Qur’an translation of the week #195: The Thorny Path of a Russian Arabist: From Historian to Gulag Prisoner and Qur’an Translator

This week we are looking at the poetic Qur’an translation by Theodor Adamovich Shumovskii (1913–2012). Not only is this translation a very unusual piece of work, but the translator’s life is also worthy of a book in itself. Luckily, Shumovskii left behind not only remarkable academic scholarship, works on popular humanities, poetry, and his Qur’an translation, but also his fascinating memoirs, Svet Vostoka (2006) (Ex Oriente Lux: Light Comes from the East–Memoirs of a Russian Orientalist), which summarizes the main milestones of his outstanding life. For those familiar with Russian history, Shumovskii’s lifespan covered a fascinating period that encompassed various seismic changes to Russian statehood: the reign of Nicholas II, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of the USSR, perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, up to and including the current presidency of Vladimir Putin. He died at the age of one hundred, meaning that he lived through both world wars, as well as many other local and global events, such as 9/11, all of which left their imprint on his life and memoirs. Shumovskii’s life story is one of complex networks of geographies, struggles, trials, identities, and significant academic and literary achievements. Often driven by a quality of political and scholarly nonconformity, Shumovskii’s claims were frequently too bold for the academic arena, and even eccentric. However, it is fair to say that he was not motivated by the pursuit of social prestige or career plaudits, nor the pursuit of abstract ‘pure’ science, rather, he saw his work as a service to humanity. In this respect, most of his academic writings can be seen as attempts to find a way to overcome what he saw as artificial divisions, such as nationalism, that disconnect people from each other, through philological investigation.

ʿAṭā Allāh al-Ranī, an attribution that was most probably Shumovskii’s nom de plume and a way of navigating Soviet censorship, once wrote that ‘In my life, East and West, cold and flame, decay and fragrance, have come together’. This poetic line demonstrates Shumovskii’s complex persona, which was based in a variety of different geographic and cultural influences. He was born in 1913 in Zhitomir (central Ukraine) into a Polish family. Fleeing the turbulences of WWI, he and his family found refuge in the lands of Azerbaijan, first in Shusha and then in Shamakhi, which historically served as the capital of the Shirvanshah dynasty from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. He grew up in Soviet multicultural Azerbaijan, where various nationalities and ethnicities lived side by side, but more than anything else, he was captivated by the ‘oriental’ aspects of Shamakhi, and its camels, mosques, minarets, ruins, and spices imprinted him with a deep curiosity and lifelong attachment to its distinctive Islamic culture. He used to walk its Islamic cemeteries, attracted to the mysterious Arabic script and dreaming of reading it, and the intreaguing fragments of different cultures and religions that surrounded him influenced his decision to become an Arabist. This was not an easy desire to realize in Soviet culture, which was oriented towards practical labour. After several years of trying different things, Shumovskii finally embarked upon an academic career, studying at the Leningrad Institute of Linguistics and History. There, he was mentored by the legendary Ignatii Krachkovskii, among other important scholars of that period, an academic genealogy that led him to be called the ‘last Arabist of the classical school of Leningrad’. (This title, however, was not one he would actually personally embrace, as someone whose orientation was always towards the future, not the past.) Krachkovskii often appears in Shumovskii’s memoirs, as both his scholarly erudition and human personality shaped Shumovskii’s academic path. Krachkovskii’s mentorship also shaped Shumovskii in terms of his main academic specialization, primarily because it was at his suggestion that Shumovskii began to study Arab marine navigation through medieval manuscripts. One of Shumovskii’s best known works on this topic is Three Unknown Navigation Charts of Ahmad ibn Majid, the Arab Navigator of Vasco da Gama (Leningrad, 1957, also published in translation in Portugal, Egypt, and Brazil). His main argument was that while the Age of Discovery is usually associated with Europe, and praised as a European achievement, it was, in various ways, built on the knowledge of Arab navigators.

The degree of Shumovskii’s perseverance with his academic career is astonishing, as it was far from easy. It was interrupted and threatened more than once, as Shumovskii was a victim of the Great Purge of the Stalinist era, during which he was arrested twice, based on fabricated cases, and sent to the Gulag labour camps. In total, he endured fifteen years of entirely unjustified imprisonment and forced labour. However, he did not break, and in 1963 he was released and his public reputation was completely rehabilitated.

As mentioned above, Shumovskii often remembers his mentor Krachkovskii in his memoirs, not least because Krachkovskii supported him during his years of imprisonment through continued correspondence, and it is clear that Shumovskii respected him and held him in high esteem. However, he was more of an enfant terrible than an obedient mentee. His defiance of Krachkovskii’s recommendations was a recurring theme in his memoirs, and can also be seen in the introduction to his Qur’an translation, which he published in the last years of his life. Being critical of the literalism of classical textology that prevailed during his student years, he believed that a translation should only be called a translation when it corresponds emotionally to the source text. He asserted:

‘You have the right to call a translation only such a reproduction of the original [text] in another language that evokes the same emotions of the same intensity in the reader as the original. A very accurate, overly accurate, but lifeless copy, of course, cannot achieve this. Why? Because it uses only the words and grammatical rules of the language of the translation, i.e., its mechanical means, and does not take into account its colors, aroma, and its harmony, which are always unique.’

Moreover, Shumovskii recalled that while he worked on his translation, ‘…[he] had to note about one and a half thousand inaccuracies in [Krachkovskii’s Qur’an translation].’ As for many other contemporary translators working within the Russian sphere of influence, Krachkovskii became an important interlocutor for Shumovskii in his retranslation of the Qur’an into Russian. Shumovskii avoided the literality of Krachkovskii’s Qur’an translation, and translated the Qur’an in predominantly iambic meter, although there are occasional irregularities, allowing for a rhythmic and flowing quality. The consistent rhyme scheme and use of poetic meter contribute a lyrical quality to Shumovskii’s work, through which he tried to transmit the ‘spirit’ of the Qur’an.

Theologically speaking, for many Muslims, this claim would seem problematic due to the concept of Qur’anic iʿjāz (inimitability). Even the assertion that the Qur’an is written in the form of sajʿ (rhythmic prose) was traditionally avoided by leading theologians of the medieval period (often due to the historical connection of sajʿ to Arab soothsayers of the pre-Islamic era). For Shumovskii, who did not publicly proclaim to be a Muslim (although there are various sources that speculate on this possibility), iʿjāz was not a barrier that prevented him from attempting to write a poetical translation. However, while perhaps triggering Muslim sensitivities in terms of the form of his Qur’an translation, he did not disregard them when it came to meaning. While taking a historical-critical approach to the tafsīr tradition, he did not completely ignore it in his poetical renderings. He stated that his methodological approach was based on three modes of engagement with the scripture: ‘religious, literary, and academic’. Presumably, ‘religious’ in this context implies the usage of the traditional meanings related to the tradition of tafsīr. However, for Shumovskii, tafsīr is far from being taken as the definitive approach to understanding the Qur’an.

The way Shumovskii integrates his ideas of the interconnectedness of languages is particularly curious. In this post, we will provide a particular example of this, which Shumovskii himself felt was important to emphasize in the introduction to his Qur’an translation. A polyglot (there are accounts that he learned up to 22 languages while incarcerated in the labour camps), Shumovskii developed a certain area of philological inquiry, which he called Oroccology (from lat. ORiens+OCCidens), as an attempt to prove the connections between Oriental and Occidental languages. Although his approach was not embraced within the academic environment, it sometimes influenced the way he understood and translated the Qur’an. For example, while historically there were different ways to understand the word ‘Qur’an’, the dominant position was connected to the meaning ‘reading’, and related to the root structure of the Arabic verb qaraʾa. Shumovskii, however, inspired by his Oroccology approach, proposed reading the word Qurʾān as being related to qarya, the Arabic word for ‘village’, ‘settlement’. From this, Shumovskii extrapolates various linguistic connections from Hindi, Persian, and Turkish, relating to the meaning ‘to build’, such as kurmak (‘to build’ in Turkish). These philological speculations led him to claim that Qur’an needs to be understood as ‘wall’ or a ‘barrier’, which represents the decisive point between the time of pre-Islamic ignorance and the prophetic knowledge brought with the Qur’an that sets the new period of the time of al-yaqīn (certainty). Similarly, he connects this understanding of the Qur’an to the meaning of the word barzakh in Q 25:53, which refers to the barrier between the sweet and salty seas, metaphorically the sweetness of life in truth faith and the saltiness of jahiliyya, or ‘ignorance’ of it. The word sūra, which is generically understood to refer to a Qur’anic chapter, is, according to Shumovski’s reading, seen as the ‘row in a stone wall’, while the Qur’anic verses are, in turn, seen as the bricks. Thus, the Qur’an is a wall, divided into rows that consist of bricks, a reading that provides a metaphorical meaning for a religious scripture in the created world.

He builds on this line of thought, adding more and more interpretations derived through the philological connections he finds. While this approach is dubious and overly speculative in terms of its methodological value, it is certainly interesting. In some way, it can be said that the Qur’an itself became a barrier for Shumovskii, since it was his last, most significant and most widely known work, which he completed in his eighties after suffering severe physical injury. The trauma of this, he said, made him finally ready to embark on a translation of the Qur’an. The full poetic translation of all 114 chapters took him years, and indeed, for him, became the barrier between this life and the next. Once published, the translation received some praise and support from Islamic institutions in Russia, such as leaders of the state-related muftiates, as well as more general support from Azerbaijani and Tatar communities.

Elvira Kulieva

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