Qur’an translation of the week #74: A French law professor and a native interpreter: a Qur’an translation from colonial-era France

Le Coran by Octave Pesle and Ahmed Tidjani, first published in Paris in 1936, was a product of the colonial era when France held sway over much of the Maghreb. One of the authors of this Qur’an translation, Tidjani (1875–1982), was an Algerian Muslim legal scholar who first worked as a qadi in Algiers and Constantine and moved to Morocco in the 1920s in order to work as chief interpreter for the Sultan, in charge of translating laws and ordinances. The other, Pesle (1889–1947), was a French law professor, born in Philippeville (today Skikda) in Northern Algeria, which was at the time considered to be part of France, to a family that had been living in Algeria for three generations. Like Tidjani, Pesle too moved to Morocco, where he taught indigenous law to future French administrators at the Institut des Hautes Études Marocaines in Rabat. He was the author of more than a dozen books on all aspects of Malikite law, one of which contains nostalgic reminiscences of how his great-grandfather arrived in Algeria as an army veterinarian and found the country to be empty, a tabula rasa or blank slate, ready to be taken into possession, cultivated and developed by the French. In contrast, for Tidjani, their joint Qur’an translation was the only work that carried his name. Le Coran was initially printed by Éditions Larose, a publishing house in Paris that specialized on all things ‘oriental,’ with subsequent editions following in 1948 and 1954. Two further editions were published in the 1970s by another publisher. For Tidjani, collaboration with Pesle was probably the only way for a Muslim Algerian to have his Qur’an translation reach a wider audience in France. The one previous translation project by two Muslim Algerians, Ahmed Laïmèche and B. Ben Daoud, which was published in Oran, Algeria, in 1932 had no such success.

In contrast to many of the English Qur’an translations produced at the same time by Muslims in British India, this French translation clearly addressed non-Muslim readers who were curious about Islam or, maybe more to the point, interested in ‘understanding Islam’ for the purpose of colonial administration; this conformed to the type of students Pesle was teaching.

The introduction, by Octave Pesle, describes the Qur’an and Muḥammad’s mission in highly sympathetic terms. The Qur’an contains the sum of all knowledge of its time, argues Pesle. It revolutionized Arab societies and established a new and highly developed ethical framework. It informs a Muslim’s entire life, and its poetic beauty deeply impresses anyone who listens to it. It is the last of the ‘three great prophecies born in the Orient,’ besides the Pentateuch and the Gospel – a list that reflects a Muslim perspective on scripture. Still, while expressing his admiration for the ethical ideals of monotheistic religions, Pesle ultimately sees the Qur’an as a product of a bygone era of prophecy, its function now fulfilled by modern literature and encyclopaediae – Pesle mentions names such as Cervantes, Rabelais and Diderot.

The translation itself shows no discernible traces of any effort to capture the beauty of the original that is so strongly applauded in the introduction. It is a rather dry jurist’s translation, more concerned with representing the meaning of the source text than its structure or rhetoric. For example, the basmala – Bi-smi llāhi l-raḥmāni l-raḥīm – is rendered in a rather less rhythmic fashion as ‘Au nom de Dieu le clément et qui manifeste sa clémence’ (‘In the name of God the merciful and the one who manifests his mercy’). A heavy emphasis on legal thought is also apparent in the thematic index, which contains every juridical term imaginable from taxes to theft, from marriage to donations, but no concepts that are in any way related to theology.

Le Coran contains the French translation only, without the Arabic text. The translation is obviously based on the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ that is dominant in the Maghreb. However, there are a few exceptions, such as Q 1:4, 43:19 (for more on Warsh and the issue of readings, see https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-50-a-spanish-quran-translation-based-on-the-reading-of-wars/), that can most likely be explained by assuming that Pesle and Tidjani relied on various previous Qur’an translations and/or different copies of the Qur’an (muṣḥafs). This assumption is supported by the fact that the index is obviously based on a muṣḥaf that employed a different system of verse numbering than the main text, with somewhat confusing results – for example, the index refers to Q 2:211 as a verse that addresses the topic of ‘nationality’ (a rather anachronistic term), but the verse in question is 2:210 in the actual translation and 2:213 according to the Kufan verse numbering system which most muṣḥafs follow today.

The translation has no notes and hardly any commentary in brackets. Nevertheless, the incorporation of certain elements of the tafsīr tradition is obvious. For example, each sura begins with a header that contains precise information about its rank in the chronology of the Qur’an, including references to verses that are said to have been revealed at a different time than the bulk of the sura. This chronology shows some similarity to that of the King Fuʾād edition of the Qur’an but also significant differences. Moreover, many small details reveal a preference for a particular interpretation that is not discernible from the wording of the verse. For example, in Q 95, al-tīn wa’l-zaytūn (‘the fig and the olive’) are translated as ‘le figuier et l’olivier’ (‘the fig tree and the olive tree’).

In many cases, the translators are content to stay fairly close to the source text. For example, they make no effort to gloss over anthropomorphic statements in the Qur’an such as God being stationed above His Throne, as many traditional Ashʿarī translators do. They do deviate from the literal meaning in their translation of fa-ḍribūhunna (‘and hit them/beat them’) in the much-contested ‘wife-beating verse’ (Q 4:34) as ‘corrigez-les’ (‘correct them’), which might be indicative of a certain apologetic tendency.

The same might be true of their rendition of Q 3:7, one of the most famous self-referential verses in the Qur’an that is also syntactically complex and ambiguous.

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ

مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ

الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ

يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

With long verses such as this, Pesle and Tidjani often aim to explain the meaning in a way that only loosely follows the source text, dividing a long Arabic sentence into several shorter French ones. In this case, however, this involves a striking exegetical decision.

To give an example of a fairly typical English Qur’an translation that conforms to the way in which the majority of commentators understand the syntax of this segment, M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translates Q 3:7 into English as follows:

‘It is He who has sent this Scripture down to you [Prophet]. Some of its verses are definite in meaning – these are the cornerstone of the Scripture – and others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and to pin down a specific meaning of their own: only God knows the true meaning. Those firmly grounded in knowledge say, “We believe in it: it is all from our Lord” – only those with real perception will take heed.’

None of the punctuation used by Abdel Haleem, or any other modern translators of the Qur’an, is part of the source text. It would be syntactically possible, and conform to a minority opinion in tafsīr, to translate the second part of the verse as ‘… only God and those firmly grounded in knowledge know the true meaning. Those latter ones say, “We believe in it …”’ The difference in meaning is substantial: It is either only God who knows the true meaning, or it is possible for some humans to understand it, too.

This latter minority opinion is the variant that Pesle and Tidjani opt for. They also opt for a different understanding of key terms from Abdel Haleem, ending the direct speech at the end of the verse, as well as a different use of quotation marks:

‘C’est Lui qui t’a révélé le Livre. Il se compose de versets fondamentaux, qui sont la base du Livre, et d’autres qui constituent des développements. Les malveillants ne s’en tiennent qu’à ces derniers versets dont les ressemblances prêtent à confusion pour créer le désordre et satisfaire leur goût de discussion. Et les rapports qu’il y a entre ces deux sortes de versets, Dieu seul les connaît ainsi que les vrais savants. Ces derniers diront: “Nous croyons dans ce Livre, tout ce qu’il renferme vient de notre Seigneur. Mais, seuls, les gens sensés tirent parti des enseignements.”’

(‘It is He who has revealed the Book to you. It consists of fundamental verses, which are the basis of the Book, and others which represent [subsequent] developments. Those who are malicious only stick to the latter verses, whose similarities lend themselves to confusion, in order to create disorder and satisfy their taste for arguments. And the relationship between these two kinds of verses is known only to God as well as the true scholars. The latter will say, “We believe in this Book, all that it contains is from our Lord. But only those who are sensible will take advantage of its teachings.”’)

By crediting not only God but also ‘those firmly grounded in knowledge’ with being able to understand the connections between different types of verses (which is a rather unusual understanding of taʾwīlahu), Pesle and Tidjani emphasize the rationality of Islam and the human capacity to understand the Qur’an’s message. This would have been seen positively by the average envisaged reader.

Pesle’s and Tidjani’s translation seems to have completely disappeared from the market after the 1970s. This is probably because, from around 1960, new translations appeared that were more successful at appealing to different target groups on the French book market, which was now increasingly divided between different readerships. Muhammad Hamidullah’s Qur’an translation, published in 1959, contained the Arabic text of the Qur’an and was highly successful with Muslim readers (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-07-le-saint-coran-and-its-convoluted-publication-history/). In contrast, the Qur’an translation by Denise Masson, published in 1967, was extremely popular with a general readership of French non-Muslims: it was stylistically far more eloquent and more beautifully typeset than Tidjani’s and Pesle’s work and contained more introductory and explanatory material (https://gloqur.de/quran-translation-of-the-week-68-islamicising-a-non-muslims-quran-translation-from-paris-to-beirut-and-back/). And finally, the Orientalist Régis Blachère started publishing his chronologically rearranged Qur’an translation in 1949, with accessible editions printed from 1957 onwards, and this met the demand of students and academics for a historical-critical approach to the text.

These changes in the market for French Qur’an translations suggest that, when the colonial era expired, the intended readership of Pesle’s and Tidjani’s Qur’an translation also ceased to exist: the administrators, teachers and other officials who were aiming to work in the Maghreb and were hoping to understand the social and legal order established by the Qur’an were no longer there. They made way to a readership composed of French-speaking practising Muslims, of Islamicists, and of French non-Muslims interested in Islam’s spiritual dimensions. Pesle’s and Tidjani’s translation was not suited to any of these groups and therefore lost its relevance. However, it remains an interesting historical document of France’s colonial era.

Johanna Pink

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