Qur’an translation of the week #186: Dutch Qur’an Translation: A Literary Adaptation of the Qur’an by a Migrant Intellectual, Kader Abdolah

The field of Qur’an translation has expanded rapidly in the Netherlands since the late twentieth century. Like other European countries, the Netherlands has experienced various waves of migration since the 1960s and seen an influx of Muslims, whose numbers have been intensified by recent political instability and war in various Muslim-majority countries. As a new phenomenon to European society, Islam has attracted the interest of Dutch non-Muslims, and translations of the Qur’an have become one of the most popular ways of accessing and understanding Islam among Holland’s Muslim and non-Muslim population alike.

There are a number of popular Qur’an translations available in Dutch, which are continually reprinted. These circulate in different milieux, and can be broadly divided into two categories: those written by Muslims and those written by non-Muslims. Well-known Qur’an translations by non-Muslims include that by the Islamologist-Arabist Hendrik Kramers (1952), which was updated by Hans Jansen in 1992; that by Fred Leemhuis (1989); and a third by the theologian, minister, and Bible translator Eduard Verhoef (2015). Translations by Muslims include one by the Indonesian scholar Sofyan Siregar and a team from the ICCN Den Haag (1996); one by the Salafi imam Abou Ismail and his students at the As-Soennah Foundation (2013); and one produced by the Rotterdam Islamic University (2013).

Although all of these translations aim to translate the Qur’an for anyone who wants to read it, overall the two different types tend to reach different readerships. On the one hand, the Muslim-authored translations are often motivated by the translator’s opinion that non-Muslim and other Muslim-authored translations contain errors, and tend to be primarily aimed at a Muslim readership, while on the other hand, Dutch readers who are familiar with the Bible may have difficulties in understanding the Muslim-authored translations, and tend to opt for those authored by non-Muslims. This creates a dilemma for Muslim translators who wish to reach a non-Muslim readership.

It was a desire to bridge this gap and provide a Qur’an translation that would be better understood and appreciated by non-Muslim Dutch readers that inspired the translation featured this week, which was authored by Kader Abdolah, an Iranian political refugee who emigrated to Turkey for a while before moving to the Netherlands in 1988, where he still lives today. Born in 1952, Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani, who is better known by his pen name Kader Abdolah, studied physics in Tehran and became an established literary author. Through his writings, he fought against the political regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, as did two of his friends, Kader and Abdolah, who were killed by the regime as a result, and whose combined names he adopted as his pen name in his later writings. Since moving to the Netherlands, he has continued to write literary works, using Persian culture as inspiration. He has published more than 20 books in Dutch, some of which have become influential, such as De Adelaars (1993), Het Huisvan de Moskee (2005), and Salam, Europa (2016). Abdolah has quickly come to be regarded as a representative of Muslim immigrant culture, whose writings have enriched Dutch literature.

Abdolah’s works promote a welcoming and inclusive Islam and bridge different cultures, and have been welcomed in his adopted country. He has gained recognition as an intellectual, and between 1998 and 2011 wrote regular columns for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant covering social, cultural, and political conditions in the Netherlands from a immigrant perspective. He is regarded as an example of successful integration and acculturation (Dynarowics: 2017), and has himself asserted that living in the Netherlands for a dozen years has enabled him to write with the mentality of a Dutchman. Seeing his own Iranian culture from a thousand kilometers away, he has said that he realizes there is a difference in perspective between the Netherlands and Iran, and that he is able to understand what Dutch people want to know about immigrant Muslim lives and experience. In addition to his literary writings, he has also undertaken a number of translations, including a translation of the Qur’an, which he says is consciously intended for a Dutch readership. 

Abdolah’s translation of the Qur’an was published in 2008, at a moment when Dutch people had become suspicious of Muslim migrants and the teachings of Islam. The debate about European Islam had become heated, and anti-Islamic movements had emerged in the Netherlands, encouraged and inspired by statements made by politicians, as well as works of art, writings, and films such as Submission (2004) and Fitnah (2008). In 2007, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders even went so far as to propose banning the Qur’an on the basis that ‘it’s like the Nazi Book, Mein Kampf.’

With his background as a Muslim immigrant, Abdolah tried to provide another perspective on the contents of the Qur’an. He used a literary, narrative approach, as in his other published translations of Persian works. At the same time, Abdolah positions himself as an insider by referring to themes, symbols, and icons of culture that are familiar to his Dutch audience. He exploits these not only in the textual content but also in the layout, in which he deliberately includes imagery that draws on both Islamic and Dutch culture, such as pictures of tulips and olives on the cover, and windmills, cows, rain, and clogs at the end of each surah. Displaying his knowledge of Dutch political and cultural life and making frequent references to Dutch literature form a large part of Abdolah’s strategy for winning the sympathy of his readers and proving himself to be an insider and a respected participant in national debates about Islam and European culture. Through his works, he invites the reader to enter into an Islamic space, so as to better understand the Qur’an and Islamic culture.

The actual volume of the Arabic Qur’an that Abdolah used for his translation was a copy that belonged to his father, to which he had not paid much particular attention since his childhood. In addition to translating the text of the Qur’an, he felt the need to delve into the persona of the Prophet Muhammad, whom he considers the central figure of the Qur’an. He therefore split the book into a two-volume package which contained a narrativeandtranslation, addressing both the Messenger and the Message.

In the first volume, De Boodschaper (The Messenger), he uses the approach of fictional biography or biofiction. Although the stories and events he presents are based on historical facts, his account should be read as literature rather than biography. Abdolah begins the story by introducing ‘Zayd Ibn Mohammad’, Muhammad’s adopted son, and ends with Zayd as the Prophet’s chronicler, who collected all the fragments of the Qur’an after his death. Through Zayd, who begins to see the human side of the Prophet as he records his relationships with his son, his wives, and his followers, Abdolah emphasizes that people cannot understand the Qur’an if they do not understand Muhammad.

            In the second volume, The Koran: een vertaling (The Qur’an: A Translation), each surah is presented chronologically, so as to better follow the development of Muhammad’s prophetic persona and the unfolding of the Qur’an, on the basis that the compilers of the Qur’anic muṣḥaf mixed up the revelation in such a way that the historical order in which it was originally delivered disappeared. For Abdolah, this creates a kind of chaos, but a chaos that creates an atmosphere of the divine. Abdolah takes the position that the repetition that is such a feature of the Qur’an is the inevitable result of the fact that it was revealed as a ‘reminder’ to an Arab people that was illiterate at that time. He therefore removes many of the repetitions found in the Qur’an, on the basis that his translation is intended for a literate, modern reader. He begins each surah with a narration explaining the content of the verse, followed by the basmala, which he consistently translates as: 

In the naam van Allah

Hij is lief,

Hij geeft.

Hij vergeeft

Abdolah’s choice of the word ‘lief’, which means ‘sweet’ or ‘dear’ to translate the epithet al-raḥmān is unusual in Dutch Qur’an translations, and it seems likely that his choice here was influenced by Persian Sufi literature.

In another passage, he provides an introduction to Sūrat Maryam that may sound quite vulgar to Muslim readers but is legitimate in terms of a Dutch literary framework:

Maria stond naakt in de rivier. Opeens verscheen er een knappe man.

Maria schrok en rende naar de struiken om zich te verstoppen.

Wees niet bang, Maria, riep de man, ik ben de engel Ghabriel. Ik kom om je een kind te geven.

De engel wist Maria over te halen, verleidde haar achter de dadelbomen en maakte haar zwanger.

(Mary stood naked in the river. Suddenly, a handsome man appeared.

Mary was frightened and ran to the bushes to hide.

‘Don’t be afraid, Mary,’ cried the man, ‘I am the angel Gabriel. I’m coming to give you a child.’

The angel managed to persuade Mary, seduced her behind the date trees, and made her pregnant.)

In his translation of another verse in Sūrat Maryam, Q 19:7, Abdolah describes Jesus/ʿĪsā as the son of Zakariah, in a clear departure from all other translations I know of, and in contrast to the Arabic muṣḥaf where John/Yahyā is clearly identified as Zakariah’s son:

God zei, Jij Zakaria!

We kodingen jou een zoon, zijn naam is Isa.

En niemand heeft deze naam ooit gedragen.

(God said, You Zakaria!

We give you a son, his name is Isa.

And no one has ever borne this name)

Furthermore, he also adds an entirely ‘new’ surah at the end of his translation, Surah 115, which he entitles ‘de Boodschapper’(The Messenger), and which contains the story of the Prophet’s death with his head on ʿĀʾīsha’s lap. He comments on this in his introduction to his translation in 2008, saying:

‘To immortalize my prose, I have added a Surah 115. I would like to immediately admit that my work is in the line of the ancient literature tradition. Great Persian masters such as Hafez, Saadi, Khayam and Rumi, each propagated the Koran in their own unique way. Finally, the Koran has been the source of inspiration for the great Eastern poets, writers, and architects (‘architecten’) for the past fourteen hundred years. It is the root of all Arabic and Oriental literature. The Dutch translation of the Koran can in turn contribute to Dutch literature. Until now, Dutch writers, poets and artists have looked for inspiration in the Bible, but now they can turn to the Koran. It is an old and mysterious place for them.’

Abdolah admits to being indebted to the Dutch Qur’an translations by Leemhuis, Kramers and Jansen, and Hazrat Mirza Bashir-Ud Din Mahmoud Ahmad, as well as to Persian Qur’an translations, and to the centuries-long Arabo-Islamic tradition of exegetical (particularly al-Ṭabarī’s tafsīr) and Qur’an-inspired literature. For words he did not understand, he took guidance from his uncle Aga Djan, who still lived in Iran. He wanted his work to be read by as many people as possible, and to make his translation a source of inspiration for Dutch writers. For him, the Qur’an is a beautiful, old, poetic book about the past and religion. In his opinion, the mistake some people make is to interpret the Qur’an incorrectly, especially those who use it to justify violence. In line with his personal views, Kader Abdolah’s translation of the Qur’an presents a moderate and humanist approach to Islam. Abdolah positions himself as an intellectual who assumes the role of ‘interpreter’ rather than ‘legislator’ in his translation. He admits that it was a challenge to translate the scripture into a new form and he also confesses that he made mistakes when transferring it into a different language, for a different time and a different culture, but his adaptation has been described by at least one critic as successfully capturing the essence of the original work while making it accessible to a wider audience (Prandoni: 2021). His rhetoric is marked by a deeply personal tone that conveys sincerity and refrains from claims to knowledge of universal truths. It is evident that Abdolah’s aim is to influence Dutch readers who are unfamiliar with Islam and the Qur’an, seeking to alter their perceptions of immigrants and their predominantly Islamic culture, as well as to introduce them to Islam, although Muslim readers may consider his translation strange, and even controversial. In his introduction, he has penned a telling dedication: ‘Een vertaling, een adaptation; this work is the work of Mohammad ibn Abdolah and Kader Abdolah. May Mohammad ibn Abdolah like this translation.’

Yulia Riswan

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