Qur’an translation of the week #38: The Translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s “The Holy Qur’an” from English into Russian

While it might seem that translating the Qur’an from one European language into another is an archaic process that has been widely replaced today by the work of Arabic-speaking specialists who engage with the original Arabic, occasionally translating the translation can still be an end in itself. This is precisely the case with the Russian translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s English Qur’an translation (1934), which was first published in 2007 and then republished as a new edition in 2015 by Medina Publishing House. This Russian version valued and prioritized conveying the humanistic and spiritual outlook that was a distinguishing feature of Yusuf Ali’s work, to the extent that the extensive commentary that infused Yusuf Ali’s translation was described in its preface as “tafsīr” and was presented as constituting in its own right “without exaggeration, a classic work”. At the time it was published, the Russian readership already had access to various direct translations from the Arabic and also to some translations of shorter tafasīr, such as al-Saʿdi and the Al-Muntakhab. However, the specific ideological vision of the official and state-related religious organizations, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Nizhny Novgorod (DUMNN), and later on the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation (DUMRF), was that it was imperative to popularize a translation that was already an established representation of broadminded, moderate, and tolerant readings of Muslim scripture.

Their translation project involved a large number of people and apparently took almost ten years. Various different translators were involved in the publication of the two editions, but it is particularly important to emphasize the role played by the promoters and visionaries behind the project, who gave it impetus and carried it through the years. These official figures, Tatar by origin, were associated with the above-mentioned religious organizations and included the chairman of DUMNN, Umar Idrisov (d. 2020); a current rector of Moscow Islamic University associated with DUMRF, Damir Khayretdinov (b. 1972); and especially the present-day deputy mufti of DUMRF, Damir Mukhetdinov (b. 1977). In explaining the importance of this translation in the preface to the 2007 edition, Mukhetdinov emphasized its particular timeliness in the Russian context. Viewing Russian statehood as a transformative and developing process, Mukhetdinov argued that “It is possible that some Islamic ideas, the most important for our society, can be claimed and formulated now as a strategic guidance for the future of the Russian state. Among such ideas are the health of the nation, and the ‘health’ of the financial and economic, ecological, spiritual and moral climate in the country. These provisions are contained in the first, and main, source of Islamic law and doctrine – the Holy Qur’an. The Russian translation of the Qur’an can and should play a huge role in stabilizing interethnic, interfaith, interpersonal and inter-civilizational relationships in society”. The 2015 edition contains similar wording; however, the role of the state is downplayed and Mukhetdinov’s comments are not directed towards the Russian context specifically, but to all of humanity more generally. Approaching Qur’an translation from this perspective demonstrates a very distinctive perception of the role that Islamic texts may be drawn on to perform in terms of informing the mores and ideals of modern societies. The specific selection of Yusuf Ali’s reading of the Qur’anic text to fulfill this role shows how differently transnational discourses may be adopted, reinterpreted and used.

The English translation authored by Yusuf Ali (d. 1953) is well known in the Anglophone world. The Indian-born translator was a loyal civil servant of the British Empire and a representative of the Shia-Ismaili sub-sect of the Dawoodi Bohra. In addition to his native languages, Yusuf Ali was well versed in both English and Arabic, and received an exceptional education at the University of Bombay, and later St John’s College, Cambridge. These educational settings provided Yusuf Ali with a solid understanding of the European liberal arts tradition and a mastery of English which was such that the style and language of his translation was often compared to the that of the King James Bible. While he did not have a particular theological training, Yusuf Ali nevertheless knew the whole Qur’an by heart and was deeply connected to its spiritual call. Neither the oft-mentioned fact that he downplayed the socio-political aspects of the Qur’anic message in his translation, nor his Dawoodi Bohra background seem to have adversely affected the reception of his translation: it has undeniably become a much-admired achievement that is still widely used by a variety of English-speaking Muslims across various denominations. This is particularly interesting given that Yusuf Ali did not prioritize the Muslim exegetical tradition in the commentaries to his translation that he included in his footnotes, but instead often referred to the Bible and Torah. This is a strategy that can be seen as facilitating interfaith dialogue within the paratextual supplement of the translation, and apparently it is this approach, together with the reputation of his rendition as being an “anti-radical” translation, that played a key role in the publisher’s decision to make this translation available for the Russian audience.

Yusuf Ali was exemplified by the representatives of DUMRF and DUMNN as a “true alim of Islam”, as opposed to the two other types of speakers for Muslim scripture who played a public role in the Russian cultural context at the time of the publication of his translation in Russia. They juxtaposed the “enlightened Yusuf Ali and his tafsir” with the self-proclaimed “teachers” who preached distorted and dangerous interpretations, or “scholars” who fell just short of being able to speak to the purported high intellectual level of the Russian readership. However, while Yusuf Ali was represented in this way, both Russian editions of his work actually relied on the King Fahd Saudi version of his translation. In the King Fahd edition, the original text of the “true alim of Islam” has been edited and trimmed so as to erase various theological issues from the text and make it less controversial from a Salafi perspective. It is also important to note that despite the substantial investments involved in this project in terms of time, finance, and promotion, the translation’s published circulation was not large and there was no accessible online version that could be popularized through apps or websites. Thus, it would be fair to say that this Russian Qur’an translation has not received wide acceptance and readership among Muslims in Russia and the larger post-Soviet Russian speaking world.

Given the perceptions of Yusuf Ali’s translation as a successful ‘Western’ example of humanistic, non-political translation which prioritizes spiritual and inner aspects, it is, perhaps, possible to understand this limited project as an attempt to frame Islam within the narrow borders of the multicultural Russian nation-state where the important target addressee is the state authority itself. The project can best be understood through what Michael Kemper called “Islamic Russian Political Technology” (RPT), which is described in terms of various attempts to “present Islam not as a threat to the state but as a recourse” (2019). Among the key characteristics of RPT is an aspiration to increase and regulate the negotiation of Muslim affairs with the government structures, to harmonize Islam with the varying Russian identities within the state, and to strategically mediate the relationship of Russian networks with both the Muslim world and the West. These aspirations have often resulted, on the one hand, in a turning away from Muslim traditional authorities and, on the other, in finding new, seemingly suitable, ‘scientific/humanistic/rational/spiritual’ interpretations that would seem to be appropriate for a particular moment. The import of Yusuf Ali’s translation into Russian as representing the enlightening image of the Qur’an in a multicultural context is a remarkable example of an ambitious venture in this regard.

Elvira Kulieva

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