hamidullah. Producing such a translation of a translation is an unusual decision given that there are already dozens of Qur’an translations on the Turkish market from the original Arabic. It speaks to the renown and appeal of this illustrious and prolific Indian Muslim scholar, which the Turkish publisher of Aziz Kur’an sought to exploit.

Hamidullah’s life story is unusual and bears testimony to the upheavals of the twentieth century, as well as to the Muslim networks they brought forth. Born to a family of scholars in Hyderabad in 1908, Hamidullah received his primary and higher education there before obtaining a doctorate from the University of Bonn in 1932, followed by another one from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1935. During this time, he became friends with most of the eminent German and French Orientalists of the period. After completing his studies in Paris, he returned to Hyderabad to teach at his alma mater, Osmania University. A little more than a decade later, the partition of India in 1947 and the subsequent fate of Hyderabad overturned his life. Hyderabad had been one of the princely states of India under British suzerainty. Howver, after Britain gave up its colony in India, it abandoned all alliances with these princely states. While most immediately acceded to either India or Pakistan, the wealthiest and most powerful of them, Hyderabad, opted for independence (or at least its ruler, the Nizam, did). That independence, however, was short-lived. After a period of rising tension, India finally invaded Hyderabad in September 1948 and forced the Nizam into accession. Hamidullah had been appointed as part of a delegation sent to London and New York to prevent this and, after the failure of this endeavour, he briefly moved to Pakistan, where he was involved in writing the constitution but obviously did not feel at home. He ended up in France where he spent most of the subsequent decades. Since he retained his citizenship of Hyderabad State and never obtained any other citizenship, he was classed as a refugee in France, permanently exiled from a homeland that had ceased to exist.

In the early 1950s, Hamidullah moved to Turkey for a few years, teaching at the universities of Ankara and Erzurum. He kept returning to Turkey for teaching stints at Istanbul University in subsequent decades and also held a permanent position as a researcher at CNRS in Paris. Between the 1950s and 1970s, he was one of the most important Muslim personalities in Europe, and was held in high esteem by Muslims as well as Orientalists. In France and the French-speaking part of Switzerland, he contributed to building Muslim institutions, making use of his international connections; he had ties with representatives of the Muslim brotherhood and also engaged in Muslim-Christian dialogue. He passed away in 2002 in Florida, having moved there for health reasons.

Hamidullah was at the centre of a global Muslim network in a time of rigid nation-state borders. A true polyglot, he knew more than 20 languages and strove to achieve fluency in the languages of all the countries he lived in, a talent that allowed him to translate the Qur’an into French. The result, which was first published in Paris in 1959, is often – for example, on Wikipedia – presented as the first French Qur’an translation by a Muslim, but that is a false claim. There were at least two earlier translations that were exclusively authored by Muslims (see QTOTW 85 and 80), but Hamidullah’s was the first that was a success with Muslim readers. Unlike earlier works, it was distributed by a Muslim publisher, it had an extensive introduction, and explanatory notes, and was published in bilingual French-Arabic editions early on. Its popularity, coupled with the translator’s extensive personal networks, was such that it found a global readership. After the publication of no less than seven editions in France, it was also published in Turkey in 1973, in Beirut in 1980 and in the United States in 1985. There was also an undated reprint in New Delhi and the Turkish Diyanet Foundation started distributing the translation in 2012. Maybe most importantly for its reception, the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina published a completely revised edition in 1989, which had been edited so heavily as to be practically unrecognizable. Hamidullah did not approve of the revisions but did nothing to prevent the distribution of this new version. It is today available all over the internet and has been reprinted by numerous publishers, with or without attribution.

Hamidullah’s reception in Turkey, however, was not based on the widely published Saudi efforts but rather on the fact that Hamidullah’s French translation had been published in Turkey since 1973 when the religious publisher Hilal Yayınları brought out a completely revised and expanded edition that – unlike the King Fahd Complex’s version – had been prepared by Hamidullah himself. Aziz Kur’an, the Turkish translation we are looking at today, was based on that edition. It was first published in 2003 and saw several reprints, most recently in 2022. The publisher, Bayan Yayınları, specialises in Islamic literature, and the works of Hamidullah in French and Turkish feature prominently in its portfolio. The translation from French to Turkish was undertaken by Abdülaziz Hatip, a Turkish theologian who studied for some time at the Sorbonne in Paris, and Mahmut Kanık, a lecturer of French literature and translator with religious leanings.

Hatip and Kanık were keenly aware of the difficulties involved in translating a translation. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that Turkish is a language with a long history of being spoken by Muslims and a rather large Islamic vocabulary, including many loanwords from Arabic – none of which is true of French. Despite this, the translators state that they did their best to follow Hamidullah’s method of translating the source text into the target language with all its formal and semantic features. ‘We admit,’ they write, ‘that the result may be surprising to many readers. We are not claiming that we are presenting them with an easy text. But first of all, we must remind you of this: The basic approach of the methodology applied in this translation is not to take the text to the reader but to take the reader to the text.’

The main aspect that they anticipate will be surprising to Turkish readers is Hamidullah’s approach to semantics. He did not translate Qur’anic terms according to their modern Arabic meaning, but rather according to the meaning he thought they had at the time of revelation. For example, he sometimes translated qurʾān as ‘reading’ (lecture), rather than the seemingly obvious ‘Qur’an.’ It was such translations, Hatip and Kanık assumed, that would surprise and challenge Turkish readers who would expect to find the term kur’an in the Turkish translation – an expectation that Hatip and Kanık went on to fulfil, despite the intentions they express in the introduction.

While Hatip and Kanık did usually follow Hamidullah’s wording and most of his exegetical decisions relatively closely, their translation uses a far greater number of Arabic words than the source text. In some cases, this might make sense or at least be defensible. For example, Hamidullah rendered ṣalāt as Office (‘service, worship’) because the French term prière (‘prayer’) would have evoked connotations of Christian prayer, not the Islamic ritual prayer. The Turkish translators did not have this problem; they could just use the Turkish term namāz, derived from Persian, which refers to the Islamic ritual prayer. They dealt with Hamidullah’s rendition of the basmala as Au nom de Dieu le Très Miséricordieux, le Tout Miséricordieux (‘In the name of God, the Very Merciful, the All-Merciful’) in a similar way: they chose the much simpler Rahmān, Rahīm Allah adına (‘In the name of Allah, the Raḥmān, the Raḥīm’), since rahman and rahim are established expressions in Turkish, unlike in French. Likewise, the translators’ use of Allah, rather than tanrı (which would be the equivalent of Hamidullah’s Dieu), as well as their preference for Arabic over translated sura titles reflects established usage in Turkish, if not the vocabulary of the source text. It does, however, defy their express intention of surprising and challenging the readers.

In many other cases, the translators’ usage of Arabic terminology does more than that: it erases or even reverses Hamidullah’s choices. This is particularly clear when we look at Q 3:85:

wa-man yabtaghi ghayra l-islāmi dīnan fa-lan yuqbala minhu wa-huwa fī l-ākhirati mina l-khāsirīn.

Hamidullah rendered this verse as

Et quiconque désire une religion autre que la Soumission, de celui-là ce ne sera point reçu! Et il sera, dans l’au-delà, parmi les perdants.

(‘And whoever desires a religion other than Submission, from him it will not be accepted! And in the Hereafter, he will be among the losers.’)

Hamidullah deliberately chose to render islām as ‘submission’ in order to avoid an understanding of the verse that would be both exclusivist and ahistorical. The implication here is that the verse calls on humans to submit themselves to God, rather than to the specific religion of Islam, which was not even fully formed by the time the verse was promulgated. Despite this very clear exegetical intent, the Turkish translators chose to translate his ‘submission’ as İslām: Ve kim İslam’dan başka bir din ararsa … (‘And who seeks a religion other than Islam …’) In a footnote, they mention that the source text uses the term teslimiyet (‘surrender’) but apparently they felt it was too much of a challenge to readers to use it in the translation itself.

Even when Hamidullah renders qurʾān as lecture (‘reading’), which is a peculiarity of his translation that they explicitly mention in their introduction, they do not follow him in this but rather use the Turkish Kur’an, with a capital letter (see Q 10:61), thereby opposing Hamidullah’s interpretation of the term in a more generic sense than that of Islam’s sacred scripture. The general tendency of the translators, completely contrary to their statement in the introduction, seems to be to use the most commonplace Turkish term possible. Thus, for example, Hamidullah had rendered kursī in Q 2:255 (‘His kursī extends over the heavens and the earth’) as repose-pied (‘footrest’) and remarked in a footnote that this was based on al-Ṭabarī’s interpretation. The Turkish translators used kürsü, which typically refers to a lectern or a pulpit in Turkish but is also very frequently used in translations of Q 2:255, simply because of the etymological closeness: kürsü is derived from kursī. But this is the exact type of fallacy that Hamidullah wanted to avoid.

In another case, the translators differ from Hamidullah’s semantics in a particularly curious manner: Hamidullah chose to render kāfir as mécréant (‘miscreant’ or ‘unbeliever’). Given the aforementioned pattern, one would expect the Turkish translators translate this into Turkish as kâfir but they actually use the term inkārcı (‘denier’) instead. In this case, it is not Hamidullah but the Turkish translators who seem to be looking for the Qur’anic term’s original meaning. This is in line with a few existing translations, including that by the Qur’anist Edip Yüksel, and Kur’an Yolu by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, but it does not at all reflect Hamidullah’s interpretation. Obviously the publisher’s desire to produce a marketable translation with a big name attached to it was greater than the translators’ respect of the source text.

Johanna Pink

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