Qur’an translation of the week #54: Qur’anic Culture in the North Caucasus and the translation of the Qur’an into the Avar language

The Avar language (originally known as ‘Magarul mac’) belongs to the subgroup of Avar–Andic languages and is currently spoken by more than a million people in Russia (in western Dagestan), Azerbaijan (in the Zaqatala region), and Georgia. The oldest texts written in Avar date back to the fifteenth century and the language has survived a number of changes of alphabetic script: from Georgian to Arabic, then Latin, and finally Cyrillic. Most Islamic manuscripts in Avar were based on ‘ajam’, which is based on the Arabic script with the addition of some signs to denote the lateral ‘l’ and other special sounds. Ajam has been used for Qur’an translation from the early partial ‘interpretative’ translations of the Qur’an into Avar which were published in the first half of the twentieth century as ‘tafsīrs’, up until the appearance of the first modern translation in 1984. The conservative (mainly Sufi) local traditions of Islamic leadership, coupled with the complete predominance of the ulema in religious learning have historically meant that attitudes towards Qur’an translation in the area were mostly critical of the practice. Moreover, almost all Avar-speaking Muslims belong to the Shafi’i school, which has a much stricter position on the role of translation in religious discourse than the Hanafis do. For example, Muhammad Ali, an influential nineteenth-century Muslim scholar from Choh (in Dagestan), and the author of a work of fatwās, had the following opinion about translating the Qur’an without including the original Arabic text: ‘What about writing the Qur’an in a foreign language, that is, without including the Arabic words along with translation, as it was written in our time in Russian, the language of infidels …? Let God curse anyone who compiles [such a translation], and also anyone who encourages it, assists it, and makes a copy of it!’ (Fatawā al-Chohī [Temirkhanshura, 1322/1904], p. 4). However, if the translation is presented ‘alongside the Arabic words of the Qur’an’, it is, he says, simply a kind of ‘tafsīr’ rather than a translation: ‘I saw such tafsīrs printed in Turkish, and Turkish scholars raised no objection to them, thanks be to God for that.’ Muhammad Ali’s opinion is thus that it is permissibile to produce interlinear translation, or translation as tafsīr (along with the Arabic text), but not to translate the Qur’an without providing the reader access to the original Arabic source text.

This conservative opinion went virtually unchallenged until the end of the twentieth century, when the first translation into Avar, in ajam, appeared as a samizdat (‘self-publishing’) project in 1984 from a Dagestan publishing house based in Mahachkala. The translation was authored by Abdurrahim Magomedov (1943–2018) from Sasitli. An outstanding personality with a long history of fighting for religious revival in Dagestan (in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras), Abdurrahim Magomedov became one of the leading religious authorities in Dagestan the late 1990s. His translation was re-published in Syria in the 1990s, and a further edition, converted into the Cyrillic script, was published by the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex in Saudi Arabia in 1434/2013. This edition was reprinted by local publishing houses in Russia. The 2013 Saudi edition, which was revised by two Dagestani scholars, ʿAbbās Amīr Hamza (Abads Amirhamzayev) and Shamil Gayribekov, comprised two volumes, but a more recent edition published by Al-Ashbal publishing house in Mahachkala in 2015) was produced in one large volume, along with parallel Arabic text.

Entitled Hiriyab Kuranalul: Tafsirazul tarjama (‘The Holy Qur’an: Translation of the Interpretation’) in Avar and al-Muntakhab min al-tafāsir mutarjiman bi l-lugha al-Avāriyya (‘Selections from [Qur’an] Commentaries Translated into the Avar language’) in Arabic, the 2015 edition generally fits the aforementioned trend of translation being framed as merely commentary, published alongside the Arabic original text. In contrast, the 2013 Saudi edition bears the title of ‘translation and commentary’ in both languages. The editions also differ in extent: it seems that the translator shortened many of his own explanations and replaced these with references to external sources for the 2015 Mahachkala edition.

The 2015 edition also includes two introductory statements: the first is a copy of the standard KFQPC preface that is typically included in their Qur’an translations (by the Saudi Minister of Religious Affairs), and the second is by Mufti of Muslim Administration of Dagestan. Further to this, the first page provides a copy of approval from this institution (‘odobreno kanonicheskim otdelom’, ‘approved by the canonical board’). This demonstration of official support for the translation provides an official seal of approval for this Qur’an interpretation against the background of a conservative religious discourse in the local context. It also frees distribution of the translation from any possible accusations of being ‘extremist literature’, due to the strong controls implemented over the publication of Islamic literature by the federal authorities in Russia. Other prefaces provide a list of tafsīrs used for the translation (both classical and modern, such as Zubdatu l-tafāsir and Awḍāḥ al-tafāsir), and outline some formal features of the Qur’an and important aspects of meaning (p. v–xiii), with special emphasis on the theological verses in which God’s attributes are mentioned. In contrast to the Saudi edition, the Mahachkala edition does not include introductions to any of the suras although the structure of the translation is preserved: that is, the translation is interlinear, and text paraphrasing the meaning, and attached commentary, is usually placed below the Arabic text for each verse (so that the translation can be categorised as ‘explanatory rendition’). Among the annexes located at the very end of the Mahachkala edition is one that discusses the problem of the translatability of the Qur’an (pp. 610–613), and which includes a special reproduction of arguments put forward by the Shaykh of al-Azhar, Muḥammad al-Marāgī, in support of Qur’an translation as a kind of tafsīr (it seems that the source for this is his treatise Baḥth fī tarjamat al-Qurʾān wa-aḥkāmuhā (‘A Study on the Translation of the Qur’an and its Rules’) published in Cairo in 1355/1936. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the classical sources mentioned in the translation and commentary are written by Shafi’i scholars such as Ibn Ḥajar and al-Suyūṭī. In general, as is typical for many King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex editions, later imprints of these translations usually come with some changes, in this case, adjusting the translation slightly to accord more with the Sunni-Shafi’i tradition. This is no coincidence, as since 2010 many of the ulema in the North Caucasus have made steps towards reconciling local Muslim tradition and Salafi thought, switching to a kind of ‘moderation strategy’. Within this context, and given the official promotion given to this translation by the local religious board, Magomedov’s translation remains one of the most influential contributions to the study of the Qur’an in the modern North Caucasus.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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