Qur’an translation of the week #43: A French Salafi Qur’an translation based on Ibn Kathīr’s tafsīr

This week, we discuss a recent, all-out Salafi rendition of the Qur’an into French that claims to follow the only valid methodology for translating the Qur’an: condensing Ibn Kathir’s (d. 1373 CE) Qur’an commentary into one volume.

Nabil Aliouane’s “Le Coran et la traduction du sens de ses versets” (Marrakesh: Éditions Tawbah, 2020) or “The Qur’an and the translation of the meaning of its verses” advertises itself by attacking all existing French translations on a radical pretext: they are, quite simply, accused of being, or trying to be, translations. Aliouane does not consider any attempt to translate the Qur’an legitimate, or even possible, due to the inimitable style of the source text and the exalted status of its language, Arabic. He therefore pursues an alternative strategy, one that he considers to be the only valid methodology through which to approach the sacred text. His work is, according to him, an interpretive explanation of the Qur’an. This also explains the cumbersome and dogmatic title. Despite the translator’s Salafi agenda, the presentation of the book has a curiously Christian flavor. With its black, flexible, synthetic binding and the thin, yellowish paper, it closely resembles a hymnal. That said, the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is juxtaposed with the French rendition has been typeset beautifully and with care.

Citing as his model the English Qur’an translation by Taqi al-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan published by the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, entitled “Interpretation of the Meanings of The Noble Quran in the English Language“, Aliouane states that rather than being a translation per se his work is an explanation of the meaning of the verses of the Qur’an based on the Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) by Ibn Kathir, with occasional additions from other reliable Qur’an commentaries and ḥadīth collections. Aliouane is intimately familiar with Ibn Kathir’s tafsīr, having recently translated it into French. (He says in the foreword to that translation that he had originally planned to translate the tafsīr by the twentieth-century Saudi exegete Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di, which he considers the most easily comprehensible Salafi tafsir, but when he learned that a French translation of that work was already underway, he chose to translate Ibn Kathir’s commentary instead.) Ibn Kathir is definitely the most popular exegete among Salafis, first, because he was a disciple of the famous Damascene scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) and, second, because his Qur’an commentary focuses on ḥadīths and traditions about the first generations of Islam, which are the sources favored by Salafis.

What does it mean to say that a Qur’an translation is based on one particular Qur’an commentary, though? This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Of course, most Qur’an translators rely on the exegetical tradition in some way, often implicitly and sometimes explicitly. However, that tradition is multivocal: not only are there differences of opinion between different exegetes that are reflected in their individual works, but those differences of opinion also exist within every single premodern tafsīr. Ibn Kathir’s Qur’an commentary is no exception. He routinely cites a range of, often conflicting, interpretations of a given expression, and while he frequently expresses a preference, this is not always the case and also does not usually imply a claim that he knows the one true interpretation.

Another potential problem with Aliouane’s approach is that many problems that are discussed in Ibn Kathir’s tafsīr (and other commentaries) are not visible in the translation.

For example, with regard to the expression in Q 50:16, “We are closer to him [man] than his jugular vein”, Ibn Kathir follows a minority opinion in stating that the pronoun “We” here refers not to God in the pluralis maiestatis, as most scholars assume, but to His angels. This is an exegetical problem that would only have to be reflected in the translation of the verse if the target language knows no pluralis maiestatis, in which case the translator would have to choose between “I (God)” and “We (the angels)”. This, however, is not the case with French. Accordingly, Aliouane translates the expression literally as “Nous sommes plus proche de lui …”, but he does not qualify who is speaking in the text. He does provide Ibn Kathir’s interpretation in a footnote but it is not apparent from the translation itself. The same is true in many other cases where Ibn Kathir discusses exegetical problems that have no bearing on the translation of the verse in question. For this reason, Aliouane’s translation is replete with footnotes. However, despite saying in the Introduction that his translation will rely on Ibn Kathir, a large proportion of Aliouane’s notes actually refer to the opinions of other exegetes and scholars. In addition to a number of premodern scholars, such as Qurtubi, Tabari, Baghawi, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Shawkani, whom he considers acceptable according to Salafi standards, Aliouane often cites the above-mentioned Sa‘di as well as the famous Saudi Wahhabi scholar Ibn ‘Uthaymin.

While many of the problems discussed in tafsīr are thus not visible in Qur’an translations, the reverse is also true: many of the problems that arise when translating the Qur’an are not discussed in Arabic-language tafsīr because there is simply no need. For example, in his Introduction Aliouane discusses the question of whether to translate the Arabic name Allāh as “Allah” or “Dieu” (“God”) into French – a question that Ibn Kathīr never addressed because he wrote his tafsīr in Arabic. Like many Muslim translators, especially in more recent decades, Aliouane opts for “Allah” for a number of reasons. Some of those are unsurprising, such as the fact that “Allah” is commonplace and frequently used in French today, which also means that the word will not appear strange or problematic to non-Muslims interested in Islam. A further, more dogmatic argument is related to the fact that “Dieu” can be used to denote other entities or concepts while “Allah” is reserved for the one true God.

However, Aliouane’s core argument for his choice of “Allah” is particularly interesting because it is highly polemical:

“The use of the name Allah likewise indicates a clear difference between different concepts that different communities have of God: While for some ‘God’ can be three, Allah is only One; and while for others ‘God’ is everywhere, Allah is established above His Throne, as it behooves His majesty. The name Allah therefore functions as one of the principal markers of Muslim belief.”

This argument not only implies criticism of the Christian belief in the Trinity, but also constitutes an attack on the belief of mainstream Muslim theology, among both traditional Ash‘aris and modernists, that God is everywhere, that He has no position or location in space, and that the verses in the Qur’an mentioning His station above the Throne should either be understood metaphorically or left unexplored but definitely not seen as indicative of God’s spatiality. Salafis, in contrast, favor a literal reading of qur’anic verses that describe God in anthropomorphic terms, although with the caveat that these anthropomorphic attributes – such as God’s hand, face, or Throne – are understood as being different to those which relate to humans. With his argument for translating God’s name as “Allah”, Aliouane clearly positions Salafi doctrine as the only correct representation of true Islam.

Aliouane’s Salafi outlook and his ensuing disapproval of any metaphorical reading of the Qur’an even seems to trump Ibn Kathir’s opinion on some occasions in which it might actually be reflected in the translation.

With regard to Q 74:4, “And your garments do purify”, Ibn Kathir gives by far the most space to a cluster of interpretations that interpret the verse as a reference to the purification of the soul from sin. This was an established interpretation that Ibn Kathir supported by citing a number of traditions originating from companions of the Prophet: he does mention several alternative meanings, and says that all of them may apply, but his preference is clearly for the metaphorical reading. Aliouane, however, explicitly translates the verse in the most literal sense possible: “Purify your garments [of all befoulment]” (“Purifie tes vêtements de toute souillure”). In a footnote, he mentions a tradition which explains that this verse refers to the polytheists, who did not clean either themselves or their clothes. Only in an afterthought does he add that reading the verse as referring to cleaning the soul of sin might also be an optional meaning. This presentation turns Ibn Kathir’s argument on its head.

With regard to Q 17:70, wa-laqad karramnā banī Ādam (“We have honored the sons/children of Adam”), Ibn Kathīr – like many exegetes – unambiguously explains that this verse refers to humankind as opposed to animals. He does not even consider the possibility that it might refer to the male gender as might be inferred from the use of the word banī (“sons”); he clearly reads it as a generic term denoting “descendants”. Based on this established interpretation, many translators have translated the term in a gender-neutral manner as “children of Adam”. Not so Aliouane, who chooses the French word fils (“sons”). It might be that Aliouane simply did not put a lot of thought into the translation of this term. Or he might be fundamentally opposed to an egalitarian interpretation of the Qur’an, although the translation of banī Ādam as “children of Adam” is certainly not the prerogative of the proponents of such an interpretation.

As is the case with many contemporary translations and editions of Ibn Kathir, Aliouane presents the famous fourteenth-century exegete as the foremost Salafi exegetical authority, while simultaneously frequently ignoring or correcting him because he is, after all, not sufficiently in line with modern Salafi doctrines.

Aliouane’s translation also exemplifies the complex relationship between translation and tafsīr. Even when a translator purports to rely on an existing Qur’an commentary, his method and concerns are be more likely to be informed by the specific structures of the target language and its demands.

Johanna Pink

Share this post