Qur’an translation of the week #175: The Renaissance Man of Modern Tatarstan: A Qur’an Translation by Ravil’ Bukharaev (1951–2012) et al.

Ravil Bukharaev, much like the polymaths of the Renaissance, was a multifaceted individual whose interests and expertise spanned various fields. In modern Tatarstan, a republic within the Russian Federation, he is celebrated as one of the major Tatar literary figures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and is renowned for his diverse talents and pursuits. In this post, we will take a brief journey through Bukharaev’s life, explore his affiliation with the Ahmadiyya community, and delve into a significant aspect of his Qur’an translation (first published in 2006), which was a collaborative effort undertaken with a number of Ahmadiyya colleagues.

Bukharaev’s biography is a colorful tapestry woven from experiences across various countries, ideas and creative ventures. He was born into a Soviet Tatar scholarly family that belonged to the so-called ‘technical intelligentsia,’ an educated class specialized in technical or engineering fields. Following in his father’s footsteps, he graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at Kazan State University. Continuing on this path, Bukharaev then moved to Moscow and completed his postgraduate studies at the Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics at Moscow State University. In parallel to his academic interests, he began to write plays and poetry, and practice translation. A polyglot, he enjoyed learning different languages, and writing in them: he left written works in Russian, Tatar, English and Hungarian – the languages in which he had full working proficiency – as well as in around six other languages in which he was proficient to varying extents, among them Urdu and Arabic. The author of more than thirty books in various languages, many of which were in Russian, he is remembered by an English-speaking audience for introducing them to Tatar literature by translating the works of writers crucial to modern Tatar identity, such as Ğabdulla Tuqay (1886–1913). He also authored a historical anthology of Tatar poetry and popularized such early Tatar writers as Kol Gali (1183–1236) whose Kyssa’i Yusuf (The Story of Joseph) he translated with Fred Beake Not trained as a historian, he was nevertheless also deeply interested in the history of Islam in Russia, and his Islam in Russia: The Four Seasons became a part of the curricula of various Western universities at the beginning of the 2000s.  Despite spending a significant part of his adult life outside Tatarstan, he was interested in the political life of his region, sharing his thoughts on it with an English-speaking audience through his politico-economic study The Model of Tatarstan: Under Mintimer Shaimiev. These few examples do not demonstrate the full breadth of his writing, however, they give a glimpse into the diversity of his interests, as well as illustrating the fact that his cultural orientation was his central inspiration and passion: the history and culture of his own nation and his special connection to the city of Kazan.

Considering himself Muslim by birth, Bukharaev admitted that his upbringing, as with that of many other Soviet Muslims, did not manifest the practical elements of Islam. Nor did he consider himself a religious person as a young man, rather his ‘Muslimness’ was simply part of the package of his Tatar cultural ethnicity. This was a sense of identity that was largely shared by Muslims throughout the atheistic environment of the USSR. During the late 1980s, when many people became disenchanted with the communist project, a process of liberalization led to a time of intellectual openness and increasing interest in the spiritual. In this environment, Bukharaev’s intellectual breadth and open-mindedness were apparently too wide to be constrained the borders of his own tradition and homeland. Surprising many, after encountering the Ahmadiyya-Qadiyani community, of which he became an active member, Bukharaev began a new period of his now religious life, moving to London in the early 1990s, and adding religious writing and translation to his varied oeuvre. He worked as a radio presenter and journalist on various platforms, notably for the BBC World Service for over fifteen years, and strove to facilitate connections between different cultures, languages and ideas. His religious identity became such an important part of his life that he was not simply regarded as a member of the Ahmadiyya community and an active missionary, but was singled out for praise by the leader of the Ahmadiyya for his loyalty and active proselytism in the name of the community in Russia, its neighboring states and beyond. His religious travelogue Doroga bog znaet kuda (‘The Road Leads to God Knows Where’), along with other religious books and journal articles he published in such semi-academic journals as Chetki, had a philosophical-religious orientation and showcased a ‘soft daʿwa’ through which he attempted to spread the Ahmadiyya’s interpretation of Islam through the vehicle of engaging prose and poetry.

Despite the fact that the Ahmadiyya’s interpretation of the practical dimension of Islam is largely similar to Muslim orthopraxis, its approach to the theological dimension has led the Muslim orthodox majority to declare the Ahmadiyya as having crossed outside of the borders of Islam. The main theological stumbling block relates to the Ahmadi belief that the late-nineteenth century figure Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908) was a prophet. While the Ahmadis pronounce the same testimony of faith аs Sunnis, and believe in the finality of the prophetic mission of Muhammad in terms of law, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is believed by Ahmadis to be the reviver (mujaddid), promised Messiah and also a prophet. Ahmadis believe he was been entrusted by God with the prophetic mission of reviving Islam, although his prophecy was ghayr sharīʿī, an Ahmadi term which implies the sense of having a prophetic mission without preaching a new law.

This main theological difference finds its way into the specific hermeneutics of Ahmadi Qur’an translations, of which they are active promoters at a global level. The historical context of modernity in which the movement of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad emerged is reflected in particular tendencies towards rationalization that are apparent in Ahmadiyya theology, as well as in their interpretation of the Qur’an. The most striking of these is their avoidance of ascribing supernational qualities to Quranic prophetic stories and their overall tendency to align their interpretation of the Qur’an with the modern scientific understanding of reality. These features are clearly apparent in the Ahmadiyya’s official Russian translation, in which Bukharaev had a hand.

When Bukharaev passed away in 2012, the leader of the Ahmadiyya dedicated a personal eulogy to him, an act that is significant because it demonstrates the high status that Bukharaev had in a community that has a global membership that is estimated to range from ten to twenty million individuals. In his speech, the Ahmadi leader Mirza Masroor Ahmad especially emphasized Bukharaev’s work on the Ahmadiyya’s Qur’an translation as his most significant achievement and contribution, in spite of the wide range of his other publications. However, the actual translation work for this project was undertaken by Khalid Ahmad, an Ahmadi scholar from Pakistan who worked in Russia as a representative of the Ahmadiyya Community and who currently resides in the UK. It was Khalid Ahmad who undertook the translation from the original Arabic text, together with another member of the Ahmadiyya community, Rustam Khamatvaleev, who is current the head of the Russian mission and officially registered Center in Moscow (1993). Bukharaev was heavily involved in revising and editing the text, and wrote the preface, as well as working on translation of the commentary that accompanied the actual translation, and definitely left his personal, eloquent mark on the final text.

The translation relied heavily on the Urdu tafsīr written by the Ahmadi spiritual leader of that period, Khalif Mirza Tahir Ahmad (1928–2003), and the preface makes it very clear that this translation is representative of Ahmadiyya hermeneutics. Thus, the text takes a clear but lenient polemical stance: it opposes the readings of those Muslims who supposedly privilege the Prophetic narrations over the Qur’anic text, or who are overreliant on classical tafsīr without considering the realities of contemporary life, and uncritical dependency on previous translations, as well as criticising Muslim ‘literalists and dogmatists’ who refuse to even consider accepting Ahmadi interpretations. This approach is clearly set out in Bukharaev’s statement that:

‘The understanding of the Holy Quran, as it was during the times of the historical greatness of Islam, and today, is inseparably linked to a scientific and simply human understanding of the surrounding world, rather than to dogmatic blindness which, being unable to explain the world, is only filled with envious hostility towards it.’

His words here also hint at an important idea that the preface and Qur’an translation both aim to convey, namely that the Ahmadiyya’s interpretation of Islam is in harmony with modernity and the Qur’anic message.

The specific Ahmadi theological interpretive paradigm is perhaps most apparent in Ahmadi readings of Q 3:55, which corresponds to Q 3:56 in Ahmadi translations, as they treat basmala as a separate verse.

In this verse, Allah addresses the prophet ʿĪsā, saying idh qāla Allāhu yā ʿĪsā innī mutawaffīka wa-rāfiʿuka ilayya […], which the Sunni majority understand to mean that Allah said to ʿĪsā that He will take him back and raise him to Himself. In contrast, Ahmadis are very literal in their understanding of the word mutawaffīka, hence the Russian translation renders this phrase as follow: ‘Kogda skazal Allakh: «O Iisus! Voistinu, I͡A- Privodi͡ashchiĭ tebi͡a k smerti, i Vozvyshai͡ushchiĭ tebi͡a (stepenʹi͡u) k Sebe […].’ Mutawaffīka is here translated as ‘Privodi͡ashchiĭ tebi͡a k smerti,’which means ‘[I am (Allah)] causing you to die.’ The second part of the verse about ‘raising’ Jesus to Himself is interpreted not in a physical sense but with the addition of commentary in brackets which explains that ‘raising’ is intended here in the sense that Allah raised ʿĪsā in his status or degree, which is a distinctively Ahmadi understanding of ʿĪsā’s destiny. According to this reading, when ʿĪsā was on the cross he neither died on it nor was he physically raised alive to the highest realms as most Muslims believe. Instead Ahmadis hold that he only fainted on the cross and survived the crucifixion, following which he travelled east to Kashmir where he died and was buried after a long life. Perceiving the death of ʿĪsā as a historical fact, Ahmadis do not connect the appearance of the promised Messiah with ʿĪsā, who Sunnis believe will appear for a second time on the Earth as a sign of the impending Judgment Day. This creates space in the Ahmadi dogma for a different Messiah, Mirza Gulam Ahmad. His messianic claims were perceived by the Sunni majority as groundless and heretical, and this led to continuing persecution of Ahmadi communities in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan. In the USA and Europe, Ahmadis are actively involved in religious proselytism, emphasizing the idea of ‘jihad of the pen,’ much of which has historically been carried out through Ahmadi Qur’an translations.

Ahmadi beliefs about the life of the prophet ʿĪsā feature in the Ahmadiyya’s Russian translation, in which Bukharaev and his co-authors consistently attempt to persuade the readership of the Ahmadiyya’s interpretation of Islam. In addition to their theological stance on the story of ʿĪsā, an Ahmadi interpretative paradigm can be seen in the translators’ avoidance of supernational aspects. For instance, Q 3:46–47, which again relates to the prophet ʿĪsā, relates how the angels inform Maryam of good news about her son, and promise her that ʿĪsā will speak with people even from the cradle, a miracle that supports his prophecy. This passage is commonly read as relating to ʿĪsā’s ability to perform miracles and the fact that he was able to speak while an infant, but Ahmadis interpret this verse to simply mean that when ʿĪsā was a child he would share his childhood dreams, which had nothing to do with his yet unstarted prophetic mission. Ahmadi theology consistently writes out any references to miracles in the Qur’an, and this is a definitive feature of Bukharaev’s translation.

For the Tatar secular intelligentsia, Bukharaev’s affiliation with the Ahmadiyya was a ‘syncretic’ specificity which only added an additional layer to his complex personality, and even brought a sense of pride that he was respected and admired in both the West and East, even in such a remote part of the world as Qadian in India. As the Tatar actress Lii͡a Zagidullina, who accompanied him to India, remembered: ‘There in Qadiyan, people were almost throwing themselves to the ground before him,’ implying that she had witnessed Bukharaev being treated with extreme respect. However, for the mainstream religious clergy and many traditional Sunnis of Tatarstan, Bukharaev’s affiliation and his Qur’an translation were seen as dangerous, as they could potentially destabilize the religious authorities. The fact that his many literary achievements brought him various awards and honors made him too significant a personage to be dismissed, but at the same, his ideas were too controversial to accept in their full complexity.

Elvira Kulieva

Share this post