Qur’an translation of the week #71: Al-mathani and the gigantic Qur’aan: Strategies of translating Arabic terminology in Amir Zaidan’s At-tafsiir

At the time it was first published in 2000, Amir Zaidan’s At-tafsiir, an annotated translation of the Qur’an into German, stood apart from all other German translations due to its deliberate and extensive use of Arabic terminology. It contained phrases such as ‘In it are clear ayat, [including] maqamu-Ibrahim’ (‘In ihm sind deutliche Ayat, [davon] Maqamu-ibrahim’, Q 3:97) or ‘And those who undertook hijra fi-sabilillah, then were killed or died, ALLAH will doubtlessly grant them a beautiful rizq’ (‘Und diejenigen, die fi-sabilillah Hidschra unternahmen, dann getötet wurden oder starben, ALLAH wird ihnen zweifelsohne ein schönes Rizq gewähren’, Q 22:58), which many readers could only make sense of by consulting the glossary.

In 2009, Zaidan published a second, completely revised edition in which he largely reconsidered this translation strategy. His translation thus provides an interesting case study of the pitfalls and limitations of introducing Arabic religious terminology into languages in which it had hitherto not existed.

Zaidan (b. 1964) studied medicine in Syria and mathematics in Germany, without obtaining a degree in either subject. He then went on to study the Islamic religious sciences, which he latter dubbed ‘Islamologie’ in German, at various Islamic institutions in Europe and India. He played an important role in the institutionalisation of Islam in the German federal state of Hesse and later, after his move to Vienna in 2003, in Austria where he became involved in the training of imams and teachers. He published an Islamic newspaper and numerous books, many of which are handbooks of the classical Islamic disciplines for German-speaking Muslims. Often accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, he has always denied these claims. In his activism and writings, he represents a conservative and somewhat dogmatic brand of Sunni Islam that is concerned with applying the teachings of Islam to questions of everyday life in Europe. This caused some backlash in 1998, when he signed a fatwa that declared it impermissible for Muslim girls to take part in overnight class trips, based on a fiqh ruling.

In the foreword to the first edition of his Qur’an translation, which he dedicated to his children, he stated that his goal was to contribute to the development of an islamological discourse in German that respects the Islamic religious sciences, the mu’jiza (‘miraculous nature’ or ‘inimitability’) of the Qur’anic text, and the precision of its language where no word is without significance. For example, he insisted on translating all instances of inna, a particle of emphasis in the original Arabic which is often left untranslated, with an adverb such as ‘verily’ (‘gewiss’). Any recourse to approximate or loose translation for the sake of fluency in the target language, Zaidan argued, carries the risk of losing important nuances. Moreover, the confusion between Christian and Islamic religious concepts that could occur when native German terminology is used should be avoided. Since a precise rendering of the meaning of the Qur’an in any language other than Arabic is impossible, according to Zaidan, he chose the title tafsir (‘explanation’), rather than ‘translation’, for his work even though the amount of actual annotation is minimal, especially in the first edition.

Zaidan also discussed the correct implementation of ʿaqīda (‘doctrine’) in his foreword, mainly with regard to the translation of the anthropomorphic attributes of God, such as ‘God’s hand’, where he felt that a metaphorical translation was the only appropriate solution.

As mentioned above, Zaidan’s use of Arabic terms is at the core of his translation strategy. One example he provided to explain this choice is the term walī, which is notoriously difficult to translate as it may imply various types of close relationships involving mutual obligations. Rendering it as ‘friend’, Zaidan argues, would give the false impression that Muslims are not allowed to have non-Muslim friends, as in the case of Q 4:144:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَتَّخِذُوا الْكَافِرِينَ أَوْلِيَاءَ مِنْ دُونِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

According to Zaidan, this verse is often translated into European languages along the lines of ‘O you who believe, do not take the unbelievers as friends (awliyāʾ, pl. of walī) instead of the believers.’ This is because Western European languages, unlike Persianate or Turkic languages, have not adopted Arabic-Islamic terminology such as the term walī as part of their vocabulary but instead, he says, rely on the uncharitable interpretations of Orientalists, who are often apologists of Christianity. European Muslims, who lack substantial religious training, often naively accept these false interpretations, says Zaidan.

His own translation of the verse, in the first edition of his tafsir, reads thus:

‘You, who have internalised iman! Do not take the kafir as wali instead of the mumin!’ (‘Ihr, die den Iman verinnerlicht habt! Nehmt euch die Kafir nicht als Wali anstelle der Mumin!’)

In the second edition, which is dedicated to the entire German-speaking Muslim youth, the change in strategy is immediately apparent when we look at the translation of the same verse:

‘You who have internalised iimaan! Do not take the deniers as confidants (‘intimus’) instead of those who profess iimaan!’ (‘Ihr, die ihr den Iimaan verinnerlicht habt! Nehmt euch die Leugner nicht zum Intimus anstelle der Iimaan-Bekennenden!’)

While the proportion of Arabic terms has thus been significantly downgraded between the first and the second edition, the result is not necessarily easy for the average reader to understand either. As can also be seen from this example, the second edition uses a new style of transliteration, developed by Zaidan for use by German Muslims. Furthermore, Zaidan’s translation now includes the Arabic text of the Qur’an as well as a complete transliteration of this Arabic text alongside the translation. Zaidan stayed true to his original decision to render eulogies, formulae, and the names of suras, places, and persons in Arabic. Thus, for example, Jesus is rendered as ‘‘Isa Ibnu-Maryam’.

In the foreword to the second edition, Zaidan explained the changes he made, pointing out that he realised how much his use of Arabic technical terms, however clearly they were explained in the glossary, inhibited fluent reading. Therefore, in the second edition, he instead opted for providing the most likely meaning in German and adding information on the Arabic term and its explanation in a footnote, thereby generally simplifying the style of the translation while expanding the explanatory footnotes.

Zaidan also made another unusual choice: In cases in which more than one understanding of a verse is possible, he decided to replace the interpretation he had chosen in the first edition with an alternative version in the second. For example, a segment of Q 28:56 (Allāh yahdī man yashāʿu) could be understood either as ‘Allah guides whom He wills’ or ‘Allah guides him who wills (to be guided)’. Zaidan chose the first, by far more common interpretation, for the first edition and the second – most prominently used by Muhammad Asad – in the second edition.

Given all the above, the differences between the two editions are, as might be expected, significant. For example, in the first edition, the basmala is rendered as

Bismil-lahir-rahmanir-rahim: With the name of ALLAH, The One Who Grants All-Mercy, The All-Merciful’ (‘Bismil-lahir-rahmanir-rahim: Mit dem Namen ALLAHs, Des Allgnade Erweisenden, Des Allgnädigen’).

While the second edition translates it instead as

‘With the name of ALLAH, THE Mercying, THE All-Merciful’ (‘Mit dem Namen ALLAAHS, DES Gnadenden, DES Allgnädigen’).

As can be seen from this example, the aim to provide a precise rendering of the Arabic source text sometimes results in the use of non-idiomatic German expressions.

To give another example, Q 107:7 utters a warning against those who yamnaʿūna l-māʿūn, which might be translated as ‘deny assistance’. Māʿūn is usually understood by exegetes to refer to minor favours or a response to routine everyday requests or sharing basic necessities. Zaidan, however, translates it as ‘und die Utensilien verweigern’ (‘those who deny the utensils/paraphernalia’), which is basically incomprehensible, or even unintentionally comical.

As the forewords to both editions illustrate, Zaidan was extremely conscious of anti-Islamic polemics. He apparently also received criticism from Salafis for his approach to translating the anthropomorphic attributes of God metaphorically in the first edition, which he discusses at length in the foreword to the second edition, but the focus of his apologetic remarks is here, once again, on the ‘Orientalists’ who are hostile towards Islam and portray it as a violent and misogynistic religion. He gives no specific references to undergird these allegations and mentions no names but he does provide some examples, mostly drawing on Max Henning’s 1903 German Qur’an translation: The term kāfir, he argues, should not be understood to denote ‘unbeliever’ in the sense of ‘non-Muslim’ (which, incidentally, reflects the usage in many Muslim as well as non-Muslim translations). Moreover, injunctions to fight (e.g. in Q 2:191) have to be understood in the context of self-defence. The Qur’anic rules regarding marital relations should likewise be read in their historical context and in a spirit of respect for women. Generally, according to Zaidan, the core message of the Qur’an relates to issues of faith, ritual practice, piety, good conduct, solidarity, and a range of further ethical maxims rather than war or the oppression of women.

An example of how he navigates the difficult terrain of gender relations between contemporary Western European expectations and the tradition of Sunni religious learning that he endorses, is his treatment of Q 4:34, the ‘wife-beating verse’.

In the second edition of his tafsir, he translates the most controversial segment of the verse as ‘Those wives whose wilful refusal [nushūz] becomes apparent to you, those you should (first) admonish, then avoid them in the marital beds, and (only then) give them a light tap!’ (‘Diejenigen Ehefrauen, deren mutwillige Verweigerung euch ersichtlich wird, diese sollt ihr [zunächst] ermahnen, dann in den Ehebetten meiden und [erst danach] einen leichten Klaps geben!’)

Zaidan’s rendition of this verse is by no means as literal as his translations of most other verses of the Qur’an. Among other things, he has clarified the marital context in which he wished to see the verse understood. Interestingly, the rendition of the Arabic expression takhāfūna nushūzahum (‘whose nushūz you fear’) was changed from the first edition, where it had been translated as ‘whose malicious, defiant rebelliousness you fear’ (‘deren böswillige trotzige Auflehnung ihr fürchtet’), to ‘whose wilful refusal becomes apparent to you’. Thus, the problematic concept of ‘fearing nushūz’, which implies that a husband may discipline his wife not for her actions but for something he merely fears, has been replaced with the concept of evidence.

Between the first and second edition, Zaidan also considerably expanded his footnote on Q 4:34. In the first edition, he merely explained that the three steps mentioned in the verse are to be taken progressively, one after the other, and not all at once, or as options the husband may freely choose from. He stressed that the third consequence, the ‘light tap’, may only be pursued if it is strictly necessary and there is a chance of success.

In the second edition, he added information about the occasion of revelation according to which the verse was a divine decree revealed to correct the prophet’s position that a wife who had been slapped had a right to retaliation. However, Zaidan argues that this divine decree does not provide a universal strategy for resolving marital problems, but only offers a solution that was in accordance with the culture of the time of the Qur’an’s revelation. Thus, dealing out a ‘light tap’ might be a last resort before divorce ensues, but this is only applicable in a culture in which this type of discipline is accepted and promises to be successful. Furthermore, Zaidan specifies that this is only meant to be a symbolic tap, and informs the reader that according to a pre-thirteenth-century minority opinion, it is even forbidden altogether. Finally, he points out that the verb could semantically also denote separation, which would be in accordance with the Prophet’s practice, as he had never beaten his wives. He cites the Tunisian twentieth-century exegete al-Ṭāhir b. ʿĀshūr in support of this interpretation. In the introduction to the second edition, he emphasises even further the cultural specificity of the rule given in Q 4:34 by saying that in societies in which corporal punishment is considered unacceptable, such as in contemporary Western Europe, other solutions than the ones provided in the verse have to be found.

All in all, it is clear that between the first and second edition of his tafsir Zaidan became more aware of German and Austrian cultural sensitivities towards certain concepts and practices mentioned in the Qur’an and brought into his revised edition a combination of various apologetic and modernist interpretive approaches that could be used to alleviate these concerns. Thus, in his approach to one of the most controversial verses of the Qur’an, he was more accommodating towards the expectations of the German and Austrian mainstream than the more popular German Qur’an translations by Rassoul and Bubenheim/Elyas, who simply translated fa-ḍribūhunna as ‘und schlagt sie’ (‘and hit them/beat them’).

Nevertheless, Zaidan’s translation seems to be less successful than those of his competitors, at least in the German market. The hefty size of the volume, coupled with the scholarly title ‘At-tafsiir’ in its peculiar transliteration, might make it appear somewhat daunting. Moreover, despite the reduction in the use of Arabic terminology and the stylistic simplification undertaken for the second edition, it is still far from the most accessible German translation of the Qur’an. With renditions such as

‘Bereits ließen WIR dir sieben von Al-mathani und den gigantischen Quraan zuteil werden. Richte deine Augen nicht auf das, was WIR manchen von ihnen an vergänglichen Verbrauchsgütern zur Verfügung stellten. Trauere ebenfalls nicht um sie! Doch behandle die Iimaan-Bekennenden milde und sag: ‘Ich bin sicher der erläuternde Warner.’’, Q 15:87–89,

(‘Already have WE bestowed upon you seven of Al-mathani and the gigantic Quraan. Do not direct your eyes on that which WE have provided to some of them in terms of perishable commodities. Likewise, do not grieve for them! But treat those who profess iimaan mildly and say, ‘I am for sure the clarifying warner.’)

readability was clearly not the dominant consideration. Expressions such as ‘the gigantic Qur’an’ have a foreignising effect that might have been desired or might merely be a corollary of the fact that the translator is not a native speaker of German. Either way, while there might be theological arguments to be made for such a translation strategy, its appeal is probably bound to be limited.

Johanna Pink

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