Qur’an translation of the week #36: The impact of standardization: Max Henning’s 1901 Qur’an translation and its editors

One of the most widely-sold Qur’an translations on the German market is “Der Koran” by Max Henning (1861–1927), an autodidactic Orientalist. First published in 1901 by Reclam in Leipzig, it was one of the few available German Qur’an translations at the time, and was generally considered to be the most reliable one, an assessment that was probably cemented by the reputation of its publisher. It targeted lay readers and “beginner students”, that is, German-speaking non-Muslims.

Henning’s translation was retranslated into some Eastern European languages and republished in revised German versions that all claim to represent his original work. This is a common occurrence, especially with translations whose copyright has expired or whose authors have chosen not to enforce it. However, despite claims of fidelity to the original text, there are often significant differences between the original and the republished editions that reflect their various editors’ agendas. Moreover, when editors revise older translations, they are sometimes dissatisfied with choices that do not conform to contemporary standard editions of the Arabic Qur’an, and they might decide to rectify these choices accordingly. It is this latter aspect that this week’s post will focus on.

In 1960, the Stuttgart branch of the Reclam publishing house (which had suffered the same fate as Germany and been divided into an Eastern and a Western branch) printed Henning’s work in a new edition, that replaced gothic type with roman type, prepared by the famous Orientalist Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), who had also written a new introduction. Reclam’s GDR branch in Leipzig also published a new edition in 1968, revised and annotated by Kurt Rudolph who had likewise written a new introduction, together with Ernst Werner. Rudolph also made some revisions and modernized the text slightly. Both Schimmel and Rudolph changed the system of verse numbering employed by Henning. This was because between the first publication of Henning’s work and her edition, a massive and unprecedented process of standardization of the qur’anic text, including the numbering of verses, had occurred.

Historically, Qur’an manuscripts could follow any of the canonical systems, or a combination of them, or they could use an idiosyncratic system or none at all. This only changed in the twentieth century, when Qur’an printing became widespread, resulting in the dominance of a single standard system. This new standard system did not develop out of theological or philological considerations but simply reflected the fact that several influential printed editions followed the Kufan system. Many Muslims today take the Kufan system for granted and are not even aware that there is more than one “correct” system of numbering verses. This is apparent, for example, in the many attempts to prove the Qur’an’s miraculous nature through demonstrating mathematical relations between verse numbers, word counts and letter counts. These attempts would fall apart as soon as the Kufan system was replaced with the Medinan or Basran one.

Since the process of establishing the Kufan system as the norm only started with the 1924 Cairo edition of the Qur’an, Henning could not have been expected to privilege it over other systems. Moreover, he largely relied on the Qur’an edition by the German Orientalist Gustav Leberecht Fluegel (1802–1870) that used an eclectic and partly idiosyncratic system of numbering verses which was based on an earlier Qur’an edition by Abraham Hinckelmann and did not conform to any of the Muslim canonical systems. On a few occasions, as in Q 101 (Sūrat al-Qāriʿa), Henning made his own idiosyncratic choices that deviated from Fluegel but did not conform to any canonical system either. The use of the Fluegel edition was common for the Orientalist audience that Henning had envisaged but by 1960 it was falling out of use even in German Orientalist scholarship, and was more and more often replaced with printed editions from the Middle East. Schimmel and Rudolph obviously wanted their editions of Henning’s translation to correlate with these and decided to include both systems; more recent editions of Rudolph’s version eliminated Fluegel’s system entirely.

A more recent edition of Henning’s translation is that overseen by Murad Wilfried Hofmann (1931–2020), a high-profile German convert to Islam who produced his version at the request of a Turkish daʿwaoriented publisher, Çağrı Yayınları. Çağrı Yayınları chose Henning’s translation as the basis of this edition because the copyright had expired, but Hofmann saw a need for extensive revisions. The first edition was published in Istanbul in 1998 and proved rather successful; there were numerous reprints in both Turkey and Germany.

Hofmann’s envisaged target readership clearly differed from that of Henning and Schimmel in that it included Muslims. The Çağrı Yayınları edition was bilingual and included the Arabic Qur’an – in the modern standard version, not Fluegel’s. Hofmann assumed Muslim readers would be confused by contradictions between Henning’s Qur’an translation and the standard Qur’an edition they were familiar with, and which was printed right beside the German translation. Besides, some Muslims took offence with the Orientalist dismissal of the canonical systems of verse counting that they encountered in Fluegel’s Qur’an edition and Henning’s original translation. Hofmann therefore explicitly states in his introduction that he endeavored to replaced Fluegel’s system of verse counting “with the one that is common in the Muslim world” – just like Annemarie Schimmel, whose edition he does not mention.

There is another area of difference between Fluegel’s edition and the contemporary standard text of the Qur’an that Hofmann, unlike Schimmel and Rudolph, also subjects to revisions but, interestingly, does not mention in his foreword: the choice of readings (qirāʾāt).

Much as with the systematization of verse counting, the transmission process of the Qur’an resulted in a number of differences related to spelling, vowelization and word forms that Muslim scholarship, at some point, systematized, narrowing down the nearly infinite number of possibilities to a limited number of “canonical” readings. Many of these differences have no impact on meaning, or their impact is small enough that a translator can avoid taking a stance; however, in other cases, the choice of reading directly and inevitably affects the translation. For example, in Q 57:16, either the truth “has come down” (nazala) or someone – God – has “sent it down” (nazzala); the overall message might not be affected by this difference but the exact meaning, and thus the translation, are still not the same.

Today, nearly everywhere in the Muslim world, with the exception of North-West and West Africa, one particular reading, that of Ḥafṣ ʿan ˙Āṣim, has become the standard. Again, this has happened not because of a theological or linguistic consensus but because of the dominance of certain printed editions, and many Muslims today are not even aware of the existence of readings other than Ḥafṣ. However, neither Fluegel nor Henning consistently follow Ḥafṣ’s reading. Arne Ambros has found 69 differences between Ḥafṣ’s reading and Fluegel’s edition. In some of those cases, Fluegel’s edition is not based on any of the canonical readings, while in other cases he deliberately adopts canonical readings other than Ḥafṣ.

Judging from the cases in which the different readings have an inevitable impact on translation, it is clear that Henning followed Fluegel’s edition. However, just as he took liberties with Fluegel’s system of verse counting, he also took liberties with Fluegel’s reading. When translating Q 1:4, he chose a translation that differed from both Fluegel’s and Ḥafṣ’s readings but that is attested in a number of canonical reading traditions, rendering this verse as “the king on Judgment Day” (maliki yawm al-Dīn) rather than “the owner/lord of Judgment Day” (māliki yawm al-dīn).

While Schimmel and Rudolph chose to stick with Henning’s translations even when they were clearly not based on the reading of Ḥafṣ, Hofmann did not, at least in those cases where he recognized the divergence. Thus, in Q 1:4, he turned Henning’s “König am Tag des Gerichts” (“the king on Judgment Day”) into “Herrscher am Tage des Gerichts” (“Lord/Ruler on Judgment Day”). In Q 43:24, Henning followed Fluegel in beginning the verse with the injunction “qul”(“say!”), which he translated as “Sprich!”, while Hofmann followed Ḥafṣ’s “qāla”(“he said”) and translated it as “(Der Warner) sagte”, meaning “(the exhorter) said”. In one case (Q 8:59), Hofmann recognized Henning’s divergence from Ḥafṣ’s reading and curiously resolved the problem by adopting the rendition given in Muhammad Asad’s “Message of the Qur’an” which followed neither Ḥafṣ nor any other canonical reading. In a few instances, Hofmann has left Henning’s translation of Fluegel’s reading unchanged (e.g., Q 6:63, Q 57:16), maybe because he did not recognize the divergence from Ḥafṣ or considered it unimportant.

The standardization of the printed Qur’an has resulted in an unprecedented loss of ambiguity and plurality that has had a tremendous impact on the field of Qur’an translation. Divergences from the Ḥafṣ-Kufan standard still exist in a few regions that have their own living traditions of Qur’an printing independent of the Egyptian-Saudi standard. We also see them in a few specific milieus, such as the Ahmadiyya movements that have their own canonical traditions going back to the era before standardization, and the Murabitun World Movement that defines itself by adherence to a Maghrebi Maliki tradition where the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ is followed. We will certainly come back to this topic in future installments!

Meanwhile, next week’s post will follow up on the fate of Henning’s translation and discuss the interpretive choices of the different editions, as a case study of the role of editors in shaping Qur’an translations.

Johanna Pink

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