Qur’an translation of the week #44: “Το Ιερό Κοράνιο”: The “Al-Azhar” translation of the Qur’an into Greek

There has been a history of close interaction between the Byzantine and Arab cultures in the Mediterranean and Middle East ever since the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE. This, and the concomitant rise of Christian-Muslim polemics, resulted in the production of the first complete translation of the Qur’an into Greek before the end of the ninth century CE. The beginnings of modern Greek scholarship on the Qur’an can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, with the publication of a Qur’an translation by Gerasimos Pentakos, from Alexandria, in 1886. A revised edition of this translation was published in modern Greek in 2006. It is against this background that the Qur’an translation that is the subject of this week’s blog, “Το Ιερό Κοράνι”, came into being. One of the first “Muslim” renditions of the Qur’an into Greek, this translation from the original Arabic was undertaken in the 1970s and finally appeared in print in 1978. Financed by Yiannis Latsis (1910–2003), a Greek shipping tycoon, the first edition of the translation was prepared by a group of academics that consisted of both scholars from al-Azhar and experts in the Greek language.

Among the eight Egyptian members of the committee listed are mentioned such notable religious authorities as ‘Abd al-Jalīl al-Shilbī (d. 1995), the general secretary of Islamic Research Academy in al-Azhar University, ‘Abd al-Muhaymin al-Fiqī and others. The Greek translation was published alongside the original Arabic text (following the standard Cairo edition) in verse-by-verse format, and also contained a small preface and two pages of commentary.

Entitled as “al-Qur’ān al-karīm” in Arabic and “Το Ιερό Κοράνιο” in Greek, (both of which can be translated as “The Holy Qur’an”), the header above the Arabic title also contained a verse from the Qur’an: “God is in command, first and last. On that day, the believers will rejoice at God’s help” (Q. 30:4–5). A second edition of this translation appeared in 1987, thanks to the support of Yiannis Latsis’ daughter, Marianna Latsis. According to the publishing information on the back cover, this second edition was published “for the sake of Arab-Greek friendship before God” (“iḥtisāban ‘alā al-ṣadāqah al-‘Arabiyyah al-Yunāniyyah li-wajh Allāh”).

“Το Ιερό Κοράνι” was one of two Muslim-authored translations of the Qur’an that were available in the early 1990s (the second was published by the Ahmadi community in 1989), and attracted interest from the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex (KFQPC). This led to the publication of a third edition in 1418/1997 under their auspices, with the permission of the copyright holder Marianna Latsis. The new edition notes previous translators simply as a “group of al-Azhar scholars” and cites Shaykh Jihād Bilāl Khalīl as the reviser for the current edition. Shaykh Jihād Bilāl Khalīl is a Saudi scholar with a high level of expertise in both Arabic and Greek: originally from the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority area of Thrace in Greece, he graduated from the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyādh. Later, he obtained his PhD in 2000 with a thesis dedicated to nineteenth and twentieth century Greek Orientalism. It is immediately apparent that the KFQPC edition of “Το Ιερό Κοράνιο” entails many changes to the previous edition.

For instance, the translation of the bismillah (bi’smi’llāhi’l-raḥmāni’l-raḥīmi) was changed from “Στό όνομα του ΑΛΛΑΧ Eλεήμονα, Φιλάνθρωπου” (“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Human-loving”) to “Στο όνομα το ΑΛΛΑΧ του Παντελεήμονα, του Πολυεύσλαχνου” (“In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the All-Gracious”), probably because of the basic meaning of “Φιλάνθρωπου” as “Human-loving” which echoed terminology used in Greek Christian texts.

Some of the sura names appeared in new variants as well: η Οικογενεια Ιμραν (“The Family of Imran”, Q.3) has been modified to “η Οικος Ιμραν” (“The Household of Imran”); and “Τραπεζα” (“The Table”, Q.5) to Το Στρωμενο Τραπεζα (“The Table Set”); while all of the suras that take the names of prophets (Q. 10, 11, 12 and others) have an addition, “O Προφέτης” (“The Prophet”). Some of the basic vocabulary has been altered as well, but not consistently throughout the text: for example, the first edition uses “Κύριος: for the Arabic rabb (“Lord”) throughout, while the KFQPC edition has “Αρχοντας” in Q. 1:2, but retains “Κύριος” in other instances, for example Q. 113:1 and Q. 114:1. Most of the Islamic religious terms used remained unchanged in the new edition.

In contrast to the usual KFQPC attention to the use of “Shariatic terms”, zakāt, for example, is rendered as “Ελεημοσυνη” (“Ελεημοσυνη” (“alms”) is used in Q. 7:156 and Q 9:5 in both versions, while sometimes other expressions are used). The same word, Ελεημοσυνη, is used to translate ṣadāqah in Q. 2:263, where the original Arabic term means “charity” in a broad sense rather than the “obligatory” zakāt. However, for the first usage (in Q. 2:43) both versions provide transliteration of the Arabic term (Ζακατ in the “Greek” edition and Ζεκατ in the KFQPC edition) and give a rather general explanation about this referring to one-fortieth of income received. The interventions in the KFQPC edition are also evident in some verses of particular theological import. For example in Q. 7:54, both versions provide: “κι επειτα μονιμα εγκατασταθηκε πανο οτο Θρονο (τησ εξουσιας)” (“and then He established Himself on the Throne [of power] firmly”). In contrast, while for Q. 20:5 one may read “εχει επικρατησει πανο οτο Θρονο” (“He ruled over the Throne [of power]”) in the first edition, the KFQPC edition opts for “εγκατασταθηκε οτο Θρονο” (“He established Himself on the Throne”).

The issue of style presents quite a challenge for anyone translating the Qur’an into Greek, specifically in terms of whether to echo biblical language and style or not (notably that of the Greek New Testament); this can be seen in the fact that many other (for example Russian and Romanian) translations of the Qur’an have tended to reflect the religious discourse of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, in contrast to the earlier 1886 Pentakos translation into Greek, this Muslim-authored one has few parallels with the wording of the Greek New Testament. A recent study comparing the wording of Q.13:24 in the three editions of “Το Ιερό Κοράνι” with that in Luke 20:19 by Sofia Koutlaki and Hekmatollah Salehi (Proceedings of the International Conference for Quranic Translation, Tehran 2014) has found a common usage of the expression “Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν” (“Peace be with you”) for salāmun ‘alaykum.

However, apart from the usage of Greek Bible variants for personal names, no further direct analogies could be found. The same is true of the commentaries (which consist of 54 short remarks in both editions with no sources such as tafsīrs mentioned). Thus, despite some level of stylistic heterogeneity (probably the result of collective team work), the translation seems to be generally successful in its goal of representing a “Muslim” rendition of the text. In the 1990s and 2000s, “Το Ιερό Κοράνιο” was one of the most commonly used texts for referencing the Qur’an in Greek, but the appearance of new renditions have since overshadowed its popularity. It is also rumored that a team of Greek Salafi Muslims (drawn from both the Arab diaspora and Greek converts) are currently discussing production of a completely new Muslim-authored translation into Greek, which may further erode the popularity of this edition.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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