Qur’an translation of the week #174: Tafsīr al-Muntakhab: a recent translation into Hebrew

Earlier this year, The Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf published a Hebrew translation of the work known as al-Muntakhab fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm (‘Selections of Commentary on the Glorious Qur’an’). This was the latest step in their project to promote this work at a global level – it has already been translated into various languages including English, French, Spanish, German, Indonesian, Swahili, and Russian – and it seems that work on the translation was quite fast, taking only six months. According to a statement released by Egypt’s Minister of Awqāf, Muhammad Mukhtar Guma (who also wrote the introduction to the work), this is the first ever tafsīr of the Qur’an in Hebrew, and makes a unique and valuable contribution because ‘the majority of previous translations [of the Qur’an] produced by Jewish Orientalists contains many mistakes,’ to which he added that ‘no other Muslim state has been able to produce such a work before’. This is especially interesting given the controversy over the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex’s 2019 Hebrew translation of the Qur’an (by Asʿad Namīr Baṣūl), which was criticized by some reviewers (especially by state-supported Iranian news agencies) for its ‘non-Islamic’ rendition of some verses. Close reading revealed that most of these criticisms were politically inspired and actually not true, but the fact remains that the publication of a new officially sanctioned Hebrew translation by another Muslim country poses challenges that a translation into another language might not.

The Arabic version of al-Muntakhab was written in the 1950s and first published in 1961, then lightly re-edited, since when it has been constantly in print, and marketed as a kind of ‘standard’ but simple and accessible interpretation of the Qur’an produced by al-Azhar University. Taking a more conservative approach to translation (i.e., that the Qur’an, or even its meanings, cannot be actually translated, but only interpreted or explained) that reflected ideas in circulation in the 1930s, it does still include some modernist ideas like ‘scientific exegesis’: for example its footnotes to Q. 55:5, 17, 33 and 68 contain a lot of material that relate to astronomy and chemistry. In some of the later editions and translations (usually those published with the original Arabic text of al-Muntakhab as parallel text) these footnotes are omitted, while the core text is rather a re-writing of the Qur’anic verses in modern Arabic with the use of some synonyms.

The Hebrew translation has been published without the Arabic text of the tafsīr (although it does include the Arabic text of the Qur’an), and contains the aforementioned footnotes, as well as short introduction to the suras. The translation was undertaken by Professor Saʿīd Muṭāwiʾ and his assistant, ʿAlī ʿAnnān. Professor Muṭāwiʾ is affiliated with Cairo University (where he is Chair of Hebrew Language and Literature) and has teaching experience at al-Azhar. He also has a historical interest in Hebrew translation of the Qur’an: in 2006 he published a work on‘The Problem of Synonymy in the Translation of the Meaning of the Qur’an into Hebrew’ (Ishkāliyya al-tarādif fi tarjamat al-‘Ibriyya li-māʿnī al-Qurʾān, Cairo: Dār al-Afāq al-ʿArabiyya). In this, he concludes that the similarity between the two languages (i.e. the fact that Hebrew and Arabic share the same Semitic roots) is not really helpful to the translator since relying on this creates shifts in meaning, and that anyone who translates the Qur’an should always keep in mind the link between its grammar and rhetorical structure. His task as the translator of Tafsīr al-Muntakhab rather than the Qur’an has been much easier. In the case of tafsīr, especially modern tafsīr, the text is often purposely designed to be one-dimensional in its meaning, in contrast to the many exegetical challenges involved in translating the often multivalent Qur’an itself.

The text only includes one short (aforementioned) introduction contributed by the Minister of Awqāf, which means that the reader is not given any information about any specific translatorial approach. The Hebrew text does not include any diacritical marks (in contrast to the KFQPC translation) and more or less faithfully conveys the meaning of al-Muntakhab. There was controversy over the KFQPC translation’s treatment of Q.17:1, with regard to whether to translate or to transliterate the Qur’anic expression al-masjid al-aqṣā, but the Hebrew al-Muntakhab avoids this by treating it the same way as in Arabic, so al-masjid al-aqṣā is rendered as al-misgad el-aqzā rather than ‘the furthest mosque’ or something else along those lines. Names are also presented according to the Qur’anic Arabic spelling: that is, ‘Allah’ is retained in Hebrew (aleph-lāmed-lāmed-hē) and the translators tend to use Arabic names for prophets, for example using Ibrāhīm rather than Avraham, by adding one more Hebrew alef for the long ā. The same is true for Sulaymān, Mūsā and other characters. Stylistically, sometimes the translation sounds quite explanatory: the phrase maqṣūd waḥdahu is translated as ‘Allah is the only one to whom all turn’ using the word ponim (present tense ‘they turn’). There are many other cases (especially when it comes to the divine attributes) where the translators felt themselves free to convey the meaning rather than ‘translate’ which is completely justified when translating tafsīr since the reader is looking for explanation of the Qur’anic text.

Since the translation has appeared only recently, any comprehensive review of it (especially when it comes to how modern readers of Hebrew ‘feel’ this text works) is still pending. However, it has gained some political attention in the meantime: according to Israeli media, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Amira Oron, sent a message to the Egyptian Ministry of Awqāf in which she commented that ‘This is a valuable and blessed initiative. For the first time, we can read an interpretation of the Holy Qur’an in Hebrew which has been supervised and presented by the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments and a group of the best scholars and translators in Egypt.’ Tafsīr al-Muntakhab’s potential popularity is still unclear, not least due to the many existing Qur’an translations in Hebrew, but it is noteworthy simple because it appears to be the first modern Muslim exegetical work to be completely translated into this language.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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