Qur’an translation of the week #48: Hijacking a translator, demonizing a translation: the ‘new Elmalı’lı translation’ in Turkey

This Turkish Qur’an translation has been successfully – and incorrectly – marketed as the work of a famous, long-dead scholar. It has also been demonized as constituting an attempt by a terrorist organization to subvert Islam in Turkey. For both reasons, it is an intriguing case study in the economics and politics of contemporary Qur’an translations.

The popularity of Kur’an-ı Kerim: Türkçe Meali is owed in large part to the fame of the scholar it is attributed to: Elmalı’lı Muhammed Hamdi Yazır (1878–1942). Elmalı’lı received his training in the education system of the late Ottoman Empire, and was commissioned by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs to produce a Turkish translation and interpretation of the Qur’an in 1925. He wrote his work by hand in Arabic script, however, for the print edition, which was published between 1935 and 1938 in Istanbul, this was converted into the recently adopted Latin script, with some editorial interventions. (See Susan Gunasti’s ‘The Qur’an between the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic’, https://www.routledge.com/The-Quran-between-the-Ottoman-Empire-and-the-Turkish-Republic-An-Exegetical/Gunasti/p/book/9780367671716.)

Like almost every non-Arabic Qur’an commentary, Elmalı’lı’s Hak Dini Kur’an Dili (‘The religion of truth, the language of the Qur’an’) contained a translation, but was never actually meant to fulfill the function of a Qur’an translation: the translation played a supporting role to the main purpose of the text, exegesis. In fact, the Directorate of Religious Affairs commissioned a standalone translation by Mehmet Akif Ersöy, a famous nationalist poet, that was never published.

The translation part of Elmalı’lı’s tafsir, while printed in Latin script, used the Turkish of the late Ottoman Empire, and retained a high proportion of Arabic in transliteration. This reflected Elmalı’lı’s training and the language he had been socialized with. Besides, since his focus was on commentary, rather than translation per se, he would not have seen a need to find Turkish equivalents for the Islamic terminology he rendered in Arabic transcription.

For example, his translation of the beginning of the Fatiha (Q. 1:2–4) is as follows (excluding the Basmalah which he did not consider part of the surah since he did not follow the Kufan system of verse counting):

‘Hamd, o rabbilâlemîn, o rahman, rahîm, o din gününün maliki Allâhin.’

This is, admittedly, a somewhat extreme example of his use of Arabic terminology, due to the formulaic nature of this surah. However, in his translations of other verses, the proportion of Arabic terms is lower but overall remains high. Moreover, Elmalı’lı has no qualms about citing Arabic words from the Qur’an verbatim in Arabic script in his translation when they are part of Qur’anic instructions to say, or not to say, something specific.

It follows that Elmalı’lı’s translation, if read by itself, would be extremely hard to understand for readers who are not familiar with the Arabic Qur’an and who have no experience with reading Ottoman Turkish. Against this backdrop, it seems inevitable that in the 1990s, when interest in Islam surged in Turkey and the market for Qur’an translations expanded exponentially, a publisher would try to modernize Elmalı’lı’s translation and market it as a separate book, especially since the copyright had expired. After all, Elmalı’lı was to many the embodiment of an authentically Turkish exegete who was firmly rooted in the Sunni Islamic scholarly tradition.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date at which Kuran-ı Kerim Türkçe Meali, a work which claimed to contain Elmalı’lı’s Qur’an translation without the tafsīr element, was first published. According to allegations that emerged from 2016 onwards, it was first printed between 1994 and 1996 by a publisher belonging to the Zaman media group, which was part of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen’s (b. 1941) network. From 2000 onwards, a large number of Turkish publishers have reprinted the work. Among the many Turkish Qur’an translations that have hit the market in the past two decades, it has enjoyed considerable prestige and popularity, to a large extent due to the fact that it has Elmalı’lı’s name printed on it.

However, even a superficial comparison between Elmalı’lı’s original work and Kuran-ı Kerim Türkçe Meali reveals that there are relatively few similarities between them. Only occasionally do the producers of the new version seem to have based their translation of a verse on Elmalı’lı’s semantic choices (as in, for example, Q. 2:62). In most instances, there is instead a limited overlap between the words chosen by Elmalı’lı and those used in Kuran-ı Kerim Türkçe Meali, and the area of overlap mostly concerns expressions that are chosen by many other translators and are not exclusive to Elmalı’lı. In many cases, Kuran-ı Kerim Türkçe Meali, the ‘new Elmalı’lı translation’, is much closer to other existing Turkish Qur’an translations, such as those by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (e.g. Q. 105:2), the Diyanet Vakfi (e.g. Q. 69:4) and Ali Fikri Yavuz (1924–1992; e.g. Q. 4:34), or has merged two of more of them to form a new translation.

In several cases, the translators’ intervention clearly goes beyond the wish to modernize Elmalı’lı’s language and directly affects his interpretive choices. For example, in his translation of Q. 5:51 (Yā ayyuhā lladhīna āmanū lā tattaḥidhū l-yahūda wa’l-naṣāra awliyāʾa baʿḍuhum awliyāʾu baʿḍin; ‘You who believe! Do not take the Jews and Christians as awliyāʾ; they are awliyāʾ to each other’), Elmalı’lı rendered the key term awliyāʾ as ‘yâran’, which may denote friends but also companions, members of the same group, allies, supporters, and helpers. In his commentary, he explained that the verse instructs the believers not to turn to the Jews and Christians for help or submit to their rulings. The authors of ‘Kuran-ı Kerim Türkçe Meali’, however, chose to render the term awliyāʾ as ‘dostlar’, which first and foremost denotes beloved, trusted, close friends. While ‘dostlar’ is today a common translation of awliyāʾ in Q. 5:51, used in all the Turkish works that the editors of the ‘new Elmalı’lı translation’ seem to have relied on, it clearly does not conform to how Elmalı’lı understood the verse.

Q. 20:5 (al-Raḥmān ʿalā l-ʿarshi stawā; ‘The Merciful established himself over His Throne’) is a theologically contested verse because it raises the question of whether God has a position in space, as His creation does, or whether the verse should be understood metaphorically as alluding to His all-encompassing knowledge and power, as the dominant trends of scholastic theology have held. Elmalı’lı’s translation, read by itself, evades the issue since it simply transcribes the relevant expressions from Arabic, rather than translating them: ‘O rahmâni Arş üzerine istivâ buyurdu.’ The ‘new Elmalı’lı’ translation, however, clearly sides with the scholastic theologians by rendering the verse as ‘O Rahmân (kudret ve hakimiyyetiyle) Arş’a hakim oldu’ (‘The Merciful (with His power and sovereignty) ruled over the Throne’). In this case, the translation is more or less in line with Elmalı’lı’s interpretation. However, that interpretation is not easy to find and digest. In his translation of this verse Elmalı’lı cross-references his commentary on Q. 7:54, where he discusses the issue of God’s station on the Throne over fifteen pages, using many Arabic expressions rendered in Arabic script. It seems a little doubtful whether the authors of ‘Kuran-ı Kerim Türkçe Meali’ really based their translation on this complex and specialized discussion, which places no particular emphasis on the terms ‘kudret’ or ‘hakimiyyet’ that they use to explain the concept of ‘God’s Throne’. The chances are that Ali Fikri Yavuz’s 1966 translation, which is nearly identical to theirs, was instead their real source.

The obvious divergence between Elmalı’lı’s original translation and the ‘new Elmalı’lı translation’ was heavily politicized in 2016 when, after an attempted coup d’état, the Gülen movement was declared a terrorist organization and persecuted in Turkey. Many media outlets, spearheaded by the columnist and popular TV historian Murat Barkadçı, demonized the ‘new Elmalı’lı translation’ as a work that was produced and distributed by the Gülen movement in order to subvert Islam and sell it out to Jews and Christians. This accusation had the potential to be seen as credible because of the Gülen movement’s well-known penchant for interreligious dialogue. It was supported by only one piece of evidence: the translation of a single verse, Q. 16:43.

This verse informs the Prophet: ‘All the messengers We sent before you were men to whom We had given the Revelation. You may ask the ahl al-dhikr (variously translated into English as ‘those who possess knowledge’/‘the message’/‘inspiration’/‘the reminder’/ ‘remembrance’) if you do not know.’ Elmalı’lı did not render the term ahl al-dhikr into Turkish at all; his editors merely transcribed it as ‘ehli zikre’. Nor did he write a commentary on the verse that could tell us what he thought the verse might mean. The ‘new Elmalı’lı translation’, conversely, opted for an exegetical translation, rendering the term ahl al-dhikr as ‘Tevrat ve İncil âlimleri’ (‘those who have knowledge of the Torah and the Gospel’). This, Bardakçı and many others alleged, was an attempt to ‘falsify the Quran’ in order to instruct Muslims to turn to Jews and Christians for authoritative knowledge on Islam, rather than their own scholars.

This seemingly scandalous choice was, in actual fact, an exact copy of the earlier translation of this verse by Ali Fikri Yavuz which, in this case, is clearly based on the fifteenth-century concise Qur’anic commentary known as Tafsīr al-Jalālayn that has been a hugely popular textbook of Qur’anic exegesis for centuries. Thus, there is nothing particularly controversial about the so-called Gülenist translation; it follows a mainstream interpretation of Q. 16:43. However, for Bardakçı and, presumably, most of his readers, the field of Turkish Qur’an translation is the only point of reference. Only within this narrow context, with no recourse to the tradition of Muslim scholarship on the Qur’an, could a convincing case be made that this translation is a misguided attempt to subvert Muslims.

There are two main take-aways from the story of pseudo-Elmalı’lı. First, it shows us how little regard there is for a translator’s intellectual ownership of their own work. New translations are often somewhat creative reconfigurations of existing works, and well-known translators’ names – especially when they are already deceased and thus in no position to object – are used to market works that they have never authorized.

Second, given the current impassioned debates on the relationship between Islam, society, and state, there is no Qur’an translation that is immune to politicization. No matter how apolitical and uncontroversial a translator is aiming to be, it will always be possible to single out some of the choices they make and use these against them.

Johanna Pink

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