Qur’an translation of the week #170: Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Qur’an in Greek

A guest contribution by Marina Pyrovolaki, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Theology School

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat (AMJ) published their first ever translation of the Qur’an into Greek in 1989, as part of their longstanding project to translate the Qur’an into multiple languages, exactly one hundred years after the Ahmadiyya was first founded in 1889 in British India – an area of intense reform at the time –, following the establishment of the Raj. Its founder, Mīrzā Ghulām Aḥmad (d. 1908), opined that ‘Jihad by the sword has ended from this time forward. Islam is being attacked with the pen, […] it is necessary that the pen is used to repel these attacks’, and it was in this context of ‘jihad of the pen’ that his follower Muhammad Ali (d. 1951) published his highly influential English translation of the Qur’an in 1917 (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-106-the-first-influential-muslim-authored-translation-of-the-quran-into-english/). By that time the Ahmadiyya had split into two branches over disagreements on the precise meaning of Mīrzā Ghulām Aḥmad’s claim to be the Messiah and promised Mahdi as well as the leadership of the community. The branch that Muhammad Ali followed, known as the Lahore Ahmadiyya, considered Mīrzā Aḥmad to be only a mujaddid (reformer) and had a presidential leadership system. The other branch, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat (or Qadianis to their critics, hereafter AMJ), established a line of khulafāʾ (caliphs, i.e. deputies) of the Promised Messiah.

Despite the Ahmadis’ distinctive beliefs, which set them apart from Sunnis and Shi’is, the first foreign minister of Pakistan after the partition, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, was an Ahmadi, who also held positions of prestige in the ICJ and the UN, performed the hajj as a guest of the Saudi King and authored an English Qur’an translation (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-151-the-quran-a-quran-translation-by-pakistans-foreign-minister/). In 1974 an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution deemed Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, while in 1984 Ordinance XX prohibited them from identifying as Muslims, following which the headquarters of the AMJ moved to the UK. When it comes to the field of Qur’an translation into European languages the AMJ has been active in this arena since 1915 (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-127-the-first-ahmadi-english-quran-translation/), especially in the decades after the Second World War, when their efforts outshone those of the Lahore Ahmadiyya. The first complete English AMJ translation of Qur’an, by Maulvi Sher Ali (d. 1947), was published in the Netherlands in 1955, and a five-volume commentary authored by Sher Ali, Bashir Ahmad (Mīrzā Ghulām Aḥmad’s son, d. 1963) and Malik Ghulam Farid (d. 1977) was published between 1947 and 1963. This included a long introduction by the second AMJ caliph Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad.

The Greek Ahmadiyya translation of the Qur’an (hereafter AQ) was published in Washington in 1989, by Aliyya Rehman, formerly Alexandra Petridou, the first Greek woman to embrace Islam through the AMJ. The translation was initiated in 1987, on the instruction of Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the fourth Caliph of the AMJ, and the introduction states that it was based on the English Translation by Sher Ali. Aliyya Rehman’s initial translation was sponsored by her husband, Hamid Azizur Rehman, and a professional Greek translator by the name of Loris Ardz was hired to revise and polish her first draft. Mr. Rahman is also credited, according to an oral communication, with assisting his wife in consulting the commentary by Malik Ghulam Farid, as well as the one-volume commentary by Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad, to provide a better understanding of the Qur’an’s meanings.

The edition has a three-page glossary and a fifty-six-page index, and thus follows the template of the index of Sher Ali’s translation. However, it does not contain the translation modifications by Tahir Ahmad that are presented as footnotes in the English edition from the same period. Also in 1989, a Greek version of what is known as the Selected Verses, a compilation of Qur’anic verses on 20 topics of importance composed by Tahir Ahmad on the centenary of Ghulam Ahmad’s taking the bayʿah, was published in the UK.

The AQ is not often mentioned in Greek writings on Islam or the Qur’an. Greek Muslims ordinarily use the translation sponsored by the Latsis Foundation, revised by a committee of Azhar ulema and Egyptian academics of Hellenic studies, and revised anew under the auspices of the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina by the Greek mufti and university teacher Dr. Jihad Khalil (hereafter referred to as the KFGQPC translation, for more on which see https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-44-%CF%84%CE%BF-%CE%B9%CE%B5%CF%81%CF%8C-%CE%BA%CE%BF%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BD%CE%B9%CE%BF-the-al-azhar-translation-of-the-qur/).

In the AQ, the sura names are rendered as they are pronounced in Urdu rather than Arabic, and transliterated in the Greek alphabet with occasional mistakes, a process which seems familiar to the Greek Muslim audience whose Balkan Ottoman extraction means they do not use any of the standard Arabic transliteration systems either. In contrast, the KFGQPC translation includes Greek translations of the sura names in brackets, at times using words idiomatic to the Greek community. An initial inspection of the semantic aspects of the AQ, which follows the English template, reveals that the translation is somewhat removed from the richness of the Arabic hermeneutic tradition. For example, words derived from the highly polysemous verb ittaqā that, based on descriptions in Islamic sources, has occasionally been translated in English as being ‘mindful’ or ‘conscious’ of God, are in Sher Ali’s English translation, and subsequently the AQ, rather monotonously translated with words related to the concepts of fear and virtue, whereas the KFGQPC translation shows a higher level of meticulousness when it comes to the nuances of its word choices.

Thus, for example, in Q 2:183, the AQ has γίνετε ενάρετοι (‘become righteous’), while the KFGQPC translation has να απομακρυνθείτε από την αμαρτία (‘distance yourselves from sin’). In Q 10:63, the AQ has είναι πάντα δίκαιοι (‘those […] kept to righteousness’), while the KFGQPC translation has (διαρκώς) προφυλάγονται από το πονηρό (‘[constantly] guard themselves against evil’). Finally, in Q 12:57, the AQ has πιστεύουν και φοβούνται τον Θεό (‘believe and fear God’); the KFGQPC translation has [πίστεψαν και ήταν -στη συνέχεια] θεοσεβείς (‘[after having believed,] were respectful of God’).

The AQ’s take on the disjointed letters at the beginning of some suras again resonates with a tendency to give somewhat narrow explanations that follow Sher Ali’s original. Possibly to avoid presenting multiple interpretations, footnotes are provided where the letters are explained as abbreviations of short sentences referring to Allah e.g. at the beginning of Q 2: Είμαι ο Αλλάχ, ο τα Πάντα γνωρίζων (‘I am Allah, the All-Knowing’). This can again be contrasted with the KFGQPC translation’s approach that avoids providing references to the multiple theories that exist on the meaning of the disjointed letters and instead, in a short note, explains them as an indication that the Qur’an consists of words made by letters such as these and that it is, however, a miracle of speech, inimitable and impossible to repeat. Although both editions provide a single answer to a question open to multiple interpretive possibilities, the first approach is more specific and the latter more symbolic, which makes it easier for readers to accept irrespective of what they actually believe.

There are a few verses that critics of the AMJ translations have specifically targeted as unacceptable, mostly related to the finality of the prophet Muhammad’s prophethood and the nature of Jesus’ death. How much they might have a bearing on the readers of the Greek translation depends on the extent to which the readers are aware of the theological issues involved. The example of the widely condemned Ahmadiyya translation of Q 3:55 shows us this. In AQ the verse is rendered as:

Ω Ιησού, θα πεθάνεις από θάνατο φυσικό μετά θα σε ανεβάσω ως Εμένα

(‘O Jesus, I will cause thee to die a natural death and will exalt thee to Myself.’)

The same verse is translated in the KFGQPC translation as:

Ω Ιησού! θα σε πάρω και θα σ’ ανυψώσω ίσαμε Εμένα

(‘[…] Ι will take you and elevate you […]’). Almost all Muslims translations seem to prefer the meaning of ‘I will take you’ rather than ‘I will cause you to die’ for mutawaffīka. However, this is a translatorial choice that seems to have been made due to the complexity of the issue in question, and possibly as a reaction to the standard Ahmadiyya interpretation (and translation) of this verse, since almost always elsewhere else in the Qur’an tawaffā is translated as ‘causing one to die, taking one’s soul’. Sher Ali has added the word ‘natural’ in his translation, which does not substantially contradict the tradition, and has formatted the phrase in italics, a detail that is lost in the Greek rendering. Unless the reader had read Ghulam Farid’s discussion of some of the Ahmadiyya’s claims regarding the remainder of Jesus’ life after crucifixion, including his death in Kashmir, which are rejected by non-Ahmadiyya Muslims, this highly controversial issue might pass unnoticed if it was not for the above-mentioned index, in which clear glimpses of the AMJ’s Christology are offered in a section (over a page long) dedicated to different topics related to Jesus, his death being prominent among them.

Perhaps it was an apologetic attitude towards Christian colonialists in India that led the Ahmadis try to purify the Qur’an from any potentially blameworthy elements, such as material that could be seen as fictional hermeneutics related to the stories of prophets. For example, in Q 27:19, King Solomon appears to smile laughingly when a talking ant, in the valley of ants, and requests his army to be careful lest they crush the insects. Muhammad Ali’s translation explains in a footnote that the word naml actually refers to a tribe, and his translation accordingly presents the talking Ant as a Namlite, while our Greek translation, following Sher Ali, takes it a step further, saying: και μια γυναίκα της φυλής Αλ-Ναμλ είπε (‘a woman from the tribe of the Naml said’). To give another example from the same sura, in Q 27:20 Solomon asks where the hudhud is, a phrase that the KFGQPC translation renders as τι έχω και δεν βλέπω τον τσαλαπετεινό (‘why do I not see the hoopoe?’). In the AQ, however, this is rendered as Γιατί δεν βλέπω τον Χουντρούντ (‘why do I now see Hudrud [sic]?’Again, the reader has το resort to the index, where Χούντχουντ (‘Hudhud’) is explained as follows: Ήταν ο Διοικητής των Δυνάμεων του Σολομώντα (‘He was the commander of Solomon’s forces’). A quick look at the extensive commentary developed since Muhammad Ali’s days shows a genuine effort on the part of Ahmadiyya to identify this person by searching within Biblical names. And if in Sher Ali’s index in the case of Hudhud the result are somewhat vague, the location of the tribe of Naml has been identified with a certain precision, as being between Jibrῑn and ‘Asqalān, an element that might give some readers a feeling of factuality.

Ever since the early days of the Ahmadiyya, their translations have sought to reconcile the Qur’an with modern science. For example, there are three instances where the meeting of two seas is mentioned in the Qur’an (Q 55:19-20, Q 35:12, and Q 25:53). These references have given rise through the centuries to a variety of allegorical interpretations, even more so since in two of them there is mention of a barrier in between the two seas, a barzakh, a term which also denotes the intermediate state between death and Judgment Day. The Greek translation follows Sher Ali’s choices in its rendition of Q 55:19: Έκανε τα δυο σώματα νερού. Κάποια μέρα θα συναντηθούν. Τώρα, ανάμεσα τους υπάρχει ένα φράγμα […] (‘it has made the two bodies of water flow. They will one day meet. Between them is now a barrier […]’). The KFGQPC translation, however, renders the same segment as Διαχώρησε τις δυο θάλασσες (του γλυκού και του αλμυρού νερού) που συναντιώνται. Ανάμεσα τους υπάρχει ένα εμπόδιο […] (‘He separated two seas (one of sweet and one of salty water) that meet. Between them, there is a barrier […]’). (The reference to the sweet and salty waters that the KFGQPC translation provides in brackets comes from Q 35:12 and Q 25:53.) That the Ahmadiyya translated the verb yaltaqiyān (‘to meet’) in the future tense is not philologically unacceptable, for an Arabic verb in the present tense can refer to the future at times. However, it is the reason for this choice that differentiates the Ahmadiyya translation from other translations. Muhammad Ali in 1917 presented several metaphoric and esoteric interpretations for Q 55:19 and mentioned that some people relate the verse to the opening of the Suez Canal. Ghulam Farid’s commentary declares that this was a Qur’anic prophecy, and this interpretation can be found in the index of the AQ where under Προφητείες στο Ιερό Κοράνιο (Prophecies in the Holy Qur’an), we see Το άνοιγμα των διώρυγων του Σουέζ και του Παναμά (‘The opening of the Suez and Panama canals’). This tendency to rationalize phenomena described in the Qur’an in scientific terms can also be seen in Sayyid Quṭb’s interpretation of Q 55:19-20, in which he goes to great lengths to analyse the relationship between river water and seawater in objective terms, and it is clear that the Ahmadiyya movement derived their aim to free the Qur’an from layers of perhaps obsolete interpretations from the wider modernist and reformist agenda. In the above example, however, it becomes obvious that by the time of Sher Ali and our Greek translation, the movement had become revivalist in a somewhat obscure way.

In fact, the Ahmadiyya’s approach to many of the issues discussed above, either theological points or historical interpretations connected to the Qur’an, can be traced back to nineteenth-century India. Mīrzā Ghulām Aḥmad was profoundly influenced by the rational theology of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), a leading Muslim reformer of his time who, promoting Western style scientific education, denied miracles, the Islamic creation theory and the physicality of the miʿrāj. It is also worth noting that Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, the pioneer of Islamic reform and visionary of Panislamism, before he even travelled to Europe and the great centers of Sunni Islam, spent decades of his youth in India. Early Ahmadiyya translation and missionary activities should be seen as emerging in a context of optimistic modernism that puts faith in the belief that religions can progress and be propagated through travel and argumentation. Since then, the world has changed, and some of the intensely reformistic ideas of the early days have been channeled into conservative and fundamentalist agendas. In the case of the AMJ, at the time of the Greek translation probably very few Greeks knew anything about them, and only a tiny number of scholars would be interested in using their edition, and this would be particularly due the usefulness of its index in the pre-internet era, despite elements in it raising eyebrows. How much have things changed since the publication of this translation? Faithful to their founder’s bequest, the AMJ declare that they believe in manifesting and witnessing the truth of their religion through religious argument and travel, and self-define as revivalists and missionaries. There is a group of AMJ missionaries currently present in Greece, and work is being undertaken towards a revised edition of the same translation, while hard copies remain available for distribution. The question remains: who will be the audience for this text?  How much space is there in the twenty-first century for religious proselytizing, and how many Ahmadis are genuinely interested in it? And to what extent, following their persecution, should their translations be seen in the context of a diasporic religious ethnic community with a history of missionary activity?

Marina Pyrovolaki

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