Qur’an translation of the week #50: A Spanish Qur’an translation based on the reading of Wars

‘Del Noble Coran: Traducción Comentada’ is an intriguing work for a number of reasons, not least its use of a minority reading (qirāʾa) of the Qur’an and its link to the Murabitun World Movement. The first modern Spanish Qur’an translation by a Muslim, it was reprinted by the Saudi King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex (KFQPC), initially in a bilingual edition, and later in a monolingual version.

The translator, Abdel-Ghani Melara Navío, who studied Romance Philology at the University of Madrid, embraced Islam in 1979, after a meeting with Sheikh Abdalqadir al-Sufi. Al-Sufi, a Scotsman born in 1930 as Ian Dallas, adopted Islam after encountering Sufism in Morocco in the 1960s, and went on to found the controversial Murabitun World Movement which is centered around European and American converts and has centers in several countries, including Spain. The name ‘Murabitun’ is an allusion to the Almovarids who ruled over large parts of Northwest Africa and Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE. The organization has some idiosyncratic features, the most relevant of which in the present context is their emphasis on Islamic traditions that are predominant in the Maghreb and Muslim Spain. This explains their choice to adopt Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ’s reading of the Qur’an, a striking aspect of both Melara’s Spanish Qur’an translation and the English Qur’an translation by Abdalhaqq and Aisha Bewley, who are also associated with the Murabitun movement.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of readings (qirāʾāt), a short explanation is in order. There are several different readings of the Qur’an, which are largely based on the same consonantal skeleton text. However, they differ with regard to vowelization and certain consonants that are distinguished by diacritic signs in the form of dots above and below the skeleton-text letters that indicate, for example, the difference between the consonants b (ـبـ), t (ـتـ), th (ـثـ), n (ـنـ), and y (ـيـ).

The variant readings emerged early in Islamic history and were traditionally attributed to individual reciters who were associated with specific places, such as Medina and Kufa. Their recitations were transmitted through various chains of transmission and generelly referred to by the earliest two persons in that chain, the reader and the first transmitter, e.g. the reading of Nāfiʿ as it was transmitted by Warsh (Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ). The potentially endless variation resulting from this process was curbed by later scholars who narrowed it down to a limited number of canonical readings, either seven or ten. This canonization gained wide acceptance and there is no doctrinal reason to consider any one of those seven or ten readings superior to the others, let alone grant it exclusive legitimacy. However, the reading of Ḥafṣ ʿan ʿĀṣim today clearly dominates in the production of both Arabic muṣḥafs and Qur’an translations. The predominance of the Ḥafṣ reading means that, for many translators, there does not even seem to be a conscious choice involved in using it as the basis for their translation. They simply take it for granted, which conforms to a mindset that GloQur researcher Sohaib Saeed has labelled #hafsonormativity. The existence of a translation that is deliberately based on a reading other than Ḥafṣ is a rarity today, and is one of the reasons that Del Noble Coran stands out.

The first edition of Del Noble Coran was produced by a small Islamic publisher in Granada in 1994. It attracted the attention of editors at the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, which was at the time trying to expand its portfolio of bilingual Qur’an editions. They reprinted it only a few years later (1417 H = 1996/97) alongside the Arabic muṣḥaf of Warsh, as opposed to other bilingual KFQPC editions that contained the muṣḥaf of Ḥafṣ. As per the KFQPC’s general policy at the time, they avoided calling it a translation and instead entitled it ‘Translation of the meanings of the Qur’an’ in Arabic and ‘Translation-commentary’ in Spanish. Unlike the 1994 first edition, the KFQPC edition was preceded by a short foreword. Furthermore, the annotations to the Qur’anic text were significantly expanded by two editors commissioned by the Complex.

In 1441 H (2019/20), the KFQPC published a monolingual Spanish version (i.e. without the parallel Arabic text) that reverted to the original title, ‘traducción comentada’ or ‘annotated translation’. This was designed to make the translation more appealing to non-Muslim readers. The editors also adapted the verse counting system for the first sura to the Kufan system that is today commonly used for the Ḥafṣ reading, and added a sixteen-page introduction to the Qur’an to the foreword. They retained the Arabic and Spanish forewords from the bilingual edition, in a slightly modified form. Interestingly, the Arabic version of the foreword, but not the Spanish one, now suddenly and incorrectly stated that the translation is based on the reading of Ḥafṣ.

The fact that the translation is based on the reading of Warsh is not mentioned in any of the published editions. However, the translator himself confirmed in a 2015 interview that he based his translation on an Algerian muṣḥaf that follows the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ (http://www.trans.uma.es/Trans_19-2/Trans192_Ew.pdf). He argued that this is because the Murabitun World Movement, of which he is a member, follows Islam in the Moroccan tradition and has thus adopted the reading of Warsh, which goes back to the recitation practice of the people of Medina. As an example, he mentions Q 2:2: Dhālika l-kitābu lā rayba fīhi hudan li’l-muttaqīn, where the difference between Ḥafṣ and Warsh lies exclusively in their respective use of pauses, which affects syntax. Ḥafṣ ends the syntactic unit after fīhi whereas Warsh ends it after rayba. Warsh’s reading could be translated as ‘This is the book, no doubt; in it is guidance for the God-fearing’, whereas Ḥafṣ’s might be translated as ‘This is the book in which there is no doubt; guidance for the God-fearing’. This may not be the clearest example of variation between the two readings however, because in actual practice, many translators rephrase this complex verse in a way that obfuscates the difference.

Even without Melara’s statement and the somewhat untransparent example he mentioned, it would be obvious from his translation that it is, for the most part, based on Warsh’s reading. How do we know? After all, if we look at a list of differences between the readings, it is clear that many of them would be irrelevant to translators. For example, in Q 74:5, Ḥafṣ reads the term for divine punishment as rujz’and Warsh as rijz but the meaning is the same. The difference is important to the reciter but not the translator. However, there are many expressions in which the difference in readings would be hard or impossible to overlook. The most obvious place to start is Q 1:4, where Ḥafṣ has māliki yawmi l-dīn (‘the owner/sovereign of judgment day’) whereas Warsh has maliki yawmi l-dīn (‘the king of judgment day’); and indeed, Abdel-Ghani Melara prefers the second option (‘Rey del Día de la Retribución’).

In many cases, the differences between readings are even more clear-cut and it would be next to impossible for a translator to ignore them. Often, this concerns verb forms: active versus passive, first or second versus third person, or reading a different form of the same root. For example, in Q 47:4, a translation based on Ḥafṣ would read He will not let the deeds of those who were killed (qutilū) for His cause come to nothing, whereas a translation based on Warsh would read He will not let the deeds of those who fought (qātalū) for His cause come to nothing. This gives a substantial difference in meaning and Del Noble Coran clearly follows Warsh (‘los que combaten en el camino de Allah’).

There are many other examples of this type, where the verb forms are so different that they would necessarily affect the translation, even if the effect on overall meaning is not always as significant as in the example above: ‘He said’ (qāla) according to Ḥafṣ versus ‘Say!’ (qul) according to Warsh (Q 21:4); ‘they are lying’ versus ‘they are calling (someone) a liar’ (Q 2:10); ‘He will cause him to undergo a severe penalty’ versus ‘We will cause him to undergo a severe penalty’ (Q 72:17); ‘they prefer’ versus ‘you (pl.) prefer’ (Q 87:16); ‘We shall forgive you’ versus ‘you shall be forgiven’ (Q 2:58). In all these cases Melara, unlike the vast majority of modern translators, follows Warsh’s reading. The same is true for Q 10:96, where Ḥafṣ has ‘the word (kalima) of your Lord’, whereas Warsh has ‘the words (kalimāt) of your Lord’: Melara uses the plural form (‘las palabras’).

In Q 43:19, Ḥafṣ and Warsh even use completely different terms: in Ḥafṣ’s reading, the angels are ‘the servants of God’ (ʿibādu llāh) whereas in Warsh’s reading, they are ‘with God’ (ʿinda llāh). Again, Melara follows Warsh (‘que están junto al Misericordioso’).

In another case where the readers use different words, however, Melara goes against his general tendency and opts for a translation that is more in line with the reading of Ḥafṣ. In Q 33:68, Ḥafṣ has wa’ lʿanhum laʿnan kabīran (‘curse them with a great curse’) whereas Warsh has wa’ lʿanhum laʿnan kathīran (‘curse them with many curses’). Following Warsh, the Bewleys translate this as ‘curse them many times over’. Melara, conversely, has ‘maldícelos con una gran maldición’ – ‘curse them with a great curse’. This could be an oversight or an attempt to harmonize the readings, of course. The same is conceivable in a few other cases where Melara seems to follow Ḥafṣ, rather than Warsh (e.g. Q 19:19 and Q 11:74). However, sometimes, the preference for Ḥafṣ over Warsh is so obvious that it can only be deliberate. For example, in Q 10:2, Muḥammad’s opponents say, according to Ḥafṣ, hādhā la-sāḥirun mubīnun (‘This [man] is clearly a sorcerer’) whereas, according to Warsh, they say hādhā la-siḥrun mubīnun (‘This is clearly sorcery’). The Bewleys, in line with Warsh, translate the segment as ‘This is downright magic!’ whereas Melara has ‘un mago evidente’ – ‘clearly a sorcerer’. Another such example is Q 24:34 according to which God has revealed either ‘clear’ (mubayyanāt; Warsh) or ‘clarifying’ (mubayyināt; Ḥafṣ) signs or verses (āyāt). The Bewleys follow Warsh here (‘clear signs’) whereas Melara has ‘signos clarificadores’, in line with the reading of Ḥafṣ.

While Melara’s translation is thus predominantly based on the reading of Warsh, this is not a consistent choice; his translation is by far not as faithful to the reading of Warsh as is the Bewley translation. According to Melara’s website, his Qur’an translation is partly the result of a project of reading and comparing existing translations into Spanish, French and English, meaning it is possible that he followed some of the choices of previous translators, either unwittingly or deliberately. An alternative explanation is that he did, in fact, use more than the one Algerian muṣḥaf he claimed to have based his translation on, weighing Warsh’s reading against Ḥafṣ’s and opting for the latter whenever he considered it appropriate. This would defy the predominant notion that the qirāʾat have been transmitted as complete, coherent texts that cannot be reassembled at will.

Johanna Pink

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