Qur’an translation of the week #37: The editors and their voices: Max Henning’s “Der Koran” and its revised editions

The three revised editions of Max Henning’s German Qur’an translation (“Der Koran”, Reclam: Leipzig, 1901) introduced last week illustrate the role of editors in shaping existing translations. The extent of interference with the text may range from the modernization of spelling to a complete rewriting, and even in the latter case, the result may still be published under the original translator’s name. Moreover, the history of Henning’s three editions also throws a spotlight on recent German history and the influence of cultural background on translations.

After World War II and the division of Germany, Henning’s publisher, Reclam, was split up into a West-German and an East-German branch. Both continued to offer inexpensive literary classics for a non-expert readership, and they considered Henning’s Qur’an translation suitable for that target group.

The West-German branch, based in Stuttgart, published a new edition of Henning’s Qur’an translation, supervised by Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), in 1960. Schimmel adapted the spelling to the contemporary German standard, which was important because Reclam’s Stuttgart branch marketed its books to school teachers and students. She also added the Kufan system of verse numbering, as discussed last week. Other than that, she left Henning’s text alone. No attempt was made to remove errors and anachronisms such as the translation of the Arabic al-nisāʾ (“women”) as “Weiber”, which was an outdated and pejorative term even in Henning’s time. Henning may have derived this rendition from Luther’s biblical translation, or he may have thought that it adequately reflects the Qur’an’s attitude towards women.

While not interfering with the text of Henning’s translation, Schimmel included a short concordance as well as a bibliography, and she edited and expanded his notes. For example, in her note on Q 2:30 (“when your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a successor on earth’”), she mentions Muhammad Iqbal, who derived his concept of human dignity from the qur’anic story of creation. Regarding the qur’anic account of the first human couple’s expulsion from Paradise (Q 2:38), she points to the fact that Islam does not adhere to the concept of hereditary sin. Her notes are relatively sparse but, unlike Henning’s, they are designed to let the Qur’an appear in a positive light.

The same is true for her introduction, which replaces Henning’s original. Henning had characterized Muhammad as the author of the Qur’an and as a man who set out as a religious reformer but ended up as a devious politician. At the end of his introduction, he negatively contrasted Muḥammad with Christ, arguing that Muḥammad fought his enemies rather than enduring their attacks, and turned his own political needs into would-be revelations. In contrast, Schimmel’s introduction discusses the role of the Qur’an in Muslim religious practice, piety and aesthetics at length, and it is empathic and respectful of Muslim attitudes towards early Islamic history, although that positive outlook is somewhat at odds with some of Henning’s translation choices in the actual text.

The East German branch of Reclam, based in Leipzig, pursued a different strategy with regard to Henning’s Qur’an translation. Kurt Rudolph (1929–2020), a historian of religion, oversaw a revised edition of the text, first published in 1968, in which he made some of the same choices as Schimmel but also carefully edited and modernized the text wherever necessary while largely staying true to Henning’s original wording. For starters, he replaced Henning’s “Weiber” with “Frauen”, the neutral German word for women. He also corrected the most obvious misunderstandings and anachronisms and adapted the translation to the state of the art. For example, he replaced Henning’s translations of the qur’anic Ṣābiʾūn as “Sabaeans” with “Sabians”.

Like Schimmel, he included an updated bibliography and a concordance. He also significantly expanded Henning’s notes with many useful explanations and cross-references. His notes are far more extensive than Schimmel’s and focus more on the understanding of the text, in contrast to Schimmel’s emphasis on Muslim piety and modernist interpretations. The edition also contains a new introduction, co-written by Kurt Rudolph and Ernst Werner, which, interestingly, and quite in contrast to Henning and Schimmel, applauds the specifically political nature of Muḥammad’s mission, taking a stance much in line with the official ideology of the GDR. Accordingly, both introduction and back cover state that, “The life and work of Muḥammad thus carry, for contemporary Muslims in the different parts of Earth, not only a religious, but also an eminently political significance, given that he is considered the ideal of a conscious, active and responsible statesman who paved the way towards racial equality and social justice. For Arab nationalism, he was a pioneer of Arab unity.” For the most part, however, the introduction is concerned with early Islamic history, the qur’anic sciences and the reception of the Qur’an in Europe, including the achievements of contemporary West German and European Orientalists such as Rudi Paret. Despite giving credit to Paret and others for having produced up-to-date academic Qur’an translations, Rudolph justifies his edition of Henning’s translation by stating that it continues to meet the needs of lay readers – and, again in line with state ideology, by emphasizing the political role of Islam in the context of decolonization and anti-imperialism, which makes it necessary for Europeans to become familiar with its ideas.

After German reunification in 1990, the publisher Reclam, too, experienced a reunification of sorts, mostly at the expense of the Eastern branch and also at the expense of Rudolph’s edition. Up to the current day, Reclam continues to publish Schimmel’s edition with Henning’s unchanged wording, including the outdated “Weiber”, and this reflects a fairly typical outcome of the way in which the East-West relationship was negotiated in reunified Germany. Rudolph’s edition is out of print but a bastardized version is currently available, sold by a low-profile publisher as Max Henning’s original work, without the notes and introduction and without mention of Rudolph’s name.

Between 1960 and the 1990s, Germany changed in many ways, one of which was demographic. Western Germany saw significant immigration from southern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey, resulting in a growing Muslim population, the majority of whom were of Turkish origin. A Turkish, da’wa-oriented publisher, Çağrı Yayınları, recognized these Muslims as a potential target group for a bilingual Qur’an edition, in contrast to the monolingual German editions printed by Reclam and other mainstream publishers. Çağrı Yayınları chose Henning’s translation because its copyright had expired, and their editor, Şaban Kurt, commissioned a high-profile German convert to Islam, Murad Wilfried Hofmann (1931–2020), with revising it. In her review of Hofmann’s edition, the German Muslim Fatima Grimm approved of the choice of Henning’s translation because, she writes, unlike other non-Muslim translators, he used the name “Allah”, rather than “God”, and he managed to capture some of the beauty of the Qur’an. Hofmann’s edition of Henning’s translation is probably the only Qur’an translation on the German market that managed to straddle the divide between the Muslim and non-Muslim publishing sectors, at least partly because it has been reprinted repeatedly in monolingual German editions by a Munich-based general-interest publisher to appeal to a general, non-Muslim readership.

Hofmann, a former high-ranking German diplomat, added a new introduction, notes and an index, much like Schimmel and Rudolph, but, in contrast to their concordances, his index transcends qur’anic terminology to include terms like “atom”, “embryo” and “homosexuality”. His introduction repeatedly emphasizes the infallibility of the Qur’an and the superiority of its message to the ideals of Western culture, which Hofmann describes as materialistic and hedonistic. Islam, to him, is the only alternative to Western culture and this is why it is the fastest-growing religion in the world, which makes it a “matter of survival” to learn about it.

Hofmann was not happy with Henning’s translation and therefore undertook extensive revisions. He modernized spelling and style, including the previously-mentioned “Weiber”, and capitalized pronouns that refer to God. It was important to him to remove all traces of archaic, biblically-influenced style from Henning’s translations, especially regarding word order, and to de-Christianize the language, for example by replacing terms such as “covenant” or “Holy Spirit” with terms that do not have Christian connotations. He largely follows Henning’s decision to stay close to the Arabic syntax but does not agree with Henning’s preference to render a given Arabic word consistently by the same German word. For example, Hofmann prefers to translate the word āya alternatively as “verse”, “sign”, “message’, or “proof”, depending on context. He also criticizes Henning’s anachronistic way of dealing with terms such as “islām”, which Henning rendered as “Islam” and Hofmann translates as “submission to God” (“Hingabe an Gott”), at least for the Meccan period.

Hofmann’s focus, both in the translation and in the notes, is on deflecting and refuting anti-Muslim bias, and this aim is usually what induces him to make particularly far-reaching changes to Henning’s text. Take, for example, Q 4:34, one of the most contested verses today. Henning translates it roughly as “Men are superior to women because of what Allah has given some of them over the others, and because they spend of their money (for women). Righteous women are obedient and careful during (their husbands’) absence, just as Allah has cared for them. Those, however, whose recalcitrance you fear – admonish them, banish them to their bedchambers, and hit them. And if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; verily, Allah is high and great.” (“Die Männer sind den Weibern überlegen wegen dessen, was Allah den einen vor den andern gegeben hat, und weil sie von ihrem Geld (für die Weiber) auslegen. Die rechtschaffenen Frauen sind gehorsam und sorgsam in der Abwesenheit (ihrer Gatten), wie Allah für sie sorgte. Diejenigen aber, für deren Widerspenstigkeit ihr fürchtet – warnet sie, verbannet sie in die Schlafgemächer und schlagt sie. Und so sie euch gehorchen, so suchet keinen Weg wider sie; siehe, Allah ist hoch und groß.”) In his edition, Rudolph made two small changes to this translation: he rendered the Arabic “amwāl” as “property”, rather than “money”, and he replaced Henning’s “banish them to their bedchambers” with the more accurate translation “banish them from the bedchambers”, with a footnote explaining that this refers to a refusal of having sexual intercourse with them.

Unlike Rudolph, Hofmann did not just correct the translation of this verse, he completely rewrote it to say, “Men stand in for women, being responsible for them, given that Allah has endowed one of them with more assets than the other and because they spend of their property (for women). Righteous women are humbly devoted and careful in guarding their private sphere as Allah has commanded. Those, however, whose recalcitrance you fear, admonish them, avoid them in the bedchambers and hit them. And if they obey you, do not act further against them. Verily, Allah is exalted and great.” (“Die Männer stehen für die Frauen in Verantwortung ein, mit Rücksicht darauf, wie Allah den einen von ihnen mit mehr Vorzügen als den anderen ausgestattet hat, und weil sie von ihrem Vermögen (für die Frauen) ausgeben. Die rechtschaffenen Frauen sind demütig ergeben und sorgsam in der von Allah gebotenen Wahrung ihrer Intimsphäre. Diejenigen aber, deren Widerspenstigkeit ihr fürchtet – warnt sie, meidet sie in den Schlafgemächern und schlagt sie. Und wenn sie euch gehorchen, unternehmt nichts weiterh gegen sie; siehe, Allah ist erhaben und groß.”) Hofmann’s footnotes inform readers that the first part of the verse only refers to those men who are able to protect and financially support their wives and that it does not indicate male superiority in general. Regarding the option of hitting one’s wife, he explains that this should be a symbolic act only to be carried out in the interest of maintaining a strongly endangered marriage.

Hofmann’s extensive revisions fundamentally change the style of Henning’s translation, and they also consistently aim to defuse segments of the Qur’an that readers might consider problematic. Sometimes this is achieved by adding footnotes, as is the case with Q 9:5, the “sword verse”, where Hofmann informs his readers that the permission to kill idolaters is only applicable in the context of an ongoing war that is necessary for self defense. In other cases, Hofmann changes the actual wording of the translation. For example, Q 9:29 contains an injunction to fight some of the People of the Book, i.e., Jews and Christians, until they pay a tribute “ʿan yadin wa-hum ṣāghirūn”. This last phrase is somewhat cryptic and exegetes offer many explanations. The one chosen by Henning is this: “until they pay the tribute from their hand, i.e. without an intermediary, while being humiliated” (“bis sie den Tribut aus der Hand, d.h. ohne Vermittler, gedemütigt entrichten”). Hofmann amends this translation to read “until they pay the tax voluntarily in surrender” (“bis sie, sich unterwerfend, die Steuer freiwillig entrichten”), adding a footnote that emphasizes the fairness of the poll tax for non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state.

In some cases, Hofmann’s decisions are closer to the Arabic source text than Henning’s, for example when he renders the “azwāj” that believers will find waiting for them in Paradise as “partners”, rather than “wives” (Q 2:25), to make it clear that the rewards of Paradise are not a male prerogative. In other cases, it is obvious that he makes a choice from the available options that reads as the least offensive to a contemporary readership. In adopting this strategy he was heavily influenced by Muhammad Asad’s “The Message of the Qur’an”, as he has stated repeatedly.

As this case study shows, the history of a Qur’an translation is often interwoven with the history of the society it was produced in and published for. Editors have considerable agency in this process and may use that agency to push an agenda that is quite different from that of the translator. This is possible because translations are often not treated as original works worthy of protection but rather as a resource to be used, appropriated and shaped at will. Readers are often not even aware of the translator’s agency in presenting the source text to them; they are even less aware of the editor’s role. On the other hand, as the cases of Schimmel and Hofmann show, the editor’s reputation and prestige can also be used to sell a translation to an audience that might otherwise consider it outdated, less respectable, or not for them. For example, a Muslim editor, Hofmann, was needed to make Henning’s work appealing to Muslims – at the unseen cost of removing much of Henning’s original style and ideas.

Johanna Pink

Share this post