Qur’an translation of the week #190: De Koran: Uitleg voor Kinderen 3: One of The First ‘Qur’an for Kids’ in Dutch

‘The Qur’ân is untranslatable. It is. We can approach its meaning, but a literal translation never comes even close to the original experience of qirât al-Qur’ân. The transfer of the metaphorical is almost impossible. The recitation of the Qur’ân in the Mihrab by the Imam, or as pure recitation brings emotion into the souls of the listeners, who do not even speak or know Arabic. This can be overwhelming and hypnotizing’

van Bommel, April 2024

Abdul Wahid van Bommel has been a prominent Muslim figure in the Netherlands since the 1970s. He was born in Amsterdam in 1944 into a Christian family but, between the years of 1967 and 1971, his decision to embrace Islam led him to search for the meaning of Islam and study the Qur’an and Islamic theology, tafsīr, and hermeneutics in Istanbul, Turkey, where he also studied Arabic grammar (sarf and nahw), fiqh, ʿaqīda, kalām, and uṣūl al-dīn, so as to understand the traditional Qur’anic sciences. His spiritual journey is an unusual one; in one of his writings, he mentions that music was one of the things that led him to embrace Islam. His journey towards his personal understanding of Islam also paved the way for him to learn more about the Sufi teachings of such luminaries as Jalaluddin Rumi, and in 2013 he published a translation of Rumi’s Masnavi. After returning to the Netherlands, van Bommel married a woman of Moluccan Indonesian descent named Farida and became active in the Baiturrahman Ridderkerk Mosque, a community mosque influenced by the Qadiri tariqa under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmad Dede, van Bommel’s brother-in-law. Since 1992, van Bommel has also been an imam at the Beklaan Muslim Information Center in The Hague and Director of the Dutch Muslim Broadcasting Company. This second institution has become a treasure house of information about Islam and also a first point of call for anyone in the Netherlands who wishes to embrace Islam.

In addition to being an imam and preacher, van Bommel is also an extraordinary professor at the Islamic University of Rotterdam where he teaches courses on Islamic spiritual care. He is a lover of books, is widely read in various subject areas, and also enjoys visiting new places and meeting new people. These interests have enriched his thought and writings on such varied subjects as translation and Islam, humor and sexuality in Islam, the role of women, and Sufism. In 2017, he published De Koran: uitleg voor kinderen, the first ‘interpretation of the Qur’an for children’ in Dutch. Planned as the first of several volumes, with the second published in 2020 and the third in 2024, the project was conceptualised through a focus on the stories of the ulū’l-ʿazm, the five prophets who have especially strong hearts and patience – Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad – with one prophet featuring in each volume. In today’s thread, I focus on De Koran uitleg voor Kinderen 3, the third volume, centring Moses, which was published earlier in 2024.

During the launch of De Koran uitleg voor Kinderen 3 at Utrecht’s Ulu Cami Mosque at the end of March 2024, van Bommel said that it is most suitable for ten- to fourteen-year-olds. According to him, this is the best age for the development of critical thinking skills and learning basic knowledge that will stick in the long-term memory. Knowledge gained after this golden phase is usually nothing more than adding information. Thus, cementing and strengthening the religious basics in line with rational growth and development at this stage is very important.

The third volume of De Koran consists of several parts, extracted from two suras: Sūrat al-Kahf and Sūrat al-Zalzala. When it comes to Sūrat al-Kahf (‘The Sura of the Cave’), the book discusses the moral message that can be drawn from the Qur’anic story of the young men who fell asleep in the cave, in addition to the histories of the prophets Moses, Aaron, and Khidr, and the figure of Pharaoh. The values emphasised include such sentiments as ‘be patient and choose the right friend’, ‘Ask yourself what the values of this world are!’, and ‘Be humble, sincere, and honest’. In contrast, in the following section on Sūrat al-Zalzala, which he translates as ‘aardbeving’, or ‘earthquake’, the author discusses climate change, and ends with an invitation to respond to the challenges it presents.

All of the books published in this series so far consist of translations and explanations of the relevant Qur’anic verses accompanied by interesting illustrations by Senad Alic (b. 1960), a Muslim artist from Sarajevo. Concerns have been voiced that books in this series will be rejected by literalist Muslims because they include elements of human images, but the author insists on including these, believing illustrations to be a familiar medium that can be understood easily by children and adolescents. While the first two volumes were published by Parthenon, Almere, the third has been published by the Fahm Institute, which was established by several leading Muslim figures in the Netherlands, one of whom was Anne van Dirk, an Islamicist who has actively promoted the importance of Islamic family and environmental values based on Islamic teachings and the Qur’an. The book was also, it is interesting to note, partially funded by donations from Dutch Muslims.

Van Bommel believes that the traditional teaching methods through which children receive religious education in Muslim families do not always meet their needs. In his opinion, ‘Children are young philosophers. They ask questions and still play with words, and their understanding of words constantly changes. In order to establish a relationship with them, the regimen of fear should not be thought appropriate for children; hell and anathema are not intended for children. That is why these issues are not covered in this book.’ Rather than as a law book, and an indicator of what is ḥalāl and ḥarām, or ‘good’ and ‘bad’, van Bommel wants to explain the Qur’an as a source of inspiration that provides guidance on how Muslims should behave according to Islamic ideas. Muslim children in the West in general, he says, have to deal with contradictions: the things they experience at school or what they see in the streets sometimes contradict what they hear from their parents or ustādhs in the mosque. This book provides them with the tools to discuss these contradictions and issues.

The language of De Koran adopts a ‘philosophizing with children’ style. Parents often expect the Qur’an to present a certain belief system to their children, complete with a full set of clear rules and ready-made answers. However, it turns out that it is more valuable for a child to discover for himself or herself what he or she is looking for. Self-found answers have a much deeper impact than ideas imposed from the outside. In the Dutch education system, teachers see free conversation with the child as providing the best preparation for society. The child can ask questions and will also receive questions in return. Accordingly, De Koran uitleg voor kinderen is also meant as a guide by means of which children are invited to ask about their faith and how they can deal with it in a Western country like the Netherlands. From that point of view, van Bommel wants to educate children to be democratic citizens who value others as much as they value themselves, based on the ethical thinking advocated by the Qur’an.

In addition to providing a complete explanation of the story of Moses, including the Exodus, this volume of De Koran includes the story of Nathan the Wise (de Wijze), the main figure of a famous play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Nathan was a fictional Jew living in the time of the crusades. The central theme of the Nathan story is the need to live together in peace with people who believe and think differently. Through this story, van Bommel discusses critical questions, such as whether the Qur’an is anti-Semitic and how the Qur’an teaches tolerance to people of different faiths.

The Qur’anic verses cited in De Koran were translated by van Bommel himself, after comparing his own versions with various other Qur’an translations by Muslim converts such as T.B. Irving and Muhammad Asad or translations of certain Qur’anic verses by amina wadud. He has expressed the opinion that when translating or interpreting, the translator or interpreter should choose the closest and most natural equivalent phrasing in the recipient’s language, not only in content but also in terms of form: ‘we have to look at the source, the statement itself, the receiver, the recipient’s reaction to the information conveyed, and the social context’. The Netherlands has its own special socio-cultural history of religion and secularisation, but van Bommel finds English translations to be a useful source to control details or find a more understandable approach for his own rendition of the Qur’anic verses:

‘When you travel to a foreign country, you see special details that are more meaningful to the natives. So that was my approach. Although I have read many translations of the Quran in Dutch, I get a deeper feeling from the (Arabic) Quran, and the explanation of the Quran in English [translations], [and the] works of [the] converts I mentioned above enriched De Koran uitleg voor Kinderen.

van Bommel, interview April 2024

Van Bommel believes that any translation of the revealed text from Arabic into Dutch must be explanatory and clarifying. The text must be understood in the particular context of the contemporary time and space, having passed through centuries of history and long distances across the world. Not only the words of the Qur’anic suras should be meaningful to children in the twenty-first century in the Netherlands, but also the history of the Prophet’s life (the sīra nabawiyya) and the lives of the prophets that preceded him (the qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ). This approach is similar to that taken by Kader Abdullah in his literary translation of the Qur’an into Dutch. When taking this approach, a nuanced understanding of the psychology and background of the reader is very important for any translator of the Qur’an.

Yulia Riswan

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