Qur’an translation of the week #72: The Qur’an in Kyrgyz: Between Hanafism and Salafism

The Kyrgyz language belongs to the Turkic language family, and is currently spoken by five million people in the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan) and beyond. Still using the Cyrillic alphabet (after the Soviet reforms of 1940), this language has much in common with Kazakh (most notably in terms of grammar). As with other Central Asian countries with a predominantly Muslim population, a religious and national revival played a significant role in Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet state-building process, and after the 1990s Kyrgyzstan became a hub for the missionary activities of many Islamic movements, from Salafis to the Tablighi Jamaat. Against this background, a growing interest in accessing the Qur’an in the native Kyrgyz language resulted in the publication of two Kyrgyz Qur’an translations in the 1990s. The first, authored by Ernis Tursunov (and published in 1991) draws on a pre-existing Russian interpretation by Ignatij Krachkovskij, while the second (published in 1999) seems to be a Kygryz version of the Alauddin Mansur translation into Uzbek. Just a few years later, in 2006, a third Kyrgyz translation was published by the ‘Erkam Matbaası’ press in Istanbul. Prepared by a team of Islamic scholars (Abdışükür İsmailov, Düyşön Abdıllaev, Sadibakas Doolov, and Sadık Gavay), most of whom were teachers in local madrasas, the translation was republished by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs in 2016. The second edition is identical to the first, making only one correction at the very beginning of Sūrat al-Tawbah, where the bismillah that erroneously prefaced it in the 2006 edition has been removed.

The ‘Erkam Matbaası’ translation contains no preface or introduction describing the approach taken by the translators, but does contain abundant commentary, with additional notes and information given on almost every page. From these, it becomes apparent that the team of translators relied upon classical Islamic commentaries to inform their reading of the Arabic text, and they frequently refer to the legacy of al-Bayḍāwī and al-Nasafī. When it comes to modern commentaries, the Hanafi ‘Ṣafwah al-Tafāsīr’ by Muḥammad al-Ṣābūnī (1930–2021) is often referenced. The explanatory glosses, however, are mostly of a popular rather than a scholarly nature, sometimes ending with exclamation points to emphasize unconditional statements, or mentioning the everyday experiences of believers. For example, commenting on the expression ‘iyāka naʿbudu’ (‘Biz Saga gana sıyınıp’/‘It is only You we worship’) from the Fātiḥah, the translators write: ‘A person who prays repeats those word at least three times. But does he care?!’ They then answer their question, saying that the number of people worshipping God has increased nowadays, but every believer must abstain from illegal work relations, paying bribes, using flattery, and so on. For the widely quoted Q. 13:11 (‘Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition’ / ‘Akıykatta, koom özdöründögü nerseni özgörtmöyünçö, Allah anı özgörtpöyt’), the translators advise: ‘Dear Muslim! You want society to improve, but what are you doing to further this? Correct yourself first!’

At the same time, their translation of the last verse of the Fātiḥah (‘… the path of those who have not earned Your anger or of those who have not gone astray’) is supported by a footnote taken from al-Bayḍāwī’s tafsīr which comments that this refers to the Jews and Christians, which is rather atypical of translations published by the Diyanet. When it comes to theological verses, however, the translators tended to provide numerous interpretative possibilities. For example, in the case of Q 41:11, ‘thumma ’stawā ilā l-samāʾ’ (‘Then He directed Himself to the heaven’), the translators mention the various interpretations given in most authoritative tafsīrs on this verse, and then select that given by by Ibn Kathīr: ‘andan soŋ asmanga maksat kıldı’ (‘then He aimed to the sky’). Salafi tendencies are also represented in the commentary on the longest verse in the Qur’an, Q 2:282 (‘ayat al-dayn’, ‘the verse of the debt’), where the translators refer to the commentary of the Saudi Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥman al-Saʿdī (1889–1957), in which 50 conditions for debt agreement are mentioned. A number of verses that address the histories of peoples of the past are also addressed, and sometimes the explanations given for these have a questionable relationship to the Qur’anic historical context: for example, in commenting on the phrase ‘Have they not travelled about the earth …’ from Q. 22:46, the translators suggest that the ‘towns steeped in wrongdoing We have destroyed’ mentioned in the preceding verse could be exemplified by ‘destroyed cities like Pompei and Babylon’ (‘Kıyrap kalgan Pompey, Vavilon…’).

A fairly expressive style is used in the translation and accompanying commentary when it comes to some of the more controversial verses that deal with domestic violence: for Q 4:34, the translation provides: ‘Alardın töşögün bölüp koygula! Urgula! Eger alar silerge moyun sunup oŋoluşsa, anda alarga karşı jol izdebegile!’ (‘Set aside their beds aside! Strike! If they obey, do not seek a way against them!’). Additional commentary provides ‘three steps how to educate wives’, starting with admonition and finishing with the prescription ‘to beat them gently not touching their faces’. A lot of the commentary is also dedicated to fiqh rules (on subjects such as ritual purity, prayer, pilgrimage, etc.), and provides basic practical guidance to the Muslims reading the translation. In some places, the translators also suggest the reader acquaint themselves with fiqh books in Kyrgyz, for instance, ‘Mukhtasar’ by A Abdışükür İsmailov, one of the translators. The relatively small number of Arabic loan-words in this translation, which are rarely used in modern Kyrgyz, means that the translation is widely accessible to a general readership.

The popularity of this work was impacted by a number of new translations that were published soon after its publication (four new works appeared after 2006, including one from the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in 2013), but the reprinted official Turkish edition of 2016 has given it a kind of ‘second wind’. Thus, it remains one of the most widely-used Qur’an translations in the Kyrgyz Republic, and among the Kyrgyz diaspora (above all, in Turkey). This may be partly due to the fact that its approach entails a kind of marriage of Salafi theological perspectives and Hanafi fiqh, which has opened it up to a broader potential audience, rather than limiting its appeal to one community only.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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