Qur’an translation of the week #55: Qur’an Karim dan Terjemahan Artinya: the UII Qur’an Translation and the Rise of a Youtuber Ulema

Qur’an Karim dan Terjemahan Artinya, a Qur’an translation published by the Islamic University of Indonesia (UII) is an interesting case study of how a translation can be seen to reflect different ideological outlooks at different times in history.

One of the oldest universities in Indonesia, UII is an Islamic university and has required new students to own a Qur’an translation for pedagogical purposes since 1990. However, copies of the authorised Qur’an translation published by the Indonesian Ministry of Religion were not always available in sufficient numbers every year. This led the UII rector at the time, Zaini Dahlan, an Al-Azhar graduate in Arabic literature, to initiate a UII-based project to translate the Qur’an, so as to meet demand. Dahlan put together a team of translators, which he himself led, and the resulting translation was published with the UII Press in 1997, a year before the economic and political crisis that forced the Soeharto regime to give up its long rule in 1998.

The UII translation was entitled Qur’an Karim dan Terjemahan Artinya (“The Holy Qur’an and the Translation of its Meanings”) on the basis of the idea that Qur’an is kalamullah (the word of God) the meaning of which will never be fully understood due to the limited human capacity for understanding and knowledge, even though its words can be transferred into a different language. Thus, the translation is represented by its authors as encompassing the necessarily limited understanding of the meaning of the text that the team was able to attain, packaged into the Indonesian language, according to the idea that the true spirit and soul (semangat dan jiwa) of the original Arabic Qur’an belongs only to God. Given this approach, the translation puts more emphasis on conveying the meaning of the Qur’anic verses (maknawi) than reproducing its words (harfiah). By prioritizing the use of easily discernable comparative expressions in the Indonesian language over providing a literal translation of the words of the Qur’an (melepaskan arti harfiah), it follows a different approach to the more literal Ministry of Religion translation The register of language was also tailored to non-specialist readers, primarily UII students, in the hope that a good understanding of the meaning of the Qur’an would to inspire them as they went about the routine of daily life (as stated by Zaini Dahlan in the Preface).

The translation begins with an introductory preamble on how the Qur’anic verses were originally revealed, and relates the story of the prophet Muhammad from his birth to the beginning of his prophetic calling and the revelation of the Qur’an, through his struggle to preach the Qur’an, up to his death. It also contains a brief account of the transfer of Qur’anic manuscripts from Abū Bakr to ʿUmar to Ḥafsah, and then to ʿUthmān via Zayd b. Thābit. A list of references consulted is also attached, which includes various tafsīr works, such as Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, al-Wājiz by Imam Wāḥidī, the Tafsīr munīr of Imam Nawāwī, the al-Muntakhab fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān published by al-Azhar, and the Tafsīr anwār al-tanzīl of al-Bayḍāwī. The list also includes the Indonesian Ministry of Religion’s Qur’an translation (referencing the best and most comprehensive edition, that of 1973–1974), other books such as the Saḥīḥs of al-Bukhārī and Muslim, and bayān al-Qurʾān works by Quraish Shihab and Harun Yahya, the latter being a controversial and yet very popular writer on Qur’an and science among Muslims in Indonesia since the 2000s.

The translation also includes an acknowledgment from the last Minister of Religious Affairs of the Soeharto regime, the tafsīr expert Quraish Shihab, who welcomed the translation as part of the developmentalist project of the regime, describing it as an effort “to increase the quality of the Indonesian people who are in the developing process.” Shihab emphasized that “national development provides us with the best opportunity to attain the goal of a balanced and harmonious development between the material and the spiritual, that is [to achieve] human development based in belief in and obedience to Allah Almighty” (Shihab in Sambutan Menteri Agama RI, p. v).

Less than three months after Shihab was appointed as a minister the regime fell, following massive demonstrations, and the beginning of the Reform Era was ushered in. With the fall of Soeharto, the popularity of the UII translation also waned, until the arrival of a religious scholar called Gus Baha on the scene.

A. Bahauddin Noer Salim, or Gus Baha, was a relatively unknown gus (a young kyai/ulema), who gave pengajian (Islamic religious sessions) at the UII mosque in Yogyakarta for several years. He studied different branches of Islamic studies, primarily in two traditional pesantrens, his father’s pesantren and the pesantren of Kyai Maimoen Zubair, a charismatic ulema from Rembang. The fact that Baha was a close relation of Zaini Dahlan, the former UII rector, was undoubtedly a contributory factor in his involvement with a Qur’an translation project carried out by such a prestigious institution as UII. His name is not formally attached to the publication of the translation until 2005, when he is recorded as being on Zaini Dahlan’s staff. There are, however, good grounds to believe that he was actually a member of the team revising the text ever since the first project to revive the translation by providing more standardized Indonesian writing and larger Arabic text started in 2002.

Initial printings of the revised translation in 2002, 2003, and 2004 were plagued by several technical errors and it was only in the 2005 (formally designated as the second edition) that a comprehensive improvement was made in both the content and appearance of the text due to the influence of Gus Baha. In the 2005 edition, as the leader of the Lajnah of Mushaf al-Qur’an UII (the organizing committee for the Qur’an translation project), Gus Baha provides a note, explaining the changes that had been made in the revision process. Notable changes included reducing the number of stop signs(alamatul waqfi) from eleven/twelve to seven (as in the Ministry of Religion 2004 edition), the re-examination of the translation by referring to old and new kitābs, the addition of footnotes and excerpts from ḥadīths, the use of fiqh to further understanding, the addition of a thematic index, and the reassessment of verses where ikhtilāf (differences of opinions) between mufassirs exist. By the end of December 2020, this translation was in its twentieth reprint.

The increasing popularity of Gus Baha on Youtube in the last five years has heralded a sharp rise in public demand for the UII translation, and on big on-line sites such as Tokopedia and Lazada the translation is even marketed as ‘Al-Qur’an Gus Baha’. Conversely, the translation has simultaneously helped to establish Gus Baha as an authority on Qur’an and tafsīr. Gus Baha’s pengajians are characterized by his use of easily understandable language and terminology, while at the same time he references sources in various Islamic disciplines. The depth of his knowledge has led Quraish Shihab to describe him as a “Mufassir Faqih,” a scholar who can not only produce an interpretation of the Qur’an, but also has deep knowledge of the legal content of its verses.

The contribution made by Gus Baha to the 2005 edition, with his wide and rich references to both classical and contemporary sources, can be seen in the progressive choice of words when it comes to controversial issues, which are carefully examined. For example, when translating Sūrat al-Nisāʾ (Q 34) on the relative status of men and women and the permissibility of beating wives, this edition differs from the Ministry of Religion’s translation, which states laki-laki lebih tinggi dari wanita (“men are higher than women”) and uses the word pukul or “beat” for idribu. Instead it uses softer expressions: laki-laki mempunyai kelayakan memimpin kaum wanita … berilah mereka peringatan, jauhilah mereka di tempat tidur, dan berilah mereka sangsi yang mendidik (“men have the qualifications to lead women … give them a warning, stay away from them in bed, and give them educational sanctions”).

The history of the UII translation, in short, shows how a Qur’an translation can serve different purposes, directly and indirectly, in different periods, depending on the various actors or agents involved. Though initially intended for university students, and embraced by the Soeharto regime as supporting its developmental agenda, Qur’an Karim also helped to foster the emergence of a local, traditionalist ulema among increasingly more popular Youtuber ustadzs affiliated with foreign universities, such as UstadzAbdul Shomad (UAS) of al-Azhar and Morocco and Ustadz Adi Hidayat (UAH) of Libya, not to mention the many young Salafi ulema who are affiliated with Saudi Arabian universities, such as Ustadz Khalid Basalamah and Ustadz Firanda Andirja.

Yulianingsih Riswan

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