Qur’an translation of the week #64: Polemics and da’wa between Egypt, France and Libya: Zeinab Abdelaziz’s Le Qur’an: Traduction du sens de ses Versets

What factors determine the success of a Qur’an translations, or lack thereof? Why are some translations widely sold in bookstores, distributed in mosques, used in university courses, or ubiquitous on the internet, while others are hardly known and out of print?

Zeinab Abdelaziz’s Le Qur’an: Traduction du sens de ses Versets probably belongs to the latter category, at least in France. This French Qur’an translation, written by an Egyptian professor of French civilization, was first published in 2002 by the World Islamic Call Society (WICS) in Tripoli, with subsequent editions printed by other da’wa-oriented publishers in Northern Africa such as the Conveying Islamic Message Society in Alexandria and the AL IDRISSI Intellectual Foundation for Studies and Research in Casablanca. The current edition of 2014 explicitly has no copyright protection, can be ordered as a print-on-demand book from Amazon, and is also available on a few websites for download, but seems to have no presence in mainstream or Islamic bookstores and has gained no recognition in the academic sphere.

Why does it have such limited appeal? First of all, the translation is not the most reader-friendly one. It contains a number of Arabic terms and some neologisms, as well as an unusually high amount of capitalizations. While it is accepted practice to capitalise pronouns and adjectives that refer to God, Abdelaziz also capitalises verbs and participles denoting divine actions. The quality of its language is also sometimes questionable.

For example, Abdelaziz has sentences such as:

‘… c’est Lui qui A Créé le couple mâle et femelle, d’unenuṭfah qui s’éjacule …’
(‘… it is Him who Has Created the male and female pair, out of a nuṭfah that ejaculates itself …’, Q 53:45–46).

Nuṭfah is among a number of words for which Abdelaziz consciously uses the Arabic form in her translation. Significantly, these include some fundamental Islamic terms such as Qurʾān, zakāt, sūrah, Makkah, and al-Madīnah, but also the three relatively marginal Qur’anic terms nuṭfah, ʿalaqah, and mudghah, which are today often cited as proof of the Qur’an’s scientifically sound treatment of embryology. This is completely in line with the general approach of this translation.

According to the translator herself, she wrote it in a spirit of deep piety. She consecrated ten years to the task, during which she devoted fifteen hours per day to the translation and prayed fifteen times each day. While the translation has – consciously and explicitly – minimal annotation, it does have notes explaining the ‘scientific miracle’ of the Qur’an because, the translator states, ‘the Occident’ does not believe in the invisible and needs to be convinced by rational arguments. Thus, for example, Solomon’s conversation with ants (Q 27:18) has a footnote that describes scientific findings regarding the communication of ants. In her introduction, Abdelaziz quotes the famous proponent of the Qur’an’s ‘scientific miracle’, Maurice Bucaille, in support of such interpretations. Bucaille’s main claim to fame is his take on Qur’anic embryology, which accounts for the importance of terms such as nuṭfah to Abdelaziz in her translation. She explains such terms in the lengthy introduction to the text, but not in the translation itself.

The translation generally has a highly apologetic impetus. Before embarking on this project, Abdelaziz had devoted a considerable amount of time to refuting the Qur’an translation by Jacques Berque, which she considered a prime example of Orientalist distortion of the Qur’an’s meaning. While she does include a list of previous French translations, and distinguishes between Orientalist and Muslim translations, her discussion of where previous translations went wrong focuses practically exclusively on Jacques Berque. When it comes to the faults of other translations, she just mentions that they sometimes lack nuance or include too much commentary. Refuting Orientalists or, in a wider sense, ‘Occidentals’, of whom she sees Berque as representative, seems to be her main goal.

Abdelaziz describes history as an ongoing effort on the part of ‘modern fanatics’ and churches in the West to suppress Islam, distort its message, and proselytize among Muslims. She sees a conspiracy at work here that involves the Vatican, the United States, and ‘Judeo-American capitalism’ or, alternatively, Judeo-Christian terrorism. In her opinion, it is proof of the divine origin of the Qur’an and its miraculous nature that its message could not be suppressed and that Islam is still spreading despite all these anti-Islamic efforts. This worldview is combined with an exposition of the justice and morality of Islamic society which is, for example, characterized by the liberation of women and slaves, according to Abdelaziz. In her description, she focuses almost completely on the social message of Islam as opposed to transcendental beliefs, to which she only devotes a few lines after having discussed at length prescriptions and prohibitions concerning individual behaviour, the family, society, and the state.

Further polemical tropes include the falsification of previous scriptures; Christian and Jewish intolerance against Islam as opposed to Muslim acceptance of Christianity and Judaism; the depravity of modernity which is characterised as atheist, materialist, and immoral; and the occupation of Palestine as proof of an historical 1,400-year, anti-Muslim crusade. In Abdelaziz’s narrative, the Vatican comes across as the main force of evil.

Despite her preoccupation with ‘Occidentals’ and Orientalists, it is clear that Abdelaziz intended to popularise her translation among francophone Muslims, especially in Africa. This aim is reflected in the choice of publishers, and Abdelaziz claims that several hundred persons in Africa have embraced Islam after having read her translation. However, she does not provide any specifics to back up this claim, and it cannot be substantiated. The current impact of this work in France and other French-speaking regions seems to be low, and the choice to go with da’wa-oriented publishers might be one of the reasons for this.

The main and original publisher, the World Islamic Call Society in Libya, was established in 1972 as a competitor to the Muslim World League, based in Saudi Arabia, and closely tied to Qadhafi’s regime. It promoted a ‘moderate’, Sufi-oriented Islam and was especially active in the Sahel region, which Qadhafi considered to be Libya’s backyard. The WICS, while still in existence, suffered from the fall of Qadhafi’s regime and the subsequent civil war and does not seem to continue distributing this work; the same is probably true for the other North African publishers whose print run was presumably much more limited. French Muslim publishers might have opened the way for Abdelaziz’s translation to be sold in Islamic bookstores and mosque shops in France, and mainstream publishers would have been able to promote it to a wider non-Muslim French public. However, Abdelaziz apparently had no connections to Muslim or mainstream publishers in France.

A viable third option might have been to publish the translation with a publisher based in the Arab world with a distribution network in France or the capacity for wide-scale worldwide distribution, such as the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, some Saudi or Lebanese Islamic publishers, or even al-Azhar, where she was teaching. However, Abdelaziz could not convince al-Azhar to publish her work. While she promotes herself as a retired professor of French civilization at al-Azhar University on the cover, this work has never been officially endorsed by al-Azhar, possibly because of the fact that she had no religious training, and maybe also due to gender bias.

The same factors, namely gender and the lack of formal religious training, might have resulted in a general lack of religious prestige, which could be among the reasons for the limited success of her work. However, it seems likely that Abdelaziz’s lack of contact with publishing networks in France and other Francophone countries was a more important factor. This could have been mitigated by strong support from a widely acknowledged and influential institution such as the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex or al-Azhar, but such support was not forthcoming. The work did not stand out because of its linguistic quality either, nor did it provide helpful commentaries for its readers.

Finally, the main problem faced by Abdelaziz’s Le Qur’an might have been that its intended audience was not clearly defined. The translator’s own words about her work’s impact, and her choice of publishers, point to a target audience in francophone Africa. The introduction to the translation gives the impression, however, that Abdelaziz was mainly preoccupied with addressing non-Muslim Europeans. Such an audience would, though, be deterred by the cumbersome prose and would find the polemical tone with which Abdelaziz introduces her work less than appealing. Arguably the largest potential readership for Le Qur’an consists of French Muslims, but their concerns are not addressed by the translator at all; it is unlikely that a large number of them would be motivated, in their choice of Qur’an translation, by disgust with Jacques Berque’s translation or the alleged conspiracies of the Vatican.

All in all, the case study of Zeinab Abdelaziz’s translation demonstrates that, quite apart from the quality of a translation, which might or might not end up affecting its reception, decisive factors in its success include the religious prestige of the author, their networks of publishers and Muslim institutions, the publisher’s distribution strategy, and a clearly-defined target group to which the translation is tailored.

Johanna Pink

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