Qur’an translation of the week #61: A ‘Muslim’ edition of an Orientalist Qur’an translation: the newly revised Polish translation Koran. Interpretacja znaczenia według Józefa Bielawskiego

While most international Islamic institutions prefer to publish ‘Muslim’ translations of the Qur’an, this does not always mean that they do not also promote Qur’an translations produced by non-Muslim academics. For example, Max Henning’s German Qur’an translation (for which, see Qur’an translation of the week #37), has been published by a number of Islamic publishing houses, even including the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs. Józef Bielawski’s Polish Qur’an translation provides another interesting case of this. As recently as 2020, GoodWord publishers (New Delhi, India) re-published his Koran. Interpretacja znaczenia według Józefa Bielawskiego (‘The Qur’an: Interpretation of the Meaning by Józef Bielawski’) in a pocket-size paperback edition. The book is widely distributed free of charge in Poland, and copies are also available at the biggest mosques in Istanbul (Süleymaniye, Sultanahmet and others), which are often visited by Polish tourists. According to their website, the GoodWord publishing house (established by the Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, 1925–2021) has printed Qur’an translations in more than 30 languages, almost all of which are intended for free distribution.

The GoodWord edition of Józef Bielawski’s Polish translation provides a revised text of his original translation of the Qur’an, which was first printed in 1986. Bielawski (1910–1997) was a Polish Arabist and scholar of oriental studies who graduated from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he studied law and oriental languages. Bielawski served as the cultural attaché of the Polish Embassy in Turkey between 1948 and 1950, and was appointed as a professor at the University of Warsaw in 1968, where he was affiliated with the Arabic and Islamic Studies program. In addition to his translation of the meanings of the Qur’an into Polish, Bielawski published numerous academic works and translations, including his “Historia literatury arabskiej” (‘History of Arabic Literature’, 1968), “Islam, religia państwa i prawa” (‘Islam: Religion of the State and Law’, 1973), and translations of works by al-Fārābī, Ibn Ṭufayl, Usāmah bin Munqīdh, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, and other Arabic philosophers and writers.

The first edition of this translation comprised two parts in one volume: ‘Przekład’ (the target text), and and ‘Komentarz’ (commentary). The second part contained quite a lengthy introduction, a list of the reference works used by Bielawski, footnotes, a chronology of Islamic history, and a general index. The actual text of the translation is printed as one continuous column in the middle of the page, split into lines to provide a phrase-by-phrase division of the Arabic text. The introduction (which is over 90 pages long) presents the background of early Islam, primarily in the form of a biography of the Prophet Muḥammad. The translator mostly relies for this on Ibn Hishām’s Sīrah nabawiyyah and conveys the primary image it provides very accurately. Later sections are dedicated to the Qur’an, its structure, the history of its codification, as well as previous translations. Bielawski also clearly sets out the principles underlying his approach to his translation. First of all, he clarifies that he has relied on the Cairo edition of the muṣḥaf, which affects the verse numbering. When it comes to the actual syntax and wording of the target text, he states that his intention was to make the Polish text correspond as closely to the Arabic as possible, using both literal wording and ‘poetic prose’ (depending on the direct meanings of the verses) to domesticise his translation. It is also important to note that Bielawski used a number of standard Qur’an commentaries as his main interpretative sources, on the grounds that these provide a sound basis for reliable interpretation. He singles out in this context the tafsīrs of al-Bayḍāwī, Ibn Kathīr, Sayyid Quṭb, and al-Ṭabarī, but also mentions a number of classical Arabic lexicons such as Tahdhīb al-lugah by al-Azharī.

Bielawski renders most of the key concepts of the Qur’an in terms of both their linguistic and shariatic meanings (usually deriving these from the commentaries he consulted). Some terms are rendered using Polish Christian religious terms, thus Bielawski translates the beginning of Q 3:39, fa-nādathu’l-malāʾikatu wa-huwa qāʾimum yuṣalli fi’l-mihrāb,as ‘I ogłosili mu aniołowie kiedy on, stojąc, modlił się w sanktuarium’ (‘And the angels announced to him while he was standing and praying at the sanctuary’), but explains the term miḥrāb in the related commentary. When dealing with doctrinal verses, Beliawski’s translation mostly supports the mainstream Sunni viewpoint. In his commentary on the text, many verses are compared to the Bible and some Qur’anic concepts are also explained with reference to Christianity. For example, he writes that the phrase kalimatu’llāh,used in relation to ʿIsā, ‘is taken from the doctrine of Christianity, but has another sense there’. A number of verses from Sūrat Maryam are also considered to be ‘taken from the Christian sources’.

The new edition of 2020, prepared by the Sakinah Foundation, which is based in Poland (and which is mostly staffed by students from Muslim countries and Polish converts), has overhauled the original translation to give it a very different feel. First of all, both the introduction and Bielawski’s commentary have been taken out, so the book contains only the actual text of the translation and a short general introduction outlining what the Qur’an is by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, which has been added in. The revised edition was prepared primarily by the Polish Muslim activist Andrzej Mazurek (in consultation with some Polish imams), and is clearly oriented towards making the translation less literal, and editing out some archaisms. First, there are obvious changes in the names of a number of the suras: Wzajemnie oszukiwanie się (‘Mutually fooling each other’) for the Arabic al-Taghābun (Q 64) has been changed to Zysk i strata (‘Profit and loss’), and Jutrzenka (‘Morning star’) for Świt (‘The Dawn’) in Sūrat al-Falaq (Q 113). Secondly, some terms were updated to be more modern and culturally neutral. Thus, in the original version, for the first part of Q 39:74 one reads ‘Oni powiedzą: „Chwała niech będzie Bogu, Który uczynił dla nas prawdziwą Swoją obietnicę i dał nam w dziedzinę ziemię!’ (‘They will say, ‘Praise be to God Who made His promise true for us and gave us the land as our domain’), while the new edition adjusts the wording slightly to ‘Oni powiedzą: „Chwała niech będzie Bogu, Który uczynił dla nas prawdziwą Swoją obietnicę i dał nam w dziedzictwo ziemię!’ (‘They will say, ‘Praise be to God Who made His promise true for us and gave us the land as our inheritance’), thereby more correctly conveying the Arabic wa-awrathanā. Other changes mostly relate to typographical shortcomings in the 1986 edition (such as the division of the verses), and thus did not relate to any theological issues.

Interest in Bielawski’s translation remains quite significant, not only because this was the only widely available complete translation from the Arabic into Polish in the 1990s and 2000s, but also due to the fact that other modern Polish Qur’an translations (by M. Chahorowski [2018], and Rafal Berger [2021]) are based on previous translations into languages such as Russian, German, and English rather than on the original Arabic. The publication of a new edition of this work by a Muslim institution has only given this translation even more popularity in both Islamic and academic circles in Poland.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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